Along the Jersey Shore, yeast is a term most often used by the coast’s surfing community after sitting in a wet wetsuit all day. For professionals like Travis Coatney, yeast describes a living organism of great significance. Whether the yeasty culture is brought to life in Coatney’s kitchen or a nearby brewery, one might describe this relationship as something similar to Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. For this mastermind bread maker and brewer, the main difference is that Coatney’s experiments yield soft, warm bread and cold craft beer.
Yeast Is Born
“Put flour and water together and it eventually starts to ferment,” said Coatney. “You can keep feeding it to keep it active. This means throwing away most of it and adding water and flour. So, we feed our sourdough culture twice a day.”
“Yeast has little flavor contribution, but this makes a lot more flavor than instant yeast or quick leavened bread,” he explained. “Commercial white bread has a single strain of yeast, but ours has hundreds of strains. Once you get a starter going it’s like a pet—you’re taking care of a living thing. And coming from the brewing world, I understand fermentation on a scientific level.”
Coatney’s creations don’t terrorize small villages, nor are they included in horror films. Instead, Benchmark Breads serves as the marketplace for Coatney’s naturally leavened artisan bread.
About the Bread
“We’re trying to make the simplest, most honest bread we can. It’s more of a return to the old way of doing things,” explained Travis Coatney. “Our standard country loaf is only flour, water, and salt.”
As a bread and yeast connoisseur, Coatney’s set high standards for Benchmark Breads. This bread is unique because it is “naturally leavened,” which means there’s no commercial yeast added to speed up the process. The result is a longer workday, but a superior end product.
“We strive for an open interior with bigger holes—a more tender bread that keeps longer with extra hydration,” said Coatney. “It has substance, it has flavor from whole grains, and sourdough culture twang. It’s not your San Francisco-style tart and sour bread. I hesitate to call it sourdough sometimes because it’s—technically—naturally leavened. When I say it, my wife rolls her eyes [laughs].”
Meet Travis Coatney
Coatney is a 35-year-old Texas native who planted his roots in New Jersey after meeting his now-wife while attending graduate school at Rutgers University. Coatney, his wife Betsy, and their kids currently reside in Middletown, NJ. Benchmark Breads sells all products through the preordering system on the company website. Customers can select bread delivery or pickup in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
“The ghost kitchen is essentially the model we’re doing,” said Coatney. “We have a mutual friend who introduced us to Michael Krikorian, who owns Copper Canyon, in Highlands. He offered me the small prep kitchen in the basement of Gaslight. So that’s where I’ve been baking. He had a nice oven. Its super bare bones and we don’t have a retail space. We’re preorder for pickup at Copper Canyon, or we deliver.”
For now, Benchmark Breads only really sells three items. The country loaf is the company’s core item and best seller—it’s an oval shaped loaf baked on a stone hearth. Coatney suggests this loaf for slicing and oil dipping but states the pan-baked country loaf is best for sandwiches.
“The country loaf has a pretty open interior—sandwiches can ooze through on that. We offer that same dough baked on a pan. It has a crusty outside and moist, tender inside,” explained Coatney. “On Mondays we also do a soft sandwich loaf and it’s got flour, water, salt, olive oil, and agave. It eats like soft white bread but it’s whole wheat. Kids love it. You could call it a ‘gateway’ sourdough.”
Coatney’s customers buy out Benchmark Breads on each bake. Business has boomed and Coatney is stepping up to meet demand. “We’ve got a big deck oven on the way. We should be able to quadruple our output soon, to try to grow the online business, too. We do want to have [brick-and-mortar] one day, but right now we like the simplicity of the current model. I don’t wanna bite off more than I can chew,” said Coatney.
On the Bread Scene
It’s not clear if Coatney’s pun was intentional or not, but it is easy to see how customers in the Monmouth County area would be quick to hop on board with an in-person Benchmark Breads. Coatney explained how his product is so very different from the options at the supermarket. The result is that individuals and businesses both have unrealized demand for fresh, handmade bread.
“No one else doing it. Talula’s in Asbury Park makes bread for themselves. But even at Whole Foods, the selection is all frozen stuff since Amazon took over. I see us morphing into a wholesale bakery with retail, too. Cardinal Provisions [also in Asbury] buys our bread and so does Almost Home in Tinton Falls.”
The next step for the Benchmark Breads retail selection is offering more than three items.
“We can start doing olive and polenta loaves,” said Coatney. “We’ll start doing farmer’s markets this summer, up in Leonardo [courtesy of Skeleton Hill Provisions]. Maybe some sweet things, too. Not pastries, but we make a mean sourdough cinnamon roll. And maybe we’ll do this Texas thing called a kolache—I like the smoked sausage inside, almost like pig in a blanket with fluffy, soft dough.”
From Brewer to Baker
Coatney has come a long way from baking bread in his free time while working full-time as a brewer of craft beer. He has experience working at Kane Brewing in Ocean, NJ. Coatney has also worked at Rook in order to scale the business’s cold brew coffee production. He’s still a contract brewer and craft beer consultant at Red Tank, in Red Bank, and Czig Meister, in Hackettstown. The only reason he stopped brewing full-time was due to the pandemic and being furloughed.
“I was baking at home and giving it to friends and neighbors at first,” said Coatney. “Then I was getting calls and orders from random people. They thought I was a baker. So, we said there was something here since not a whole lot is offered as far as true sourdough with long fermentation and minimal ingredients.”
When conversing with Coatney, it becomes very clear that the world of bread is much deeper and more intricate than it would seem on the surface level. Even though Coatney touts his bread as the simplest “ingredient” on any given dinner table, he contrasts his bread-making style to brewing beer for mass production.
“The ingredients in industrialized bread are meant to be neutral. It’s just like the macro beers, Bud Light and Miller Light. Drink them as cold as possible so you don’t taste it,” said Coatney. “Our bread is an ingredient in a meal.”
Coatney has so much knowledge to offer. He talks of local grain economies and mills. He speaks of customers who claim to eat his bread despite being celiac or gluten sensitive. It is curious that this insanely interesting topic and educational niche is all for a loaf of bread.
Even so, viewers who see product photos and customers’ raving reviews will quickly understand that Coatney’s product is something completely different than what they currently have in their cupboards. Whether it’s developing experimental yeast or creating a flavor awakening for the Monmouth County bread supply, Coatney and the Benchmark Breads team seem to be the clear choice for getting the job done.