Q&A with Alex Corsini, Founder of a Sourdough Story

/ / Business, Food & Flavor

Ready-bake and frozen pizza is a market with little disruption. Processed ingredients, chemical-filled cheese and cardboard-like dough are the mainstay of a grocery store pizza.

But Alex Corsini wants to change that. After battling an autoimmune disease, quitting his rat race job in the tech industry and completing an apprenticeship at a Michelin-star restaurant, Corsini wondered why there wasn’t a delicious sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged goods brand. He started Sourdough Story in 2018 as the first USDA organic and Non GMO Verified pizza on the market.

“We wanted to hone in on ultra-thoughtful sourcing and really meticulous preparation, and celebrate slow sourdough fermentation” Corsini said. “I think there’s a lot of dogma in nutrition, and I want people to listen to their own bodies and also think about the roots of where their food is coming from. Pizza is an interesting canvas and platform to showcase this narrative and perspective.”

Below, a Q&A with Corsini, who believes food — especially fermented food — “is the foundation of healthy people.”

Q: Why did you start Sourdough Story?

Around 2016, I was working in the technology industry in startups. I developed this autoimmune condition out of nowhere. My doctors didn’t really have a name for what I was going through, they kept testing me and concluded this was something I’ll have for the rest of my life. I decided to turn to nutrition to mitigate symptoms. I read about the Whole 30 Diet and basically cut out every major allergen. I did it for 60 days, and all my symptoms went away. It was really powerful for me to overcome this through food and not really any medication at all.

Eventually, I started slowly adding back in foods. I started reading about wheat and the ancestral diet. My ancestors are from Sweden, and fermented dairy and sourdough is big there. I started baking sourdough and, the first loaf I ever made, me and my roommates just devoured the whole thing in minutes. And we still felt really good.

I had this epiphany that this whole anti-gluten movement I fell into, there’s definitely valid signs, some people have Celiac Disease. Some people can’t digest wheat as well as others. But there’s also this layer of dogma that I’ve succumbed to. Maybe this is about the ingredients and preparation than the reductive nutrition side of things that’s all too common in the media. 

I started getting obsessed with sourdough baking. I decided I didn’t want to go back to the tech industry. I applied to sourdough bakeries and Michelin rated restaurants that focus on sourdough baking. I got an apprenticeship at Kadeau in Copenhagen and I literally walked into my tech job the next day and quit. I said I’m done with technology and I want to focus on food.

I spent a month apprenticing, learning about fermentation and the farm-to-table movement. Copenhagen is this booming food scene. There’s this identity and really strong sense in bakeries around California — it was even greater in Copenhagen.  I had this realization — why is there not a sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged food brand? And why is there not a brand focused on sourdough as a general concept?

My whole thing was, let’s create a brand around sourdough. We started with pizza, but it’s a broad category. When I decided to do a CPG concept, I talked to the founder of my favorite natural food store in Sausalito. I asked to stock or work in product and get a sense of the retail store environment. I spent three months working in the grocery department, stocking at a natural food store. I told them about my sourdough pizza concept and asked if I could put a couple pizzas on the shelf and see how they sold. We have this idea of what our movement would be — we’d vacuum-seal pizza, we’d put them on the shelf in the deli section, people could take and back. We put out 12 pizzas, and in a few hours they were gone. The orders started getting bigger and bigger from there.

We officially launched in June 2018, making 50-70 pizzas a week for that location alone. We were written up in the local independent journal, and it started a domino effect. Now we’re in about 100 stores in the Bay Area and just throttling growth. We’re at the point where we’re ready to make a big footprint.

Q: You said when you were learning how important fermentation is to people’s diets, that pizza is a great platform to showcase that. Why?

My initial idea, going back to working at the Michelin star restaurant, I loved the idea of knowing where every ingredient came from. I love going to a customer with the menu and saying “This butter is from a grass-fed cow, its name is Mike.” Having that level of granularity was really important to me. With pizza, there are so many ingredients that make up pizza. It’s also a great creative product. It’s a product everyone is familiar with and everyone is passionate about it. If you ask somebody what their favorite type of crust is, you’ll get lots of different answers. They’ll fight you on their favorite pizza place in New York. They all have a favorite topping. It’s a passion product.

Our toppings, the tomato is the best organic tomatoes in the U.S. from DiNapoli, an hour away from us in California. Our flour is freshly milled flour by Central Milling Organics, an old family mill based out of Northern California. The cheese is from grass-fed cows from the Rumiano pasture, the oldest family-owned California dairy. I love the idea of partnering and showcasing with these companies, being on a first-name basis. Pizza is a great vehicle for that.

Q: Why is modern bread bad for the gut? What’s better about sourdough?

We think of modern bread making, conventional bread is a process of simply leavening bread, giving rise to the dough. They all use the same commercially manufactured yeast that was derived from a lab back in the late 1800s. The whole concept around this was to mass produce bread to make sure you can create an industrial product that you can scale to consistency. Before that, it was all sourdough-based bread products, dating back to ancient Egypt. 

Sourdough is a process of not only leavening bread but acidifying bread. The key benefits come from the acidification. So you’re getting benefits like a lower glycemic index, more available vitamins and minerals from grain, some people think it’s easier to digest and you’re getting better preservation. The higher the acidity, the lower the propensity for bacteria or mold to affect the product. 

The science of it — it mainly comes down to phytic acid, which is an organic, indigestible compound that all grains and seeds possess. 

Unfortunately, humans don’t have the enzyme to break it down — it’s called phytase. Some animals have this, and can eat raw grains and nuts and benefit. So when we eat grain in modern bread today, there’s a ton of potential nutrients that we’re not absorbing. There are two primary ways of breaking this down. One way to break this down would be sprouting the bread, one would be sourdough fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation and the acidification process of sourdough, you are breaking down fidic acid. There are studies that show you can get up to 90% percent of the available nutrients in the dough, whereas conventional bread would get like 20%, according to clinical trials.

A lot of the indigestibility of bread is around phytic acid, but gluten is coming to the mainstream, it’s become the easy thing to blame.

It’s great to be able to say, with clinical backing, there’s more bio nutrients in sourdough. That’s powerful. What we’re trying to do now is be the first party and authority on validating the science around lactic acid fermentation. There really hasn’t been an interested party or corporation interested in investing in the science. Our goal is to work with these scientists.

Q: How do you ferment your sourdough?

Modern bread, industrial bread or pizza on the shelf, you probably see an hour to three hours of fermentation time. With us, we do a full three days of fermentation time. We constantly have this starter, this mother culture, that we feed twice a day. We slowly mix our batches, low and slow. We do a bunch of small batches rather than one large batch, we find we get better quality that way. We do a really slow batch, then we take our dough and ferment it in a proofing room for two full days and nights. It will vary a little bit, but each ferment goes above 70 hour.

We use 100% organic flour from Central Milling. The better the flour, the more microbial activity in the flour. We use a specific flour that’s grown three hours away in california, there’s a lot of whole grain in the flour. So the microbial activity is really active. What you get is a really healthy ferment with more lactic acid, so you get that classic sourdough tang and that’s what we’re going for.

Q: The flour seems really critical in fermentation to create a good dough. 

It’s one of the important elements. You could have a company that says “We’re organic sourdough,” but they could be using terrible bleached flour and putting vinegar in it to make it taste sour, there are so many shortcuts.

Q: Tell me about the sourdough starter you use to create your dough.

For the starter, we use a local whole wheat starter and triple filtered water. Good water is super important with any ferment. We feed our starter local whole wheat, but our starter is decades old. It’s an heirloom starter from a natural foods business out here in Fairfax, California. It could be over 100 years old, we’re not sure. Feeding the starter is a constant point of stress. There’s a reason people mass manufacture bread, let’s put it that way. It’s like having a pet.

Q: What is the most challenging part of fermenting sourdough?

All the variables. It’s similar to any fermentation, where you need to measure the time and temperature. One thing that’s especially challenging is making estimates based on the temperature of the room and the seasonality. Thankfully we’re in San Francisco, so it’s not dramatic, but sometimes we’ll get a heat wave and it will change the dynamics of our operation, we’ll have to make adjustments on the fly.

Q: What flavor difference does sourdough bring to pizza?

The biggest difference is that, with any baked good with conventional yeast, you’re going to taste yeast. It’s a very distinct taste. Our sourdough specifically, what you’re going to taste is something that’s a little more nourishing and wholesome. You’re doing to get a little bit of the whole grain but not too much, it doesn’t taste like a whole-grain pizza. It’s something more artisan. You’re going to get a finish that’s slightly acidic, enough that you want to take another bite. It’s addicting — it makes you salivate. With any ferment, there’s this metabolic process where you’re salivating more, you’re wanting more, it’s your instinct.

Q: Sourdough Story was the first USDA organic and Non GMO verified pizza on the market. Why was that important to you to get those certifications?

This was a point of contention. Just because industrial organics and the fact that having this certifications does not inherently validate that you’re a thoughtful brand. The reason I would argue it was the right decision is it creates immediate consumer trust, and puts us in channels that we want to grow into quickly, whether its natural or conventional. It gives us a point of differentiation against brands that aren’t thoughtful at all. It helps us with our sales funnel, and through the sales process being able to go to buyers and check the box. It also gives us leverage in closing new accounts.

For consumers, if anything, having both shows we’ve done our due diligence and we’ve been vetted. Overarchingly, I think it was the right decision.

Q: Is there a lot of competition from the gluten-free market?

My whole thing is that, whether you’re gluten free or not, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about eating pizza. We’re providing people an avenue to feel good about eating pizza.

There’s so many new entrants in the gluten-free space. What really bugs me about gluten-free products is a lot of them don’t care how they’re sourcing their ingredients. They’ll get terrible rice flours you don’t even know where they’re coming from, or cauliflower from international markets, or processed cheeses making up crusts. Our thing: we’re going with tradition. We’re going to trust the heirloom staples, sourdough being one of them, that’s been around for thousands of years, that’s touching every culture. I think it’s good for us to be different.

Q: Where is your copacker, are they in Northern California?

Yes, they’re in Berkeley. It’s a copacker made up of artisan pizzaiolo from Italy. Every pizza is handmade and hand stretched. It’s a USDA organic facility. It’s only us and then their line of organic products. It’s a special little manufacturing facility.

Q: More and more retail news shows fermented pizza dough is an increasing trend. Why do you think so?

If I had to say one thing I’d start with flavor. You win people on taste. And I don’t think there’s anyway a modern bread can taste better than sourdough. The reason being it’s pure umami flavor. If you ferment dough correctly, you’re going to get this incredible flavor that’s unmimicked by conventional applications.

Q: Where do you see the future of Sourdough Story?

We want to have a national footprint in natural and conventional. More importantly, we want to be the authority for all things sourdough based. We want to provide research, we want to provide recipes and information on how to get people involved in traditional baking, we want to be the point on all things sourdough based, and really creating a category for it. And we see the brand expanding beyond pizza in the future, too.

Q: Do you think consumers awareness of fermented foods is increasing?

Wholeheartedly, yes. Almost all my friends have jars of kraut in their fridge now. The whole microbiome, all the understanding and science coming out on the importance of the microbiome, how it influences all elements of health from your mood to your skin to you name it. I think it’s an extremely exciting industry. Not to mention that fermented foods are popping up everywhere. Look at kombucha, look at fermented, plant-based yogurts. They’re everywhere. I think it’s one of the hottest trends.

Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?

From the manufacturing side, it’s hard to scale a fermented food. It’s hard to scale any manufacturing product, but with fermented food, there’s value in having a smaller volume. It’s also a living organism, it’s really a living thing with a personality that you really need to really thoughtfully think of how to scale. You also just have to learn from your mistakes, it’s just a trial by error thing. It’s a growing category and there’s a ton of competition.

Q: What are the fermented food industry strengths?

I think the entire ecosystem of retail is going to healthy food, functional food, slow food. When you look at Wal-Mart being the largest seller of organic products, that’s exciting. That’s correlated to the fact that people want to eat healthy. Fermentation is a staple and tiller of health in every single culture, you name it. Every corner of the world has fermented food.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry?

I think the future would be people being a household necessity to the point where people are trying to get a form of fermented food in their diet every single day. It’s becoming a preventative medicine, and that’s promising.

Q: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?

Start small and don’t grow too fast. We’ve had some serious growing pains, and just really try to add value to the product, listen to your consumer, and you get in front of it as many consumers as you can and gather feedback so you can find your niche.

And also, tap into the community. What excites me the most about fermentation and food in general is there’s so many people willing to help and provide advice. 

Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?

The onus is on, the brands. this was one of the reasons I started a food company, people vote with their dollars. And the best was to educate is to create a really good product.