East Bay Bakeries Doing The Rye Thing

Rye Breads from East Bay bakeries
Rye Breads from East Bay bakeries (Wendy Goodfriend)

As a born and bred Jewish New Yorker, I recently started craving rye bread. Nostalgic for a taste of lower Manhattan, I began searching the East Bay and San Francisco for fresh-baked rye and found ten guide-worthy bakeries making quality loaves.

Having lived half my life in the Bay Area, I've developed a California conscience about knowing where my food comes from. And, in my quest for satisfying my appetite, it has become equally important to know the best business practices of companies supplying products I crave, and ultimately purchase.

So, in searching for rye bread, besides taste, texture, and loaf longevity; I also wanted to know about the bakeries choices regarding: source and quality of ingredients, environmentally-conscious production processes, benefits for employees and hiring practices, community involvement, and altruistic endeavors. My intention was to not only satisfy my yen but to also support local bakeries doing the right thing.

I was open to exploring and tasting a variety of types beyond the classic Jewish deli rye and found a range of styles originating from mostly European countries. The bakeries in this guide are primarily based in the East Bay but four out of the six businesses distribute their products within stores throughout the Bay Area.

Historically, dark rye was a staple back in the Middle Ages and was typically the bread for lower classes, while lighter wheat was reserved for upper class folks. The wheat bread was considered healthier and easier to digest, and during this period a horrific illness known as "holy fire" or “Saint Anthony's fire” reached epidemic proportions. The origin of this syndrome remained a mystery until 1670 when a French physician, Thuillier, discovered that the cause of this illness, now known as ergotism, was ergot poisoning from infected rye bread. Currently, technology to sanitize grains has eliminated ergotism as a human disease but it remains a problem with livestock and other animals.

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These days, whole grain rye bread is seen as a healthy alternative to white bread because it is high in fiber, low in fat, and has a lower glycemic index—which results in less of a spike in blood sugar after eating.

If you are concerned about gluten, you should know that rye is not gluten-free, but it does have less gluten than wheat. However, this is why wheat flour is typically included in rye bread—to compensate for rye's lower gluten levels, which along with the enzyme rye amylase, inhibits the dough from rising. Naturally fermented sourdough starter helps the leavening process as well but most pure rye-only breads, like German-style pumpernickel, are extremely dense. All the ryes featured in this guide include some wheat flour in the ingredients.

Rye Breads from East Bay bakeries
Rye Breads from East Bay bakeries (Wendy Goodfriend)

Tasting the Rye
The rye tasting was based on sampling the fresh bread plain and then tasting it as toast with unsalted butter. I was curious about flavor, consistency, the relationship between crust and crumb, the effect of toasting the bread, and loaf longevity. After three days of storage, using Josey Baker’s advice on How To Love Your Loaf, the breads were assessed for level of freshness and eat-ability – both plain and toasted.

Check out the Ryes sampled in the East Bay:

La Farine's Rustic Rye Batard and Rye Raisin Roll
La Farine's Rustic Rye Batard and Rye Raisin Roll (Wendy Goodfriend)

La Farine

Rustic Rye Batard and Rye Raisin Rolls

What's In It
Rustic Rye Batard: Unbleached white flour, organic whole wheat flour, organic rye flour, natural fermented rye starter, water, salt and caraway seeds. Price: $4.35

Rye Raisin Rolls: Unbleached white flour, organic whole wheat flour, organic rye flour, natural fermented rye starter, water, salt, caraway seeds, golden raisins, cornmeal. Price: $1.55

Why Buy This Rye
The Rustic Rye Batard is a classic light country rye, naturally fermented (long fermentation), and has a chewy, spongy crumb with medium density and a contrasting harder crispy crust. There is a good ratio of caraway seeds providing robust flavor. As toast with butter, there was an added crunch to the surface that blended perfectly with the chewy interior. The taste and texture reminded me of NYC rye and satisfied my craving. At day three, the bread was still moist in the center, but was best toasted.

La Farine's Rustic Rye Batard
La Farine's Rustic Rye Batard (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Rye Raisin Rolls are dense, moist and chewy with a hint of sweetness from the raisins that contrasts with the savory caraway seeds. The cornmeal crust adds a nice crunchy texture. Toasted with butter the crust became a bit tough so I preferred the roll fresh. The cut roll was hard by day three, so best eaten on day one.

La Farine's Rye Raisin Roll
La Farine's Rye Raisin Roll (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
Owner Jeff Dodge believes that La Farine has a commitment to the neighborhoods they serve, and so the bakery donates leftover goods daily to Daily Bread—which picks up and distributes the products to local food banks and other organizations in need. A couple of local senior centers also pick up and distribute leftovers from La Farine. The bakery is also very supportive of East Bay public schools.

La Farine uses a combination of organic (from Giusto's) and non-organic locally-sourced flours (Miller Milling, Ardent Mills), that according to Dodge doesn't compromise taste while keeping costs accessible to consumers. The bakery supports environmentally-friendly practices and is a certified green business. Dodge says they recycle 95% of everything they take into the bakery.

Regarding employee benefits, workers make much higher than minimum wage on average ($18.60 before benefits), working 32 hours a week entitles workers to full benefits, they get health and dental insurance as well as anniversary and holiday bonuses.

The bread display inside La Farine Bakery in Oakland
The bread display inside La Farine Bakery in Oakland (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Retail locations: MAP

  • 3411 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland
  • 6323 College Avenue, Oakland
  • 4094 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland

Acme's New York rye
Acme's New York rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

Acme Bread Company

New York Rye and Sourdough Rye

What's In It
New York Rye: Water, organic unbleached wheat flour (organic malted barley flour), organic rye flour, sea salt, whole caraway seed, ground fennel, coriander, caraway seeds and yeast. Price: $4.32

Sourdough Rye: Organic unbleached wheat flour (organic malted barley flour), water, organic whole rye flour, organic whole wheat flour, French hard cider and sea salt. (not available on Sunday) Price: $3.55

Acme also sells: Rye Raisin Rabbits (available Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), Current Pumpernickel (only Thursday), Pumpernickel (only Thursday, Tuesday), Dark Rye with Sunflower Seeds (only Friday)

Baking inside Acme Bread Company in Berkeley
Baking inside Acme Bread Company in Berkeley (Wendy Goodfriend)

Why Buy This Rye
Acme's New York Rye is light, spongy and airy with good caraway seed flavor that is not overpowering. The ground fennel and coriander flavors are not obvious and there is not as strong a sour flavor as with other ryes tasted. The crust is a bit chewy and hard to pull apart. When toasted with butter, the crust is crispy, thin, and works better as a complement to the chewy crumb. By day three, the bread was still soft and moist and made excellent toast.

Acme's New York rye
Acme's New York rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Sourdough Rye is a medium seedless rye that includes French hard cider and was developed specifically for Chez Panisse to accompany oysters. (Steven Sullivan, one of the founders of Acme, baked bread at Chez Panisse before starting the company.) The loaf has a smooth exterior and is dense and spongy. You can smell the sourdough as well as taste the sweetness from the cider. The consistency is almost cake-like when plain. As toast with butter the crust crisps up and the bread is not as cakey - I preferred the fresh bread untoasted. By day three the bread was still moist, although a bit tougher, and tasted best as toast.

Acme's sourdough rye
Acme's sourdough rye (Wendy Goodfriend)
Acme's sourdough rye
Acme's sourdough rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
Acme uses only organic flour for their products, sourced from Keith Giusto Bakery Supply (KGBS). Other ingredients used are also organic and locally-sourced but may vary at times due to availability and cost.

Leftover products from the day are donated to charitable organizations, schools, and non-profits; and other goods that are damaged or returned are donated to produce organic livestock feed.

In terms of environmentally-friendly practices, Acme's Berkeley wholesale bakery generates much of its own electricity using photovoltaic panels and they use renewable biodiesel to fuel the delivery trucks and generators.

Employees receive benefit packages including: health insurance, 401K with employer matching, paid lunch breaks; and the minimum wage at Acme is $15 an hour with the average wage being around $20 an hour.

Outside Acme Bread in Berkeley
Outside Acme Bread in Berkeley (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Retail locations: MAP

  • 1601 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley
  • 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco

Acme sells bread wholesale, in Bay Area grocery stores, and at local farmers' markets. View locations.


Semifreddi's Deli Rye
Semifreddi's Deli Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

Semifreddi's

Odessa Rye and Deli Rye

What's In It
Odessa Rye: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, rye flour, caraway seeds, malt, sea salt, and yeast. Price: $3.49

Deli Rye: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, rye flour, caraway seeds, sea salt, malt, and yeast. (only available for retail at the location in Kensington) Price: $3.95

Why Buy This Rye
Semifreddi's Odessa Rye loaf has an impressive textured design on the crust along with good sour flavor and an optimal amount of caraway seeds that don't dominate the flavor. The crust is harder than on the Deli Rye for a more textured contrast between crust and crumb and it makes excellent toast. By day three, the Odessa Rye is still great for toasting.

Semifreddi's Odessa Rye
Semifreddi's Odessa Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)
Semifreddi's Odessa Rye
Semifreddi's Odessa Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Deli Rye is chewy, sour and not too dense with a uniform consistency and light crust. It is made from the same ingredients as the Odessa Rye but is prepared in a pan in a rack oven versus in a hearth oven. The bread was developed to be a New York Jewish-style rye sandwich bread with traditional caraway seed flavor but uses a dark rye flour, rye sour, and dark malted barley extract for more intense flavor. The Deli Rye tasted best toasted, was still soft on day three, but for optimal flavor and texture toasting is the way to go.

Semifreddi's Deli Rye
Semifreddi's Deli Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
Co-owner Mike Rose shared that the wheat flour used in Semifreddi's breads is milled locally in Oakland by Miller Milling and the rye flour is sourced from Central Milling (Utah/Petaluma). The breads do not use organic flour and Mike said that choice is based on there not being a taste advantage as well as keeping costs down to make products more affordable to consumers. The breads are Certified Kosher Pareve and Semifreddi's is a certified green business.

Leftover products are donated daily to a variety of community organizations and dough waste is recycled into chicken feed.

Semifreddi's claims to pay better than most in the industry, has provided health insurance for the past 30 years (almost the entire life of the company), and hires workers from within the company to move up into management. The company also provides educational tours of the baking facility to students.

Semifreddi's cafe in Kensington
Semifreddi's cafe in Kensington (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Retail location:  MAP

  • 372 Colusa Avenue, Kensington

Semifreddi's also sells bread wholesale and in Bay Area grocery stores.


Firebrand's German Rye Batard
Firebrand's German Rye Batard (Wendy Goodfriend)

Firebrand Artisan Bread

German Rye Batard, Sprouted Rye Batard, and Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette

What's In It
German Rye Batard: Organic whole rye flour, organic rye flour, organic wheat flour, water, sea salt. Price: $5.00

Sprouted Rye Batard: Organic wheat flour, organic toasted rye flour, organic whole wheat flour, organic whole rye berries, water, sea salt, yeast, organic malted barley flour, sesame seeds. Price: $6.00

Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette: Organic wheat flour, organic toasted rye flour, organic whole wheat flour, organic whole rye berries, water, sea salt, yeast, organic malted barley flour, sesame seeds. Price: $3.00

Why Buy This Rye
Firebrand's German Rye Batard is based on an eastern European rye and is dark, dense and sour. There is a molasses-like flavor but there is no added molasses and there are no seeds in this bread. This rye batard is predominantly made from whole rye flour but has some wheat in it and is a flatter more compact loaf. Toasted with sweet butter, this classic bread develops a crispier crust and the flavors deepen. On day three, the bread was still moist but is a bit harder and drier, but still toasted up nicely.

Firebrand's German Rye Batard
Firebrand's German Rye Batard (Wendy Goodfriend)

Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Batard and Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette are made from the same ingredients but delivered in a different style of bread. The rye is light and chewy but airy. It's got a distinctive crust with sesame seeds. You might not even know you are eating rye due to the light airy quality and absence of caraway seeds but the organic whole rye berries tip you off, adding a nice chewy texture.

This rye is great as toast with butter. The crust and sesame seeds get crispy adding a toasted flavor while the bread retains its elasticity and the porous surface speaks well to the butter.

By day three, the baguette was totally hard but the batard held up, was still moist and springy, and made excellent toast.

Firebrand's German Rye Batard
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Batard (Wendy Goodfriend)
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Batard
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Batard (Wendy Goodfriend)
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette (Wendy Goodfriend)
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette
Firebrand's Sprouted Rye Demi Baguette (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
Firebrand's founder, Matt Kreutz, shared that the bakery uses organic flour from Central Milling in Petaluma. The food served in the cafe and other products are locally sourced.

Located at The Hive in Uptown Oakland, Firebrand claims to be a community-driven bakery and has a charity program, an art program and classes to support this mission. They also sell their products wholesale and do catering. The bakery and cafe is an open kitchen space where customers can watch the baking process in action.

Leftovers are donated to non-profits. Their environmentally-friendly practices revolve around managing waste and having an elaborate oven filtration system.

Employees are paid above minimum wage, and the bakery provides health benefits, trains employees in financial literacy, and practices open hiring.

At the counter inside Firebrand Artisan Bread
At the counter inside Firebrand Artisan Bread (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Bakery and retail location: MAP

  • 2343 Broadway, Oakland

Firebrand also sells bread wholesale and in Bay Area grocery stores.


Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bagel and Light Rye Bread
Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bagel and Light Rye Bread (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Cheeseboard Collective

New York Rye, Sourdough Rye, Marble Rye

What's In It
Light Rye: Caraway seeds, molasses, organic cornmeal, organic cracked rye, organic rye flour, organic semolina, organic white flour, sea salt, sourdough starter, water (available only Saturday). Price: $3.50

Light Rye Bagel: Caraway seeds, molasses, organic cornmeal, organic cracked rye, organic rye flour, organic semolina, organic white flour, sea salt, sourdough starter, water (available only Tuesday and Saturday). Price: $1.00

Marble Rye: Caraway seeds, molasses, organic cornmeal, organic cracked rye, organic rye flour, organic semolina, organic white flour, sea salt, sourdough starter, water (available only Tuesday). Price: $3.50

The Cheeseboard also sells: Beer Rye (available only Tuesday), Seedy Rye (available only Thursday)

Why Buy This Rye
The Light Rye is spongy, elastic and has great flavor, including caraway. The bread is not overly dense or airy—it is all purpose and good for sandwiches. When toasted, the crust crisps up nicely to provide contrast to the soft chewy crumb. On day three, the Light Rye was good for toast.

Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bread
Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bread (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Light Rye Bagel is made from the same ingredients as the Light Rye and Marble Rye. The consistency of the bagel is not chewy but is a more grainy, porous bagel with good caraway flavor. The bagel works better as toast when the outside becomes crispy. By day three, the bagel was hard.

Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bagel
Cheeseboard's Light Rye Bagel (Wendy Goodfriend)

The Marble Rye is pretty! This two-toned rye shares the same ingredients as the Light Rye and bagel and has a caraway forward taste and good density. It would work well for sandwiches. When toasted the crust gets crunchy and is a good contrast to the chewy crumb. On day three, the Marble Rye was good for toast.

Cheeseboard's Marble Rye
Cheeseboard's Marble Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)
Cheeseboard's Marble Rye
Cheeseboard's Marble Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
The iconic Cheeseboard in Berkeley has been a worker-owned collective since 1971 and therefore all workers get paid the same wages and make decisions about the business as a group through modified consensus. In addition to setting wages, these responsibilities include: deciding employee benefits, determining production processes and products, and participation in community projects.

All the flours used are organic and the source is Central Milling. However, some of the products they use are not organic, like the butter used in breads and pastries.

The Cheeseboard donates daily leftovers to many different organizations and groups in need. The collective also mobilizes to support local communities with food during difficult times, like helping provide relief through fundraisers to undocumented workers during the North Bay fires. They have a teen program where they hire and train a teenager to be a good worker and their earnings go into a scholarship fund.

Environmentally-friendly practices generally revolve around dealing with waste—donating, composting and recycling.

Saturday morning line outside the Cheeseboard
Saturday morning line outside the Cheeseboard (Wendy Goodfriend)
Inside the Cheeseboard on a Saturday morning.
Inside the Cheeseboard on a Saturday morning. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Bakery and retail location: MAP

  • 1504 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Vital Vittles' Sourdough Rye
Vital Vittles' Sourdough Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

Vital Vittles

Sourdough Rye

What's In It
Sourdough Rye: Vital Vittles 100% whole-wheat flour freshly stone ground from organic hard red winter wheat, organic rye flour, filtered water, caraway seeds, sea salt (no baker's yeast added). Price: $5.00 (at the bakery retail outlet)

Why Buy This Rye
The Sourdough Rye is moist, flavorful (caraway, sour, nutty), dense and chewy in a good way. It's a good sandwich bread since the crust is not hard and the closed crumb is soft with a uniform consistency. Toasted with butter, the bread gains a surface crunch to complement the chewy interior, the nutty flavor deepens and it is very rich and cake-like. After 3 days, the bread was drier but still good as toast.

Vital Vittles' Sourdough Rye
Vital Vittles' Sourdough Rye (Wendy Goodfriend)

What They Are Doing Right
Vital Vittles has been milling their own flour, grinding organic whole grains using a granite stone mill since 1976. The Tran family, who had been working with the original owners, Joe and Kass Schwin, since the 80s bought Vital Vittles in 2006.

They only mill the whole-wheat and corn flour at their bakery (which you can purchase there in addition to the bread) and their organic rye is sourced locally, reportedly from Giusto's. All the grains, nuts, fruits, and oils used in breads are certified organic. The breads are kosher and dairy-free. Vital Vittles has been a certified green business for many years.

The bakery donates leftover products to food pantries and other community organizations in need and they have been supportive to the refugee community in hiring employees.

Outside Vital Vittles in Berkeley
Outside Vital Vittles in Berkeley (Wendy Goodfriend)
Inside Vital VIttles
Inside Vital VIttles (Wendy Goodfriend)

Where To Get It
Bakery retail location: MAP

  • 2810 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley

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Vital Vittles also sells bread online via the website, at Bay Area and throughout California grocery stores, and at Bay Area farmers' markets.

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