The decade-old competition has built a highly esteemed spot on the UK bakery calendar and has seen creations from a Cumin & Chickpea Sourdough (Lee Smith from Eastbourne’s Poppy Seed Bakery, formerly Bexhill Farm Kitchen) back in 2013 to last year’s Parmesan & Black Pepper Sourdough (Dan Booth from Bakerman in Darlington) beat off very stiff competition.
“Back in the day, it started with four categories – innovation, sourdough, white and whole grain – obviously, we've since now grown those to include a few other categories as the explosion of sourdough has just sort of happened,” Amy North, editor of British Baker, told Bakery&Snacks.
“Our first winner was made by Lee Smith of Bexhill Farm Kitchen – now known as Poppy Seed Bakery – and I think what's really lovely and notable about that winner is that Poppy Seed Bakery has gone on to become a four times champion of Britain's Best Loaf. So, he started off strong and has continued that sort of strong performance over the years as well.”
She admits to still dreaming of Booth’s Parmesan & Black Pepper creation.
“I still think about that loaf: if you turned it into a bacon sandwich, it was basically a carbonara on a sandwich, because it had a proper tang of parmesan and a proper punch of pepper. There was no mistaking the ingredients in this loaf. It was incredible.”
But it’s not just all sourdough.
“Another one of Lee's champion loaves was just a white tin loaf; a fairly simple product. But it really wowed,” added North.
“We’ve had quite a nice mix over the years, so it’ll be really exciting to see what kind of loaf tops the charts this year.”
“Having your recipes awarded and acknowledged has a remarkable impact on your confidence. It's the seal of approval and encourages you to push baking boundaries further” – Catherine Connor, Lovingly Artisan.
And with the deadline of 3 April fast looming, there’s no room for bakers to dilly-dally in creating their masterpieces.
This year’s category line-up
This year, a new category has been brought into the mix in the form of International Loaves, such as ciabatta, focaccia, baguettes, fougasse, etc.
“We always felt that [these] didn't really sort of fit perfectly in any of the other categories, so we’ve created a category just for them to have their chance to shine as well,” said North.
There are seven categories in 2023:
- Plain sourdough
Made with nothing more than flour, water, salt and the sourdough starter.
- Flavoured sourdough
As above, but with added flavours, like spices, nuts, herbs and so forth. Let the imagination run wild.
- Innovative loaves
“The name’s kind of on the tin,” explained North.
“Previous winners of those have included sort of a prune and cardamom sourdough, which was beautifully spiced … the kind of thing you'd want to eat at Christmas with lashings of butter.”
Another to remain firmly entrenched in North’s taste memory bank was a curry-flavoured sourdough loaf called Pappa-G’s Taste of India made by Brød in Cardiff. The bread was praised for being ‘wonderfully crazy with beautiful craftsmanship … jam packed full of flavours, which seem to change flavours as you eat it.’
“It was actually entered into another category, but we thought it was so innovative, we brought it into innovation,” said North.
- White loaves
- Whole grain loaves
- International loaves
Seal of approval
“Seeing how rigorous and in depth the process is – and that every loaf gets the same time and attention from the judges – makes the win even more special” – previous winner.
The competition is open to any professional baker in the UK.
“We welcome entries from some of the largest plant bakers in the UK down to one person artisan bakers, hotels, restaurants and anyone in between. Basically, if you make bread professionally, we’d love for you to enter into Britain's Best Loaf this year.”
The accolades couldn’t be more generous.
“Obviously you get the title of being the ultimate champion and the knowledge that that your loaf was judged by our incredible panel and deemed to be the best of all the loaves entered,” said North.
“The trophy … can act as a marketing tool. You put it on the shelf next to the award-winning loaf and it really is a talking point when customers walk through the door. And I think it offers them a confidence boost knowing that bakery and the bread they're buying has been judged Britain's Best Loaf or is a category winner. It’s like a seal of approval,” she said, adding it is so much more than just a beautiful trophy.
“We always keep in touch with our past winners and they say they’ve had lovely local and national media coverage … which is a win in itself as it has helped get customers through the door and importantly, sold more loaves.”
“I caught up with Catherine Connor from Lovingly Artisan, who’s Malted Barley Sourdough won the whole grain category last year. She said that having your recipes awarded and acknowledged has a remarkable impact on your confidence. It’s the seal of approval and encourages you to push baking boundaries further. I don’t think I could do any better than what she said.”
What the judges are looking for
According to North, every loaf is judged on four criteria.
“We start off by looking at the external appearance. Does it sort of look how it should? Does it look beautiful and enticing? If you saw that on a shelf, would you be willing to pick it up?
“We then look at the internal structure, which is really about the technical skills of the baker. Does it have the type of crumb and structure inside that you’d expect for that type of type of loaf? Has it been baked and proved correctly? Thankfully, we’ve got our expert panels who can literally look at it and say, ‘that’s underproved’.”
Then the loaves are ‘sniffed’ (judged on aroma). “These are some of my favourite photos [of the judges] … all these people taking a big whiff of loaves … I just think it’s the funniest thing.”
“Then, of course, there’s taste. And for the Innovation category, we also look at how innovative it is: that might be the use of flavours or technique or the inspiration behind it.
“We had one of our previous winners join the judging panel and he said that seeing how rigorous and in depth the process is – and that every loaf gets the same time and attention from the judges – made the win even more special.”
The panel of judges this year comprises ‘a real mix of like industry icons’, from past champions to representatives from each of the sponsors – ADM Milling, Bako Group, Brook Food & Bakery Equipment and Lesaffre UK & Ireland.
“Winning the award is made even more specially because you know your loaf has been judged by people who fully understand the process and the care and respect it takes to make a loaf that beautiful” – Amy North
- Amy North, editor, British Baker
- Andrew Layte, technical sales manager, Lesaffre
- Claire Powell, technical baker, Bako Group
- Gareth Edwards, commercial manager, ADM
- Katie-Joy Woods, technical innovations team at Jacksons Bakery
- Lee Smith of Poppyseed Bakery (four times champion of Britain’s Best Loaf, with nine category wins)
- Neil Woods, president of the Craft Bakers Association (awarded the British Baker Outstanding Contribution to the Bakery Industry Award in 2021)
- Peter Doughty-Cook of Peter Cooks Bread (British Baker’s reigning Baker of the Year).
- Simon Lawton-Hayes, technical sales manager, Brook Food
- Tim Goodwin of The Street Bakeshop (BIA’s 2021 Baker of the Year and Craft Bakery Business of the Year 2022; gold in 2022 UK World Bread Awards)
“We’re really proud of our judging panel and I think having that level of credibility really does make winning the award even more special because you know that your loaves have been judged by people who fully understand the process and the care and respect it takes to make a loaf that beautiful.”
Two loaves from each category will be singled out, as Highly Commended and Winner.
“The winning ones will go on to battle out for Britain’s Best Loaf – the ultimate champion,” said North, with judging taking place on 25 April at the Farm Shop & Deli Show at NEC Birmingham.
“The judging is done live … so people who have entered, [along with show attendees,] can watch it happen [live[ and then join us at around 3pm for the winners reveal.”
Attendees will also have the opportunity to meet North, who will be at the show to ‘snoop, taste and network’.
“We call it networking, but predominantly I will be snacking my way around the show. My Tuesday will be dominated by eating bread and I am very much looking forward to it. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it.”
Cost to enter is £30 plus VAT per product.