For this baker, Thanksgiving is ‘the pie Super Bowl’

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Corey H. Jones/CPR News
John Hinman of Hinman Pie stands with a box of hand pies in a commissary kitchen his staff uses to bake in Arvada, Colo., on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

About five years ago, Denver pastry chef John Hinman was eating a Hostess pie and thought, “I can do better than this.” 

Now, Hinman runs Hinman Pie, a bakery dedicated entirely to pies. In the front room of his commissary kitchen in Arvada, bakers press and shape dough into five-inch pies, full-size nine-inch pies and hand pies, while industrial ovens in the back turn out hundreds of pies at a time. Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year — “it’s like the pie Super Bowl, it’s crazy,” Hinman said — and this November, the bakery is on track to turn out more than 4,000 pie orders, nearly double last year’s orders. 

“It's a wild circus until the end,” he said, “and then I pretty much sleep on Thanksgiving.”

Hinman’s pursuit of pies came partly as a response to his more than two decades in the pastry industry. “I felt that pastries were getting a little crazy for me,” he said, “putting rosemary in chocolate and trying to reinvent the wheel over and over again.” In 2015, shortly after earning a Westword award for best Denver pie while working at the Post Brewing Co., he opened Hinman’s Bakery, which sold bread, danishes, croissants and sandwiches. Hinman closed that space in 2019, then pared the operation down to pies only and rebranded as Hinman Pie. 

Corey H. Jones/CPR News
In anticipation of Thanksgiving, Hinman Pie prepares cherry hand pies in Arvada, Colo., on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

The menu is simple, with a focus on traditional flavors: cherry, blueberry, apple, pumpkin, pecan and a salted maple, plus one each of a chicken, pork and vegetarian savory pie. (The hand pie flavors differ slightly.) 

A bad pie is a disappointment, but Hinman has found a good pie that tastes homemade can evoke a sense of nostalgia. “When I give somebody a pie, 90 percent of the time I get this awesome story,” he said. “I get a story about summer camp; I get a story about their grandma; I get a story about a crazy trip they went on. I get a story about a certain person in somebody’s life. I get a story about a Thanksgiving.”

But those associations are also what make classic pie flavors so difficult to perfect. Here, too, Hinman embraced a more timeless approach. “I always remember people saying, 'My grandma used to make,'” he said, referring to homemade pie. “So I took one summer and went out to every pie contest in Denver until I started making pies as good as grandma's.”

For the crust, Hinman spent six months developing his signature dough, testing different butters and, for a brief time, rendering his own lard. The process “was great, but messy and kind of smelly,” Hinman said. “And it was tough to feed to the vegans.” He settled on an all-butter crust that uses local “transitional” wheat, which farmers produce in the three years it takes to transition conventional wheat fields to organic. 

The result is a flaky, golden crust with just the right amount of crumble. 

Corey H. Jones/CPR News
Chicken and squirrel crust cutouts top some of the pies baked by Hinman Pie in Arvada, Colo., on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.

Five percent of the proceeds from every pie sold this Thanksgiving are directed to Hinman’s nonprofit, Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness, which offers mental health support for culinary professionals. “I personally have been sober for 10 years,” Hinman said. “I started this group because, when I went to my first recovery meeting, I don't remember what was said, but I remember how I felt when I walked out and I knew I was changed.”

The goal of the organization is to combat the stigma that surrounds asking for help, Hinman continued. He wanted to create a space for workers to talk about their challenges. "Hinman knows that sharing space with those who have similar experiences 'can be life-changing.'"

The food industry is “a home for a lot of people in a lot of ways. And for a lot of people who are creative and aren't outward about it, making food is a great way to nourish somebody and it gives yourself some worth.”

For Hinman, making pies is a way of nourishing relationships, too. This week, as people gather to share a meal with loved ones, Hinman’s pies will be a staple item for thousands of household menus. “It’s a real honor to me and my crew,” he said. “We get to join maybe 3,000 people at their dinner at Thanksgiving this year.”

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