Local entrepreneur capitalizes on brewing’s ignored ingredient

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Jeff Bloem used 17 years of experience in supply chain analysis to research and form the Woolen Mills-based Murphy & Rude Malting Co. He now supplies local brewers with Virginia-sourced malts. Photo by Eze Amos Jeff Bloem used 17 years of experience in supply chain analysis to research and form the Woolen Mills-based Murphy & Rude Malting Co. He now supplies local brewers with Virginia-sourced malts. Photo by Eze Amos

Beer has been made with malt for hundreds —if not thousands—of years, but a Charlottesville entrepreneur only recently thought to exploit the steeped, germinated and dried grains to find a unique way into the craft beverage world.

Jeff Bloem opened Murphy & Rude Malting Co. in Woolen Mills in February. He intended to focus on delivering local craft brewers and liquor makers specialty malts—prepared grains (i.e. base malts) that have been further processed to give beverages roasted, caramel or other unique flavors. But in the last several months, Bloem has found his niche providing his standard, all-Virginia grown malts to those same small-scale brew and booze producers.

“I thought I was this wise young buck and what I could do to differentiate myself would be to focus on the specialty malts,” Bloem says. “But everybody wants base malt. You set your thinking through this very small piece of a business, then the customers dictate what you are going to do.”

While small craft breweries, and to a lesser extent small craft spirit distillers, have banked on the buy-local movement to capture consumers’ attention, the only thing local about the drink that ends up in folks’ hands is typically the production facility address. Craft breweries by and large rely on the same hulking, national malt houses as macrobrewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.

Bloem admits he can’t compete with the big maltsters on price. His grains are always going to be more expensive than what craft brewers can get from Cargill or Rahr. That’s why he figured he would settle in the specialty malt niche, where the value he adds through extra processing can justify the higher cost. And he hasn’t given up on that model.

But for now, Bloem’s found the higher price tag is worth it for certain beverages, specifically for brewers and spirit makers who don’t widely distribute their products and have lower capacities.

“As a smaller brewery, we can experiment a bit more and are okay with the product varying a little batch-to-batch,” says Kevin McElroy of Random Row Brewing Co., which uses Bloem’s malts in its taproom staple Mosaic Pale Ale. “Something new and local is exciting for us to try out, and having that personal relationship with the maltster is a benefit down the road.”

So how did Bloem, an avid craft beer and spirit fan, end up working upstream from the beverage production lines? He’d spent his career analyzing supply chains for a large government consulting firm. After 17 years figuring out how to break into new markets and find new revenue streams for other people, he wanted to strike out on his own and he took a look at the artisan beverage space.

Hops, Bloem says, were on lots of folk’s radar, from both a production and agricultural standpoint. But malt was nowhere to be found.

“I dug in and got addicted,” he says. “Five years later, here I am.”

Bloem’s new 6,300-square-foot malt house on Broadway offers 200 tons of annual capacity. He’s processing three tons of raw grain per week in his 400-pound drum roaster and sourcing 100 percent of his grains, including two-row barley, wheat, rye and triticale, from Virginia farmers.

Bloem would like to be cranking out five tons of grain per week within five years. In addition to moving more of his production to specialty malting, he wants to break into the raw grain market. His malts should be available to homebrewers at his facility and Fifth Season Gardening in the next two to three months.

“I am trying to change the relationship model between the brewer and the ingredient maker,” Bloem says. “This is really bringing an entirely new, individual perspective to craft beer and spirits production.”


Home base

In addition to Random Row’s Mosaic Pale and Apple Sour, Murphy & Rude has supplied malt for South Street’s May Day Mild, Fine Creek Brewing’s Kentucky Common, 1781 Brewing’s Virginia Hefeweizen, Spencer Devon Brewing’s third anniversary Saison du Local, and Spirit Lab Distilling’s whiskey, among other bevvies.

While small craft breweries, and to a lesser extent small craft spirit distillers, have banked on the buy-local movement to capture consumers’ attention, the only thing local about the drink that ends up in folks’ hands is typically the production facility address.

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