As an avid baker, I constantly have a glass jar of flour sitting on my kitchen counter. But I never really thought much about what goes into producing that flour until a recent trip to Columbia, South Carolina, home to the Adluh Flour Mill. The Adluh building is a fixture in Columbia--at night, a neon ADLUH FLOUR sign atop the building lights up and can be seen throughout the city--and Adluh's flour and grits are a fixture in restaurants in Columbia, across South Carolina, and throughout the South. Among many restaurants, the iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace sources products from Adluh.
Adluh Flour been producing flour and grits since around 1900 and they're located in the Congaree Vista (a charming area in Columbia with shops and restaurants). While the flour mill isn't open for public tours anymore, I was able to check out some parts of the mill and see the machines that make flour and grits.
First the name--local legend is that the mill's original owner had a daughter named "Hulda," and reversed the spelling to "Adluh" (pronounced "add-loo") when naming the mill.
In 1942, there were 42 flour mills operating in South Carolina. Today, Adluh is the only one. Adluh opened in Columbia around 1900 under the B.R. Crooner family, and merged with the Columbia Grain and Provision Co., owned by J. H. Hardin, in 1920. A few years later, the First Commercial National Bank took the mill over under foreclosure, and the Allen family (who had been operating grist mills in North Carolina), bought Adluh in 1926. In 1937, they moved a North Carolina plant to Greenwood, SC, and then later consolidated all production to Columbia. The Allens still own the mill, which has the same configuration as the original mill. It was Bill Allen who showed me around Adluh.
I noticed two things right away about Adluh. First of all, the mill is loud--running the machines that do everything from breaking apart the wheat kernel to filling bags of flour makes a ton of noise. The second thing--the building is tall, but it's also really long. The building was designed so that it was easier to load products onto trains. Since Adluh uses trucks now for transportation, that long narrow room is used to store products.
Adluh begins the flour-making process by sourcing soft red winter wheat from South Carolina farmers. They also source yellow corn from South Carolina and white corn from Kentucky and Tennessee for grits and cornmeal. After Adluh receives the wheat, they test, clean, and condition it using a separator, scourer, and aspirator to remove stems, leaves, weeds, and other items that may have snuck in from the farm.
Once the grain is ready, it falls through break rolls on a machine--the kernel falls between the rolls and is crushed. Then it's sifted repeatedly until the flour is ready to be enriched, bleached, and conditioned. Adluh makes Short "Extra Fancy" Patent flour, which is made with the heart of the wheat kernel, and clear flour, which is what remains after the patent flour is removed. They also make blends. Once the flour is ready, it's used to make baking mixes like pancake or biscuit mix, and breaders for coating chicken, fish, vegetables, and pork. It's also packaged just as flour.
To make grits, Adluh uses a stone grinder. The corn kernels are crushed in between stones until they're the right size for grits. Adluh gets both white and yellow corn and crushes each individually. White corn has a higher sugar content, which means the grits are sweeter, while yellow grits have a bolder flavor. A combination of the two is "speckled grits," and Adluh makes those too.
Adluh directly provided flour and other products to stores like Winn-Dixie until 1986, and between 1986 and 2000, products made their way to shelves through distribution centers. By 2000, the company was out of retail entirely, since retail use of flour has been shrinking over the years—now, 75% is sold just around the holidays. Today, Adluh products are sold to hotels, restaurants, and other institutions.
While in Columbia, I ate smooth, creamy Adluh grits at Blue Marlin and visited Motor Supply Co. Bistro, which also sources products from Adluh. And I brought home bags of yellow grits to stir up batches of creamy Parmesan grits. In Adluh's mill office, you can pick up bags of all the products produced there, plus baking mixes like corn muffin mix and yellow-flake biscuit mix. But good news—even if you can't make it to Columbia soon, you can buy Adluh products online, and 1 to 2 pound bags of each product are just a couple of dollars. You can also get 25 or 50 pound bags, for the most serious baking projects.