Our story so far: A few weeks ago I wrote about how Hormel was running a really fun promotion to give away 68 packs of bacon smoked over wood scraps salvaged from the production of this year’s Final Four courts. Then they sent me a pack of the bacon, so two days ago I explained how I planned to do a blind taste test this Sunday, to compare the Final Four bacon to some of Hormel’s other bacon. I also put out a call for Uni Watch readers to assist me with the tasting, the cooking, and the photography.
That post from two days ago prompted a communiqué from someone who works at Hormel’s smokehouse in Wichita, Kan. Not only that, but he said he had actually worked on the Final Four bacon! (“Never did I expect an overlap between my job and one of my favorite Twitter personalities,” he added.)
I love it when people come out of the woodwork like that (pun fully intended), so I asked the Hormel employee for an interview. The employee agreed, on the condition of anonymity.
The interview, which took place on Monday afternoon, was extremely interesting — and, for reasons that will become clear once you read the transcript, extremely disappointing.
Before you dive in, I should point out that the first one-third of the interview is about the bacon-production process in general. Personally, I found that fascinating, but if you want to skip ahead to the part where we begin talking about the Final Four bacon, click here.
Uni Watch: For those who aren’t familiar with the bacon production process, give me a quick explanation how it works. Are the hog bellies [which are the cut of pork that bacon is made from] butchered at your plant? Or does that already happen before they arrive at your plant?
Anonymous: Some of the other Hormel plants do the actual butchering of the hogs. So when the raw bellies come to us, they come in these big cardboard totes, about 2,000 pounds’ worth. They can range from nine to 10 pounds apiece, and then some of the bigger ones we get are close to 20 pounds.
UW: Before they can be smoked, I know they have to be cured. So do you do that?
Anonymous: Yeah, they’re not cured already when they arrive, so we do that. We have a guy on staff who’s our pickle maker — we make up batches of pickle and then we put the bellies through a process where we lay them flat and then put them through an injector that puts the pickle in them. Then we hang them on these big metal racks, and they go from there into our smokehouses, where we smoke them eight to 12 hours. Then we take them to our blast cooler so we can cool them down and get them solidified. After they’ve been cooled down enough, we press them into more of a uniform rectangular shape, and then we sit them in a cooler for a couple days until they’re solid enough that we can actually slice them through our machines.
[Note: The process that Anonymous just described is shown quickly but pretty illuminatingly in the video embedded below. — Paul]
UW: When you say, “pickle,” do you use that term pretty interchangeably with “cure”?
Anonymous: Yep, exactly. We call it a pickle, but it’s got all the main ingredients: sugars, salts, some preservative-type stuff [i.e., nitrites].
UW: Do you guys do both shingle pack and stack pack?
Anonymous: Yeah, for retail. But we also do a lot of bigger packages for foodservice — like, 15-pound boxes that’ll go to hotels and restaurants, stuff like that. We also have pre-cooked and ready-to-eat bacon, which is a cool process, because we’re actually sending it through a big oven.
UW: Is the curing or pickling process the same no matter which wood you’re going to be smoking with?
Anonymous: The contents of the pickle will change depending on the product. We sample the bacon pretty frequently, at least a couple times a day, so I can tell the difference right away between, you know, Natural Choice bacon or Black Label bacon or brown sugar bacon.
UW: You guys use a lot of different woods — I’ve seen cherry, pecan, apple, maple. Any others?
Anonymous: I think that’s mostly all of them.
UW: Do the different woods burn differently or require different smoking times?
Anonymous: No, they don’t. But we look at the process pretty frequently, making sure that we’re getting enough smoke coloring on the bellies, so we can adjust the smoke times if we need to.
UW: What about the Black Label bacon that doesn’t list a particular word, but it’s just called “Original” — which wood is used for that?
Anonymous: Applewood, I believe. Again, it depends — there are times when we’ll change it up. I know we’ve done a few special runs where we tried different woods, different pickle combinations. But yeah, mostly apple. That’s probably the wood we use the most.
UW: Can you personally tell the difference in aroma of smoke from one wood to another?
Anonymous: Probably not, just because we smoke them in these big rooms, and it’s so overpowering when you open the doors. But I can definitely taste the difference in the finished product.
UW: So when we taste-test the Final Four bacon, you think I’ll be able to taste the difference?
Anonymous: I heard about it right at the end of February. And then I think we packaged the packs right at the beginning of March.
UW [surprised]: Oh, wow — so there wasn’t much lead time.
Anonymous: No, not at all.
UW: Have there ever been any other promotions prior to this one where Hormel arranged to use what we might call “celebrity wood”?
Anonymous: No. Actually, it was kind of interesting: We had made all the bacon for the promotion and we were gonna start sending it out, and then some quality-control people further up the line were like, “Hey, did we run this by the USDA?” Because they have to know what we’re putting in, even our wood chips. So we had to get an emergency exemption from them.
UW: And nobody thought to do that ahead of time, because you guys had never used “celebrity wood” before?
Anonymous: Yep, exactly. It was just, “Hey, we’re gonna ship you a couple boxes of these wood chips, use them for 10% of the next batch,” and we went from there. It was pretty much on the fly for us. And I think that’s why they had the issue with the USDA, because they wanted to do it pretty quickly.
UW: So the wood arrived from Connor Sports [which makes the Final Four courts] as chips?
Anonymous: Yeah. It came in a nondescript box. My boss called me over and he’s like, “Hey, these are the chips we’re using. Get a couple people to break them up by hand a little bit so we can get ’em a little smaller.”
UW: So they arrived as chips, but they weren’t small enough?
Anonymous: Yeah. You know that little jar of chips they sent you as part of the promotion? They were like that. And then we broke them down a bit more, because it’s easier to get a good, even smoke amongst all of them if they’re in those smaller pieces.
UW: So they didn’t look identifiably like a basketball court, or even like lumber. Did Connor Sports send any paperwork to vouch for it?
Anonymous: Yeah, there was a certificate of authenticity,
UW: That’s pretty funny. Did anyone save that?
Anonymous: No, I don’t think so. I think we tossed it away.
UW: Now, a minute ago you said something about being told to use the Final Four chips for “10% of the next batch.” Are you saying that the wood that was used to smoke this bacon was only 10% from the Final Four wood, and the other 90% was just regular wood?
Anonymous: Correct. And that goes along with those USDA guidelines too. That way we can kind of maintain the same kind of flavor and everything and the nutritional quality of it.
UW: So this one pack that they sent me as part of the promotion — it was not smoked exclusively over Final Four wood, and it was mostly just regular wood with a small fraction of the hardcourt wood? I have to say, that’s a little disappointing. What was the other 90%?
Anonymous: Maple. We made that bacon just like we normally make our brown sugar bacon — maple wood, and the pickle has brown sugar in it.
UW: So you’re saying you would expect the Final Four bacon to be sweeter, right? Like, it’s essentially the same as your brown sugar product, except that 10% of the wood chips came from the making of a basketball court, and the other 90% were just maple chips that you normally would have used anyway. Is that right?
Anonymous: Yep. Exactly.
UW: Can you tell the difference between the Final Four bacon and your regular brown sugar bacon?
Anonymous: I wasn’t able to, no, but you’ll be able to tell the difference between this one [Final Four] and any of the other varieties.
UW: How many packs of the Final Four bacon did you make?
Anonymous: We made 20 cases, and there’s eight packs to a case, so 160 packs.
UW: The Hormel PR agency told me that about 100 pounds of wood was sent by Connor Sports to you guys. Does that sound about right, based on what you received?
UW: If you had used it exclusively — 100%, not 10% — how much bacon could you make with 100 pounds of wood chips?
Anonymous: I’m trying to think of what kind of burn rate we do, but at least 100 cases. Probably like 200 cases.
UW: So it’s not like you had to stretch the Final Four chips — you had enough Final Four chips to do the whole promotion exclusively with that wood. But you’re saying that you think it was because it hadn’t been USDA-approved? That’s why you could only do the 10%?
Anonymous: Yeah, I think it would have made the product so much different than our normal product that we would have had to jump through even more hoops.
UW [frustrated]: But isn’t that the whole idea, to make it different than your normal product?
Anonymous: Yeah. Again, I think the biggest thing is probably the turnaround time. Because, like I said, we didn’t hear about it until the end of February, and then we already had it out the door first week of March.
UW: You mentioned that you made only 160 packs of the Final Four bacon. That’s a pretty limited edition.
Anonymous: Yeah, exactly. And as I was bringing it through the production process, I was right over the people as they were doing it and double-checking to make sure every single slice of bacon in those packages looked really good.
UW: You must have had a lot of Final Four chips left over. What happened to those?
Anonymous: It all just went into our regular brown sugar bacon for that day.
UW: So there’s other bacon out there at retail, in supermarkets or whatever, that was made exactly the same way that the Final Four bacon was made, meaning 10% basketball court and 90% regular maple chips, with the same pickle, but with the standard brown sugar packaging. Is that right?
UW: Some people will buy that bacon and essentially be winners of the promotion without even realizing it!
UW: Did you guys package the little jars of wood chips as well?
Anonymous: We did not. I’m guessing they did that up at Corporate.
UW: One last question: Most people love bacon, but if you work around it all day, like you do, do you ever get sick of it?
Anonymous: So I actually hardly eat bacon outside of work, just because of how much taste-sampling I do at work. But I will say I’m not tired of it. I’m not gonna typically go out of my way to make it, but if it’s put in front of me, I’m gonna eat it.
So that was our interview. All the behind-the-scenes info is fascinating, and I’m really grateful to Anonymous for sharing it with me. But I have to tell you, hearing that the chips used to smoke the bacon were only 10% from Final Four wood, and that the resulting product is therefore almost identical to one of Hormel’s existing retail products, is a serious buzzkill. It’s not quite the same as learning that there’s no Santa Claus, but it’s definitely in the same neighborhood. (I probably should have seen this coming, because I asked Hormel’s PR agency two weeks ago whether the bacon was smoked only over the Final Four wood, or over a mix of woods. That was one of many questions they didn’t answer. Now I know why.)
Looking at Hormel’s press release and raffle/contest page for this promotion, it’s true that they never explicitly stated that the product would be smoked exclusively on the Final Four wood, so I can’t really say they were being deceptive or duplicitous here. But it feels like one of those situations where someone has acted within the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law, which is a shame, because the spirit is what a fun marketing promotion should be all about.
Maybe all the rest of you already saw this disappointment coming (or are just less gullible than I am), because Uni Watch readers were not exactly stampeding at the chance to take part in Sunday’s taste test. In fact, over the course of the past two days, I received exactly two applications — two! — from prospective participants. Those were from readers Daniel Shank Cruz and Ryan Bremer, both of whom wanted to join me on the tasting panel. Daniel’s email was particularly entertaining:
I’m writing to be your fellow bacon taste tester on Sunday. You should pick me because bacon is my first love. My list of enduring loves, in terms of when they first became loves, goes like this:
- French fries
- New York Mets
So bacon has been there from the beginning (i.e., since I was about three years old, and I was born in 1980, so I have 40 years of bacon-eating experience). I was always a picky eater as a child, but whenever my family went out to eat, my parents knew that they could just order me a plate of bacon and I would be happy.
Thanks for considering me,
Daniel Shank Cruz
Now that, people, is a really good application. Unfortunately, given the lack of interest, and since I’m less excited about the taste-off now that I know the Final Four bacon isn’t all that special after all, I’ve decided to cancel the taste test. Instead, I’m arranging for Daniel and Ryan to join me at Uni Watch HQ sometime in the near future for a bacon repast, perhaps while watching a ballgame.
This concludes the saga of the Final Four bacon. Before I sign off, I want to acknowledge the many Uni Watch readers out there who are pescatarians, vegetarians, or vegans, or who avoid pork for religions reasons. I thank all of you for your forbearance over the past few weeks — I realize the bacon coverage has been a bit over the top lately.