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?
UW: Okay, now let’s talk a little about that Final Four bacon. When did you first hear that they would be using this wood from the Final Four courts?
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.
“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.”
It sounds like “more hoops” might have been just what was needed. *wink*
Fascinating to learn about the bacon making process. I’m not that disappointed or surprised about it not being 100% court wood smoked. And I actually think it is rather neat that there are a bunch of random court smoked packages out there that people have no clue they are getting.
I am a little surprised at the low turn out for the bacon test, if I lived in the NYC area I’d be on that immediately.
Peter Pan is often portrayed by a female (due to the character’s petite stature) in live action productions, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen the character drawn as a female in illustrations.
Peter Pan was always a bit androgynous in the book so I am not surprised at this smiling lady on this great can. As for the bacon saga, well, I can both understand the Hormel people and their procedures and your disappointment with the final product. But the lukewarm reception to your sudden urge to do this test should not really be a surprise. Most of us check in for news about uniforms (and since recently vintage cans), raving about bacon is an even more specific subject with an acquired taste.
I can’t say that I expected Hormel’s processing to be that different from your source described – and that the resulting product will be indistinguishable from their regular maple product. Maybe I’m just too cynical.
The wasted wood for the floors used in the basketball tournament really annoys me.
This story is cool, but I am going on a tangent here.
When I first started watching the NCAA tournament, I always looked forward to seeing the different basketball courts at the arenas all throughout the United States. It was fun to see the various designs, the non corporate names of the arenas on the floor, the banner on the scorers table listed the city, the host school, and the playing team. It was great!
Now they all look the same. The floor gets turned into bacon and a piece of my youth is gone.
I think this every single year! Couldn’t agree more.
There was also the question of how NBA arenas would treat home team logos to satisfy the NCAA.
And, of course, it was a chance to see uniforms from schools you normally didn’t get to watch. Now, you never know if it’s a special tournament uniform.
I am firmly in the camp of teams should only have two uniforms. No special uniforms at all. Wear them for at least 5 years, too. The extra uniforms are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyy over done.
Gerry, I also looked forward to the banner at the scorer’s table depicting the host institution and the participating teams at the site.
Thing is, the big-ass decals they use to change the wording along the baselines have taken some of the magic out of it all.
Speaking of baseline: I miss the diagonal line the NCAA used to keep the cheerleaders and photogs off the court. They now keep both groups off the wood altogether.
I am a big fan of NCAA wrestling. The mats used to be the regular home mats of the host and even sometimes a borrowed mat from a nearby school. Now it’s always the same boring NCAA branded mat. The tournament used to be held on campus, not it’s always at a big city arena with a dull corporate name.
At least with high school wrestling tournaments you still get the mish mash of mats, except for states and again, it’s a generic mat with a corporate ad on it (Pennsylvania).
Just like Super Bowl logos, everything is standardized and copyrighted. I always loved watching the later rounds of the tourney where they were playing in NBA arenas and had to have that little NCAA logo over the home team’s center court logo because floors used to be unique and not interchangable.
I remember the last time they played the Final Four at the St. Louis Arena – it was determined that the court wasn’t suitable for use, so they had to import the court from IU in Bloomington. So you had an arena in St. Louis, a court with the outline of the state of Indiana in the center, and the NCAA logo slapped over the middle of the capital I. What a glorious mess!
It’s interesting that the floor came all the way from Indiana when so many other courts are closer to St. Louis. IU must have had the closest moveable court.
Ah, marketing. Food promotions can disappoint. I once won a year’s worth of brats. It turned out to be 12 coupons, each for a free package of brats. Woo hoo.
Might as well have been Jelly of the Month Club. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
On the one hand, coupons make sense because it saves on shipping a bunch of meat at once, and allows you to get it relatively fresh. But only 12 coupons? One package a month? That’s weak. 52 coupons, or even 40, would be more respectable.
Fascinating article! I think it’s a little scary to think the FDA gives passes like that. Thank you to Anonymous for taking the interview!
More about Hormel bacon production, courtesy of Rifftrax:
This is disappointing but not surprising. As someone who worked in food manufacturing and sales this feedback all makes sense.
Everything said is understandable and a project like this would be so hard to accomplish in a couple of months. The legal requirements and certifications and packaging rules are very strict for consumer packaged goods, I imagine even more so with perishable products (especially meat). I can tell you in companies I’ve worked for it can take 6+ months to get new branding or packaging designed and into retail. To create a new product the timeline becomes about year & these experiences are with less regulated shelf stable products.
I guess we can hope that Hormel has already begun work on the 2024 Hardcourt Bacon so it can be “done right” and actually be a unique product.
Understood. Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t actually a retail product — it’s a giveaway. For example, the Final Four bacon package doesn’t list a net weight, which wouldn’t normally be allowed but it’s presumably OK for this promotion because the product isn’t available for sale. I’m guessing that’s not the only retail rule that would not apply to a giveaway.
At this point, I hope you change the website to “Bacon Watch” for April Fools Day.
Great lede! Not a total surprise, and I still think that it was a clever idea and totally worth doing. Maybe with a bit more advance work next year they can use 100% court wood.
And you should totally add a link to your “Meat bracket” from Page 2 years ago. It is still super-funny and creative, and would be a natural complement to this article.
As a consumer, I am happy that Hormel is GMP compliant and is adhering to USDA guidelines. I am not at all surprised to learn of this restriction with the wood used in the smoking process. I still think this is a neat promotion and I would be interested in knowing if in fact you could detect any difference vs the “non-court” product.
Yeah, that’s a little disappointing. Maybe they can plan ahead a little better next year and get the necessary USDA approvals to do a full run with 100% court-wood.
I agree with the comments above…the custom courts phenomenon does seem pretty wasteful. I mean, I get it…having a standardized court rather than having those giant stickers/fat-head-type things on the floor is probably a lot safer. Seems like I remember some big problems with players slipping on those things the last few years they used them. And there’s nothing wrong with the court designs they’re using…but they do seem kinda “blah”, don’t they? Kinda like the standardized super bowl logo template they’ve used the last decade or so. It’s…fine. But some variety would be more visually appealing and interesting. Oh well.
If I lived closer, I would have loved to have applied to be part of the bacon taste test…but that Memphis to New York commute just wasn’t happening. :)
Gotta be honest, not surprised and not disappointed. I’m surprised it was as much as 10%, I would have guessed that they throw one chip from the floor into a couple thousand pounds of wood.
Maybe I’m too cynical but to me when a product is “own a piece of” or “made with authentic” I automatically assume that its the smallest possible piece or percentage, probably even a little smaller than that.
That said – the interview was great. The guy clearly loves his job and anytime you want to run an interview with someone who loves their job going into that much detail I’m all in, whether its uniform adjacent or not.
I used to know a guy who said his father worked in a fatory that made Bit o’ Honey candy. And he swore that they had this gigantic, industrial-sized vat of liquid candy and, once a day, would literally put a single drop of honey into it.
Well, it is “Bit-O-Honey” not “Lot-O-Honey.”
Yeah, pretty much.
When I was a kid all the metalheads in my grade were over the moon that KISS was putting out a comic book printed with KISS’ actual blood. ACTUAL BLOOD.
They mixed one drop of blood with about a trillion litres of ink. They did have a notary witness the drawing of the blood, though.
It was Marvel’s best-selling comic book ever until very recently and the Marvel renaissance.
As a bacon afficionado, have you tried Nueske’s Bacon from Wisconsin? Not my everyday bacon but man there is something about it that is worth the splurge a few times a year.
Yes, I’m a big Nueske’s fan!
So we finally got to see how the bacon is made.
I love the Peter Pan can… reminds me of Sandy Duncan in that role when I was a kid, never thought a woman playing the role was odd… according to my research, okay I Googled it, that is a 50s era can, and the outfit reminds me of the female military uniforms of the time… perhaps a nod from Derby to women’s service in the WW2 era?
I keep coming back to this and have been thinking about it a lot. Not just because I love bacon, either. There’s something here that is pulling at the back of my brain. We are looking, in our society, for increasingly immersive experiences, whether digital or in real life. We want to be avatars in other, more exciting experiences than our own. But this — this takes it to another level. In this model, you are actually consuming the place that you love. I would be fascinated with how far we can take this. For example: Would we be interested in grass-fed beef if the grass was from the outfield of major-league ballparks? How about cocktails over ice that was used last night in your favorite NHL rink? The possibilities seem endless. What more visceral experience can you have than literally ingesting the object of your interest and making it part of your own body?
The idea of outfield-grass-fed beef is brilliant. Put me down for two bone-in ribeyes!
“This tastes more like left-center than I expected.”
“I’d like the just-behind-second-base flatiron steak, please?”
“Ugh, there’s some warning track in there.”