Processors from across the nation gather each year for a meat competition like no other. Held this year in Charleston, SC, the American Cured Meat Championships (ACMC) attracted 56 participating plants and 583 total product entries. The competition took place during the annual American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) conference, July 13-15.

While the conference is typically held in the Midwest, where processors are only a day’s travel away, the majority of AAMP business owners chose to take the extra leap to the East Coast to champion their original cured meat recipes.

“This year’s turnout in Charleston was very strong, considering that it was a longer trip for most of our processor members,” said Sam Gazdziak, AAMP communications manager.

Contestants traveled from 29 different states to stack their slabs against the rest.

Prized pigs

Bringing home the blue ribbon, Country Meat Shop, Moberly, Mo., earned the 2023 Grand Champion title for the lightweight bacon category. No stranger to the honor, Country Meat Shop’s bacon has claimed the same ACMC top ranking four times since 2017.

With the meat processing in his veins, Mark Reynolds carried on the family legacy of three previous generations by founding Country Meat Shop in the same town that his great-grandfather founded his business back in 1934. After 40 years of experience manufacturing smoked processed meat, Reynolds knows a thing or two about what makes a good hunk of meat.

In case his decades-worth of experience was not enough to affirm his skill, all four of Country Meat Shop’s core product items won Grand Champion this year.

“Our customers reap the benefits of getting show-quality product year-round,” Reynolds said. “We prepared the Grand Champion bacon the same way we do every week.”

2023 Heavyweight Bacon Grand Champion, Stroot Lockers, Goddard, Kan., is newer to the scene, but that didn’t stifle its competitive edge.

Stroot Lockers began competing only a couple years ago, when it won Grand Champion in the snack sticks category. Scoring another top ranking in 2022 for hot links, Stroot boasts a Grand Champion title three years in a row.

Though Stroot may be a bit of rookie when it comes to the ACMC, the processor has been in the meat business for 40 years.

Stroot Lockers co-owner James Gaida credits the heavyweight bacon win to a whole lot of smoking time and a little bit of luck.

The main criterium for the heavyweight bacon category is that the entry must be over 9 lbs.

“I got lucky because the only one I had that was over 9 lbs was the one I took,” Gaida said.

Taking the win for the final bacon category — country bacon — was Gentert Packing, Holstein, Neb. Owners Mark and Belinda Gentert haven’t changed the recipe of their dry cured bacon at all since they began operating in 1988.

Looks can kill

Even with a tried-and-true recipe, Mark Gentert noted that appearance can make or break a product in competition.

“Eye appeal is everything, and half the battle is the product itself,” he said.

The key to success, as noted by all of this year’s bacon winners, is presentation.

“It all starts with presentation — great color, perfect rectangle shape, good width, nice thickness throughout the slab, without being too fat or too lean,” Reynolds said. “I prefer to take a slab that is not extremely lean as the fatter bacon usually has a better flavor.”

ACMC judges rate products on a point scale, looking at three main criteria: external appearance (250 points), internal appearance (275 points) and edibility (475 points). When judging the external appearance, they look for uniformity of color, shape and diameter. Processors could be docked for defects like air pockets, wrinkles and fat caps. Internal appearance takes into account the texture of the meat and the fat to lean ratio. Processors like Stroot Lockers are willing to go the extra mile to guarantee a prime cut of meat with minimal defects. Whenever Gaida is preparing for a competition, he reaches out to a distributor with slightly more expensive pork to get the quality he’s looking for.

“I try to get the nicest belly possible, and I’ll do a smaller batch,” he said, noting that he keeps it separate from Stroot Lockers’ commercial products.

“Competition is a lot more than what you’re doing for your commercial products,” Gaida said. “In curing, you really got to baby it.”

Stroot Lockers smoked its heavyweight bacon entry for almost six hours to reach an irresistible mahogany color.

Like Stroot, Country Meat Shop is intent about where its meat is sourced.

“Our biggest obstacle on show bacon is getting fresh bellies that don’t have scribe lines caused by the packers when they remove ribs,” Reynolds said. “They also get into the lean while removing the skin. We find that usually less than 10% of the bellies are free of these blemishes and could be considered for our show bacon. We have found some good sources of bellies, but when we pick them, they have to be 100% free of any blemish for us to consider them for competition.”

For Gentert Packing, the secret to getting the perfect coloring lies in its old-fashioned smokehouse. Gentert’s country bacon begins with a dry rub and gets cured for five days before heading to the smokehouse.

“In the last couple of years, we upgraded to a larger smokehouse, and I’ve been having a heck of a time getting color on my bellies,” Gentert said, later adding, “On the belly this year, we went back to the old tried and true, the old smokehouse that I’ve been using for years and got the color I wanted. And with this new smokehouse, it’s starting to become my friend a little bit more and more all the time.”

Friendly competition

Competition can bring out the worst in people, but that’s not the case at the ACMC. Ask any AAMP member, and they will attest to the good-naturedness and generosity of the meat industry members.

“The positive thing about AAMP is they’ve always got your back,” Gentert said.

During the show, members often exchange tips and tricks to help each other improve upon their cured meats craft.

“It seems like several of the competitors are willing to share ideas,” Reynolds said. “I know it doesn’t bother me to help someone out if they ask. I get a sense of pride if I can help someone improve their process or products.”

There’s no better competition to test your talent. Facing fellow processors from across the country, contestants can see how their products stand against a large pool of high-quality cured meat products and learn from their mistakes and achievements.

“If you don’t compete, you’re not going to win,” Gentert said. “Competition will make you better. For anyone to say, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m good enough to bring anything to the show,’ they are absolutely wrong. It’s a very good learning experience.”

Gaida, for one, uses each competition to find new ways to improve Stroot Lockers’ meat products.

“I have my scorecards from the last three years,” he said. “I keep them all, and when we get back, we look at what they’re saying, so we can see what we can try to improve on.”

The ACMC encourages a sense of pride for processors and their products.

“What I enjoy most is the feeling of satisfaction that all the hard work and extra late-night hours paid off,” Reynolds said. “And that when my customers ask if it is good, we don’t have to find ways to tell them how good it is — we have the proof on the wall.”