The Best Artisanal Beef Jerky

If you thought you knew jerky, think again

Admit it: at one point in your life, you've had a Slim Jim. Maybe you were at the gas station or the corner store. You eyed a bouquet of pencil-thin, shrink-wrapped beef jerky—in actuality not beef, but mechanically separated chicken and dextrose—and you went for it. No doubt it was an impulse buy fueled by hunger; an act of questionable judgment. But youth, after all, is built on questionable judgment.

Now, you've grown up, and so has that beef jerky. It's gone hand-crafted, with artisans air-drying everything from grass-fed beef and heritage turkey to wild salmon, coconut and even eggplant. The business of jerky is booming and shows no sign of slowing down. According to global marketing research company Mintel, the private-label meat-snack segment grew 3% to 129.8 million in 2015 and experienced the largest growth of all snack segments during 2016. Chef's Cut Jerky, co-founded by Blair Swiler, makes far-flung flavors like Chipotle Black Pepper Beef and Sriracha Bacon, and has grown 4,000% since 2014.

The reason for this exponential growth? All of this new and improved hand-crafted jerky is gluten-, nitrate-, preservative-, and MSG-free, and it's fashioned from a clean list of proteins that hits a sweet spot for consumers obsessed with diets like Paleo. "Consumers read that protein as better for you, and they reach for jerky," says Abbey Lewis, editor in chief of Convenience Store Products Magazine, a B2B title, and an expert in the convenience snacking category. "It's easy to eat on the go and it's an instant source of energy, and that is what a lot of these companies are marketing. Eat this meat snack and you'll get a lean protein and better-for-you snack."

Lewis says the core jerky customer has changed from "the Bubba," an archetypal meat and potatoes man who eats on the run, to an educated millennial looking for a healthy, protein-rich snack, or a health-conscious mom looking for "real" kid-friendly snacks that won't spoil. Take Lorissa's Kitchen, a jerky brand created by Lorissa Link, one of those moms. It has beautiful packaging and offers flavors like Korean Barbecue Beef, Ginger Teriyaki Chicken, Sweet Chili Pork and Szechuan Peppercorn Beef, all from 100% grass-fed beef and chickens that are antibiotic-free and raised without added growth hormones.

Lewis says the trend is no flash in the pan. She points General Mills' recent purchase of Epic Provisions, a four-year-old meat snack company that makes hand-crafted meat bars and jerky bites in flavors like Bison Bacon Cranberry and Bacon Maple and Blueberry. Hershey's also acquired Krave Pure Foods, which makes jerky in flavors like Black Cherry Barbecue and Pineapple Orange, all free of gluten, nitrates and MSG.

This kind of interest in the jerky market means that nearly anything that can be dehydrated into jerky is being dehydrated into jerky—even coconut. Seth Syberg, the founder of Cocoburg, a vegan jerky made from coconut meat, came up with his recipe after having an argument with a friend about whether or not coconut jerky could ever be a thing. "That night I went home and ordered a dehydrator," he says. "I spent the next month recipe testing and settled on three recipes that I loved." Syberg threw together a Kickstarter; it was backed in just a few days and, now nearly three years, it's sold at—where else?!—Whole Foods

The response to the product has been off the charts. Syberg reports 10 times growth in the last nine months. He attributes his success to a perfect storm of factors in the marketplace. "Jerky is a super easy and convenient, and generally a healthy grab-and-go snack," he says. "It's also delicious."

Andrea Strong has been writing about food for the past 15 years. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two kids and big appetite. Find her on Twitter at @strongbuzz.