In a couple of spotless basement rooms next to Crozet Pizza, Ernie Almanza systematically turns huge pieces of the finest top round into “Ernie’s Jerky.” It’s a business that’s been growing slowly for many years, first as a hobby at home, then with limited sales and finally, since last fall, as a free-standing business.
It’s not his only job: Almanza teaches seventh and eighth graders at Henley Middle School, and before that, worked in finance. His part-time job, basically a process of reduction, seems counterintuitive for a math teacher, Almanza jokes: “I take five pounds of beef and turn it into one pound.” But it’s that very process, along with a special blend of spices, that makes the beef so flavorful and preserves it naturally so it can go anywhere without refrigeration.
He began planning years ago for what he sees as a possible retirement career. He had an older friend who perfected the process and, over the years Almanza asked to learn his secrets, always without success. Finally, as his friend approached retirement, Almanza bought the recipe and spent a day observing the transformation of meat into jerky.
The secret, he said, is not really in the recipe. It’s in the painstaking process, the use of superior ingredients, the fanatical devotion to cleanliness and safety, and a watchful eye for any imperfections. That’s not to say that the spices aren’t important: he blends the marinade fresh for each batch, and sells both original and spicy jerky.
He works in small batches, thawing each large piece of meat as he needs it, removing the fat and slicing it in uniform, thin pieces before its long (two-day) bath in the marinade. When the meat is well flavored, he spreads the slices on trays, taking care that each piece is free of imperfections. “At every step, we cut off pieces of visible fat as we see them.” he said. The next step is the long drying period in a new dehydrator, where a slow, even heat removes any trace of moisture that might harbor bacteria.
“We’re considered a meat processing plant rather than a commercial kitchen,” Almanza said, so he’s subject to rigorous inspection. Every visible surface sparkles in the light, and the slicer—bought in 2001—looks brand new despite almost daily use. There’s a lot of scrubbing involved in this business, he admits, and he’s set up the space to make cleaning as easy as possible.
The dried slices, once removed from the dehydrator, are separated according to the flavors, and packaged in large and small bags for sale. He can sell directly only from the shop or at places like wineries, breweries and festivals. He and his jerky can be found at Starr Hill brewery, and he attends festivals throughout the season. Since he opened the shop under Countryside pet-grooming business, people come in and out after school hours and on weekends. “If you see the light on, I’m here,” he said.
“I’m such a small operation that a festival can clean me out,” he said. That happened in late March, so he’s spent some time lately trying to catch up. Every piece of jerky gets a final check as he bags it, and even then he sometimes spots a small piece about to break off, or something that doesn’t look quite perfect.
“These are my scraps and I don’t waste them,” he said. “I bring them to school for my kids.” Henley student Nicole Bilchick wrote about the part-time business in the “J.T. Journal,” the magazine produced by Henley’s journalism students. Almanza said that even kids he doesn’t know are clamoring for jerky when he sees them in the hall.
Not just any kid can get a scrap of jerky, though, he said: “These are intended for kids who do well. I might give one away to a student I don’t know if his own math teacher vouches for him, but mostly, they’re rewards for my kids.”