Meet the Man Who Has Reviewed 1,000 Different Kinds of Jerky
Steve Johnson has spent the last 10 years meticulously assessing every kind of dried meat imaginable.
Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson
Each factor of Steve Johnson's beef jerky critical criteria is laid out clearly on his website, BestBeefJerky.org. Snackability, he writes, is "how well a jerky satisfies the urge to snack." Natural meat flavor: "If I can taste the natural flavor of the meat, it will rate higher." Advertised flavor: "If the package says 'hot,' then I expect it to be HOT." Clean eating: "Jerky that makes a big mess on my hands better give me some awesome flavor and chewing or else what's the point of me getting all messy?"
Over the past decade, Johnson has run over 1,000 different brands of jerky through his rigorous assessment, assigning each of them a clear-cut rating in his five-star system. They are categorized and delineated by meat, brand, and sodium level throughout his database, which makes it remarkably easy to find the take on a hunk of dried pepper-teriyaki marlin meat he first wrote in 2009. (Four stars; one point docked for the gummy chewing texture.)
You should trust Steve Johnson, because Steve Johnson is a computer programmer, and computer programmers have a special relationship with snack food. "[Jerky] became my coding food of choice," he tells me, reflecting on those long, unforgiving afternoons locked in a cubicle. This was back in 2004, the era of the online journal, in those precious few years before Facebook soaked up all of those loose ends. Johnson had a refined taste for bad carbs, and he was envious of the unregulated stream of money pouring into the most successful blogs on the web. So he started his own domain called Junk Food Blog, in hopes of taking a bite of that traffic.
"I built a pretty large audience, but I couldn't get any food brands to buy ad space directly from me," explains Johnson. "So many other food bloggers were bragging about the thousands they were making each month. Meanwhile, I was getting fat on the free junk food companies were sending me in the mail. Stuff like cookies, chips, energy drinks, coupons for free burgers and ice cream—I was even getting free frozen dinners."
Unsurprisingly, by 2008, Johnson realized that his newfound beat might be killing him. "When my size 40 jeans were too tight to button up, I realized that Junk Food Blog was a bad business idea," he laughs. But instead of hanging up his blog for good, he decided to pivot to beef jerky. The reasons were twofold: Jerky was a relatively healthier choice compared to the garbage he was eating, and more importantly, there weren't any other full-time jerky critics on the internet. Johnson intended to discover if there was a niche for wordy, thoughtful appraisals of the dried meat business. If he found one, he intended to conquer it.
Since then, Best Beef Jerky has thrived. Johnson calls it the "top meat snack blog" on the internet today, which is a distinction that rings either accurate or overblown depending on your personal definition of what a "meat snack blog" is. He publishes a new review every day, and tells me the site is well-monetized, thanks in part to his wife who owns a marketing company called Too Much Tina and handles the advertising relations.
Johnson no longer works out of a cubicle. In 2013, he and his wife started living on the road together. They'd pull into Airbnbs and hotels across America; his wife would attend conferences and see clients, and he'd clean up freelance programming work and sample the local jerky selections.
"I look up jerky brands in each town and meet them," he says. "There were a couple of large jerky manufacturers that hired me to do taste testings, develop new flavor ideas, and reformulate their recipes. It was actually a lot of fun."
Last year, the couple solidified their status as beef jerky troubadours after they purchased a toy hauler, which now serves as their permanent residence. Johnson updates the website with a Verizon 4G booster mounted to an antenna, (just in case he's in a part of the country where the service sucks,) and every once in a while, when the RV gets too claustrophobic, he'll take a trip to a Starbucks or a beer bar and work from there. "That's why I keep the motorcycle," he says.
The most impressive thing about Johnson's body of work is how he's managed to find new jerkies to taste and critique for a decade. Beef jerky is obviously delicious, but it doesn't quite carry the same cultish enchantment as, like, high-Scoville hot sauce, or Texas barbecue. Johnson respectfully disagrees.
If you think there's a hard limit to the possibilities in the jerky world, he says, you're simply not looking in the right places. He instructs us to go to eBay, Etsy, and Shopify, where hundreds of snack innovators are perfecting their craft. Maybe it makes you feel uneasy to order dried meat from the same place you might purchase a kitschy, home-knitted quilt, but Johnson swears that this is where you'll find the purest meat on the market. One of his best recommendations is the husband-and-wife team behind the Ria's Roadkill Etsy shop, who will send you hand-sealed batches of their award-winning small-batch jerky directly from their Long Beach smoker. If Best Beef Jerky has an ethos, it's to keep shops like these open, and show the world that there is real value in taking jerky seriously.
"I'm hoping to keep the 'craft jerky' concept alive," Johnson says.