The history of beef jerky is as rich as its deep, smoky flavor. Archeologists have found evidence of dried meat in preserved tombs in ancient Egypt, and the word “jerky” comes from the Quechua word “Ch’arki,” which means “dried meat” in the native Incan language. In North America, Native Americans taught early settlers how to dry and cure meat. Tillamook Country Smoker (TCS) still practices the ancient craft today.

This branch of the Tillamook brand began in the 1960s in a makeshift backyard smokehouse. Today, it has grown into a business that puts 100% premium beef jerky products on store shelves.

Eliminating paperwork to streamline processes, TCS uses Aqualab water activity instruments with METER technology in their process. The brand has recently added more of this technology to its Oregon-based facilities with significant success.

Maintain moisture levels
The intelligent automation of SKALA Solo software helps TCS maintain target moisture of its beef jerky at each stage of the process from start (shown here) to finish. Photos courtesy of METER Group

Specifically, TCS implemented the company’s SKALA Solo software, optimizing processes, increasing efficiency, creating consistent results and improving product quality. Zach Robertson, TCS chief technical officer, says they chose this software to help track quality assurance data and improve TCS’s workflow.

“It is relatively easy implementation,” Robertson says. “It’s a fair amount of data entry at the front end to get everything started, but once it’s started, it flows fairly easily. It’s very straightforward and user-friendly as well.”

Robertson estimates that using this software has eliminated 50% to 60% of the department’s physical paperwork and significantly increased how quickly departments can share information.

It tracks process data and then displays it back in real time. Robertson says, “Rather than making phone calls and radio calls and sending emails, everybody has the data to work with—and in real time.”

The jerky maker plans to add more software modules to their facilities, anticipating that this will allow them to track process and product data—from temperature to NIR data—in real time. Then, they can use that data to more accurately control processes and maintain product quality with more precision and less human error.

Preserving handcrafted taste

In a traditional meat snack production process, consistency is essential to product quality. Current practices typically involve a person in the production plant to physically check on the product while it cooks and determine when it is dry enough to be removed from the oven. Unfortunately, this nonscientific, highly variable process is a liability to companies where consistent outcomes are essential.

“In meat, you’re already dealing with a highly variable raw material, so anywhere you can eliminate variation is beneficial,” Robertson says. The new software uses self-optimizing AI to automate drying, allowing the jerky manufacturer to get product specs right every time. TCS will be using this software in its newest facility, and Robertson says he is looking forward to how it will eliminate human error.

“The goal is to replace that human interaction with a set of sensors that can determine when that point is reached in a very repeatable manner and make the decision for us,” he says.

Fine-tuning temperature
METER Group’s software makes adjustments to the beef jerky drying process at TCS as soon as there is any kind of variance in process, fine-tuning the temperature immediately.

Consistent outcomes

Instead of a worker on the floor using their best—and highly variable—judgment to make process decisions, the software also uses data to determine when the jerky is dry enough. This precise, repeatable process leads to more consistent outcomes.

“SKALA Solo makes adjustments exactly when it’s important to make them. As soon as there’s any kind of variance in process, it adjusts temperature immediately—and it does that in a closed-loop system, with no human involvement, much faster than a human could do it.” By optimizing the drying process, Robertson says he expects to see a yield increase of several percentage points, which is a significant increase in the meat snack industry.

Although making jerky has changed a lot since the days of hanging strips of meat over a campfire or turning a tepee into a smokehouse, TCS preserves authentic taste with quality in the modern world.