Bacon the Old-Fashioned Way at Black Sheep Bacon

BROOKFIELD, Ohio – When it comes to making bacon, the old ways are the best ways, argues Bill Strimbu Jr. 

Today, mass-produced bacon like what’s found on the shelves of grocery store chains is cut from younger pigs with flavorful cures mixed with water and injected. But it wasn’t always that way. Until a few decades ago, bacon was made by farmers who wanted to keep their pork through the winter.

“It was all a dry-cure method: salt, sugar and a wooden crate somewhere in the barn,”says the founder of Black Sheep Bacon Co. in Brookfield. “The way we do it is near the same except we have a controlled environment.”

Mass-producers cure their bacon for about three days. Black Sheep’s process takes upward of two weeks. The cuts are rubbed down with Strimbu’s seasoning before being put into a walk-in cooler for about a week.

“It dehydrates and stiffens up. And it changes from that pale tannish-pink color that you see in raw pork to that rosy color you see in products like kielbasa, ham and bacon,” he explains. “We put a lot of fresh herbs and spices into our cure, which diffuses into the meat. Just through contact, it diffuses all the way through the slice.”

From there, it’s rinsed, dried and put back into the cooler for a couple more days. Then, comes the smoker. Strimbu’s machine burns hickory –”the sweetheart of the barbecue and smoked meat world” – collected from his own property. The smoker, made by Southern Pride, was chosen because it burns logs; most machines today are gas, electric or burn sawdust.

By burning logs, it allows the hickory flavor to get into the bacon without the buildup of char.

“Because it burns the wood so clean, you don’t get any of the creosote that people can associate with barbecued foods,” Strimbu says. “Clean smoke is really just vapor coming out of the wood, so it gives you a clean taste that doesn’t overpower the other flavors.”

But it isn’t just the way it’s cooked that sets Black Sheep apart. It’s the meat itself. 

To keep up with demand, those making bacon in huge quantities don’t let hogs grow to full size. Black Sheep’s meat, in contrast, is taken from specially ordered pigs that are fatty.

“The longer you raise a hog, the more fat it puts on,” he says. “There are little strips of muscle fiber running perpendicular to the slice. They’re suspended in fat. So when you fry it, you get the crunch and it melts away because you’ve melted the fat between the fibers.”

Black Sheep Bacon Co. sells uncut slabs of bacon, presliced packages and pork bellies.

Approaching its second anniversary – the store opened in May 2018 after Strimbu spent a couple years making bacon for family and friends – Black Sheep has developed a cadre of loyal fans with Strimbu’s tried-and-true formula for making bacon the old-fashioned way.

“We had a pretty good underground following through family and friends. I had just been giving it away, so once we opened we had this cult following,” he says. “Our two big breaks came when I started doing barbecue on Fridays, which got a ton of people in the door, and the corporate gift program.”

Every Friday, he cooks up barbecue: currently ribs are on the menu, but he does wings in the summer and pulled pork in the fall. 

And for the corporate gifts, Strimbu shipped out a ton of meat over the holidays. Maybe even a bit more. Each gift is packed with four pounds of bacon and upward of 600 were sold leading up to Christmas, he says, so much that he was forced to stop taking online orders so he had time to pack the boxes.

For those ordering the gift boxes for clients, Black Sheep Bacon was a way to stand out from the usual gifts sent between companies. 

A native of Brookfield, Dr. Gray Goncz heard about Black Sheep through family and friends. As his practice, Keystone Anesthesia Consultants in Bethel Park, Pa., worked through a rebranding, he got to thinking about how to connect with referring physicians.

“To really get someone’s attention, you have do something outside the usual. With those gifts, they get put in the break room and no one really knows who it’s from half the time,” he says. “Black Sheep was something we could hand-deliver. It was something they’ll remember. And it was something that we knew could get us facetime.”

Keystone Anesthesia ordered 60 boxes as holiday gifts for clients, he says, and “they’re still talking about it.”

With a clientele largely composed of firefighters, buying them bacon for the holidays was a no-brainer for Kirila Fire Equipment Inc., says President Jerry Kirila. Ordering was as simple as sending in a list of addresses, he says.

“Next thing I know, I’m getting calls from customers thanking us for the bacon, telling us that it’s out of this world,” he says. “Our customer base is a lot of firemen, fire departments. THey’re always cooking. We knew this was something they’d remember that wasn’t just another box of candy.”

For both, the artisanal bacon is a treat for themselves as well. Goncz, who considers himself a foodie, raves about the flavor.

“I love the flavoring he has in his bacon. His process – between the brine and the cure and the aging – it’s really unique,” he says. “I’ve never had anything like it. I got hooked on it.”

Pictured: Bill Strimbu spent about two years developing his curing process for his bacon.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.