When the hefty, frozen slabs of tough brisket cuts arrive at the now merged Grobbel's and United Meat & Deli
(UMD) plant in Detroit's Eastern Market, they pass through a culinary gateway of transformation (as well as x-ray machines and metal detectors). Think of it as an extreme makeover for a cut of sinewy meat most wouldn't know how to make edible. The brisket leaves the plant donning one of nearly a hundred potential new identities—cooked, or uncooked, Irish- or Jewish-style, destined for restaurants, delis, and supermarkets across the country. It is a more tender, more savory, rosier version of its former self.
When you walk into Grobbel's plant, apart from the faint, not unpleasant, whiff of raw meat, you are greeted by a festive digital clock counting down the days, hours, and seconds until the next St. Patrick's Day. Aside from the Thanksgiving Day turkey, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a slab of meat that warrants such fanfare.
And yet, corned beef is more than a culinary symbol of the same holiday that invented green beer. It is an homage to the gastronomical magic that can occur when science, technology, and culture intersect. For both Ginsberg and Grobbel, corned beef is also artistry. "It's not something we can tell you in a recipe," says Jason Grobbel.
It's also the locus of a surprising number of STEM jobs, from food inspectors and tasters to factor managers and industrial designers.
Science informed by craftsmanship
E.W. Grobbel Sons, Inc.
's specialty is corned beef. They've made it for well over a hundred years and they're good at it. The great grandson of the original founder, Emil (who used to sell meat out of a stall at the Old Cadillac Square Market), Jason Grobbel has been at the helm since 1987. The merger with Sy Ginsberg's UMD (which was established in 1982), earlier this year unites two cultures that already have a rich history with corned beef.
The 50,000 square foot, three-story plant churns out 30 million pounds of corned beef per year and employs up to 250 people, depending on the time of year (there's an uptick before St. Patrick's Day).
Workers trim brisket at United Meat and Deli
STEM jobs have always been entwined with the production of corned beef. Today's modernized version, however, is more concerned with taste and consistency (and as a business, efficiency). Part of the luxury of utilizing ever-evolving technology is that focus can shift from worries about the meat going rancid to crafting a product that customers have come to rely on for its texture and flavor.
Both men believe that the most innovative advances in meat production allow for reproducibility and precision. But they are also quick to acknowledge that this technology cannot be used blindly. "It's about using the right thing for the right applications. That's helped tremendously," says Grobbel of implementing new advances into the plant. "It's all of those things that incrementally allow us to become more efficient, less wasteful. Which is the most important kind of sustainability."
For Ginsberg, technology means knowing what’s happening at every step of the process. "What used to be guesswork is now controllable. At any given time, you can determine what you're doing to your product by looking on a screen, instead of saying, 'I think this is OK, let's give it a try.'"
Sy Ginsberg of United Meat and Deli
Jason Grobbel of Grobbel's in Eastern Market
Computerized machinery also allows for jobs to be streamlined and compartmentalized, while a few oversee the production. "People with food science degrees help to design the processes and make sure that things are being done consistently and correctly," says Grobbel.
The consequences are twofold: workers can be brought up to speed quickly and perform the job adeptly and consumers get a consistent product.
A scientific and culinary transformation
Grobbel's factory is a carefully controlled environment where each factor can be modified and scrutinized—a plant that resembles a cross between a science lab and airport security—in pursuit of the constellation of conditions and recipes that create the perfect corned beef.
Brisket arrives at the plant frozen. The meat is then thawed in large refrigerated rooms that monitor and adjust the ambient temperature—warmer in the beginning, cooling as the meat defrosts. In this way, a 14-pound slab of meat can be thawed in less than 15 hours.
Then, in spaces chilled to nearly 40 degrees, the meat is sculpted into specific cuts by pneumatically motorized knives that dangle from the ceiling, removing the bulk of the fat. Buzz-saws are used to portion the brisket.
What makes beef "corned" is the curing process. In addition to salt, nitrate is a critical component. Present as a natural impurity used in the curing salts, the ancient Romans were the first to note the reddening effect on the meat, although it would be thousands of years before this process was fully understood.
Curing at Grobbel's is a perfect example of how science and technology can achieve craftsmanship. In one shift, 80,000 pounds of brisket are injected full of one of 15 proprietary brines that flow from 500 gallon vats. A device with hundreds of hypodermic needles repeatedly stabs the meat ensuring that the salty, spicy brine permeates every crevice.
Henrik Thysoe, product manager at GEA Food Solutions
, says that the tight knit pattern of these injectors represents just one of many innovations in the meat production industry, which allows for improved product consistency and efficiency.
Then the meat moves down the line to a device resembling a concrete mixer, aptly named a "tumbler." This helps to distribute the juices and get rid of any extra liquid that might seep out of the meat into the bag in the supermarket.
A production conveyor at Grobbel's
The brine itself is equal parts chemistry and culinary art. Both salt and nitrite (a form of nitrate) prevent bad bacteria, such as E. coli
and spores from C. botulinum
(which causes botulism), from growing. But nitrites are also incredibly flavorful and give meats, such as corned beef and ham, that familiar tangy flavor and rosy pink color.
When the meat leaves the tumbler, it is either submerged in a brining solution or vacuum sealed in plastic, depending on its final destination (restaurant, deli, supermarket). Laura Parvin, vice president of regulatory affairs at Grobbel's explains that it is this deprivation of oxygen that allows the brisket to "bloom" into corned beef. "It's really where it becomes that bright nice pink color," she says.
All of the connective tissue in brisket has to be broken down, through the application of heat, before it can be easily chewed. The cooking process transforms the collagen into soft, succulent gelatin, making for a juicy, tender cut of meat.
At the end, packaged meat travels through an x-ray machine, similar to the kind you encounter at airport gate security. Meat may also pass through a metal detector during the production process. Parvin says that it is rare to find anything, but it's possible that a needle or part of a band saw may break off somewhere along the line. They're also looking to make sure a buck shot from the farmer doesn't make it through.
Throughout the journey, countless hours of work applied by professionals in STEM fields have made this corned beef possible. Engineers made improvements to refrigeration, industrial designers invented brine-injecting machinery, scientists perfected the use of nitrites, and food inspectors make sure the final product is safe to eat.
And all this science, leads to a better tasting beef.
Grobbel likens large-scale corned beef production to both winemaking and the automotive industry. "Michigan wines today are significantly better than they were in the past," he says. "It's not because the grapes got better—Michigan is not a great state to grow grapes. It's gotten better because of craftsmanship.
"It's always in the details."
This article is part of a series on the state of STEM education and workforce development in Detroit. It is underwritten by the Michigan Science Center. Read more articles in the series here.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.