As supply chain anxieties run justifiably high, the presence of a local producer that loudly declares that “our meats are made of meat” bodes well for the city. For Justin Brunson’s River Bear Meats, the longstanding commitment to ethically produced deli meats, sausage, bacon, charcuterie and Colorado Angus beef has been the natural extension of one of the best-renowned and well-decorated careers in the last decade of Denver dining. Opened in spring 2018, the 6,500 square foot production facility — situated a mere 20 minutes from downtown — spent the better part of a year setting up shop, with the first round of product hitting shelves in 2019. This year production has continued to expand, with the first release from the now-operational salumi-aging room — a habanero-orange style — set to hit stores in October. An additional 3,500 square foot addition — complete with a steak aging room — is set to join in 2021.
Brunson describes his career as a series of stepping stones, beginning with sandwiches, expanding to fine dining and ultimately reaching its zenith in production. The now-shuttered Old Major — an institution sorely missed by everyone but Brunson himself — was not only well-loved but acted as a springboard and finishing restaurant for some of the city’s more notable talent, including Annette’s Caroline Glover and Corrida’s Amos Watts, who has since taken over the space with the recently debuted Fifth String.
While the chef’s locavore and nose-to-tail approach seemed something of a novelty when it was first introduced, it stemmed more from his upbringing than any trend that may have swelled around it. Having grown up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Brunson learned butchery from deer and pheasant hunting, with quality meats being the norm for the self-described farm kid. “My family didn’t buy meat at the grocery stores,” he said.
Much of what makes River Bear great is the sourcing, which Brunson describes as “as close as I can to Denver.“ Spending roughly 15 hours a week researching small and family farms, Brunson is currently working with only five farmers — with pork coming from Amish and Mennonite facilities in Iowa and Kansas, beef from Minnesota and turkeys coming from a group of Hutterites in South Dakota. “The best way’s not the easiest way,” he said. With a growing stockpile coming exclusively from heritage-raised and hormone-free animals, River Bear continues to put its money where its mouth is.
River Bear operates Monday – Friday from 6:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., using just one of the three closely-regulated USDA-allowed daily shifts. After the meat is delivered, everything is hand-trimmed before being processed by a floor-staff of up to six people. Mechanisms include a brine pump injector — which can produce briskets in three and a half hours rather than the usual 12 days — vacuum tumblers, a massive meat grinder, a sausage stuffer — gleefully described by Brunson as a meat machine gun — and two closet-sized smokers. The smokers can be used to smoke, roast, steam, sous vide and refrigerate. Even with the versatility, they are most often employed for their original purpose, using a well-honed blend of pecan and peachwood from Fruita. An additional room features a bacon slicer that can chop 600 slices per minute and a recently purchased packaging machine, that expedites a process that formerly took five people the majority of a day to one that can be done by three in 30 minutes. Regarding concerns that some of the quality could be lost in the expanded production, Brunson assures that the automation is actually making the products better.
While COVID-19 has rocked the meat industry more dramatically than other sectors, River Bear remained open throughout closures and quarantine. Brunson cites the small staff of 10-12 “family-style” people for keeping the facility illness-free. “I’m thankful everyone kept it safe,” he said.
The salumi room — the apparent crown jewel of the entire operation — features 37 carts each capable of holding 600 individual pieces of salami, copa, Spanish lomo, pancetta, wagyu beef bresaola and an ongoing list of products largely inspired by old-world methodologies. A Frigomeccanica — the industry leader in Italy — air conditioning system was imported and constructed over an eight week period. A bacterial base or mother that has been developing for seven years — since the famed aging room at Old Major — fills the air, with some products being sprayed directly, others developing thick layers of the exquisite and pungent dust just by merit of being in the space. “This is the most artisan thing you can do with food,” said Brunson. Smaller salamis spend roughly six weeks aging, with larger and more ornate products including copa and bigger pig jowls sitting for upwards of four months.
In June of this year, River Bear teamed up with Pasture Perfect Premium Beef in Pierce, Colorado to launch the company’s Angus beef line. Since 2005, Mike Peterson and his family have been producing sustainable, non-GMO, organic and grain-finished cows from the 400-acre ranch. Brunson has been hand-selecting cattle — at a rate that began at three a month and is now up to 20 a month — for a program that includes New York strips, ribeyes, T-bones, tenderloins and some of the best ground beef money can buy.
With products being sold from Brunson’s exclusive installation at Leevers Locavore and at groceries across the state, the chef plans on expanding the brand’s scope by first filling it out locally. “I want it to be an outdoor brand,” said Brunson. “These are things you throw in the cooler and take with you.”
With COVID-19 acting as a capstone to a long and growing list of complaints against factory farming, River Bear’s contribution should be all the more glaring. “I really love animals. I want my livestock to be treated like my cats,” smiled the chef.
River Bear Meats can be purchased from retailers across Colorado.
Leevers Locavore is located at 2630 West 38th Ave., Denver. It is open every day from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.