Beltex Meats: The Art of Whole Hog Butchery

Photo Cali Warner

Charcuterie was my gateway drug” is a sentence I never expected to hear. But in the case of owner and head butcher Philip Grubisa, cured meats led him to learn the intricacies of butchery and to the eventual launch of Beltex Meats. Nine years and multiple awards later, this neighborhood butcher shop offers a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look into whole animal butchery and why it is essential. After taking a break due to the pandemic, Beltex is again offering intimate full-hog breakdown classes. So, of course, I signed up.

“I’m always shocked that people want to show up at a class like this,” says Philip. “I love what I do. But I don’t think it’s some glorified thing. I’m always surprised people not only want to come to class but also that they show up with enthusiasm and energy. We might have an engineer or an architect come. People from all walks of life want to learn about butchery.”

A Slice of Education Mixed With Hands-On Butchery

Classes are small and intimate—no more than ten people, plus Phillip and a couple of other butchers there to support the hands-on portion of the class. Things kicked off with one of the Beltex signature charcuterie boards, and now I firmly believe that all things educational should start with something to snack on. 

In the center of the room, laid out on the table, is half a hog, complete with the head. “We do that on purpose,” Phillip says. “It is part of educating people and showing respect for the animal. We aren’t hiding that this is an animal that was alive once. People are far removed from that most of the time. They go to the grocery store, see meat in packages and don’t acknowledge where it comes from.”

Photo Cali Warner

Initially, we all gave the center table and the main attraction a wide berth, forming a giant horseshoe around the butcher block. Which is pretty typical, apparently. “Everyone stands far away at first. Maybe they are nervous or haven’t seen something like this before,” says Phillip. “Then, as you talk to the class, you make it relatable. I might say,’ You like pork chops, right? You love bacon, don’t you?’ This is where that cut comes from. And people move a little closer. As the night goes on, as I’m cutting and explaining, interest is growing, and everyone moves in and encircles the hog, which is a good sign. And, by the end, they get hands-on. And people will pick up the saw and feel what it is like.”  

Phillip stands behind the table to provide background and education about the decreasing art of whole-animal butchery. He starts talking about the pig itself, pointing out musculature and where different cuts of meat come from. Next, he talks about the lack of waste they produce at Beltex Meats—using everything from the fat, trim, organ meats and even the bones. 

Heritage & pastured meat is seasonal 

The most challenging thing to educate customers about? The seasonality and limitations of whole animal butchery. “We live in Utah. We have a high desert climate, and we get snow that will coat the ground and our grasses for months,” Phillip says. “So pastured animals aren’t necessarily eating green grass all year. If you want a great local heirloom tomato from your farmer, you won’t get it until the end of August. We have to think of pastured grass and ruminant-eating animals as having a season. They should be thought of equally as we do an heirloom tomato.”

Another frequent question is, “Why don’t you have more…pork chops/chicken today? A picnic butt or that sausage I liked?” Phillip explains, “What is in our case changes daily because we’re butchering every day. We get pork, beef, chicken, lamb, butcher it, and then start selling it all. We save the trim, and on Thursday, we make sausages. But we are a 900-square-foot neighborhood butcher shop. Once we are out, we are out. There are only so many pork chops on a pig. And when you are committed to getting in whole animals, it limits what you sell.” Sometimes people compare the experience to a full-sized grocery store, where pork chops or “pasture-raised” chickens are endlessly available and can be ordered from a large-scale production facility en masse without worrying about everything else that comes attached to the birds or the chops. “We only get local pastured chickens from June to the beginning of October. That’s it.”

A use for everything 

Phillip shows us the types of fat on a pig and describes how they are used for different things in different culinary traditions. For example, the soft fat is found around the belly. It’s much softer and renders at a lower temper. It isn’t great for high-heat cooking, but it can be used in pastry dough—like the dough for the Jamaican hand pies they make in the shop. The hard fat is found along the back of the animal. Hard fat finds a home in the salami they make at Beltex Meats. Fat is needed that can hold up to the lengthy drying and fermenting process without rendering. Then there is the leaf lard found around the kidneys and loin, which gets rendered for cooking fat. Every bit is used. 

Getting hands-on

Part of the class is an anatomy lesson; the other is very practical—a study in using knives. Phillip starts with key cuts—taking the hog from a hefty 110 pounds to more manageable pieces. He showed us how to find the joints and the spaces between the ribs. There was a saw involved at one point. Everything was done with complete respect for the animal. “When people walk into class, we have the head up front. I do that on purpose,” he explains. “I think it is something people should see. This isn’t just meat. It had a face. Let’s show it a little respect.”

Photo Cali Warner

And then we are told to step up, glove up, and get ready to help. Everyone is a little slow to the table and a little cautious with the knife. Here’s the thing, you can’t be cautious or timid when it comes to butchery. The things I didn’t think about or realize before were practical details. The biggest surprise is that butchery is a workout. It isn’t easy. You are handling 100+ pounds of *ahem* dead weight. There is lifting involved. A pork leg alone weighs around 32 pounds. The head is surprisingly heavy. 

When it comes to cutting, knives dull fast. Phillip tells us that there was no point in getting expensive knives for butchery—they lose their shape and break no matter what as they constantly run into bone. We had to take breaks to hone our knives (and rest our hands, which got sore).  Another surprise was that a bow saw is used for cutting through bone and between joints. It doesn’t take as long as I would have assumed.

Phillip and two other butchers, Steven and Ian from the Beltex team, are there to supervise us. They dole out assignments, showing us how to remove the skin in sheets, work around hip sockets, follow the natural shape of the muscle, and trim silverskin. The extra bits go into a bin for sausage. Cleaned bones are set aside to make bone broth. The skin will get rendered and then fried into chicharrones. After a few minutes, everyone is busy, and all the timidness is gone. But it is still hard. Physically hard. We are probably butchering things (in the other sense of the word), but the Beltex crew is encouraging and generous in answering questions. We are proud of ourselves. Mission accomplished. 

At the night’s end, we walked away with several pounds of meat, a story to tell, and, more than anything, an appreciation for the care and craft that goes into the meat case at Beltex. 

Beltex Meats offers their 3.5-hour whole hog butchery classes several times a year. The cost is $160 and includes food, instruction and pork to take home. Check beltexmeats.com and Instagram @beltexmeats for information on when the classes will be offered. 


Lydia Martinez
Lydia Martinezhttp://www.saltlakemgazine.com
Lydia Martinez is a freelance food, travel, and culture writer. She has written for Salt Lake Magazine, Suitcase Foodist, and Utah Stories. She is a reluctantly stationary nomad who mostly travels to eat great food. She is a sucker for anything made with lots of butter and has been known to stay in bed until someone brings her coffee. Do you have food news? Send tips to lydia@saltlakemagazine.com

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