Andy Hanenberg wasn't a big fan of beef jerky when he started experimenting with a meat slicer and spices a few years ago.

But the process of making beef jerky and its fit with his protein-heavy paleo diet appealed to him, so he started playing around with creative combinations like lemon-mint and blue cheese-mushroom. He enlisted an artist friend to design fun packaging “as if each flavor is its own character and personality" and started introducing it to friends at the gym, on rock-climbing expeditions, and at street festivals.

Now, his Fort Collins, Co.-based Uncle Andy's Jerky is sold in about 250 gourmet markets and gift shops from California to New Hampshire.

"The perception has been that it's dry and leathery and only sold by the roadside," Hanenberg, 33, said. "I compare it more to craft beer, in that it works as a canvas for thousands of flavors and combinations."

Andy Hanenberg

Hanenberg (pictured above) joins a growing group of small-batch jerky producers who have turned the dehydrated-meat snack on its shriveled head. U.S. sales of dried-meat snacks hit $2.8 billion in 2015, up 9 percent from the year before, according to IRI Worldwide, a Chicago-based research firm. Another report, from the Specialty Food Association, found that jerky and other meat snacks were the third fastest-growing specialty-food category in 2015, with retail sales jumping more than 68 percent between 2013 and 2015. 

Once a convenience-store staple with limited flavor options, jerky is showing up at urban farmer's markets, gourmet-food trade shows, and on the pages of national magazines. In June, Martha Stewart Living dubbed it one of five food trends to watch in 2016. This summer's Fancy Food Show in New York featured more than 40 different jerky products, including a hickory-smoked spicy candied bacon that earned one of the show's top prizes.

The growth is in part driven by a general increase in snacking and the popularity of gluten-free and protein-rich diets, observers say. Millennials, who are willing to spend more on snacks and ready-to-eat meals, also are playing a big role in jerky's rise.

"I compare it more to craft beer, in that it works as a canvas for thousands of flavors and combinations." 

“We've become a nation of snackers and grabbing meals on the go, but consumers are also looking for healthier snacks. Jerky rings a lot of those bells," notes Louise Kramer, communications director of the Specialty Food Association.

Specialty food consumers spent one in three food dollars on specialty foods in 2015, Kramer added. That's up from one in four in 2014.

Uncle Andy's Jerky

Meat preservation goes back at least four centuries, when Native Americans sun-dried the meat of buffalo, deer and elk and used it as a long-lasting source of protein. It also has global roots: in South Africa, biltong is a popular dried-meat snack that traces its origins back to pre-refrigeration days when indigenous people and European settlers dried and cured meat and game for survival. Similarly, bak kwa is a salty-sweet dried-pork snack that originated in China using ancient preservation techniques and spread to Singapore and Malaysia.

“There are so many hunter-gatherer variations of jerky because it's amenable to every flavor profile. You can throw in pretty much the kitchen sink," notes Lynne Curry, author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut.

Curry, who is based in rural Oregon, said she turned to vintage hunting guides when researching jerky for her own book. After some experimenting, she came up with a recipe for jerky marinated in Coca-Cola, which both tenderizes the dried meat and gives it a sweet-and-salty taste.

“Coca-Cola is an effective meat tenderizer, plus it has a caramel sweetness that tastes great with beef: think burger and a Coke," she said. "For home cooks, it hit the mark in terms of flavor."

Coca-Cola Jerky

Recipe courtesy of Pure Beef © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press

Used as a marinade for beef jerky, Coca-Cola makes the tough bottom round nicely chewy with a sweetness akin to teriyaki. Jerky making is the one occasion when you want to slice the meatwith the grain for the best texture once dried.

Makes about 1 pound jerky strips.

1 (1-1/2- to 2-pound) bottom round roast

1-1/2 cups Coca-Cola

1 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese five spice powder

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Freeze the meat until it is very firm, about 30 minutes. Slice the beef with the grain into strips as thin as you can (go for 1/8 inch), 1 inch wide and as long as you like.

Whisk the Coca-Cola, soy sauce, Chinese five-spice powder, ginger, and cayenne together in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Add the beef strips and stir to coat them well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 3 to 6 hours. Longer, and the meat starts to get too soft.

Preheat the oven to 200°F. Lightly oil 2 wire racks and set them into 2 rimmed baking sheets lined with aluminum foil to ease clean up. Drain the beef in a colander, discarding the marinade, and let it drip dry for a few minutes. Arrange the beef on the racks in a single layer so that they are not touching. Dry the beef in the oven until it is black-brown, dry to the touch, and stiff but pliable, 31/2 to 4 hours. Alternately, dry the meat in an electric food dehydrator according to the manufacturer's instructions. Store the jerky in re-sealable plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to three months.