In 2011, food writer Andrew Knowlton wrote a Bon Appetit feature on Texas barbecue chef Aaron Franklin, calling the beef brisket served at the pitmaster's Franklin Barbecue restaurant "stunning."
Since then, Texas-style smokehouse beef brisket, long a regional favorite, has exploded in popularity. Over the past decade, the item has worked its way onto menus for national fast-food chains, like Arby's.
In 2015, Franklin became the first chef ever to win the coveted James Beard award for barbecue. Brisket has even made inroads in European and Asian markets, a feat considering that countries like Japan have largely shunned U.S. beef in recent years.
Today, Americans' growing appetite for brisket — once the cheapest cut of beef — has sent prices soaring despite it requiring hours of cooking to soften the tough meat. Brisket now ranks as the the third-priciest cut of beef, after the primal rib and loin from which ribeye and T-bone steaks come from. June brisket prices hit a record high for the month, with prices at $2.08 per pound — that's up about 13% from the same week last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Only so many briskets
Brisket costs hit an all-time high four years ago when a drought cut supply and drove up prices. But the numbers this year are more surprising, given that the U.S. ramped up production to make 27 million pounds of beef last year, a decade high, according to industry publication Beef2Live. That still wasn't enough to satisfy Americans' hankering for slow-cooked brisket.
"There's a limited number of briskets, limited number of animals, even though our supply has been growing," said David Anderson, agricultural economist at the Texas A&M University, which every summer organizes a Camp Brisket for applicants to learn the science behind barbecue. "This is a case of consumer demand outstripping supply."
That has started eating into profit margins at restaurants and worrying business owners. Texas pitmasters are even considering changing their menus so as not to pass prices on to their customers.
"We're all very concerned about it because we already push prices of $21.50 for brisket, and further increases will start dampening demand," said Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Taylor, Texas-based Louie Mueller Barbecue.
Adding that his restaurant charged just $16 for brisket in 2014, Mueller said, "There's only so much elasticity that our guests are willing to take."
Brisket is also one of the top sellers at Zabar's, the prominent gourmet grocer in New York City. Store manager Scott Goldshine said he had to raise prices 50 to 80 cents, to $26.99 per pound, in the past couple months due to rising costs from his vendors.
"As a businessman, you try not to pass that onto your customers as much as possible, but sometimes if the increase is too much, then you have to do it," he said.
A place on the menu for brisket tacos
Another factor that affects pricing is that during cooking, brisket smokes down to just half its weight, so business owners have to pay double the price for the amount of meat required to feed their customers. The high costs are forcing pitmasters in Texas to diversify their menus by adding cheaper pork or poultry items.
Pitmasters like Mueller are also reconsidering how they package their brisket, such as by incorporating Tex-Mex into the menu, a marriage proving popular with Texans that joins two beloved culinary mainstays in the region. Adding brisket tacos to the menu also has the advantage of cutting the amount of meat necessary on a plate.
"The protein itself does not have to take up the entire meal, so we can offer entrees at a lower price," Mueller said. "That's one of the ways that we're trying to counter, and it's being accepted."
"Ultimately, it's not the people who cook the best that will survive, it's the people who will have the best business practices and are most adept at controlling their costs," he added.