Imagine that you had to describe meat to someone who's never encountered the stuff. It would be hard to do because meat is, you know, meat. You'd begin with where it comes from—the muscles and flesh of chickens, cows, pigs, etc. You'd offer characteristics (the sunset-pink of a medium-rare steak, the savory flavor, the chewiness, the grill marks when you cook it over fire) and the things you can make from it, such as burgers, nuggets, and cold cuts. If you wanted to describe what meat isn't, the top category on your list would clearly be plants.
But if you were Ethan Brown, a man who has given this topic as much thought as anyone on the planet, you'd come at it from a totally different angle. Ask Brown what makes meat meat, and he'll break out charts illustrating the environmental, ethical, and health challenges posed to the U.S. by the $186 billion industry. He'll describe its chemistry and physical structure—the way amino acids, lipids, and water align in a unique fibrous arrangement. He'll suggest, as if it's the most obvious idea in the world, that if you got the same amino acids from plants and combined them with lipids and water in more or less the same way they're combined in animals, well, wouldn't that be meat? Then he'll offer a bite of his midmorning snack.
Arranged on a plate in Brown's El Segundo, California office are a half-dozen appetizing-looking pieces of something it's hard to believe isn't grilled chicken breast, which he'd heated in a pan with olive oil a few minutes earlier. It's called Chicken-Free Strips, and it's the product that put Brown's company, Beyond Meat, on the map when it hit Whole Foods' deli counter in 2012. "I eat this all the time," Brown says as he spears a piece with his fork, offers me a bite, and watches attentively as I chew and swallow. He's witnessed this moment countless times—when a skeptical carnivore chomps down on his vegan pea and soy protein "chicken" and enters a state of cognitive dissonance. Unlike pretty much every other fake meat product I've ever tried, it's . . . chickeny, from the way it resists slightly when you bite into it to the way you can peel it apart in sheets and shreds, just like meat from a real bird.
According to a recent NPR poll, 39% of Americans are cutting down on meat, primarily for health reasons. Chipotle responded to the growing trend earlier this year by rolling out braised tofu sofritas in its restaurants nationwide. Beyond Meat—with its non-chicken, its taco-and-chili-ready Beefy Crumbles, and its forthcoming Beast Burger—is meeting that contingent in the grocery aisle. The company's products can be found in 4,500 stores. By the end of the year they'll be in more than 6,000—including Targets and Publix markets and Safeways across the country. Sales are up 250% from 2013 to 2014; the beef crumbles, which arrived at Whole Foods last February, are growing twice as fast as the chicken strips did at the same point in their rollout. (Both products are priced between $3.99 and $5.99 per package.) This is all despite the fact that American shoppers are generally not that into meat substitutes. 2013 sales for the category—every veggie burger and tofu dog and vegan breakfast patty sold in America—were up only 0.5% against the previous year, according to retail research firm IRI.
Perhaps Beyond Meat is bucking that trend because it targets carnivores rather than vegans or vegetarians. The products also offer customers a nutritional advantage on the original. Its "chicken," for instance, has all the nutritional value of actual white meat, but no cholesterol or saturated fats. The Beast goes even further: It's been designed to have more iron and protein than beef, more omega-3s than fish, more calcium than milk, and a whole host of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
But better health is only part of Beyond Meat's appeal to consumers. By the year 2050, according to a UN report, we're going to need 70% more food to feed the world's population, which isn't going to be easy given that we already devote 26% of all land to livestock. Even if you're able to close your eyes to the horror of modern industrial meat production—or are lucky enough to be able to afford more sustainably raised options—it's a wildly inefficient process globally. Eighteen hundred gallons of water are required to produce just one pound of steak. Livestock, according to the UN study, is responsible for 18% of greenhouse emissions—more than all transportation combined.
Brown knows that if Beyond Meat is going to have any hope of turning the ecological tide, it's going to have to move beyond precooked meat substitutes sold in the refrigerator section. "Right now, a lot of products on the market, including our own, it's like Astroturf to grass," says Brown. "We want to create the real thing." Brown's plan to engineer a plant-based product that isn't just a lot like meat but is identical in most every way (it would even come raw and be sold right next to prime rib in the butcher aisle) might sound moon-colony crazy, but it's lured plenty of high-profile backers over the past few years. Bill Gates was an early investor. Twitter cofounders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, through their tech incubator Obvious Ventures, offered funding in late 2011 and ultimately joined the board. "When I heard the pitch I was stunned, not just by the science and sustainability aspect or my own compassionate reasons for being interested but by the audacious goal of competing in the multibillion-dollar meat industry," says Stone. "These guys weren't talking about being in the novelty section of the supermarket, they were talking about producing and marketing a new meat for the world."
Beyond Meat's main office is an airy, open-beamed space a couple of blocks from the beach near LAX. The 20-person staff is dressed casually enough to jump into a game of beach volleyball if the opportunity were to arise. (About 60 more people, including temps, work at a plant in Missouri.) A Chihuahua belonging to COO Tony Prudhomme roams free. Brown, who rides to work most days on a white-frame road bike currently leaning against his desk, fits right in. The 42-year-old looks more like a high school basketball coach than a businessman.
Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., where his dad founded the school of public policy at the University of Maryland and his mom worked at the Urban Institute. When he was a kid, his family bought a farm in rural Maryland that they used as a country house and eventually ended up running as a dairy operation with 100 head of Holstein cows. "I had this very urban upbringing, but there was a strange part of it where I would always be going out to this farm," he says. "At some point I realized that there was a difference between how we treated our dogs and how we treated the other animals. The cows were production units, valued for a couple of years and then slaughtered, and at the same time we're pampering our pets."
He has a distinct memory of a trip to a Roy Rogers restaurant, which until then had been a favorite after-school spot. "I'd get the RR Burger, which was ham and beef and cheese," he says. "I can remember thinking, This is cow's milk and the cow's body, and then there's pig. That's a lot!" By the time he was 17, Brown was a vegetarian; he's now been a vegan for about 15 years. After stints in graduate school, first in his father's program at the University of Maryland and then at Columbia's business school, Brown began working in the burgeoning field of fuel cells, spending nine years at Ballard Power Systems, the leading manufacturer, supplying big industrial clients such as Ford and Chrysler. He was drawn to the technology for its potential to curb climate change, but another, even better idea started hatching in the back of his mind. It was a way to tackle climate change and animal welfare at the same time.
Without leaving his job, he invested in a couple of D.C.–area vegetarian restaurants that specialized in mock-meat sandwiches and salads made with tofu and seitan imported from Asia. Around 2006, he had the insight that would change everything. "I started thinking, Why can't you just create animal protein with plants?" he recalls. "What's the biological reason you can't do that? And I started looking around at people who were answering that question." Brown pored over scientific journals, eventually coming across an obscure paper by a pair of scientists at the University of Missouri. Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff were experts in the use of extruders—megasize pasta machines that mix dry and liquid materials, cook the resulting slurry, and force it through a die on the end. Since the early 1990s, they'd been developing an extruder process involving heat and pressure that reorganizes plant proteins into a more animal-like alignment. "Protein in plants is like a bird's nest, and you want to straighten it out," says Huff. "And if you get it right, when it cools, it stays that way. And that's where you get your fibers."
Brown flew to Missouri to meet them. His first taste of their plant-based chicken was straight out of the machine. "It was very hard, but the basic structure was there," Brown says. The trio made an informal agreement to try to turn the product into a business (an idea that had somehow never crossed the scientists' minds). Working on a tight budget, they began to refine the flavor and texture, and Brown would fly hundreds of pounds of it back with him to D.C. to test in his restaurants. Feeling good about what he had to offer—and pretty sure there wasn't anything else quite like it on the market—Brown met with Whole Foods to pitch them on using it in prepared foods. "We're always looking for vegetarian protein sources," says Whole Foods' Louise Liu, who oversees product development for the Mid-Atlantic region. "So I started to give him some feedback on what we needed."
Specifically, she was looking for a product that Whole Foods could sub for the shredded chicken it puts in everything from soups to sandwiches—and also one with wide appeal. "We have the most success with vegetarian or vegan items when they appeal to more than just that community," she says. In 2010, a reporter from Time stumbled across the Missouri research and wrote a piece about Hsieh and Huff. An executive at Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers saw it and set up a meeting—and by the following year had committed to Beyond Meat's first round of investment. "We think it can be as big as the meat industry is today," says Kleiner Perkins partner Amol Deshpande. "If you can remove the main bottleneck to meat production, which is the livestock, and get the price down, it could happen."
The cash came in two tiers—the first being a proof-of-concept stage that would allow Brown to build a small production line in a former hospital kitchen. Then, as Whole Foods bought more and more of the "chicken," the other part of the investment kicked in (along with a second round of financing from the Twitter guys and a few others), giving Brown the funds to build a state-of-the-art plant not far from Hsieh and Huff's lab in Missouri. By 2013, Beyond Meat's Chicken-Free Strips were available in stores nationwide.
Unlike Beyond Meat's beachy El Segundo office, which is decorated with a wall-size mural of frolicking sea lions, the 26,000-square-foot plant in Columbia, Missouri, is all business. Whiteboards outline bullet-pointed efficiency objectives ("Never Stop Running the Extruder," reads one); a mild, lightly spicy odor hangs in the air. "If you spend a day in here it sticks to your clothes, but it's not offensive," says COO Prudhomme, who used to control a fleet of ships and planes running fruit giant Dole's South American operations and who flies out from L.A. at least once every couple of weeks. "It just makes you hungry."
Outfitted in lab coats and hairnets, we take a tour. The first room he shows me contains Beyond Meat's raw materials—mostly 50-pound sacks bearing labels such as Soy Protein, Maltodextrin, Chicken Flavor, Carrot Fiber, and Morton Top Coarse Salt. All of it gets loaded into huge, silolike hoppers in the next room and fed into one of three trolley-size extruders, which funnel it through massive, stainless-steel cylinders, where the dry materials are combined with water. At the end, partially hidden by a tarp, is a barrel-shaped gizmo with a bunch of hoses snaking out of it, which looks like something that would shoot gamma rays in a '60s comic strip. This attachment, which completes the otherwise standard extruder, is where the plant protein undergoes its transformation into a much meatier structure.
Prudhomme grabs a handful of the beef crumbles, which are tumbling from the machine into a large hopper, and offers me one to try. It hasn't been through the flavor process, so it doesn't taste like much. But the chew is distinctively beefy and, in a testament to how key texture is, my brain basically computes it as meat. After, I meet Huff in the plant's conference room. A burly, straight-talking midwesterner with a bushy mustache and not inconsiderable belly (think Wilford Brimley), Huff recently retired from the university but is still doing some work with Beyond Meat. "I could never be a vegetarian or vegan," he says, digging into a plate of microwaved crumble straight off the production line. "But I could eat this a couple times a week."
The Beast Burger may have gotten its name for a reason: It's been harder to get right than anyone expected, to the point that a planned launch this summer was scrapped and rescheduled for October. "Obviously it would have been a lot better to have it out for barbecue season," Brown says. "But it was a performance issue. There's a trade-off between moisture and taste and ingredient functionality, and we weren't getting the right balance."
The problem has to do with all those extra nutrients, which are sourced from plants and count as whole foods but aren't necessarily tasty. So Dave Anderson, who runs the test kitchen in Los Angeles (he also used to be Ellen DeGeneres's private chef, helped create Hampton Creek's Beyond Eggs, and once ran L.A.'s best vegan restaurant, Madeleine Bistro), is tweaking parameters, offering bites, and gathering opinions. He divides a patty among several staffers, including Brown, and gauges their reactions. "Too dry?" he asks. "Yeah, it dries out at the end," he says before anyone can respond. "I don't know if we're ever going to get rid of that." He sighs theatrically. "If we didn't have all those nutrients in there, it would be a lot easier."
In the kitchen, he's been playing around with varying levels of firmness and flavor, including several agents made from yeast and designed to create the megasavory sensation of umami. He's been working on the burger for months, during which time it's been subjected to blind taste tests, regular taste tests, and sent out to a team of what Brown calls "professional masticators" ("they cost a whole lot of money," he says). It was also shipped to a lab in San Francisco for some heavy-duty analytics that compare the Beast to a real burger across a wide variety of data points.
After I try the burger, Brown introduces me to Brent Taylor, a chiseled, blue-eyed Californian with a tendency to speak in business jargon. He and Brown met when Taylor was working for Kleiner Perkins, putting together the due diligence report on Beyond Meat.
Taylor eventually joined the company and is listed on its website as a cofounder. I ask him what most of the people in the L.A. office do, and it turns out that the lion's share are in marketing. "When I was at Wharton, buddies of mine founded Warby Parker, and concepts like that are interesting because they show how you need to create a great experience in addition to the product," Taylor says. "So a lot of the work we do isn't about just perfectly replicating the structure of chicken and beef, it's about, how do we create a good experience around it?"
There are definitely obstacles. Some consumers find the idea to be just weird—the culinary equivalent of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon that makes overly human animated characters in movies disturbing. Left-leaning vegans, Brown says, tend to view the product as "inferior." And then there's that resolute bunch: meat-eating men. Within a few weeks of my reporting, the burger will have been eaten live not just on Good Morning America but by the New York Mets in a Wall Street Journal story—a taste test inspired in part by Brown's knowledge that meat, and especially the burger, is a product with a masculine tilt to it. "It's not that we're suggesting we should market only to men," he says. "It's that we need to make sure that it passes the masculinity test." The company recently announced that the Mets' star slugger and third baseman, David Wright, had inked an endorsement deal.
As much as it will cost to sign up a bunch of star athletes (and, eventually, celebrities of all stripes), that's not where most of that Bill Gates and Kleiner Perkins money is going. It's primarily headed behind a wall in the El Segundo office, where, the company hopes, a budding high-tech lab will allow it to make a product so good it can sit next to animal meat in the supermarket within the next decade. For the past year, Beyond Meat has been hiring and contracting with a range of scientists including protein chemists, structural biologists, and even a specialist in metabolic engineering from Harvard Medical School. "What you're seeing now is an attempt to understand the principles of what makes meat meat, both in terms of biology and of cuisine," says Jody Puglisi, a Stanford structural biologist who serves on the company's scientific advisory board. "We're in IBM PC days. These are the first products of their kind."
But even as he ramps up the technical research, Brown is still getting out there to do what he calls "man-on-the-street testing." "We want to make sure that we're not getting hung up on some scientific point," he says. "This is food, and we want people to enjoy it."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.