I sampled my first Impossible Burger at the Whisky Bar in Belltown, a spot more suited to belts of brown liquor than plant-based lunches. But when you’re dabbling in the brave new world of lab-grown food—the vegan patty’s made from potato and soy protein, coconut fat, fermented yeast, and various gums—a renegade approach feels right. Dressed in red onion, melted Tillamook cheddar, and a creamy sauce, the burger dead ringered the real thing. It was so juicy and satisfying, in fact, that I toted half of it home in its compostable clamshell and stuck it in my fridge. After just a few steps I pivoted, threw open the stainless-steel door, and destroyed what remained in two T. rex bites.
This unflattering anecdote illustrates a larger point: Faux meat has become convincing. That’s not to downplay earlier innovations in plant-based proteins, but even the most fervent Field Roast and Vegan Toona fans can’t claim indistinguishability from animal products. The Impossible Burger “bleeds,” for crying out loud, thanks to a lab-fermented yeast called “heme.” In Seattle, they make the menu at Tom Douglas restaurants Etta’s, Brave Horse Tavern, and the Carlile Room, not to mention the carnivorous likes of Red Robin, Li’l Woody’s, and Daily Grill (among others). Even Burger King has bought in. Meanwhile, competitor Beyond Meat—the company behind the Beyond Burger, which achieves pinkness via beet extract—recently went public, in what many consider the most successful IPO of 2019. Now valued at $800 million dollars, the fake meat industry has inspired such rich-dude luminaries as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and blond Virgin Atlantic billionaire Richard Branson to invest.
They’re not just in it for the sorta-healthy Whoppers. According to a recent report from the World Resources Institute, the habitable earth depends on a drastic and global reduction of meat consumption. And while curbing beef could make major inroads to combat greenhouse gases and deforestation, it’s not the only planet-threatening protein on our plates.
“Believe it or not, we eat more chicken nuggets, patties, and strips than any other types of meat in the United States,” says Christie Lagally, founder and CEO of local startup Rebellyous Foods (formerly Seattle Food Tech). And she brought the receipts: According to the North American Meat Institute, in 2017, the U.S. poultry industry produced 42.2 billion pounds of chicken, compared with 26.3 billion pounds of beef. Just over half of that arrives breaded and fried, an insight that led longtime vegan Lagally to use skills acquired as a mechanical and process engineer to go after Big Chicken with a plant-based nugget of her own. “Our goal is essentially to take what we’ve learned in one really highly efficient production facility and duplicate it over and over again,” she explains. “This is exactly what the chicken industry does.”
Crispy-coated, with an impressive interior juiciness, the product’s on par with grocery store nuggets—the kind parents stash in the freezer for babysitter nights. You can try it today at Swedish Medical Center cafeterias, Microsoft’s corporate campus, and the Georgetown Liquor Company. Come to think of it, that last institution has paired hard drinking with plant-based bar snacks since 2007. Maybe my Whisky Bar lunch wasn’t so renegade after all.