No bull: Canberra's growing biltong business

No bull: Canberra's growing biltong business

When four mates decided to start making biltong to fuel them on their camping trips they had no idea that just a few years later they’d be in a situation where they can’t keep up with commerical demand.

Brothers Luke and Rory Rathbone, and their mates Matt Liang and Tom Hutchison, share a passion for health, movement and the outdoors, and were looking for a convenient source of protein to take with them on their adventures.

The Barbell Biltong team, from left, Matt Laing, Rory Rathbone, Luke Rathbone and Tom Hutchison.

The Barbell Biltong team, from left, Matt Laing, Rory Rathbone, Luke Rathbone and Tom Hutchison. Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

But first, what is biltong? The making involves marinating large steaks in vinegar and spices and then hanging them to air dry for up to a week before being sliced into thin strips. The result is a moist meat snack that is completely preserved, portable and preservative free. It takes about 2.6kg of steak to make 1kg of biltong and what’s left is a convenient and dense source of protein.

The Rathbones grew up in South Africa, where biltong is quite common. They remember making it, and eating it, as children and started to experiment with their own recipes.


“I started making it for myself at home,” says Rory. “It was about 2014, I found an old cabinet on the side of the road and turned it into a drying cabinet with some computer fans and it worked really well.

“We started going on these camping trips, took the biltong with us, and it was there we were reacquainted with the true utility of biltong.”

Rory was working as a personal trainer at the time and his clients started buying the biltong, word soon got out that the product was good. And in 2016 they started making it commercially, trading as Barbell Biltong.

When the old cabinet could no longer deal with the demand, they moved into the kitchens at the Kamberra Wine Company Function Centre but now they need to move again.

“We're selling as much as we can produce,” Luke says, estimating they’re making around four tonnes a year. And demand outstrips supply.

“We’re trying to grow the business 20 times its current scale, we're looking to move into a space in the next couple of months, and we’ve brought on some key investors to help us grow the business.”

Barbell Biltong is available online and from many venues around Canberra.

Barbell Biltong is available online and from many venues around Canberra.

Rugby players David Pocock and Ben Alexander are two of the investors. Rory says economist Craig Emerson is keen to “help us in the export market when we're ready”. At the moment however the Barbell Biltong team is keen to talk to anyone who might like to join their “journey”.

Because that’s what the biltong means to this enthusiastic team of 20 somethings. It’s about more than air-dried meat.

“Biltong is more of a lifestyle than a product,” says Rory. “Barbell represents certain values, fun, community, health, an alternative to the life that most people find themselves living.

“We want the whole thing to be playful and authentic and transparent.”

They source their beef from organic farm and two flavours are available: The Benchmark and The Burn, which has a mild chilli spice. It’s $25 for a 200g bag and is available online, many local suburban supermarkets and random locations such as the Capital Region Farmers' Markets, CrossFit Woden and The Dock.

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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