a new level of beef

What do you know about beef? Prior to Monday, here’s what I knew, or thought I knew:

  • Prime grade beef means the beef is top quality
  • Grocery store beef that’s graded choice or prime is all going to be pretty good quality
  • Kobe (or Wagyu) beef can’t be beat; it will always be better than “regular” beef
  • Certified Black Angus means it’s high quality beef that will generally be better than other beef
  • The biggest differences in beef have to do with grading more than taste differences

I’m learning how naive my beef education has been!

Carrie Oliver of the Oliver Ranch and the Artisan Beef Institute has been making a name for herself promoting just how different beef from one ranch or farm can be from beef from another. She started by just getting seven New York strip steaks to try at home with friends, noticing that each tasted different from each other. From there, she’s discovered that breed, seasonality and the talent of the rancher all have a great impact on the flavor of beef.

I noticed similarities between wine and coffee years ago. Both are affected by similar things. Terrior is the environment in which grape or coffee plants are grown, and can change from hill to hill, or even within sections of the same plot of land. Knowing when to pick grapes or coffee beans and what to do with them from that point affects both final products. The winemaker applies his art to processing and mixing wines, while the roaster learns how different beans respond to different levels of roasting. While most coffee started from the same plant, different grapes result in very different wines, while still all of them being wine and having characteristics common to wine.

On first look, it’s surprising to find out that beef is affected by roughly the same things, though, once I thought about it, it makes sense. The location is going to affect beef cattle by how they respond to the weather. Some breeds can take more heat than other breeds; black-haired cattle aren’t going to take high heat the same as lighter-haired breeds might. Some breeds may do better in higher altitudes than others. Some will respond well to a harsher environment, while that same environment may stress out another breed. Let’s call that the terrior of beef.

The rancher or farmer has a great impact on the beef. Stress on cattle can adversely affect the taste of the beef. We all release hormones into our systems as we get stressed; the same is true for beef cattle. High stress on beef cattle even once can affect the taste of the beef, so artisan ranchers are careful to ensure an environment for their cattle that won’t overly stress them. Many will go so far as to introduce the cattle early to chutes and noises that will be used in taking the cattle to slaughter so that those things won’t overly stress the cattle later.

The breed of the cattle is akin to the type of grape used for wine. Wagyu beef is well known for having a lot of intramuscular fat (marbling), which is going to lend itself to a particular mouthfeel. Breed difference is harder to describe, though; this is where the value of attending an artisan steak tasting really comes in. Just as it’s easy to find wines to drink by tasting them first, finding a favorite style of artisan beef is best done by trying them out!

I mentioned that I had a lot of preconceptions about beef before Monday. This changed for me by helping out with an artisan steak tasting. I drove to Indianapolis to help out. Carrie drove all the way from Toronto to help Chef JJ put on an artisan steak tasting at a local wine shop, Mass Ave Wine Shop.

We started the day talking through the approach to be used for the tasting. With 12 or more people coming to the tasting, it was decided to try each of four steaks on their own. This also would allow the owner of the wine shop to pair wines with each style of beef. We also took time to walk through Carrie’s incredible wealth of information about artisan beef. I’m not going to go through the whole process of a steak tasting; Jaden of Steamy Kitchen did a great job of that, and shows a lot of the particulars of a tasting.

Chef JJ had his Big Green Egg in the back of his truck on a dolly, and set it up right in front of the shop. Before actually doing the official steak tasting, we tried each of the steaks ourselves, joined by my niece, Maggie (she came down early to beat the traffic!). This was my first chance to really see if I’d notice any difference at all between the beef styles.

One thing I felt was important was that we blind tasted each of the steaks. This is so that we didn’t make assumptions. For instance, had I known which of the steaks was Wagyu, I would have probably automatically assumed that was the best of them instead of letting my palate decide. The differences between the steaks had to do with breed, how each was fed (feed varied somewhat between the ranches) and how each steak was aged (wet or dry aged).

I’m not going to share which I preferred. This isn’t to be secretive; it’s just that it’s only my opinion. We found in the tasting later that there was a mix of which steak people preferred.

The official evening tasting went a bit differently than the afternoon tasting the four of us did, mostly because of the number of people. Instead of trying all four steaks at once, Chef JJ grilled five of one steak and served it while Carrie talked about artisan beef in general. Using tasting sheets, people wrote down their impressions of the first steak and then discussed it as a group, followed by a wine paired with that steak.

With a quick palate cleanser of grilled baguette, apple or romaine lettuce, the next steak was prepared and served, until the group had tried all four steak styles.

The end result was a fun night for everyone. They all got to see how artisan steaks can be different from one another, try some interesting wines with them (one was even a white wine that went great with steak) and really enjoy a learning experience. I think everyone, me included, was surprised that the same cut of steak from four ranches could taste so different.

The next step now for me, other than to do a tasting in my house with some friends (I recently won a tasting kit from Carrie!) is to find some local places to hold artisan steak tastings in the Dayton/Cincinnati area. I have ideas on some places, including wine shops and a restaurant or two. If you’re into beef, stay tuned for info on how to stretch your beef awareness even more!


(Carrie recording some of the activities)

Oh, also keep in mind that you can buy your own tasting kits from Oliver Ranch!

About Curt McAdams

I guess I'm a bit of a foodie, learning to cook from my mom, then getting obsessed with outdoor cooking, competition barbecue, bread baking and just about all things food. Lately, I've been trying to upgrade my photography skills a bit, though I still have a long way to go.

13 comments

  1. Highly informative and thought provoking post. Thanks very much for sharing this. I’m going to be thinking on this issue and will also share a link to it from my Users Forums conversation ‘board” – as I believe there is really something to this discussion. CB

  2. CB,
    Make sure to check out the info Carrie has put together on http://www.oliverranch.com. She’s really the instigator of this process of education on beef. The tasting would have still been worthwhile without her, but it was much more with her there to help. I’m going to be picking her brain a lot as I get ready to do this in Ohio!

  3. Curt, this is a brilliant post, thank you for coming to the tasting and for sharing the passion for finding and enjoying artisan beef! You captured the afternoon and evening so well. Isn’t it fun to see people discover the differences between different farms or producers? Still kicking myself that I didn’t reinforce that three of the four were “USDA Choice” but sure didn’t taste the same. ps Can you photoshop out that second chin of mine? I’m sure that’s just a shadow ;) pps I am now craving steak, your photos are gorgeous.

  4. Carrie,

    I’m glad you approve… I think you’re onto something significant, and I enjoy helping out! Besides, the steaks are quite tasty, and the activity is really fun. I can’t wait to do more of these.

    I’m also sure that’s just a trick of the lighting!

  5. Curt – Great post. I remember the Steamykitchen post on her tasting and thinking how I would really like to try a tasting myself. If you swing something local, you know you can count me in.

  6. Mike,

    I’m already looking into some local options, including a restaurant to do an menu using the steaks after a tasting.

  7. Great stuff, Curt. I’m ordering a tasting from Carrie for my birthday and can’t wait!

  8. SIDE,

    You’ll love it. Just a couple of points of advice… 1. Season only with a bit of salt, so you taste the steaks and not the seasoning, and 2. don’t char the steaks, just let them grill over a lower fire so you don’t add the flavor of the char to it. It’s fine to do both after your first tasting, but you want to leave it as much to just the steaks as you can during the tasting.

  9. Great article Curt! Very informative and I love the pics.

  10. Paul,

    Thanks. Carrie really presents the info on artisan beef well. Part of the idea is that if the top end of the industry pays even more attention, the lower end will move up a bit, too.

  11. Great post Curt. Really enjoyed reading about the differences. I’m just now starting the same journey. I hope I enjoy mine as much.

  12. I’m sure you’ll love the steaks you get. It’s worth finding out how steak isn’t just steak… Just like coffee isn’t just coffee, beer isn’t just beer, and wine isn’t just wine.

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