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20 November 2011

Wagyu or Kobe? Angus, Hereford, or Holstein? Rib, strip, filet, hanger, flatiron, or skirt? And what about grain-finished versus grass-finished? Prime versus choice?

Rancho Margot, Costa Rica

From Food Arts Magazine, February 2008.

What's the Beef?

Katy Keiffer clears up any questions you might have about today's proliferation of meaty terminology.

Wagyu or Kobe? Angus, Hereford, or Holstein? Rib, strip, filet, hanger, flatiron, or skirt? And what about grain-finished versus grass-finished? Prime versus choice?

Beef quality and the selection of cuts are evolving rapidly in the restaurant world, with new terminology and concerns driven by both well-informed consumers and adventurous chefs. Food Arts has waded into the breach to clarify some of the misconceptions and confusion surrounding the complex business of raising, processing, distributing, and selecting beef.

Kobe, Wagyu, and Black Angus
Perhaps one of the biggest trends of the last 10 years has been the introduction of what was initially billed as Kobe beef. Now synonymous with Wagyu (assuming you got that memo), Kobe, to be precise, takes its name from a particular region in Japan. Just as a wine is labeled as Burgundy, a Kobe steer is from that area. More recently, consumers have been confronted with other labels identifying this delicacy as Wagyu, Omi, Matsuzaka, American Wagyu, or Australian Wagyu. Wagyu simply means "Japanese cow." Kobe, Omi, and Matsuzaka are all specific regional names. Americans and Australians are breeding Wagyu with native breeds, hence the additions of those terms. It's worth asking since there are significant differences among them in flavor and tenderness.

"At the inception of the trend," Mark Canlis, co-owner of Canlis restaurant in Seattle, says, "Wagyu was poorly documented and a fairly sordid business, with customers thinking that their beef was 100 percent Japanese, when it was actually crossbred with American cattle and raised here." That has now changed, and with better educated consumers, labeling has become more specific, as have the standards to which producers are held.

Canlis was possibly the first American restaurant to promote Wagyu on its menu, and the Canlis family developed a partnership with Uwajimaya—a Japanese market in Seattle—in conjunction with a breeding program at the University of Washington to crossbreed American cattle with bulls from Kobe. Canlis sold the high-end pieces, such as the filet and strip steaks, in the restaurant, while the store sold the low-end cuts for shabu-shabu and other dishes. The restaurant's success with selling these premium steaks gave birth to a trend that continues to grow in the United States.

The highest priced Wagyu is 100 percent Japanese stock, reflecting the highest fat marbling scores, ranging from 11 to 12. Those scores are hard to find in U.S.–raised beef, and indeed, meats of those scores may not suit the American palate, as consumers here tend to favor more robustly flavored beef. Americans and Australians crossbreed Japanese bulls with Angus or Hereford heifers to produce a steer with a more traditional beef flavor profile.

Most producers and restaurateurs use the Japanese marbling scale to describe their Wagyu. The average marbling score for American Wagyu tends to range between 6 and 7. Of course, it's the marbling that makes Wagyu so meltingly tender and juicy. Jay Theiler, marketing director for Snake River Farms in Boise, Idaho—a vertically integrated producer that supplies the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller—explains that Wagyu has a 3-to-1 ratio of fat to flesh, giving it a mouthfeel that is distinctive and irresistible to the point that it can command up to $160 for a 12 ounce 100 percent Japanese Wagyu steak! It is, by the way, the inverse ratio of Certified Black Angus prime beef, which has a 3-to-1 flesh to fat ratio, and until Wagyu came along, it was considered the very top of the beef pyramid in flavor and tenderness.

Grass-finished versus grain-finished
Initially, all cattle are fed grass, grown in pasture. At around 18 months they are typically sent to a feedlot to be "finished." Some producers swear by a grass finish, others by a grain finish, which can vary widely as to the percentage of corn used in the grain mixture. Interestingly, the mixture appears to be dictated by the personal tastes of the producer or the chefs who buy it for their restaurants. However, as Joe Bichelmeyer of Bichelmeyer Meats in Kansas City, Kansas, says, "the emphasis on grass-finished is just another fad," adding that he's "seen them come and go" in the years since his family business opened in 1946. He personally favors a grain finish and feels that Angus beef does best on a grain finish, developing a higher level of marbling. Canlis also favors grass-fed, grain-finished cattle but in a recent blind tasting flipped over the flavor of corn-fed beef.

Theiler is quick to point out that the industry is still negotiating standards to define grass-finished beef and that the American Grassfed Association recently rejected the standard proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The standard set by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association stipulates that grass-finished means the animal never goes to a feedlot, but rather directly to the packer from the pasture. An important fact to note is that, like many of the criteria used in the industry, there is considerable controversy among producers and a significant amount of latitude in how terms are defined. With no established industry-wide definitions, buyers need to be especially savvy in order to understand what they are actually getting, particularly since these terms denote a higher price tag.

The longer the finish on the feedlot, the more marbling, and the more likely the beef will be graded prime or choice. But it also costs more to keep an animal on the feedlot, so the economic balance between how long the animal is finished and how that will affect the ultimate price represents somewhat of a gamble for the producer. Beef can be kept on the feedlot for as little as three months and as long as 18 months.

Dry-aged versus wet-aged
Of course, everyone would like to dry age, but dry aging means losing volume. Losing volume means losing money. In spite of this dispiriting fact, some producers, such as the Bichelmeyers, continue to dry age, and many steakhouses dry age once they get their beef from their distributor. How long? Once again, there is great variation—from as little as 14 days to as many as 65 days. After 28 days the beef has lost most of its moisture, at which point it's simply gaining a more intense, gamy flavor. Longer aging also means that chefs will lose more to the trim, as the outer sides of the beef will have dehydrated to the point of being inedible. Tom Colicchio of Craftsteak (NYC, Las Vegas) offers a range of steaks, aged from four to nine weeks, and charges commensurately more for each stage to compensate for the loss of weight to dehydration and trim. Dan Drayer, the protein buyer for Charley's Steakhouse, a chain in Florida, expects a weight loss of 10 to 12 percent on 24 pounds in a 21 day aging cycle.

Wet-aged beef is the norm nowadays. In fact, all meat seems to ship in plastic packaging. The boxed beef of only a decade or so ago has disappeared, to the consternation of Colicchio and others. Wet aging accelerates the natural aging process inherent in the enzymatic structure of the meat. The meat will become more tender, while losing almost no moisture, making it a more attractive prospect from an economic standpoint. However, the operators we canvassed agreed that although wet and dry aging for 14 days render the same degree of tenderness, it's long-term dry aging under very specific conditions of temperature and humidity that produces a really superb, concentrated beef flavor.

Organic versus natural
These standards, defined by the USDA and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, make it clear that to be a Certified Organic Beef product it must meet USDA National Organic Program standards. These standards state that the animal must be fed 100 percent organic feed but may be provided with certain vitamin and mineral supplements. If antibiotics are administered, the animal is removed from the program.

However, according to Kristin Schwarz of Snake River Farms, the biggest concern in the marketplace remains the definition of organic and natural, which, despite the USDA Organic Program standards, appears to still hold some ambiguities for producers. Theiler says the USDA standard for natural is merely that the product contain no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. Clearly there is so much potential deviation inherent in this definition that a new criteria is being developed: "Naturally raised" mandates no growth promotants and no antibiotics. Snake River Farms has a natural program, meaning its cattle receive no growth promotants, and antibiotics are only used when necessary and not as a prophylactic.

The move toward organic and natural products is driven both by chefs who are concerned with the quality of their food and the sustainability of the programs providing it, as well as by increasingly well educated consumers who question where an animal comes from before it reaches their plate and how well it was treated on the way there. In speaking about how producers are responding to these concerns, Jane Gibson of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says, "Being good stewards of the animals and the environment ensures that the cattleman's way of life can be sustained for future generations. These families treat animals humanely because it's ethical and because it's good business.

Prime, choice, and select 
We all have heard the terms, but what are the criteria for these labels? Only two things matter: the marbling of the meat and the maturity of the animal, which is determined by the color of the flesh. It goes without saying that most, if not all, fine dining restaurants try to insist upon prime meats for their steaks. But only about 3 percent of all beef cattle are graded prime, exclusive of Wagyu. Interestingly, some parts of a beast that have been graded as choice may still yield some parts that are prime.

And it should be noted that inspection for wholesomeness and grading for quality are two distinct programs. Inspection is paid for by the taxpayers and is mandated by law, whereas grading is voluntary and is paid for by the producers. Grading can offer a distinct marketing advantage and is money well-spent if producers are looking for a certain class of restaurant and consumer buyers. Although beef grading is done in conformance with USDA criteria, it's done on such a huge scale that there's a great variety in quality within the categories despite the standardized criteria established.

That being said, graders work at an incredible pace, sometimes assessing as many as 400 carcasses an hour, with only two or three graders looking at the meat. They base their decisions primarily on the measurement of fat around the rib eye, the only part of the carcass they have time to scrutinize. This measurement, the color of the beef, and whatever marbling they're able to see in their swift inspection are what distinguish the grades. Given the speed and intensity of the work, the USDA is working hard to identify other more consistent and scientific methods for reliable grading, so as to reduce the disparity in quality in a given grade. Among these initiatives is the addition of more inspectors to the line, a measure that will reduce repetitive motion injuries for the inspectors, as well as ensure a more reliable outcome.

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Some suppliers are creating their own grading systems, such as Sterling Silver Beef, a division of Cargill. For the last 12 years they have been refining a "camera vision" grading system that gives it the ability to not only grade meats more reliably but to track the meat in order to give producers solid feedback on the results of raising and finishing programs. Sterling Silver works closely with producers on every aspect of their cattle to ensure the most consistent and best possible product. Sterling Silver's customers tend to be high-level restaurants and country clubs, so clearly the attention to quality, detail, and accurate grading is paying off. Sterling Silver's success will likely drive others to adopt similar new technology.

The cuts!
What is the deckle? Where does a flatiron come from? And what about a hanger steak, a culotte de boeuf, or a petite tender? All of these tasty, economical, and nontraditional cuts of beef are gaining in popularity with chefs and consumers. The flatiron, a chuck steak that is very tender and has great flavor, is probably getting the most play in restaurants right now. Colicchio serves a flatiron and admits, "If I had the guts, I would take filet off the menu."

Triangle, or tri-tip, is a tough but tasty cut that must be thinly sliced to be appreciated; hence Charley's Steakhouse uses it for a beef carpaccio. Deckle—tender, juicy, and flavorful—is the meat encased within the fat cap of the rib eye. And there is a rather dizzying roster of different names for the same cuts. Mike Walsh, product line manager for Sterling Silver, notes that even within the industry, the product names have not been standardized. For example, some chefs refer to the culotte as a triangle or tri-tip, while others know it as a piece off the top butt, sometimes referred to as the gaucho because of its popularity in Brazilian restaurants. The petite tender, a piece of the shoulder or chuck that has been seamed out, looks just like filet mignon but is not as tender. Hanger steak, flank steak, and skirt steak are all part of the plate—the under rib/belly section.

These cuts all have their proponents, but steakhouses in general stick with the tried-and-true rib eye, New York strip, and filet, and with porterhouse or T-bone for bigger portions. They offer different types of beef, such as American or Japanese Wagyu in the traditional cuts, alongside the familiar Black Angus. Tom Kaplan, senior managing partner at Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, says that although they are able to get top dollar for their Wagyu, the 100 percent Japanese Wagyu accounts for only about 20 percent of steak sales, while American Wagyu captures a 34 to 40 percent share at Cut, Puck's steakhouse.

Interestingly, Texas Roadhouse, a steakhouse chain established in 1993 in Indiana, has resisted all trends toward different types of beef, unusual cuts, and differences in finishing. Texas Roadhouse was conceived as a moderately priced establishment where the food and service are "legendary and all the food is made from scratch." They sell only the basics in steaks (all choice grade) and have no interest in adding new cuts or exotic brands. Their basic philosophy of good food and good service has led this chain to open 281 locations in the past 15 years, a phenomenal rate of expansion that shows that selling good food at moderate prices and at a consistent level of quality is a successful formula.

Although the overall market share for underutilized and economical cuts is still rather small in comparison to a behemoth in the industry like Texas Roadhouse, it's happening, and no doubt more unusual choices will sprout up on menus in the future. The broader acceptance and use of these "off" cuts has only added to what is already a very strong consumer interest in traditional forms of beef. Gibson offers these figures showing an impressive gain in sales in the last year alone. Volume sold through foodservice: 8.67 billion pounds in the 12 month period July 31, 2006 to August 1, 2007 versus 8.38 billion pounds sold during the same period the previous year." ("Beef Foodservice Volumetric" report by Tech nom ic, for The Beef Checkoff Program). To quote Bill Buford writing in a recent issue of the New Yorker, "Is it possible that meat is now openly enjoying a renaissance—that it's finally cool to be a carnivore?"

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