In discussions about consumer beef preferences, we sometimes act as if they’re all the same. Consumers want safety, they want quality, they want value. But beyond those basic requirements, different consumers have widely varying priorities in selecting a steak from the meat counter or restaurant menu. Some want organic or natural, some want premium Quality Grade, some want grass-finished and some just want a decent cut at a good price. Fortunately, the diverse nature of the U.S. beef industry allows a broad range of choices to satisfy just about any consumer.
The variety of excellent choices available to beef lovers was clearly (and tastily) illustrated at lunch during a recent conference in Denver, hosted by Colorado State University and the Colorado Beef Council. The conference, titled “Beef + Transparency = Trust,” targeted influencers such as consumer media, food writers, nutritionists and food-business executives, intending to provide objective, honest and factual information about modern beef-production practices and the reasons behind them.
At the lunch break, participants walked through a buffet line selecting from a lineup of vegetables and side dishes before reaching a cutting station where they received slices of strip steak from two different sources, which remained unknown until after they had eaten some of each. Over the course of the lunch, each person received sample slices from steaks from four additional sources for a total of six types of beef.
The samples ranged from “commodity,” unbranded USDA Choice such as you would find in a retail store, two samples of Certified Angus Beef (CAB), with one “wet” aged and one “dry” aged, a grass-finished product from Uruguay, a USDA Prime steak such as those served in high-end steak houses and an American “Kobe-style,” heavily marbled steak from Wagyu-cross cattle. Wholesale prices for the steaks ranged from about $5 per pound to nearly $30.
Hotel chefs prepared all the steaks using the same process, lightly seasoning them with salt and pepper and cooking them to a medium-rare degree of doneness. Following each pair of samples, CSU meat scientist Dale Woerner, PhD., identified each sample and discussed how its production system might have influenced its flavor and palatability.
The first two samples were both CAB and both aged for about 21 days, with the difference being wet ageing, in which the primal cut is wrapped and refrigerated, versus dry aging, where the primal is exposed to air in the cooler. Both samples were tender, juicy and had excellent beefy flavor. To me the dry-aged sample had a slightly stronger, “earthier” flavor, in a good way. Woerner explained that dry aging tends to add complexity to beef flavors, but also adds expense, as there is more loss to shrinkage during aging and trimming of dried-out meat. For more on the process of aging beef and its effects, read this report from NCBA.