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.
The next two samples included the non-branded or commodity USDA Choice steak and the grass-finished steak from Uruguay. The commodity Choice steak was good – tender and tasty, but not as juicy or flavorful as the CAB samples. That made sense, as Woerner explained the steaks were at the lower end of the Choice grade, of unknown origin and probably a shorter aging period. The grass-finished product was very tender, with an intense beef flavor but without the “grassy” or “gamey” flavor sometimes associated with grass-finished beef. Woerner explained the product comes from a production system in Uruguay using predominantly Hereford cattle that have been selected and managed for grass-finishing for generations. They graze on high-quality grass-and-legume pastures and go to slaughter at relatively young ages. Also, the beef was well-aged, probably for about 30 days, as it was shipped chilled from Uruguay.
The final two samples included the USDA Prime steak and the “Kobe style” Wagyu product. Personally, I’ve always believed the upper end of the Choice grade is the “sweet spot” for marbling in a steak, offering tenderness, juiciness and flavor along with the right texture. I’ve eaten Prime steaks before – expensive ones at high-end steakhouses where someone else was paying – and found them a little too fatty and soft in texture for my taste. That was not the case with these samples. Both were very tender while retaining a meaty texture. Flavor in both cases was rich and buttery, and the Wagyu product, which appeared even more heavily marbled than the Prime steak, had a unique and intense beef flavor.
My conclusion, and the consensus around the room, was that each sample was good in its own way. There were differences, but I would be happy to serve any of them to my family or friends. These were, of course, all high-quality products – they didn’t serve any no-roll steaks from worn-out rodeo steers. The differences, however, coupled with the high level of eating satisfaction across the samples, clearly illustrated the luxury of choice available to U.S. beef consumers. They can buy based on price or they can pay more for premium attributes, and in either case, will receive a safe, wholesome and delicious product. Marketers, for their part, can promote different styles of beef based on their actual merits, without exaggerated claims or negative attacks on beef from other production systems.
For more, watch our video interview with Travis Hoffman, Colorado Beef Quality Assurance coordinator, who helped organize the event.