Monday, March 28, 2011

"Generic" Steak or "Proven" Steak?


Your favorite steakhouse probably takes justifiable pride in educating you and its other customers about wine, including the name of the farm which grows the grapes, the location, geography, terrain and weather of the farm, the type of grapes, the year of the crop and harvest, the age of the wine, etc.  The sum of all these details is the "provenance" of the wine.  A wine with a known provenance is called a "proven" wine (from the word provenance).  So your steakhouse tells you quite a lot of information about the provenance of the wine they serve you.

Yet, even though it is a steakhouse, it gives you almost no information about the provenance of your steak!  Your steakhouse doesn't reveal the name or location of the farm, the cattle breed, sex, date of birth, age, the feed, or other information about the cattle or steak.  All these and many more attributes affect the taste and texture of your steak.  Yet your steakhouse does not give you any of the provenance, because the steakhouse itself has none of this information.

So your steakhouse tells you more about your wine than about your steak. You are informed about the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, but nothing about whether your steak is male (steer) or female (heifer), whether its breed is a Shorthorn or Friesian, whether the calf was born in the Spring or Fall, whether it was fed grain or only grass, whether it was raised in the snow or in the desert, and so forth. You know everything about your wine and can even visit the winery, but you know almost nothing about your steak.


Because, although beef processors keep detailed records of the cattle they process, they provide none of that information to the distributors. As a result, the butchers, markets, steakhouses and you know nothing about where the farm or cattle where your steak came from.  The beef industry today operates in exactly the same way as the wine industry in past decades.


In the 1960s, most Americans drank "jug wine" at their favorite steakhouse -- jug wine like Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

At that time, there were many different grape farms, which grew many different types of wine grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.).  The grape farms sold their grapes to a central processor (a winery), which mixed and blended the grapes together to produce "generic" wine. 

In the 1960's, this "generic" or "jug wine" was almost the only wine available, and the consumer had no information about the provenance of the "generic" wine, including the name of the winery, the location of the vineyard, the type of grape, the year it was grown, etc.


In the 1970s, the best wineries began to teach consumers about the differences in grapes and geography, and Americans began to demand wine with a vintage, varietel, and known provenance.

Wineries taught consumers, who demanded that vendors not sell only "generic" wine but also "proven" wine -- wine that was sold with a disclosed provenance.

Today, "jug wine" has all but disappeared from the shelves of American markets, having given way to the era of "proven" wine -- with a known provenance.


Steak in 2011 is like wine was in the 1960s. Today's steak is like "jug wine" -- from an unknown farm, and unknown breed, and unknown age, etc.

Beef processors today treat cattle like wineries treated grapes in the 1960s.  Beef processors purchase dozens of breeds of cattle from thousands of individual farmers.  Then the processors mix and process all the cattle together, where the cattle are slaughtered and the beef is cut.  At the end of the process, the beef is boxed, and no purchaser can know anything about the farm that raised the cattle or the cattle's breed, sex, date of birth, feed, etc.

Thus, Americans today can purchase only "generic" steak.  A "generic" steak means a steak which comes from an unknown heifer, steer, cow or bull, with an unknown breed, unknown date of birth, raised at an unknown farm, fed an unknown diet with undetermined additional hormones and antibiotics, etc.  Unfortunately, the only steak available at almost all steakhouses and butchers today is "generic" steak.

In contrast, a "proven" steak (from the word "provenance") includes all the details of the steak's origin, including its breed, sex, age, feed, etc. This detailed information may be printed on a label or may be available online.  "Proven" steak is extremely rare today, sold at only the most exclusive (and expensive) steakhouses and by only the very best butchers and markets.

Today, we live at the beginning of a new era, in which the consumer will be able to find "proven" steak, not just "generic" steak.  Steak with a known provenance will become more widely available, where the name of the farm, the breed of the cattle, its age and breed, and other attributes can be determined by the consumer.


On March 20, 2010, at the annual North American Meat Processors Management Conference in Chicago, a panel of distinguished American chefs explained the benefits of offering "proven" steak.  Some beef processors continue to object to the extra work involved in tracking the provenance of each head of cattle.

However, as Carrie Oliver of The Artisan Beef Institute has been teaching for years, the wine industry went through the same "provenance" issue two generations ago.  In the 1960s, the wineries which did not recognize the beginning of the new era of "proven" wines were doomed to fail. 

Today, the beef processors, steakhouses, butchers and markets which do not recognize the end of the era of "generic" steak and the beginning of the era of the "proven" steak are doomed to fail, just as the Gallo lost the market dominance of its Hearty Burgundy jug wine.

SteakPerfection welcomes the day when a steak buyer at a steakhouse or butcher can decide whether to purchse a "generic" steak or a "proven" steak. 


Here is an example and sample of the information that will soon be available with the purchase of a "proven" steak. This type of information will be avaialbe, not on the label or menu, but online at the farm's website and with the entry of the steak's serial number:
  • On September 18, 2009, the male calf was born at the CC Farms in San Luis Obispo, California;
  • The breed of the calf was Friesian;
  • The calf was castrated at birth, thus becoming a steer, since castration at birth results in increased marbling (but decreased yield);
  • During the 8 months from September 18, 2009 through May 18, 2010, the calf was milk-fed at CC Farms;
  • On May 18, 2010, at the age of 8 months, the calf was weaned and trucked humanely and with minimal stress by C. Trucking from CC Farms to VV Farms in Brawley, California;
  • During the 10 months from May 18, 2010 through March 18, 2011, the steer was raised at VV Farms, where it was fed a 100% vegetarian diet consisting of a mixture of corn, barley, alfalfa, soy and molasses, with the addition of vitamins and minerals but no hormones or antibiotics;
  • On March 18, 2011, the steer was slaughtered at the age of 18 months at BB Processing, in Central City, California, where it was inspected, graded as USDA Prime Grade, scored as Abundantly-Marbled-40, and processed into various subprimals, including two Short Loin subprimals, which were cryovaced and boxed;
  • During the 14 days from March 20 through April 3, 2011, the short loin was wet-aged in the cryovac package at a temperature of 33°;
  • During the 56 days from April 3 through May 29, 2011, the short loin was dry-aged at Bob's Butcher Shop in West Beach, California, in an aging room with a temperature of 33°, humidity of 80%, air-flow of 0.5 meters/second, and bacterial control of 100% UV;
  • On May 29, 2011, the short loin was removed from the aging room, trimmed of fat, and cut into the several 2"-thick steaks, which included 3 Porterhouse steaks;  3 T-bone steaks;  and one loin steak (which is the authentic Delmonico steak);  and
  • On Memorial Day, May 30, 2011, the top loin was grilled to perfection and enjoyed.  
If you want a "proven" steak, then the solution is for you and your friends to ask your favorite steakhouse and your favorite butcher to give you the same information about your steak as they do about your wine.  Encourage them to try, and give them a little time to succeed.  But if they cannot give you this information, then give your business to steakhouses and butchers who do provide information about your steak.


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