Beef and Beer: Can we de-commodify grassfed meat?
You know, it's kind of amazing to realize that you can get pretty good craft beer at nearly any convenience store in a city. You can even get it at a random mediocre bar your friend dragged you to for a birthday party or something. It's pretty much everywhere at this point. I wasn't allowed to drink when I was 5, but I hear that twenty years ago it definitely wasn't that way. I've often mused about what it would be like if you could get good grass-fed meat so easily.
But imagine if you went to a good bar and you asked what was on tap and they said "craft beer." You've heard good things about it. You ask what kind and they are like "well, it's artisan and it's certified craft beer." You order a pint and it's really really bitter. You decide to order a Corona next time.
Unfortunately that's kind of where grass-fed meat is now. It's a premium product, people are interested in buying it, but it's stuck in some kind of commodity purgatory. I'm often torn between thinking that it's great that some jerky in the store says "grass-fed" on the label and that there are "grass-fed" burger bars across Chicago, and kind of disappointed in them. Most of the time if you contact the companies that make those products or talk to the burger bar owners, they won't even tell you what farms the animals are from.
This is bad. I recall a conversion I had a few months ago with a guy at the gym. I told him I mainly buy grass-fed meat from local farmers and he said "yeah, I tried that, but it tasted so awful that I don't think I'll buy it again." I asked him where it came from and he had no idea.
Honestly, I've bought some positively awful grass-fed meat. It sucks to spend that kind of money on something that you end up having to drown in spices. Luckily I know that not all meat is the same. "Grass-fed" is a minimum premium standard that has nothing to do with taste quality. Taste is affected by diet, breed, age of animal, and butchering skill, among many other things. Yes, consumers buying these products often need to learn a few basic cooking skills, but that won't save them from meat that's just not very good (a meat tenderizer, added fat, tons of spices can sometimes save mediocre meat).
So the whole commodity attitude damages the product's reputation. I also think it stifles producer innovation (of course there are tons of things doing that, like regulation, this is just one of them). I was drinking some excellent Rockmill beer this weekend and I thought, what if niche meat were more like craft beer? What if people knew of certain producers and knew their product tasted different? What if stores stocked meat from multiple producers and labeled it as such?
I'm happy to say there are already some places in Chicago I know of that treat meat like this. The Butcher and the Burger is one of them. If you have been to the other burger bars in Chicago and didn't like them, definitely try this place. My main complaint is that they don't always get my order right (medium when I said rare) and they use peanut oil in the fryer, but the meat itself is very good and some of it is even from one of the owner's own farms. There are some exceptions on the menu, so I'd stick with the meat from specific farms, such as the Q7 beef, which is very silky and has a good amount of fat, and the La Pryor pork.
The good butcher shops I've been to are also pretty good about this. In NYC you have The Meat Hook and Dickson's Farmstand. In Chicago you have The Butcher & The Larder and Publican Quality Meats. Of course farmer's markets seem like a good option, but few allow consumers to taste before buying, which is an obstacle because why should I buy extremely expensive meat if I don't know what it tastes like? With craft beers, tastings are common. I had Mint Creek Farms lamb at a restaurant before, so that's how I started buying from them. With Meatshare I often worked with farmers new to selling to urban markets and they offered their meat at lower prices or offered tastings in order to gain a foothold. The cool thing about that is I can tell you exactly what their products tasted like. And they all tasted different. The pork from Spring Lake Farm, for example, had a high percentage of hay in the diet, giving the pork a delicious almost-beefy savory flavor. B&Y farms, a producer that later moved on to the farmer's market after working with us, produced Tunis lamb that had these fatty wonderful tails that braised up very nicely. The goat I would buy from Glynwood was the best goat I've ever had, not too fatty and not too lean.*
I've followed Carrie Oliver on Twitter for awhile and she does some events with beef tasting that seem like a promising model. I think we definitely need more of this- more emphasis on meat as a diverse producer-oriented product.
*that's the problem I have with Whole Food's lamb. The NZ stuff is grass-fed, but often is so terribly lean and gamey. The US lamb is usually too fatty and a little flavorless. I like balance.