Whisperings from a Beef Sommelier

Life just gets complicated

Not until Carrie Oliver made me do it, did I put so much effort into thinking about beef.  Before that encounter, beef was simply a protein option for my dinner.  Now, thanks to Carrie, I’ll never look at it, let alone taste beef the same way again.  It all started when Mr. Oyster and I attended a beef tasting led Oliver Ranch, specifically Carrier Oliver, a woman with many monikers:  Beef Whisperer, Beef Lady, Meat Lady, Beef Sommelier and a few others that I’ve forgotten.  Carrie Oliver is a force to be reckoned with, she is passionate about her subject, and approaches it with zeal.  My kind of person.

Before that fateful night, mostly as a result of moving away from the Midwest, I’ve consumed less meat, and while I still enjoy a good steak, its not something that frequently appears on my plate.  I also found that when I did consume a steak, just as often as not, I was disappointed in the experience; sometimes the taste was not what anticipated, or the mouthfeel was not what I expected – too buttery or chewy.  I confess that beyond that feeling of disappointment, I did not give it much thought until I encountered Carrie Oliver via Twitter (@CarrieOliver).  She’s changed my life, well certainly my view of beef. I really enjoyed this experience because it combined my two favorite activities:  enjoying food tasting coupled with an educational opportunity.

A Meaty Topic

Lake Sonoma

Beef is not one of the world’s leading proteins, lagging behind among others goat and poultry, but from my vantage point here in the US, you would never know.  The following list identifies the world’s leading importers, no real surprises.  China, per person does not eat much beef, but if you factor in their population, that little per person does not take long to add up.

Top Beef and Cattle Importers (2001)
M. East and N. Africa
CEECs (Central and Eastern European Countries)

(Source: Canada Broadcasting Assoc.)

In the United States, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) operates a voluntary beef grading program. The meat processor pays for a AMS meat grader to make his or her determination in compliance with Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) grade labeling procedures.  There are eight beef quality grades. The grades are based on two main criteria:

  1. the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) in the beef
  2. the maturity (estimated age of the animal at slaughter)

Some meat scientists object to the USDA grading method as it is not based on direct measurement of tenderness, although marbling and maturity are indicators of tenderness.  Most beef offered for sale in supermarkets is graded US Choice or Select.  US Prime beef is sold to hotels and upscale restaurants.  Beef rated as US Standard or less is almost never offered for grading (at some point the grade starts working against you).  Many other countries follow the US model.

U.S. Prime – Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 3% of meat is graded as Prime.

U.S. Choice – High quality, and widely available. Choice grade accounts for  ~ 54% of the feed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. Prime typically has a higher fat content than Choice, and is more evenly distributed (also known as “marbling”).

U.S. Select (formerly Good) – lowest grade commonly sold at retail, acceptable quality but less juicy and tender due to leanness.

U.S. Standard – Lower quality yet economical, lacking marbling.

U.S. Commercial – Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals.

Also rated but rarely seen (I hope) are U.S. Utility,  U.S. Cutter, U.S. Canner, and Utility, Cutter, and Canner grade – rarely used in foodservice operations and primarily used by processors and canners.

Traditionally, beef sold in steakhouses and supermarkets is advertised by its USDA grade; however, many restaurants and retailers now advertise beef on the strength of brand names (Neiman Ranch for example) and the reputation of a specific breed of cattle, such as black Angus, although this is misleading as all it takes is for the cow to have more than 51% black hair to receive that designation.

Special beef designations

meat choices at "meat camp

Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a branded-beef program was established in 1978 by Angus cattle producers due to the increasing demand for their product.  They promote the impression that Angus cattle have consistent, high-quality beef with superior taste. The brand is owned by the American Angus Association and its 35k+ rancher members. The terms Angus Beef or Black Angus Beef are loosely and frequently misused and/or confused with CAB, mostly in the foodservice industry. The brand or name Certified Angus Beef cannot be legally used by an establishment that is not licensed to do so. However, Black Simmental beef may also be included in the certified Angus Beef program.

Other designations include:

Certified Hereford Beef is certified to have come from Hereford cattle.

Grass fed beef was raised primarily on forage rather than in a feedlot.

Kobe beef: Wagyu breed cattle raised and fattened in the hills above Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. During the fattening period, the cattle are hand-fed (using high-energy feed, including beer and beer mash) and hand-massaged for tenderness and high fat content.

Halal beef is certified to have been processed in accordance with Muslim dietary laws.

Kosher beef is certified to have been processed in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.

Organic beef is produced without added hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals, though requirements for labeling something organic vary widely.

The European Union (EU) recognises the following Protected Designation of Origin beef brands

SpainCarne de Ávila, Carne de Cantabria, Carne de la Sierra de Guadarrama, Carne de Morucha de Salamanca, Carne de Vacuno del País o Euskal Okela

France Taureau de Camargue, Boeuf charolais du Bourbonnais, Boeuf de Chalosse, Boeuf du Maine

PortugalCarne Alentejana, Carne Arouquesa, Carne Barrosã, Carne Cachena da Peneda, Carne da Charneca, Carne de Bovino Cruzado dos Lameiros do Barroso, Carne dos Açores, Carne Marinhoa, Carne Maronesa, Carne Mertolenga, Carne Mirandesa

United Kingdom – Orkney Beef, Scotch Beef, Welsh Beef

Aging and tenderization

To improve tenderness of beef, it often is aged (i.e., stored refrigerated) to allow enzymes to weaken structural and myofibrillar proteins.  This is accomplished by either wet or dry aging.

Wet aging uses vacuum packaging to reduce spoilage and yield loss.

Dry aging involves hanging primals (usually ribs or loins) in humidity-controlled coolers.  The outer surfaces dry out and can support growth of molds (and spoilage bacteria, if too humid), resulting in the need to trim and evaporative losses (blood and juices drain from the meat).  Evaporation concentrates the remaining proteins, increasing the flavor intensity, and the molds can contribute a nut-like flavor. The majority of the tenderizing effect occurs in the first ten days, although two to three days produces significant effects.

Boxed beef is distributed in vacuum packaging, and so effectively is wet aged during distribution and storage. Premium steakhouses dry age for 21 to 28 days, or wet age up to 45 days for maximum effect on flavor and tenderness. Meat from less tender cuts or older cattle can be mechanically tenderized – punctured with hundreds of blades.  Also, exogenous proteolytic enzyme solutions can be injected to supplement the existing enzymes.  Likewise, solutions of salt and sodium phosphates can be injected to improves juiciness and tenderness.  The salts can improve the flavor, but phosphate may add a soapy flavor.

Digging In – Meat Camp

How it Started:

Is there clarity ahead?

Carrie, a marketing expert extraordinaire, was struck, when she attended an industry event where the experts she talked to regarding beef could not answer, what she thought were some pretty fundamental questions, because they had never looked at beef through her lens as a marketer.  She looked at the beef industry and had what sounds like an epiphany – ah ha, it mirrors the wine industry in its toddler years – there were a lot of gaps that could be filled in.  She was also frustrated that when she purchased her premium cut steak from her grocer that the experience could be vastly different each time.  One meal it was fantastic, and the second, well – blah!  However, unlike me, she decided to do something about it.

She mapped the similarities she found between the beef and wine industry and realized there was no way to compare different beef – in the wine industry, taste testing abounds.  Inspired, she purchased an assortment of different beef samples and have her neighbors over for a taste testing.  They discovered, for themselves, the differences and nuances, but Carrie recognized that there was no common vocabulary to describe the the various components.  She worked with some culinary experts to standardize the meanings so when people described the taste or texture they had a solid and consistent method to compare opinions.  We used three scales she developed:

  1. Texture: tough → mushy
  2. Personality and Character: reserved → adventurous
  3. Impression: brief → long lasting

For each scale she had a list of adjectives to help us identify where we thought the meat we tasted fit in that scale.  Additionally, she had a wide list of descriptions to help us pick out the flavors we tasted in the beef.

How It Works:

Hard at work

Each presentation can vary depending on the venue available, and who helps host.  Canvas Underground helped host this event and they were outstanding.  I’d long wanted to attend one of their events and was not disappointed.  They are part of the Ghetto Gourmet and their mission is ” Cooking is for people first.  We do this to bring people together over a great meal, confident that eating together creates friendships, and friendships change the world.”  The venue was at the home of Rebecca Alon of Slow Food Berkley and her housemates, and upon our arrival, we found Peter Jackson of Miss Pearl’s Jam House, preparing the steaks and other dishes for our dining pleasure.

However before we dug into the tasty tidbits, Carrie had an educational session for us.  We were treated to a rancher’s perspective, Seth Nischke of Open Space Meats on raising meat humanely and organically.  Seth pointed out that contrary to conventional  wisdom, the less he did for his cows the better off they were.  He found that by letting them feed on what they desired, instead of forcing a particular food on them, and only disrupting them briefly when it was time to separate the herd to extract the cattle for the market, they were much healthier and better off.

Carrie also recruited an artisinal butcher (Tracy Smaciarz) of Heritage Meat, to speak to the group about how he selects his meat and prepares his meats.  His drive and commitment to his work really came through.

Carrie, Seth and Tracy all rotated around the tables answering questions are the night went on, making it a very educational experience.  One point they all raised, that I found interesting, was that the rancher might be doing the very best for the cattle, but if at the point of slaughter or beyond, the next person in the chain does not treat the animal well, then all is for naught.

The arrangement varies by venue, but we were instructed in our email to abstain from drinking wine until after the tasting as some varitels may overwhelm the flavor of the beef and defeat the purpose of the tasting.  A folder containing a comment sheet and a tip sheet defining the tastes and scale is provided.

sample plate

sample plate

We had two tasting plates, each one with three slices of beef to a plate.  A color coded piece of paper was placed next to each piece of beef so we knew which one to reference when making our comments.

Brittany Piehl took photos in addition to creating a wonderful desert.  This link has several photos from the event and as you can see, Mr. Oyster and I are enthralled in the discussion.

Who Should Attend:

Consumers – People like me, curious about their food and interested in learning more.  Because, really, how often are you going to purchase and prepare six different slices of beef and have a taste testing?  I learned a lot more of what appealed to me in terms of taste and texture, in a way I never considered before.  Beef was always, well, just beef.

Ranchers – What a great opportunity to understand how their meat matches up against other producers.

Food Industry Experts – People who want to understand what a real difference exists between all the meats

The Meat We Sampled

Wet-Aged, Grass Finished Angus Cross
Northern MO & West Central IL
Jim Wood, Jim Crum, Kenneth & Pat Suter
US Wellness Meats

Dry-Aged, Grain Finished Charolais
Front Range Region, CO
Ellicott & Ferris Families
Colorado’s Best Beef
NOTE: Can also be secured through Oliver Ranch

Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished Angus Cross
Sierra Nevada/Costal Hills, San Joaqui, Carson Valley, NV
Seth & Mica Nitschke
Open Space Meats

Wet-Aged, Grain Finished Wagyu-Angus
Holdrege, NE
Under Direction of RJ Freeborn
Kobe Beef America
NOTE: Can also be secured through Oliver Ranch

Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished Registered Black Angus
Scott River Valley, Siskiyou County
Jeff & Erin Fowle
KK Bar Ranch

Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished, Black Angus-Cross
Scott River Valley, Siskiyou County
Gareth & Melinda Plank
Scott River Ranch

As you can see some meat was dry-aged, and some wet-aged.  I did not discern a difference, although looking back over my notes, my two favorites that night were both dry-aged.  I can say, I was amazed at how different all the meats were in terms of texture, personality, impression and tasting.

Carrie also pointed out that none of the meat we sampled would have secured the Prime classification or maybe even the Choice, but that was due to fat content, or lack of, in the case of these meats.  They were all delicious and dispelled the notion that you need a lot of fat on your meat to convey taste.

After we completed our six samples, Chef Jackson awed us with a few small plates:

Sweet Potato Agnolotti with Meyer Lemon Sauce (recipe below)

Mushroom and Chicory Salad with Ancho Chili and Cypress Grove Goat Cheese with Pumpkin Seed Sauce

Here’s a recipe of the Meyer Lemon Sauce that was drizzled over Chef Jackson’s sweet potato agnolotti that melted in our mouths:

Meyer Lemon Sauce


Juice and grated zest of 1 large Meyer lemon
½ c honey
½ c water
1 lb butter
1 T lecithin powder
s + p to taste

Combine the lemon juice, zest honey and water in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and reduce by half. Whisk in the lecithin powder, then the butter a little at a time. When all the butter is incorporated, remove from heat and whip until very frothy with a hand blender. Adjust to taste with honey, lemon, salt and pepper.

Topping off the evening we had a delicious orange cornbread cake by Brittany Piehl.

I learned that there is so much more to this meat business than I imagined.  No longer is beef just a protein option for me.  In addition to the wet versus dry aging process, I must consider the sustainability and organic issues, grass fed, and type of breed.  True, the more I learn, the more complicated it gets, but also the more interesting.  The situation reminds me of when I first started drinking wine – “Make mine a red”, and now look at me.

Update me when site is updated

23 comments for “Whisperings from a Beef Sommelier

  1. December 24, 2009 at 12:46 PM

    Wow! What a great write up. I am working (amidst the last minute Xmas baking) on writing up some notes from a quick Q & A with Carrie on “artisan beef.” I will definitely link to this post rather that re-invent this wheel. Great job!

  2. December 24, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    I adore following Carrie on Twitter, she is a wonderful resource! Someday I hope to have the opportunity to attend one of her events.

    This is a wonderful post, very informative. Looking forward to more from you!

  3. December 25, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    Fascinating. I have never seen an event like that.I am fussy about where my meat comes from. Happy holidays from the Winter Wonderland.

  4. December 25, 2009 at 9:46 AM

    Wonderful post as usual! Happy holidays!!!!!!Thank you so much for this fantastic site 🙂

  5. December 25, 2009 at 11:26 PM

    Carrie is so great. She, too, made me see beef in a whole different way. To approach it like you would wine was a novel experience for me. But darned if she wasn’t right that you definitely can detect very distinct taste and texture differences. Truly an eye-opening and palate-awakening experience.

  6. December 26, 2009 at 6:34 AM

    I still don’t count myself as a beef eater but was impressed by Carrie, who spoke at IFBC in Seattle. She has an absolute passion for what she does.

  7. admin
    December 26, 2009 at 7:26 AM

    Jacqueline – Thanks!

    Heidi – She is great, and I was very excited that I finally got to meet her in person.

    Claudia – The discussion and the food really brought it together

    Erica – Thanks and you too!

    Carolyn – You’re right on, it was really eye opening

    Spud – Agree about Carrie 100%, that is what drew me to attend the event

  8. December 26, 2009 at 3:39 PM

    This beefy post is very familiar for me.
    Uruguay is the beef kingdom and you know that my country is the only from South America that it is allowed to export beef meat boneless to US.
    Both, USA and Uruguay are among of the top beef eaters at the world.
    Now I want an asado (beef bbqed)..urgently 🙂
    Excellent Holidays for you!



  9. December 27, 2009 at 11:53 AM

    Sounds like it was such a great event with so much good info! Hope you having a great holiday and best wishes for the new year!

  10. December 27, 2009 at 3:31 PM

    First, I love the new look of your blog. It really looks great!

    Second, this is a great post. So with the table, is that just the highest importers of beef? So countries who raise their own beef and eat it wouldn’t be in it? I’m asking because I was really surprised that Brazil and even Argentina weren’t on the list. I’ve never seen a people eat so much beef in my life as I did when we were living in Brazil. It’s rare that most of the people we knew wouldn’t have it at least one meal a day.

    I’d love to take a class/tasting like that. When we visited the meat processing plant on Purdue’s campus when I was in undergrad the whole idea of the cuts and types really intrigued me. Now, I’m dealing with the well known omnivore’s dilemma, but I find beef to be a very interesting foodie subject.

  11. December 27, 2009 at 3:37 PM

    My husband is a big fan of beef, I love it too but not as much as he does. I wish he would that chance of attending such an event. Thank you for sharing that much information. Happy new year to you and your family.

  12. December 27, 2009 at 3:44 PM

    I am going to have to become a follower of her, and keep my eye out for one of these educational seminars/tastings…

    I missed Star Chef this year, but hopefully she might be encouraged to attend and teach next year!

    Love the recipes, and great job as always Ms. Oyster!

  13. December 27, 2009 at 5:13 PM

    I really like the new look of your blog!
    Is this from the beef tasting event? How fun!

    Yeah, that’s why I don’t really eat steak at home. The good stuff is only available in the restaurants! Not so popular in the states, but in Japan, I like Hida beef and Matsuzaka beef, both of which are very respected for their quality, almost as much as Kobe beef.

    Happy Holidays!

  14. December 27, 2009 at 9:41 PM

    Nice! You changed the layout! I think it is more accessible like this. I like it!

    I like beef, but only if it has been ground up and processed. I guess I’m the anti-beef lover. The less beefy it tastes, the better for me. 😉

  15. December 28, 2009 at 7:18 AM

    Excellent, *excellent* post! Other than enlightening me on many things, this post makes me want to: 1. be trained as a professional beef sommelier if that means I get to eat beef all day everyday, and 2. be a Kobe cow in my next life if it means I get drinks and hand-massaged all day everyday.

    In all seriousness, though, I want to explore the science of beef dry-aging. Sounds like a skill every steak lover should have.

  16. admin
    December 28, 2009 at 7:32 AM

    Gera – Uraguay is one of the world’s top exporters so I’ll defer to your expertise. You just made me want asado urgently too =)

    Lisa – It was lots of fun and look forward to staying connected in the new year.

    Lori – This list is top importers, only – Brazil and Argentina are on the list for top exporters to be sure. I did not do enough digging but will have to find a list using top consumers, which would, to your point, be a better measurement. If Carrie ever heads your way, definitely see if you can get a tasting with her – you would really enjoy it, especially with your immersion into such strong beef cultures.

    Zerrin – I think you would both enjoy it. I took my husband and it “knocked his socks off” – he still talks about how much he liked it. You would probably appreciate the educational portion more of the experience. I learned so much that I could not share here.

    Chef E – You should definitely connect with Carrie, she’s a person you should know.

    Em – I’m so glad you like it, and can see it now. I should have changed it earlier but my husband was very attached to the previous version. This one is certainly more straightforward.

    Sophia – you are a ground chuck expert extroidinaire – I confess to having a strong weakness for hamburger too. However, you may have changed your mind after this tasting.

    Leela – Thanks – Carrie may be able to arrange the training. I’m up there, the life of a Kobe cow sounds pretty good up until the end. I’m with you on the drying, but feel my new neighbors might object to seeing carcasses hanging around. However, I just found out my neighbor is an artisinal butcher, so I may be pestering him.

  17. December 28, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    Wow, fascinating read! Never thought there could be so many variations. I always found beef the most difficult meat to cook and now I can understand why. Thank you so much and hope you’re having a lovely Christmas holiday!

  18. December 28, 2009 at 5:13 PM

    Happy new year!!! I love your new site 🙂

  19. December 28, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    Oooooh! I’m digging the new look of the blog. Very nice! Nothing like starting the new year with a new ‘do. 😉

  20. December 29, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    You’ve changed the layout – looks great. Thanks for explaining the various grades of beef – next time I’m over I can be sure to get what I want now.

  21. February 15, 2010 at 2:21 PM

    I just wanted to say that I found your site via Goolge and I am glad I did. Keep up the good work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have more free time away from the books. Thanks again!

  22. March 15, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    Very interesting info. I was searching the web and finally I found Your blog. Regards.

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