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Battle of the Beef: The Final Chapter

If you read the first two rounds of my Battle of the Beef taste test challenge and are still hungry for more, this one's for you. The final chapter. This is where I cover the stuff I had to leave out of the first two posts to keep them short enough to make for a quick and easy read. So...if you are interested in learning about why the steaks tasted as they did, are curious about my testing methodology, or just need something to put you to sleep, this post is for you. I've included subheadings so you can skip around to the sections that interest you most. Or just look at the pictures...I included several shots of my steaks toward the end of the post, raw and case you ever wanted to see the difference between what a $50 steak and a $100 steak looks like.

The Farms

SRF and Roseda are both operations serving a niche market: premium quality beef at and above USDA Prime grade. SRF is a family owned and operated business that has been raising and selling high-quality beef since 1968. They are one of four subsidiaries owned by parent company Agri Beef. Roseda is a relative newcomer by comparison, formed by a Baltimore businessman in 1996 who knows a lot about business, not so much about beef…at least not back then.

Both farms use professional herd managers...SRF hired Kent Clark, and Roseda hired Dean Bryant. Both come from multi-generation cattle families, and both brought a wealth of experience to the herds they were hired to manage. Kent holds an undergraduate degree in animal science from Oregon State University, and he’s been the SRF herd manager since 2011. He is responsible for developing and maintaining SRF’s three herds of 1,200 head of cattle on their 80,000 acre ranch near Loomis, Washington.

Roseda’s herd manager, Dean Bryant, holds an undergraduate degree in animal science as well as a Masters in animal genetics, both from Purdue University. Dean was herd manager of the well-known (within the cattle industry) Wye Angus herd on Maryland’s Eastern Shore before signing on as Roseda’s herd manager in 1996, and he brought the Wye Angus genetic line with him to Roseda. Dean is responsible for developing and maintaining a herd of about 600 cattle on Roseda's 350 acre farm near Monkton, Maryland as well as on other local farms Roseda works with on a co-op basis to expand the range of their range. So to speak.

Not surprisingly, I found quite a few similarities between SRF and Roseda. They share a common goal of producing premium quality beef, and there aren't all that many ways to do that. I did note three key factors that account for the bulk of the differences I found in my taste tests…terroir, bovine genetics, and how they age their beef.

Terroir Matters

I’ve never eaten grass, well not since I was a toddler anyway. But if I did, I expect Washington grass would taste different than Maryland grass. I do eat corn, and I know with certainty Maryland corn tastes different than corn grown in the mid-West. It makes sense to me then that meat from animals who spend most of their lives eating grass would pick up at least some of the local flavor from what they eat…that’s terroir.

There is an obvious difference in the flavor of an SRF steak as compared with a Roseda steak. The SRF steak is bolder, the Roseda steak has a milder beef flavor to it. And then there's the difference in fat, SRF beef has more...too much for my tastes...and Roseda beef has less. Most of those differences come from breeding and I’ll get into that in a bit. The more subtle differences in flavor, where they exist, come from terroir.

Yes, SRF’s steak had a pleasantly strong beef flavor that stuck around in my mouth quite a while. Their steaks were good, particularly their striploin (NY strip). That was just about the most pefect steak I've ever eaten, that I cooked myself. And while their rib eye had just as much beef flavor, I didn't enjoy it so much because it had too much fat for my tastes. I'm not talking about the kind of fat you get from well marbled beef, though SRF's steaks are nicely marbled. I'm talking about the fat that parks itself on my tastebuds and blocks any other flavor sensation from getting in. That's just annoying, and that describes SRF's rib eye. After two bites I couldn't eat any more...and they were small bites. I don't have much more to say about the SRF steaks because there isn't much more to say. Their steaks were uncomplicated, pretty much a one note Samba. It was a good note, but it was still just one...beef. For beef lovers that's a good thing. I was hoping for more.

Roseda's steaks by contrast were a symphony of flavor. The beef notes were milder than the SRF steaks, but that milder flavor came with more complexity…nuances that continued to evolve and reveal themselves to my palate the way a composer weaves motifs around a theme. You have to work to get at all of that complexity, but for my palate it was worth the work. Does that make them better than SRF? No...just different. At this level of quality, "better" is subjective and depends on what you look for in your beef.

One of the flavor nuances I get in Roseda beef that I don't in SRF beef is a hint of freshly mowed spring hay. I don't always pick up on it, but I do often enough to convince me it's not just my taste buds saying, "Hey...let's mess with Jeff's head and make up flavors that aren't there." I've tasted it in beef from other farms here in Maryland that rely on open field grazing for the bulk of their cattle's feed, which is what keyed me into it as a marker of Maryland terroir. It’s the kind of thing most beef lovers probably wouldn’t notice, and if they did, they might find it naggingly annoying. It isn’t obvious, but it’s there, lingering in the background like a countermelody. And I love it.

SRF and Roseda’s herds spend the bulk of their lives grazing free range on a diet of local field grasses. Both farms employ a short finishing period to bulk their cattle up prior to slaughter, but neither farm uses hormones or additives. They also don’t employ prophylactic antibiotics herd wide. Which is not to say they don’t use antibiotics at all…they do, but only for therapeutic purposes, and only on individual cows.

One interesting difference between SRF and Roseda’s approach to their herds is the feed they supplement the cattle’s diet with during the winter months, when field grass may be covered in snow or is otherwise less abundant. SRF uses stored grain. Roseda uses beer.

Well…not exactly beer, but the next best thing. They use spent brewery grains, the barley and hops that are left at the bottom of the brewer’s fermentation vat after they’ve brewed and bottled a batch of beer. That spent grain has to be removed and disposed of before the vat can be sanitized and readied for another batch, and most breweries pay to have someone haul it away for composting. Roseda cut a deal with a local brewery to haul away their spent grains, which they then use as feed. Now that’s a win-win.

Terroir, even the one note Samba that comes through in SRF's beef (it really is a good note), is a hallmark of premium quality beef. You won't get it from the beef you buy in the grocery store. That all comes from the four largest meat production companies in the country, what I call the Big Four. Even Wegman's, who used to source their beef from local farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, now sources their beef from one of the Big Four. Which is why I no longer get my beef from Wegmans. Well, that and the dog incident.

The Big Four use cattle raised in the mid-West, and their goal is to get their cattle as fat as they can, as fast they can, and then get them to market so they can make money. From what I could gather from the internet, Roseda's annual sales are about $8 Million, and SRF's are at $250 Million. By contrast, each the Big Four report annual sales in excess of $7 Billion. Just as there aren't many ways to develop premium cattle, there aren't all that many ways to achieve the sales the Big Four post annually, beyond parking their cows in front of a pile of high protein feed...with all the terroir processed out.

Bovine Genetics Matter

The beef I taste tested came from cattle that were the result of cross-breeding Wagyu with some other breed. The original Wagyu genetics came from a handful of Wagyu cattle imported to the U.S. from Japan in 1976. Since then there have only been about 200 pure bred Wagyu cattle imported from 1997 Japan declared their Wagyu cattle to be a National Treasure and banned any further exportation of either the cattle or their DNA. The National Treasure designation is a Ministry level honor that carries great meaning to the Japanese. Now, all of the Wagyu genetics in American Wagyu beef are derived from that original small pool of genes.

Both SRF and Roseda have their own proprietary program of genetics-based cross breeding, proprietary meaning you don't really know what you're getting. That's not entirely true. You can reach some conclusions if you do your homework, and I did, or at least I tried.

The USDA requires any beef labled as American Wagyu to be from “offspring of the Wagyu breed with more than 46.875% traceable Wagyu genetics.” How do they come up with that stuff? Because SRF uses the American Wagyu label with their Gold Grade beef, you know you are getting at least 46.875% of traceable Wagyu genetics. But probably not much more than that. Why? Becayse Wagyu cattle are, on average, smaller than the breeds of cattle they are most commonly crossed with to create American Wagyu. Breeding to higher than 50% Wagyu genetics could have an undesirable impact on size, which means less beef to market and less money in the pockets of the producers.

Where does the other 53.125% of the genetics in SRF's beef come from? That's the proprietary part. SRF's website only says it comes from "Continental breeds" which could be any of a dozen breeds that originated throughout Europe. But not Angus. The Angus breed originated in Scotland and is considered a British breed, not a Continental breed. I wasn't able to determine what specific Continental breed SRF uses in their American Wagyu, but it is probably one that has some size to it. One of the things I noticed in my taste test is that SRF's steaks are huge in comparison to Roseda's, and it wasn't just the butcher's cut. The muscles were just bigger, which means they came from a bigger cow. The thing is, other than knowing it isn't Angus, you don't know what breed SRF crosses their Wagyu genetics with, because they don't tell you.

Roseda does not use the American Wagyu label, instead branding their Wagyu product as Wagus. It’s a descriptive label that captures the Wagyu/Angus cross that they have come up with, without the stricture that comes with USDA labeling requirements. So how much actual Wagyu does ther Wagus beef have? You don't know...that's their proprietary part. But Roseda is more transparent and you can figure some of it out. Or you can ask. Which I did. I had a wonderful conversation with herd manager Dean Bryant. While he didn't give me specifics, and I didn't press him on it, you can bet their Wagus beef has less than 46.875% of traceable Wagyu genetics. Otherwise they'd use the American Wagyu lablel.

Based on my conversation with Dean, as well as the amount of marbling in my test steaks, I would put the amount of Wagyu genetics in Roseda's Wagus beef at closer to 25%. But that's just a guess. It was clear from my conversation with Dean that he views the addition of Wagyus genetics as the lesser part of the equation, preferring to put his energy toward further improvements in Roseda's Angus herd.

Unlike SRF, Roseda does tell consumers where the rest of their bovine genetics come from...Black Angus. But Roseda doesn't use just any Black Angus. Herd manager Dean Bryant has been using his genetic manipulation of Wye Angus cattle to develop Angus cattle that deliver superior tenderness, and flavor that is more complex than what you can get from Continental breeds. I'm not talking about gene splicing or anything like that, but it is more complicated, more scientific, and more deliberate than just letting the prize bull loose into a pasture with cows in heat and letting nature take it's course.

To get the additional tenderness and complexity of flavor Dean sought from his Angus cattle, he had to give up some of the Black Angus' size. The result is higher quality meat, but in a smaller than average package. I think that is a fair trade-off, and Dean has said as much. You can see that in the reduced size of Roseda's steaks, and you can taste it in their richly complex flavors.

I'm fairly certain most people who order SRF beef don't give any thought to what breed their meat comes from, but I do. I like to know what I'm eating. In any event, regardless of the breed used to cross with Wagyu, bovine genetics matter. It is what accounted for the bulk of the differences in my taste tests. An not just from the amount of Wagyu genetics in the beef...the rest of it matters too, and maybe more so.

Aging Beef Matters…Sort Of

In theory, aging beef in a temperature and humidity controlled environment allows two things to happen that beef lovers find desirable. The first thing is it allows moisture to evaporate which concentrates the beef flavor. The other thing that happens is enzymes in the beef start to break down proteins in muscle tissue which tenderizes the beef. More flavor, more tender...more better.

There are some downsides beef producers have to accept when they decide to age their beef. Because of the moisture evaporation, aged beef weighs less than un-aged beef. Less weight is money out of the supplier's pocket. It also takes time to age beef which means more time before producers can recover the investment they've made getting their cattle to slaughter. And lastly, it costs money to buy, maintain, and operate the equipment required to provide the temperature and humidity controlled environment necessary to properly age beef. For the consumer, the downside to buying aged beef is that it costs more. The producers still have to make money, even producers of premium beef, so they pass those costs on in the form of higher prices.

In practice, whether...and how much...aging improves beef depends mostly on how long it's aged, not so much on how it's aged. As I prepared my steaks for the taste test, I noticed they looked different. Really different. The SRF steaks were a deep red, almost purple in color…even the fat was deeply colored. Roseda’s steaks were a more familiar and lighter shade of red with white colored fat. You can see the difference in the picture I took of the rib eyes as I prepped them for the taste test (SRF on the left, Roseda on the right). You can also see the difference in marbling and muscle group size, both of which I attribute to bovine genetics. I figured the difference in color was caused by the different approaches the two farms use to age their beef, and it was, but I didn’t know why the steaks had such different colors, nor what it might mean to my taste test, so I dug into it.

Roseda dry ages their beef for 14-21 days, hanging the carcasses before they are butchered into primals or subprimals in open air in a refrigerated and humidity-controlled environment. SRF uses a combination of wet aging (21 days) and dry aging (30 days) for their Gold Grade beef, but their beef is aged in a vacuum. For the wet phase, the beef is first butchered down to subprimals (rib, loin, chuck, etc) and each subprimal is then vacuum sealed in plastic. After wet aging for 21 days the subprimals are removed from the packaging, any liquid that has accumulated is drained, and the subprimals are then put in fresh vacuum sealed packaging for 30 days of dry aging.

Once the aging process is complete, both SRF and Roseda send the beef to the butcher for portioning into steaks and other cuts, and the cuts are put in vacuum sealed packaging. Once packaged, the cuts get blast frozen, a process that almost instantly drops the cut's temperature down to a frigid -20 to -30 deg F, and then stored in a sub-zero freezer until someone places an order.

The SRF approach to aging was new to me, not only that you could wet age beef, but that you would age the beef in a vacuum. So…while my steaks thawed in the fridge overnight, I did a little more digging. Turns out the difference in color comes from aging in open air vs aging in a vacuum. Or, in the words of Tom Hanks from the movie Castaway, "THE AIR GOT TO IT!" It’s quite a bit more complicated than that, but from what my simplistic mind could grasp, the myoglobin in beef muscle tissue reacts differently when beef is aged in air vs a vacuum. You can get the same dark red color in beef that isn't aged...all you have to do is package it in vacuum sealed plastic before the air gets a chance to react with myoglobin in the muscle. But does the difference between SRF and Roseda's approach to aging their beef make a difference? Other than the difference in color, not really. I got that from a PhD Professor of cow stuff at Texas A&M…hook ‘em horns!

I read more studies on aging beef than I care to admit while I was down this particular rabbit hole, but the most revealing was a paper published by Jeff W. Savell, Ph.D., Regents Professor and E.M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chairholder, Texas A&M University. His paper was a 16-page executive summary based on an analysis of 14 separate studies and included an additional 13 references for more information. I'll skip the details and simply say the magic numbers are 14 and 21. Aging beef any less than 14 days isn’t worth the trouble, any longer than 21 days delivers rapidly diminishing returns. The method used to age the beef doesn’t seem to matter. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it was what I brought with me out of the rabbit hole.

I know plenty of beef aficionados that would argue both the method and duration of aging matter a great deal, and I don't disagree. I will say in his paper the Texas A&M professor included the results of laboratory measurement of volatile compounds (the stuff that makes beef smell so good) from raw and cooked beef that was aged with different techniques and for different durations, to include wet and dry aging as well as open air aging and aging in a vacuum. They concluded that duration matters, method not so much.

The laboratory measurements were supplemented with blind taste tests of cooked beef from professional testers with trained palates. To be fair, a few studies reported minor differences between open-air and vacuum sealed aging, but the differences were only noticed by a few taste testers with beef that was cooked immediately after aging. The same testers noted those differences tended to normalize after the beef was vacuum sealed, blast frozen, stored at sub-zero temperatures for a few weeks, thawed and then cooked, which describes almost all of the beef consumers can get their hands on.

The Taste Tests and More Results

I ran two separate taste tests a week apart. The first was a comparison of the SRF and Roseda rib eyes, and the second was a comparison of their NY strip steaks. I also conducted a taste test of SRF’s tenderloin but I didn’t compare it with Roseda’s tenderloin…didn’t see the point since tenderloin is all tender and very little flavor. All of my results are in the earlier articles I posted, but I have more to add.

When I removed the steaks from their packaging, I inspected them carefully and noted the differences. I already mentioned the differences in color and size, but there was also a difference in the amount of intramuscular fat…the marbling. Both had significantly more marbling than USDA Prime grade beef, but as you can see in the picture above, the SRF steaks had more marbling than the Roseda steaks.

The SRF web site notes they use the same fat grading system as the Japanese. After looking at the fat grading numbers SRF listed for their Gold Grade as well as the comparison chart they included with Japanese Wagyu designations, I expected the intramuscular marbling of their Gold Grade beef to be close to what you get in Japanese A-5 Wagyu. It was not…not even close to being close, which makes sense since they are only half Wagyu. The picture below shows the difference, Japanese A-5 Wagyu rib eye on the left, the SRF American Wagyu Gold Grade rib eye that I used in my taste test on the right.

Apparently this isn't the first time SRF has engaged in marketing hyperbole. I came across a source that excoriated SRF for labeling their American Wagyu as American Kobe when they first started selling it. At the time the USDA had no regulations regarding beef labeled as American Kobe, though they do now.

As much as Wagyu cattle are considered a National Treasure in Japan, Kobe beef is even more so. Japan strictly regulates what beef can carry the Kobe label, and even though all Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle, not every Wagyu can be labeled as Kobe. The Japanese only allow the Kobe label to be used on Wagyu cattle from a particular genetic line of Wagyu, and only those raised on certified farms in the Kobe area of the Hyōgo Prefecture. Terroir matters, and so does provenance. The minute you remove the cattle, or their DNA, from a certified farm in the Kobe area of the Hyōgo Prefecture, it ceases to be Kobe. It's just Wagyu, which is still pretty tasty beef. To their credit, SRF gave up on labeling their beef as American Kobe and now call it American Wagyu, and it meets the requirements set out by the USDA for that label.

Back to the taste tests. The SRF steaks I tested had more marbling than the Roseda steaks, but nothing close to certified A-5 Wagyu. For their part, Roseda makes no effort to describe the marbling in their beef using Japanese metrics. They only claim their Wagus beef has more intramuscular marbling than USDA Prime, which it does. But it was less than the SRF Gold Grade steaks I tested, and that difference came through in my results.

I followed the same procedures to prep the steaks in both rounds of my taste test. After removing the steaks from their packaging I let them thaw in my fridge overnight, and then prepped them to cook. I did make one change between taste tests…the seasoning. In both cases I limited my seasoning to Kosher salt and black pepper, but for the rib eye test I applied the salt as a dry brine and left it in the fridge for about four hours to let the salt do its thing.

Dry brining beef works well with larger cuts of beef, like a prime rib, and I was curious how it would work with steaks. Salting steaks and then letting them sit in the fridge for a few hours draws liquid out of the muscle and onto the surface. The salt dissolves into the liquid drawn to the surface, and then through osmosis it gets drawn back into the muscle. It effectively seasons the meat from the inside out. Just before cooking the rib eyes, I gave them a dusting of black pepper, and that was the extent of the seasoning. For the NY Strips I skipped the dry brine and seasoned the steaks with Kosher salt and black pepper just before cooking.

If you like a well-seasoned steak, salting your beef and letting it sit for a couple of hours in the fridge is the way to go. I don’t add much salt to any of my food, so I found the approach of seasoning the beef just before cooking to be more to my tastes. That’s another subjective thing, and it also depends on the cut you are cooking. I use the dry brine approach when I cook a rib roast. It takes longer, a few days vs a few hours, but there is much more muscle for the seasoning to be drawn into and the result is more balanced. For steaks, I found the dry brine treatment to be too much.

I use the reverse sear method with my sous vide cooker for all of my high-quality steaks. There are a number of advantages to cooking beef sous vide, the most important being that it allows me to get a uniform degree of doneness throughout the steaks at the precise temperature of the water I cook them in. For my taste test, I cooked all of the steaks sous vide with a water temperature of 132 degrees for two hours, and then gave them a finishing sear of one minute per side on my grill. As with all meat I cook, I checked the internal temperature with my Thermapen instant read thermometer both when I took them out of the sous vide water, and when I took them off the grill. They were 132 degrees coming out of the sous vide water and 133 degrees coming off the grill. When I cut into them they were at the upper end of medium rare, which was how I like my steak.

A Final Word…Was SRF Worth It?

There are many things that go into your enjoyment of a high-quality steak…marbling, tenderness, taste, chew…all of which are to some degree subjective. Roseda has been, and will continue to be, my go to supplier for beef both for every day eating and special occasions. They present a premium product that delivers great value. As to SRF, I can say without reservation the SRF NY strip was the best I’ve tasted that I've cooked. That steak was well worth the cost, and I’d order it again. For a really special occasion. It’s too pricey for me to have more than once or twice a year. I would not order the SRF tenderloin or rib eye again. The value just isn't there for me. The tenderloin was a typical tenderloin, tender with little flavor, and it’s not a cut I usually eat. The rib eye had plenty of flavor, but it was too fatty for my palate. I know more marbling is generally better when it comes to steak, but in this case it was just more fat. It did little to enhance the flavor of the beef. When I tested the SRF NY strip I kept going back for more. The only reason I stopped was because I was full. But I wanted more.

And that…finally…is all I have to say about that.

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