In 2006, Ronald Beeman and his son Jordan saw an opportunity to market a Japanese breed of cattle to American consumers. They bought the HeartBrand beef company and commenced expanding their herd of Akaushi cattle, a specific breed of Wagyu that’s rare in the United States. HeartBrand, headquartered in Harwood, Texas, has about 15,000 head of cattle, but that’s still not enough to meet demand. After successfully creating a market for a new breed of cattle, they’re setting their sights on another new frontier in American beef: Old cows.
Most cattle don’t get past the age of two. American beef comes mostly from steers and heifers slaughtered between 18 and 24 months old. Young cattle are prized for their tenderness and mild flavor. The more highly marbled—meaning the more white dots of fat within the lean, red meat—the better. The Beemans’ interest in the Akaushi breed stems from its genetic penchant for excellent marbling. Those traits are passed down from their herd of 3,000 full-blooded Akaushi cows, who birth calves each year until the cows are about nine years old. At that point, the cows are done calving and enter the commodity beef market through auctions. The nickname for these cattle is “burger cows” because they generally become cheap ground beef. But the Beemans are trying something new.
“We call it the ten-year-old program,” Jordan Beeman told me. (The program is so new they haven’t had a chance to come up with a clever name.) Last June, HeartBrand slaughtered its first ten-year-old cow. It had been fed on grain for a full 300 days prior. “They eat thirty pounds [of feed] a day, and they don’t gain much weight,” Beeman said. “Their conversion rates are horrible.” He was referring to the cow’s ability to efficiently convert grain into body mass, but that’s not the only reason for the grain diet. It’s also to add fat back into the animal and temper the gaminess that can come with nine years of eating primarily grass.
These old cows were being treated like catfish that are purged in fresh water to eliminate the flavor of what they’ve been eating their whole life. The Beemans know their audience, and Americans are used to a beef flavor that isn’t fully developed. It’s from young cattle, barely older than veal, and it’s far milder than older, mature cattle. We prefer that mellow taste for the same reason that we eat lamb instead of mutton and cabrito instead of goat. In the U.S., animals raised for meat are harvested just as they reach a size that’s profitable. Feeding livestock beyond that is simply not rewarded by the marketplace. HeartBrand is playing the long game with this new program. The nine-year-old cow is already a sunk cost for the company. It’s not factored into overall profitability. HeartBrand is, in effect, converting an entire animal from commodity ground beef into desirable steaks—and maybe even meat that could fetch a premium price.
Austin Simmons was impressed with the product. The chef at TRIS in the Woodlands received a portion of that first ten-year-old cow last year, as did a couple other chefs in Miami and Chicago. Simmons had been infatuated with old beef after watching the documentary Steak Revolution in 2015. In the film, French beef connoisseur Franck Ribière traveled the world in search of his favorite steak. He loved the grain-fed American beef served at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn and the Wagyu steak from Japan, but his favorite came from an old steer served at El Capricho in León, Spain. The film was compelling enough that Simmons convinced Beeman to produce a mature line of Akaushi cattle.
Simmons invited me to TRIS last month to sample a taste from a few cuts left from a dinner he’d recently hosted. It’s not on his menu, since he doesn’t yet have enough to serve to the masses, and I wasn’t charged for my meal. The beef came from the third cow ever to come out of HeartBrand’s ten-year-old program.
I didn’t get a look at the raw meat, but I could see the lines of fat within the cross section of the well-marbled ribeye. When I took the first bite, I was surprised at what wasn’t there. The meat didn’t have the minerally flavor in the lean portions or gaminess in the fat that I expected from an older cow. Even the chunks of fat lining the top of the sirloin were mild in flavor. The meat seemed denser, especially in the strip, than even dry-aged beef (which loses moisture through the aging process), but it wasn’t tough. It was more like a concentrated beefy flavor. The aftertaste was reminiscent of olive oil. I focused so much of my attention on evaluating the beef—ticking off my internal checklist of the negative characteristics it didn’t end up having—I almost forgot to simply enjoy eating this uniquely delicious steak.
Simmons said there are some tricks to getting the most out of these older cuts. He adds very little salt before cooking so that the flavor of the beef isn’t masked. “The harder you cook this, the tenser it gets,” he said. “Once it gets past medium, the ten-year-old [beef] is not tender.” He prefers to cook thinner cuts and to quickly give them a hard sear in cast-iron. There’s just enough moisture left in the steaks to keep them from tasting dry. A few slices of dry-aged, two-year-old HeartBrand beef on the same platter felt almost soggy in my mouth by comparison. Apparently it didn’t take me long to take to the old beef.
Food writer Jordan Mackay was convinced during a trip to Spain that the pinnacle of beef consumption isn’t young, tender beef. He visited El Capricho to eat a steak for lunch. “I took one bite and it was one of the most delicious tasting bites of beef I’ve ever had,” he said. That was from a 22-year-old steer. He returned to the U.S. thinking that Spain might boast the best steak in the world. The experience prompted him to pursue a book about steak that eventually became Franklin Steak, which he co-authored with Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin. In the book, he argues for open-mindedness when it comes to beef consumption. “The older you let an animal get, the more flavor it develops,” Mackay believes, and he’d like more beef lovers to try it for themselves.
That’s not easy in the U.S. Our system of beef production not only favors young cattle, but the USDA penalizes producers that supply cattle older than 30 months. After the Mad Cow Disease scare in 2003, older cattle have been viewed as dangerous. They can’t be processed alongside younger carcasses, and the spinal cords (as well as the bones along the spine) must be completely removed, eliminating the possibility for porterhouse or T-bone steak cuts. Most slaughterhouses, including the one HeartBrand uses, insist on removing all of the bones, out of an abundance of caution. That makes it hard to dry-age these cuts, since that process usually involves large cuts still on the bone. It means too that you can’t serve an impressive, long-bone tomahawk ribeye. The USDA won’t provide a quality grade for these older animals, so HeartBrand can’t market their ten-year-old cattle as Prime grade beef even if it contains enough marbling.
While old beef represents a tiny fraction of the American market, HeartBrand isn’t alone. A recent story in Modern Farmer highlighted the work of the Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn, which offers cuts from old bulls, and Cream Co. Meats in Oakland, which sells cuts from older dairy cattle under the name “Antique Beef.” Mindful Meats in California provides older grass-fed dairy cattle to restaurants like the new Leña restaurant by José Andrés in New York’s Hudson Yards. It’s listed on the menu as Vaca Vieja for $65 per pound.
I haven’t tried products from other domestic producers of “antique” beef, but my first encounter with a mature steak was in Paris. As I awaited my order of steak frites, I watched a man at a nearby table cut his steak into tiny pieces, taking many small bites. I thought he might have some jaw ailment. When my steak arrived, I took a big bite. After chewing for what felt like five minutes, the tough, dry beef only seemed to grow in my mouth. From then on, I followed the other gentleman’s lead. But not all old beef is created equal.
A year later, in Barcelona, I visited LomoAlto, which was a new steakhouse specializing in dry-aged beef. I tried a seven-year-old Galician porterhouse that had been aged 45 days. It was presented raw at the table before cooking. The meat was dark red, almost purple, with little marbling. Fat the color of honey surrounded the cut. Each bite had a gaminess that hit my nose and the back of my throat. I don’t think many Americans would have eaten that beef and liked it, but they would have loved one I tried a few days later at Asador Etxebarri outside Bilboa, Spain. The steaks were beautiful, rich, and fatty. I don’t know how old the animals were, but chef Victor Arguinzoniz only uses dairy cattle, sometimes older than 20 years, for his famous txuleta steak cut from the rib section. Maybe there’s something about the grass in Spain, but it was one of my most memorable steak-eating experiences.
Through the grain-feeding program that HeartBrand uses for its cows, the Beemans have created a gentler gateway to enjoying old beef. “People in this country are challenged by the idea that meat does not have to be at the pinnacle of tenderness to be enjoyable,” Adam Danforth, a butcher and advocate for old beef, told the Los Angeles Times in April. He’s right, which is why the mild flavor and tenderness of the ten-year-old HeartBrand cow I tried would be a great way to introduce it to an American palate. Beeman agreed, saying, “That’s what excites me a little bit. This might be something the American consumer can get excited about. It’s still close enough to what they normally like in beef, but not overly done.”
The HeartBrand program is still in its infancy, but Beeman hopes to expand it soon. The fourth and fifth cow have been slaughtered, and there are 50 more cows gorging on grain in a feedlot in Bovina, Texas, as I write this. HeartBrand culls 300 cows from its herd every year, and Beeman estimates about 100 of them will be suited for the ten-year-old beef program. Now he just needs to create a market for it.
Simmons might be his best ambassador. “If we got out of this ‘it’s gotta be Prime, or we can’t sell it’ mindset, then maybe you’d have a lot more of that steak in the market as a whole,” he told me after my meal. He also wonders what the next trend in beef is going to be. High-end steakhouse customers already expect to have A-5 Wagyu beef available, and dry-aged cuts are now a requirement even for mid-level steakhouses. Knife in Dallas has offered a 240-day dry-aged steak since it opened in 2014, and APL Restaurant, a steakhouse in Los Angeles, just served ribeyes aged for more than a year. Will consumers see value in dry-aging that goes any longer?
Mackay thinks the next obvious step is to market beef aged on the hoof. “For connoisseurs and people who love great tasting steak, there will be a high-end market here for cattle that are older,” he said. To him, there’s no question that old cows will be the next new thing.