Beef is back

After years of poor sourcing, few dining options and mainstream vilification, beef is making an exciting resurgence in Boulder County

Tomahawk ribeye at Corrida

Amos Watts, the head chef at Boulder’s Spanish-style steakhouse Corrida, is flipping through his phone in the restaurant’s penthouse dining room. Behind him is a case full of dry-aging beef — hulking racks of bone-in ribeye from the illustrious 7X Wagyu ranch network; uncut tomahawk ribeyes from Wyoming’s Carter Country Meats; marbled rounds from Japanese Wagyu producers. On his screen, more meat: all those cuts and more cooked simply with olive oil, salt and pepper; all eventually sold to a Boulder County customer hungry for well-raised and –aged beef.

“The joke is that I have more pictures of steak on my phone than my kids,” Watts says, scrolling through, mostly, pictures of steak.

I’d heard that joke before. From Nate Singer, head butcher at Blackbelly — “My phone is all photos of meat.”

That’s not to say that Singer and Watts have fetishized the meat they butcher and sell in their restaurants. The steaks, in particular, are gorgeous. It’s what happens to beef when a rancher lets his or her cows run free on tens of thousands of acres, lets it live a year longer than cows raised for commodity beef, and when the beef is aged for up to two months, slathered in its own fat to keep in all the goodness and hasten the aging process. Its white fat cuts through mahogany meat like a negative image of a river through a delta.

Yet, just five years ago, access to that meat didn’t exist in Boulder County. But in relatively no time, we now have one of the country’s most inventive butcher shops at Blackbelly, a high-end steakhouse in Corrida that brings in the choicest cuts from the region and abroad, and a new steakhouse coming from the creators of Aspen’s renowned Steakhouse No. 316 in downtown Boulder. Western Daughters in Denver is producing unique fatty, grass-fed beef, and the city’s Citizen Rail now offers — to the bold — one-year-aged steak.   

What happened? It seems like just yesterday that a conglomeration of chefs, health-food cookbook writers and decreed that red meat was the devil. But before our eyes, and on our plates, local chefs, ranchers and butchers have worked to restore beef — and the future looks bright.

“It’s the last frontier of sustainability,” Singer says. “It’s the one that hasn’t been touched on.”

Nate Singer, head butcher at Blackbelly. Susan France

The resurgence in well-raised beef starts, unlike other food revivals, at the end of the chain — at the restaurant, and in the butcher shop. Despite years of negative press for beef, we as a country have by and large devoured it. Americans eat an average of 56 pounds of beef per person per year, a choice that has been backed up by industrial farming that has significantly dropped the price of most beef sold in your average grocery store. Such farming has also calibrated our palates toward less-than-stellar steaks, burgers and more.

So it’s the chefs and restaurateurs who are bringing well-raised beef before customers that are at the forefront of re-educating consumers about how good it can be.

“Once a month we’ll get that Yelp review, ‘I can go to Sizzler for $9.99, why would I pay that much?’” says Blackbelly owner/chef Hosea Rosenberg. “I use the analogy of a car. I can buy a car for $5,000 that’ll get me there. Or I can buy a nice car that’ll get me there in comfort. With food, it’s a whole other level because it’s going into your body. You’re eating everything that went into that animal, and all the care and love and attention that it was given.

“We don’t preach eating a lot of meat, just eating the best meat you can buy.”

Blackbelly serves no less than three steak dishes every night, offering different cuts for different price ranges, and depending on what they’re able to source from responsible ranchers. They’ve also been known to throw steak tartare, bone marrow, bone broth and other beef items onto the menu.

In order to get the quality of beef Blackbelly wants to sell, Singer maintains a tight relationship with Carter Country Meats, Lombardi Meats and other top-flight ranchers. By maintaining the relationship, he’s able to ask ranchers to commit valuable resources to letting their cattle grow older, thus developing more flavor.

Steak tartare at Blackbelly Susan France

That requires a ton of planning, and Singer says he tracks about 90 cows at some point in the raising, slaughtering, aging or selling process. Kate Kavanaugh, who owns Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe, a whole-animal butchery operation in Denver, says she has to plan two years in advance when she wants to bring in new beef products. That comes at a price, Kavanaugh says.

“This is a big collaboration and partnership between two entities in businesses (ranching and butchery) that both have incredibly small margins,” Kavanaugh says.

But, so far, people have been willing to put their money where their mouths are and support that system.

“I was worried about the price point on our steaks,” Watts says. “We do have a $48 steak, our least expensive one, which I think is still a little expensive. I was worried about some of our bigger rib-eyes, being able to get the beef we wanted to sell at the price point we wanted, but it seems like people are really getting it. … People are even more into it than I thought they’d be.”

That’s the power of high-quality beef. People are willing to spend more and eat less if the quality is superb. And, it actually has the effect of getting people to eat less beef, which is one of the most environmentally taxing agricultural products to raise.

“It’s expensive to produce food in general, and it’s more expensive when you’re doing it well,” Kavanaugh says. “This meat is packing a better nutritional punch, but you don’t need meat every day, and you certainly don’t need meat three times a day. In order for meat to be sustainable, and I think it has this chance to be sustainable, it means we have to eat a lot less of it.”

But that financial commitment from customers has allowed butchers like Singer and Kavanaugh (who says about one-fifth of her customers travel from Boulder County) to explore exciting new realms of beef innovation. Singer, for instance, currently has 60 cuts of beef curing in koji, the Japanese mold used in miso and soy sauce, and which accelerates drying in meat. Combine that with well-raised, older, flavor-rich beef, and we’re talking about an exciting future for cured beef products.

“If we start with these older cows that are a little tougher but have more flavor, and we can break them down with the molds, then we’ll have a whole array of cured beef that no one’s had in America,” Singer says. “I think we’d be onto something, you know?”

With more investment from local diners, chefs have room to use more of the cow, which supports the initial investment made by ranchers to raise their cattle the right way — both Watts and Rosenberg brush beef tallow (rendered beef fat) on cooked steaks to help lock in moisture before diners cut into them; Rosenberg also uses bones to make broth and a demi-glace to serve atop steak.

The only reason that culinary creativity is possible is because of the commitment from butchers like Singer and Kavanaugh to use the entire animal. And when every little bit is used, the butchers need to trust that their ranchers are raising cows the right way.

And so that’s really where the resurgence in beef comes full circle — on the ranch. Rosenberg and Singer say there is a growing dearth of ranchers, as many have either given up on cattle production because of the price, or who have retired due to their age. But a new generation of ranchers is coming up, and with them, the opportunity to set a new standard in raising beef.

“Who you choose to work with in the beginning is what the product is in the end,” Singer says.