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Chewing the Cud on the Refined Art of Blind Beef Tastings

by  Wanda Hennig on June 30, 2010
beef-full-2Once there was red wine, white wine, French wine, and anything pink was plonk. Then came the subtleties and these days, if you don't know about appellations and terroir, and haven't been introduced to wine flights and blind tastings, it's like — where have you been?

Chocolate and olive oil have gone the way of wine. It's happening with coffee, with the selection of blends and roasts.

And now?

I'm sitting at a table with my eyes shut tightly to facilitate laser focus on my taste buds and — hmmm — I take a peek at my tasting notes and conclude, yes, this is definitely bouncy. And it's straightforward and complex. And are those notes of roasted nuts I taste?

I jot down my observations then move on to what's next on my plate and, for heavens sake, who would have known that a steak might be a steak by any name, same as a rose, but can I compare what I sampled a minute ago to what I'm chewing now? Are they the same species of animal?

Beef Tasting Party

At this point, the same as others in our tasting party, I've chewed on small beef steaks from four different animals; each one a different breed; from a different part of the country; a different climate; and raised by a different farmer. I've chewed on what was placed at 12 o'clock on my plate; and the 3 o'clock cut. I'm about to work my way through 6 o'clock; and then I'll be on to 9 o'clock.

And once we've tried them all, cleansing our palates with sliced apples in between, there will be wine. (Blind beef tasters are advised to hold off on the wine until after sampling each steak to maintain palate integrity.)

If you haven't yet been to a blind beef tasting or held one yourself, it might very well happen soon. These things have a way of catching on and quickly becoming trends.

Meet the Meat Trend

Especially given that meat itself has become trendy recently. Knowing where an animal lived and what it ate before it made its way onto your plate, for example. And experiencing the whole darn animal right through to cutting it up yourself or discussing all the gory details with the butcher.

"It's not unusual for a customer to bring a recipe to the meat counter for a consultation on how to execute a dish," says Marsha McBride, owner-chef of Cafe Rouge in Berkeley, who runs regular butchery classes that are well attended by her customers.

She also says that since the recession, restaurant visits have gone down but meat purchases and the cooking and eating of meat have gone up.

Back to the Beef Tasting

The beef tasting concept is the brainchild of Carrie Oliver, founder of the Artisan Beef Institute, who went to the University of California at Berkeley, lives in Canada, and is almost certainly the first person to have come up with a cheat sheet with terminology on how to taste beef.

Oliver has set herself up to teach people how to choose, buy and know about good beef. Her focus is on making people aware that there are good reasons to care that cattle eat grass and live in a field.

We need to know, for example, that feedlot cows — as featured in the movie Food Inc. — are fed hormones and antibiotics, which are transferred to us when we eat them.

Oliver likens sustainable and humanely raised artisan beef to high-end wine. Conversely, feed-lot-produced beef would be plonk.

She wants us to be able to distinguish what we like best by way of beef so that, like wine and chocolate, we can then be more discriminating in our choices — and more satisfied with what we put in our mouths.

Just Different — or Better?

When you taste four different styles of beef, all artisan-quality, all grilled and spiced the same way (with just a little rubbing of salt), paying careful attention to flavor, texture and a bunch of characteristics Oliver guides you to in her tasting notes, you get it.

"We've typically been limited in how we describe meat," Oliver told our little roomful of tasters, and I think of my family's favorites; tough as old boots; tender as a woman's heart; walk-off-the-plate rare; and cremated. Graphic, but they don't get down to subtleties of flavor and texture.

To educate people about beef, she offers DIY tasting kits for those who want to do a beef tasting at home. Her kit includes tasting notes that focus on four categories: Texture, Mouth-feel, Personality (also called Character) and Flavor Notes.

Here is an abridged version of her tasting notes so you can DIY at home!

Texture lingo: Mushy, like butter, firm, chewy — tough.

Mouth-feel options: Coats the palate, mouthwatering — crusty.

Personality or Character terminology: Adventurous, complex, harmonious — listless, unbalanced.

Flavor Notes pointers: Caramelized vegetables, grassy, gamy, metallic, Parmesan.

To host a no-effort blind beef tasting party, visit online.

Download Carrie Oliver's guides and cheat sheets about what to look for in meat here:

See tasting guides online here:

For great beef recipes, click here.

Wanda Hennig

Wanda Hennig

California–based Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, a blogger and a life coach. full bio



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