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In recent years, the four packers that dominate the industry have attempted to create more proprietary marketing for their products, especially for Angus beef, the one breed that has achieved what might be called varietal status. In general, though, beef has yet to shake its mass-market past.
That’s a bit surprising, because in many ways beef should be the ultimate artisanal heritage product. It’s rustic. It’s bound in leather. Bearded people are frequently involved in its production. And yet instead of embracing ways to make cow meat more exclusive and tasteful, the beef industry mostly wants to keep it cheap and plentiful. “We can’t let beef turn into lobster,” Ed Greiman, president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, lamented to the Des Moines Register in February.
Enter Belcampo. “The style of production that I’m committed to, from an ethical and environmental perspective, is definitely the most expensive style of production out there,” Fernald says. “But doing the right thing for the animals also yields a higher taste quality.”
This is a point of contention. The grain-based finishing diets that cattle eat in feedlots is what gives today’s beef its marbled texture and tender juiciness, and this, many traditionalists insist, is what consumers want (even as they buy less and less beef).
In contrast, pastured, grass-fed beef is sometimes described as gamey. “We’ve been taught to think of meat as the tofu of the land,” Fernald counters. “It’s a flavorless substrate for satay sauce or teriyaki marinade. The only beef we eat straight up is steak, and even it’s got butter on it, or steak sauce. At Belcampo, we’re trying to get people to rediscover the flavor of meat. Our beef is very flavor-forward.”
Not so long ago, the beer aisles of America’s supermarkets were filled with little more than a handful of bland, homogenous brands. The same was true of the bread aisles. Then brewers and bakers began making declarations similar to Fernald’s. Beer could be more flavorful. Bread could be healthier and more complex. Over time, as America’s consumers developed easier and more widespread access to cream stouts and sprouted whole grain breads, they embraced these options. Their expectations grew.
Today’s most demanding shoppers don’t just want tasty food. They want tasteful food. Jam that’s so beautiful it’s worthy of an Instagram close-up. Politically enlightened pickles. Statement broccoli that serves as a medium for self-expression as well as sustenance.
Belcampo charges more for its beef (in some cases, a lot more). But it also expands consumer options in new and intriguing ways. If you’re in the mood for a burger topped with environmental sustainability and ethical slaughter, there is now a place at the mall where you can have it your way.