Thursday, August 13, 2015

How Certified Angus Beef is Graded - CAB #GrillTalk Trip

This summer, I was lucky enough to travel to Wooster, Ohio for a #GrillTalk session and butchery lesson with the fine folks at Certified Angus Beef (CAB). I was excited to learn more about one of my favorite brands.

I have been using Certified Angus Beef for years but I really didn’t know that much about them as an organization or what they do. That’s the first thing that I learned. They were formed in 1978 after a bad steak experience in a restaurant. CAB is owned by the American Angus Association which consists of some 25,000 ranchers and serves as a resource to the ranchers and 15,000 partners (grocery stores, restaurants, etc). So they don’t actually own or sell beef, rather they are the brand and provide the framework (quality, best practices, etc) and marketing in which CAB is sold.

I have a ton of information but I'll limit this post to the most important thing I learned which is how beef earns that Certified Angus Beef label.

How Beef Is Graded In The United States
Dr. Phil Bass (yes – a meat scientist, what a cool job!) first walked us through the USDA grading process. 

  • First, only a USDA Inspector is required at a plant and his/her role is limited to making sure the food is wholesome to eat.
  • Grading (prime, choice, select, etc) is actually optional and the plant has to pay for the USDA grader.
  • If the meat is not graded, it is referred to as “no roll” beef. (My personal experience is to avoid “no roll” and “cow” beef. There’s a chance “no roll” could be as marbled as prime, it just wasn’t graded. But it’s a gamble I don’t take.)
  • Grading is done only at the 12th and 13th rib 24-48 hours after the steer has been harvested. This is why you will sometimes see a piece of USDA Choice beef that looks like it should have been select – they only look at the one spot to make the call for the entire steer. I've also seen Choice look almost as good as prime. The grade is based on maturity and marbling.
  • Black hide” carcasses get an “A” stamp for Angus.
So that last one (black hide) was an open issue for me. Like I said, I have used CAB for years but in November 2011 on the BBQ Central Radio show, I heard a butcher decry Certified Angus Beef as “nothing but a marketing ploy” because they rely on phenotype (appearance) instead of genotype (genetics) to determine if a steer is Angus. At that point, I decided to not rely on the CAB label and just go by which steaks looked better to me. But I quickly noticed that I was still buying the Certified Angus Beef steaks anyway because they consistently looked better than the regular USDA Choice steaks.

So was it just chance that the CAB steaks always looked better? No....

How Certified Angus Beef Makes The Grade
There are lots of Angus products on the market, but only 1 in 4 Angus get selected for the Certified Angus Beef program because they use 10 quality standards above and beyond the USDA grading. These standards ensure that when you buy CAB, you are getting beef that is in the upper 2/3rds of USDA Choice. The standards include:

  1. Modest or higher marbling - There are 7 levels of marbling in the beef in most meat counters. Select has slight. Choice has small, modest, and moderate. Prime has slightly abundant, moderately abundant, and abundant.
  2. Medium or Fine Marbling Texture – With USDA grading, coarse marbling is cause for beef to be knocked down one grade level. But with CAB, the marbling MUST be medium or fine, coarse marbling disqualifies a carcass for the CAB program.
  3. Only “A” Maturity – This isn't a chronological age, rather physiological based on color, skeletal aging. It is categorized A through E. USDA Prime must be A or B. Certified Angus limits itself to only A maturity, so in this case, it's a higher standard than USDA Prime.
  4. 10-16 Square Inches For The Rib Eye – They use the clear guide pictured below to measure this. This is important for portion sizing. Bigger than 16 inches will result in either a too thin steak for a typical 12 ounce portion or an expensive steak if cut to typical thicknesses.
  5. 1050 Hot Carcass Weight or Less – Hot carcass means fresh killed, not refrigerated and dressed yet.
  6. Less than 1” Fat Thickness – as measured ¾ way down the side of the 12th rib.
  7. Superior Muscling – this is a way to exclude dairy cows and such.
  8. Practically Free of Capillary Ruptures – Ever see a gross, dark, bloody spot on meat? That's a capillary rupture. It's mainly cosmetic but can cause a metallic taste.
  9. No Neck Hump Greater Than 2” - No lovely lady humps here. This rules out Brahman beef (boss indicus) that was brought in for cross breeding in the South because it's heat and parasite resistant but has tough meat.
  10. No Dark Cutters – Beef is usually bright red because it oxygenates or blooms when exposed to air because of the iron in the beef. If it fails to turn red, it is called a “dark cutter” and will likely have tenderness and palatability issues.
That is why the CAB products always look better to me – they are held to these higher standards to ensure I get a great cut of beef. I have confidence that when I get a Certified Angus Beef product, I am getting quality beef.

So here are some pics from our 2 days of training.  This was definitely a "hands on" experience and I loved every minute of it.
Certified Angus Beef, grading beef, CAB beef
Dr Phil Bass explaining how the physiological age of a steer is rated.

Certified Angus Beef, beef grading, ribeye, steer
The carcass cut between the 12th/13th rib for grading on the left.  On the right, you see the guide used to determine the area of the rib eye to make sure it is between 12 and 16 square inches.
beef tattoo, beef grading
"Beef tattoo"

Chef Michael Ollier says that he butchers by feel as much by sight.

Angry Texan Rub, Brisket, Certified Angus Beef
Chef Ashley Pado seasoned a CAB brisket with their Angry Texan Rub (click for recipe).

Weber, Southern Pride, CAB Brisket, how to smoke brisket
Then we went outside and started talking smoke, barbecuing on both a commercial smoker and a Weber Smoky Mountain.

Chef Ashley checking a tri tip for a reverse sear.

Beef Bacon - cured from the short plate pastrami, aka center cut beef navel. It tasted like a very intense bacon and this would be fantastic on a burger.

My butchering partner, Mike of Dad Cooks Dinner, shows off the pretty eye that we cut from a whole ribeye.

Certified Angus Beef
Erin of Dinners, Dishes, and Desserts cleaning up the cap or spinalis dorsi from the whole ribeye.

beef, steak, manhattan steak, faux filet,
Manhattan style steaks cut from the whole ribeye.

Certified Angus Beef, butcher lessons, beef
Mike Vrobel breaking down our ribeye.
Scott Thomas of Grillin Fools contemplating what he wanted to do with his cap steak.  It's one of the best cuts from the steer and you only get 2 per carcass so you want to treat it as something special.

CAB steak, spinalis dorsi, beef,
My favorite cut of the butcher sessions.  It is the cap from the ribeye wrapped around the complexus muscle for a mini-ribeye roast that you can stuff with just about anything. 

CAB steak, ribeye, butchering
Kita Roberts of Girl Carnivore rolled her cap steak as a roast.  Same cut as the picture above but a different presentation.

Testing the pH of beef.  The pH affects the color and should be between 5.2 and 5.6.  Greater than 5.8 will cause it to be dark and rejected from the Certified Angus Beef program.

custom burger grind, burger, grinding meat,
We had a custom burger grind competition where we picked from an array of cuts and ground our own burgers.  Clint and Kita won.  Mike and I used ribeye, short rib, and sirloin flap.

This is the device that measures the amount of fat that is in a batch of ground beef.  It grills down a sample of the meat and measures the rendered fat.  Very cool device.

How about the classroom kitchen, eh?  I could "make do" if I had this at home, how about you?

One of the cuts we broke down was the top sirloin butt.  Before cleaning them up, right to left, here is the coulotte, top sirloin petite roast, roast that we will steak out, and the "mouse".

For every individual cut that we did, staff grilled them off so we could taste the differences between the various cuts. Yes, we ate a LOT of beef in 48  hours.

Clint Cantwell
Clint "Don't Call Me Blackwell" Cantwell of Grillocracy talks ribeyes with Chef Ollier.

Certified Angus Beef class
Dr. Bass walking us through one of the cuts we were to break down.  Very educational sessions.  For me the hardest thing was breaking out the flat iron steak from the shoulder clod - I'll never complain about their price again, it's a pain to break down.

Of course we did side by side comparisons for appearance, taste, and texture. 

We had a food styling and photography session where they gave us the secrets to creating those flawless "on the grill" money shots.'s not on a grill.  Very insightful session.

The dry aging cabinet at Certified Angus Beef's headquarters. This wouldn't fit in my carry on luggage unfortunately.

dry aged steak, dry aged strip loin
A 45 day dry aged strip loin that we had for dinner.  Just gorgeous steaks, right?

charcuterie, brisket point, strip steaks
Did I mentioned that the kept feeding us and feeding us?  Top is the charcuterie buffet that was just an appetizer.  Bottom left strip steaks, bottom right "bar candy" made from deep fried smoked brisket point.

Top left is a dry aged strip loin.  Top right, Chef Peter Rossenberg dishing out Bar Candy.  Bottom is the dry aged NY Strip that I had the last night we were there.

I'll just skip the bull and steer puns here...just too easy. 
This was a whirlwind trip and there is so much more to cover - I took 7 full pages of notes.  Thanks to the people at Certified Angus Beef for a fun and highly informative adventure! 

[FTC Standard Disclaimer]  My trip was paid for by Certified Angus Beef and I received a steak/grill package from them; however, I have used CAB for years and the opinions given are my own.