Butchery is a tradition, a trade passed from one generation to the next. That’s true at VG Meats, a farm and butchery in Ontario, run by the second generation of the Van Groningen family. But tradition only gets you so far. Kevin Van Groningen, the youngest of the four brothers who run VG Meats, is exploring new technologies and methods for measuring and tracking beef quality.
Marbling is a misnomer, for the most part.
There are three key milestones that must be met for someone to enjoy eating meat: tenderness, flavor, and juiciness. In our view, tenderness is most important. It doesn’t matter how flavorful or juicy your meat is—if it’s tough, you won’t be able to appreciate it. So, even if people think they are ultimately after good flavor, they need the tenderness in order to taste it.
Marbling is not correlated to tenderness. People don’t realize that more fat is not always good. When you get above AAA-grade beef (USDA choice in the U.S.), the fats coat your taste buds so much that you can’t sense the water-soluble flavors of the meat. If you’re looking for balance, you don’t need all that fat. But the tradition in the industry now is the more marbling, the better.
To achieve tenderness, measure “shear force.”
We know we need to measure tenderness, and to do it, we’re using a test called the Warner Bratzler Shear Force test.
We cook the steak and cut out samples. Those samples go into a machine, and the machine measures the amount of force that’s required in order to shear the meat. This is all a very technical way of saying, “how tender is the meat?” This method is becoming the gold standard for assessing tenderness in meat. Ultimately, we hope our research will start to tell us more about the “terroir,” or origin, of beef.
Beef “terroir” is the end goal here. We’re getting there.
Beef is challenging in terms of terroir because it’s so genetically diverse. You hear people talk about Angus, one breed of cattle, but there’s as much diversity inside of Angus as there is across the entire genetic pool of all cattle. For the insiders, just knowing what kind of breed it is doesn’t tell you that much about flavor.
Genetic diversity is a really good thing, but it’s hard to explain that to consumers. People have been trained associate certain breeds with quality and that forces us to try to fit a living, breathing thing into a package. When we do that, we lose genetic diversity. We’re forced to make them all the same. We don’t want to take that route. We want to find a way that the consumer embraces the terroir, the differences between from one breed to the next. And, we think these new technologies are going to help us do that.
The path to the best beef is not totally clear, yet.
People always ask in which direction we’re headed. For us, it’s tenderness. But optimizing for tenderness is just a way of looking holistically at an animal’s welfare. If an animal is stressed or sick or treated poorly, we have data to show that their meat will be less tender. In Ontario, we’re trying to create the world’s best beef―and that to do that, we’ve got to treat our animals better than anywhere else. There are a lot of bridges that need to be built first, but we’ll get there.