Vail restaurant ‘steaks’ a claim on Akaushi cattle |

Vail restaurant ‘steaks’ a claim on Akaushi cattle

Wren Wertin
Vail CO, Colorado
AE Texas Kobe PU 1-28-08

In South Texas, 60 miles from Kumamoto, Japan’s sister city, lives a herd of second, third and fourth-generation Japanese immigrants. They reside in a close-knit group and stick to a strict social regimen: no visitors, no commingling and absolutely no impulsive hanky-panky. On the other hand, they’re encouraged to run around and make hay while the making’s good.

The bevy of Akaushi cattle, roughly 5,800 head strong, is the only breeding herd located outside of Japan. Painstakingly created through genetic research that predates World War II, the intensely marbled breed is the perfect example of nature versus nurture ” and nature wins. No two ways about it, they’re darned fine eatin’, and that has everything to do with their genealogy.

“The genetics are so fixed in these cows, so every animal is going to be a prime-plus quality,” said Ronald Beeman, CEO of HeartBrand Beef.

Beeman and Dr. Antonio Elias Calles, president of the company, joined forces 18 months ago. Beeman brought decades of Texas ranching experience to the partnership, while Calles brought his exclusive Akaushi herd. He’s able to trace all his cows and bulls back 30 years on their family trees. Try one of the steaks, and it becomes apparent why this is a DNA strand worth protecting.

“The Akaushi steaks have a far superior flavor to even the prime beef we serve,” said Kyle Cowan, executive chef of Vail’s Up the Creek, the only local outpost of HeartBrand Beef. “It would grade higher than any American beef on the scale. I’ll put it up against every other steak in this valley.”

People the world over have heard about Kobe beef, which is a nontechnical term for cattle raised in Japan’s Kobe region. American soldiers returned from occupying Japan in the ’40s full of longing for the beef they’d eaten there.

“They fell in love with it,” Beeman said.

Unless they’re dairy cows, Japanese cattle are called Wagyu. There are four types of Wagyu, but the two most popular for eating are Akaushi, a red breed, and Kryoshi, a black one. Japan is currently in the middle of legislation that aims to control both the beef and the naming rights. Much like France’s claim on the term Champagne, Japan wants dibs on Kobe and Wagyu as national treasures.

And they are. Intensely succulent and flavorful, there are cuts that seem more like foie gras than steak. Plumply bursting inside an often savory, seared crust, there’s no turning back after the first bite. It’s nearly impossible to get true Wagyu in the U.S. It’s cost-prohibitive to raise and the briefly-opened loophole in Japanese law that allowed Callus to spirit his cattle out of the country via a specially-fitted Boeing 747 has been decidedly closed. American cattlemen who’ve gotten their hands on Kryoshi or Akaushi are likely to crossbreed it with Black Angus to make it heartier and more cost-effective, which is why Callus and Beeman are sitting on a gold mine of beefy DNA. From day one, off-duty Texas Rangers protected the herd from thieves, jealous ranchers and crossbreeding (less than 2 percent of the bulls are allowed to be sires).

When people hear about the decadent lifestyle of Kobe beef, it’s Kryoshi that’s being talked about. It sounds too good to be true, cattle lazing about, chugging beer between massages. From the time they’re a week old, Kryoshi are confined to pens and lean-tos for three to five years. They’re likely to get bored and stop eating.

Apparently the best way to stimulate their appetite is with a bottle of beer. As for the massage, it shouldn’t conjure up visions of being waited on hand and hoof. Charles Gaskings, a professor of animal science and a Wagyu expert at Washington State University, was recently quoted in Gourmet Magazine’s December issue: “The steers grow so big and heavy, they get arthritic. It’s a matter of keeping the animals going until they are ready to be harvested.”

For the Akaushi, it’s a whole different story. The HeartBrand herd seems to like their new Texas digs.

“They’re out in the pasture running around,” said Beeman. “They’ve adjusted quite well.”

“I like the Akaushi better because it’s humanely raised,” said Cowan.

Cowan discovered HeartBrand serendipitously. Perusing Wine Spectator, his eyes lit on an ad for the Akaushi beef. “I found out they were in Texas and I needed them,” said the Lone Star kid. “Only good things come from Texas,” he added, eyes twinkling.

Cowan clearly gets a kick out of this beef. When he serves an Akaushi flatiron steak in Up the Creek’s dining room, he’s likely to make a show of not bringing a steak knife. And it’s true, there’s no need for one. Tender and succulent, it’s redundant to describe it as meaty ” but it’s just that, on an elemental, almost primal, level.

Much of the flavor comes from the heavy marbling of connective tissue and fat, which not only protects the meat but also dictates how it should be cooked.

“You want the fat to melt into the meat,” he explained. “So you don’t want to hit it hard with the heat, but cook it slowly.”

While fat sounds like a villain in food’s storied history, there’s something awfully special about the Akaushi marbling. The fatty acid composition is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and conjugated linoleic acid. In layman’s terms, that means the good fat. When the good fats outnumber the bads, it’s called having a positive ratio. Neither chicken nor buffalo nor even certain types of fish have the kind of positive ratio this beef does.

Fat melts with heat, and all beef has fat.

“If you cook our ground beef or our steaks, you’ll notice some liquid or moisture that comes out of the meat,” Beeman said. “But it never congeals ” it stays liquid.”

That’s a boon for arteries, which take exception to the white, clogging fat that’s de rigueur in most beef. And it’s no accident that Dr. Callus deals with a healthy fat.

“That was one of Dr. Callus’ objectives,” Beeman explained. “He looked at Japanese eating habits and said, ‘Here is a nation that consumes more fat per square inch in their diet, yet they’re healthy.'” Traditionally Japanese people don’t battle diabetes and high cholesterol the way Americans do. And so he began his quest for healthful food, which led him to Akaushi cattle.

But ultimately it’s the flavor and quality of the meat that’s going to push it to the forefront of dietary choices. And despite all the options out there, red meat seems eternally popular. Why?

“Beef. Fire. Caveman ” come on. It’s how we originated,” exclaimed Cowan. “It’s natural. And I want the best beef from people who don’t rush their cattle.”

Looks like he found it.

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