A cow is a cow is a cow -- except, of course, when it isn't. In an effort to target consumers looking for meat that's safer, tastier, more humane, more luxurious, and/or more environmentally correct, cattle ranchers around the world have gone beyond cuts and grades of meat and begun building brands around different principles in an effort to reach consumers. If you explore into your local farmers market, you'll probably find some local ranchers who are marketing their own brands of beef that focus on healthy, free-ranging cows eating healthy diets. But on the national level, it often comes down to flavor - what follows is an exploration of a few of the well-known and emerging styles of beef out there on the market.
Kobe and Wagyu beef
Several Japanese breeds of cattle are known as "Wagyu," and they've become internationally known for their intensely marbled and pleasantly fatty meat, which, at its best, offers quite a lot of tenderness and juiciness. Kobe (an area of Japan) is particularly famous for its Wagyu cattle, and the resulting product, Kobe beef, can cost anywhere from $15 to $500 a pound depending upon where you are, where the market stands, and what cut and quality of Kobe you're buying. (Note that some "Kobe beef" is processed in Kobe, but actually raised elsewhere with more land -- such as the United States or Australia.) "Kobe-style beef," which can be raised and processed domestically, can also be excellent. If you get the real deal, cooked correctly, it can taste as one blogger writes, like "beef foie gras. Smooth, velvety, incomparably sweet with a subtle tang of savor that lingers on the palate like a rare perfume."
When McDonald's offers an Angus Third Pounder, but doesn't mention on its site what "Angus" actually promises as a brand, it's a good sign for the consumer to do a little more digging. And, to be honest, the truth is a bit broad: in 1978, The American Angus Association (a collection of breeders of a particular Scottish breed of cattle) created a certification program for their brand in an effort to give it a marketing edge over other beef. Angus heritage and coloration, fat-marbled meat, a medium-to-fine marbling texture, and eight other objective and aesthetic characteristics go into designating meat as "Angus," which hint at a certain richness of flavor and overall quality control; still, if you want to eat the world's finest steak, you're probably looking for something along the lines of "USDA Prime dry-aged steak." Angus is a pretty broad label, as evidenced by McDonald's mass appropriation.
South Dakota's New Luxury Beef
The state of South Dakota, looking for a marketing edge for its state cattle industry, has started to build a brand around South Dakota Certified Beef ("The World's Best Beef"). The program touts "source and age verified beef that has been raised and processed under specific state protocols," or, as The Washington Post, "a homegrown, environmentally correct, premium-priced steak."
Wine-feed British Columbian Beef
Finely-marbled British Columbian Beef with fat that, according to a rancher quoted in a CBC report, "tastes like candy" is the result of feeding wine to cows on a regular basis. The Canadian cows get a liter-sized blend of red wines daily, the cow equivalent of a small glass at happy hour. Right now, it's a north-of-the-border delicacy, but if the stuff catches on, we can expect to see exports -- or local copycats -- in the years to come.