"Terroir" is the most important word in the wine world, the summing up of what gives each wine its distinctive flavour and qualities. Winemakers say everything that "feeds" a grape – from climate to soil quality to terrain and area-specific farming techniques – can be sensed, and tasted, in the final product.
As with wine, the flavour of a piece of beef doesn't just vary according to the breed of cattle or what part of the animal's body the cut came from, but also external factors such as diet and ranch management, not to mention how the final product is cooked. Lately, ranchers and butchers have been speaking about place and farming practice in almost romantic terms – ideas that sound awfully like terroir.
"I'm a beef lover and it was the best beef I've ever had in my life," recalls Bob Choquette of Calgary's Urban Butcher chain. He uses words such as "rich," "nutty" and "buttery" to describe the meat produced by his late friend and colleague Paul Froehler, his voice aching with nostalgia for both the meat and Froehler, who died last spring.
Froehler managed his cattle with particular care. He farmed Highland cattle and Galloways, which are bred to withstand colder climates such as those at his ranch in Strome, Alta. In the last stages of the animals' lives, he fed them a special homemade feed blend made primarily with legumes grown on his own property, as opposed to the barley-based manufactured feed that most Alberta cattle are fattened up with. Choquette believes such techniques, and Strome itself, directly contributed to the superior flavour of the end product.
"My mouth is watering right now as I'm talking to you," says Choquette, who is Urban Butcher's master butcher and operations manager.
Of course, taste is subjective and knowing that a rancher is taking extra care may prejudice the perception of the quality of a piece of beef – as would paying a premium for it. But there's increasing scientific evidence that butchers such as Choquette aren't just projecting the idea that thoughtful animal husbandry results in a better, or at least measurably different, flavour than mass-market meat.
In Lacombe, Alta., Dr. Jennifer Aalhus and Dr. Nuria Prieto are meat-quality scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Research and Development Centre. Since 2009, Aalhus has been researching how factors such as cattle breed, feed type, aging time and cooking methods can impact the flavour of beef. Prieto joined her in 2015.
The Lacombe team recruits members of the public for its tasting panels, putting people through rigorous screening to determine their aptitude for discriminating between different sensory attributes, including tenderness, juiciness and flavour.
Tasters are trained to identify basic flavours like salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, as well as more in-depth profile descriptors such as "barny," "gamey," "floral" and "bloody."
From there, the scientists attempt to isolate which chemical compounds contribute to specific flavours, and connect those to how the cattle were raised.
This is a new approach. Scientists have long been doing work to help ranchers produce tender beef, but working from a flavour-first perspective is fairly new terrain.
"The flavour chemistry is very important to help us monitor the quality of the beef," Prieto says. "We can know which compounds contribute to positive flavours. In the future, we'll be able to monitor samples and determine which cattle will carry that specific flavour."
Knowing why these distinct flavours exist should eventually have practical benefits for both producers and consumers. Many consumers already express a preference for mild, ultratender Canadian beef or tougher, stronger-flavoured European-style beef.
The work that Prieto and Aalhus are doing could help put names to those flavour preferences, eventually making it easier for consumers to buy what they like, whether that's Alberta cattle that is most often finished with barley-based feed versus Ontario or American beef that is typically finished with corn-based feed. Marketing labels could list farming practices and give flavour-specific tasting notes.
"Many producers are connecting with consumers with the story about their ranch and what kind of cows they're raising, but now often they will come looking for actual quantitative measures related to flavour," Aalhus says. "They know that people are saying that their beef is different and they want to know why."
Choquette has definitely seen demand rise for naturally fed beef in his many decades of working as a butcher. That said, he believes that the biggest roadblock to marketing beef from a terroir point of view is the same thing that keeps lovingly cultivated fine wines from becoming big sellers while less prestigious mass-produced bottles fly off the shelf: price.
The care required to produce a rich, balanced flavour – from developing custom feeds to housing animals on ranches rather than feedlots – cuts down on the amount of product ranchers are able to produce. It also costs more, which is passed on to the consumer. Although prices vary wildly from independent butchers to chain grocery stores, naturally produced beefsteaks tend to cost about 25 per cent more than standard commodity beef. That's a significant difference, especially for those feeding a family.
The recent economic downturn in Canada, most specifically Alberta, has put the boom in boutique beef production on pause, at least for the time being. "People are interested in ranch-specific beef, but they can't afford it," Choquette says. "Right now, they're buying basically what the box stores are selling."
He believes that's temporary. "When the money is there and they've got that disposable cash, absolutely they're on the search for what tastes better," the butcher says. Apparently, that's beef that tastes like the place it came from.