For all the articles that have appeared touting vaca vieja — also known as old or dual-purpose beef from mature, retired cattle — as the next big thing in meat with a rich, intensely beefy flavor and sustainable path to plate, the stuff is maddeningly hard for the average consumer to find.
In January while researching the scant American purveyors of old beef, I discovered a small retail and online delivery shop in Perry, N.Y., called Butter Meat Co. Butter sells beef sourced from a USDA-certified organic dairy farm in Pavilion, N.Y., with about 200 cows.
I must have filled, emptied and refilled my online shopping cart half a dozen times with the various combinations of burgundy-hued sausages, ground beef and steaks lined with yellow fat from "the girls," whom I learned were between five and seven years old. They'd just finished their careers being milked by robots in free-stall barns, and spending all night during growing season grazing on 200 acres of grasses and clovers (and fermented grain in winter).
"If you rattle off a cow number, my mother-in-law knows which one you're talking about and what her personality is like," Jill Gould, Butter's founder and owner, later told me. Gould herself loads up said cull cows from the farm where her husband Stephen Gould is the third-generation farmer, and hauls them to the closest organic processing facility, just over the Pennsylvania border in Troy. About two weeks later, she returns to load up a few thousand pounds of hanging-aged packaged beef, most of which will be sold from her charming shop just outside Letchworth State Park.
I quickly confessed to Gould that I couldn't go through with placing the order. Not just because of the $55 price of two-day shipping from Western New York to my home in Southern New Mexico (a region teeming with locally raised beef, by the way). It was the sense that my choice — driven by the naive optimism that I was helping tip the scales toward a more sustainable and humane agricultural system — was negated by everything that came after I hit "buy."
Did supporting rehabilitative agriculture matter when my purchase came with the destructive byproducts of packaging waste and emission-spewing miles? Wouldn't I be better off approaching a local rancher and asking if he or she happened to have an old cow around? I wondered aloud.
"This is a recurring question I'm growing so much more passionate about," said Gould, who previously worked in food supply and fulfillment at Blue Apron, Sam's Club and Walmart. "When we talk about regenerative agriculture, these things are so nuanced by region; we don't talk about how, with such a globalized food system, we've lost the idea of how different things look and life cycles are so different in different parts of the country."
That's why she makes shipping so expensive at Butter; well, that, and the hardcore foodies willing to drop $200 on 10 pounds of frozen Butter beef represent an essential revenue source until Gould can scale her business.
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Currently, the overwhelming majority of beef sold in the U.S. comes from beef-specific cattle such as Black Angus, which are fattened up quickly on a diet of grains then slaughtered when they reach between 18 and 30 months of age. The math here is simple: the faster a head of cattle reaches to market weight, the higher the profit margins on said animal. Yet compared to a single beef cow, which produces 600 pounds of meat, dual-purpose cows produce about 80,000 pounds of food in their lifetimes — in the forms of milk, cream, butter and finally beef.
As of 2018, about 20 percent of the U.S. commercial beef supply came from dairy cows and steers. Most of us eat it without knowing it — mixed with feedlot beef into packages of ground beef we mindlessly pluck from refrigerated shelves at the supermarket. Regardless if that beef was raised organic without growth hormones, dairy farmers usually receive commodity prices for it.
"Right now, our beef is so homogenized, customers can't choose," Gould said. "Like if you walk the cracker aisle, there are 50 startups of crackers! That doesn't exist in beef. I see a chance to build a brand that creates an option based on accessibility."
Gould started Butter in 2020 with the aim of creating value around dual-purpose beef at a time when well-heeled American foodies were starting to take notice — thanks to high-profile chefs like Blue Hill Farm's Dan Barber, who has touted its flavor perhaps more than its environmental benefits, and José Andres, who homages the long Basque region tradition of serving decade-old vaca vieja at his Bazaar Meats restaurants in Las Vegas and Chicago.
By virtue of its age, mature beef is a completely different eating experience — more intensely meaty, almost gamey — with flavorful, butter-yellow fat from its more varied diet and a toothsome texture owing to more years plodding across the earth.
At Bazaar Meats in Las Vegas, rib steaks from eight- to -10-year-old Holstein cattle are sourced from Mindful Meats in Petaluma, Calif. (As of publishing, Bazaar Meats hadn't yet secured a supplier for its Chicago location.) The meat undergoes an hour-long tempering process — slowly coming up to about 100 degrees F — before it's finished on a hot wood grill and plated as hulking bone-in steaks ($65 per pound) or a 6-ounce tasting portion ($45) alongside premium breeds like Oregon Washugyu/Angus and Texas Rosewood Wagyu to be sampled and compared based on how it was raised, its blood line and and what it ate — not unlike contemplating terroir in a fine wine. The menu verbiage leans into that narrative, calling it out as a "European tradition," prepared "Jose's way," on an oak wood-fired grill.
"If you can imagine veal and how light white it is, and how it's not the most flavorful, that same animal reaching 20 months old changes into what we know as steak," said Alex Pitts, executive chef of Bazaar Meats and Bar Mar. "Take and compound that by putting eight to 10 years of life behind it. The beef flavor really coats your mouth and almost lingers. It's a beautiful narrative to explain and experience in the moment."
Of course, it's not for everyone, and not just because of the price point. Old beef still suffers from the connotation that it's lesser, particularly in a country that still prizes tenderness and size in its steaks.
John Manion, chef/owner of Argentine steakhouse El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago, recently got a shipment of "at least five-year-old" grassfed vaca vieja strip loin from gourmet meat distributor D'Artagnan to sample. Manion enjoyed the meat's pronounced funk, likening its beefiness to "the smell of suet and the taste of beef fat."
D'Artagnan strip (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)
"That said, I also blinded it with a bunch of my staff and nobody liked it — texturally, it was like what mutton is to lamb," he said.
Manion and I have gone several rounds over the years about the potential of selling vaca vieja on his menu — where you'll also find the toothsome sirloin cap (aka "picanha") so beloved in Brazil; mild, tender sweetbreads (thymus gland of cattle); and full-flavored morcilla (blood sausage). Even if these items aren't necessarily prudent to El Che from a food-cost perspective, they're consistent with its South American-leaning, fire-cooked narrative; moreover, they're not overly challenging for the diner. But when it comes to the steakhouse's central pillar of beef, Manion said, consistency is king.
"There's a lot of things where I can say, listen: sweetbreads, morcilla, trust me; you'll love it," Manion said. "I do think if I put the vaca vieja on the menu as a New York strip — I've had experience with some smaller, purely grass-fed producers locally — it doesn't have the marbling, it's a little smaller. It's, frankly, not what customers are looking for. They don't want to be challenged when it comes to steak."
Even barring the question of building enough mainstream demand for old beef at a markup in the vein of grass-fed beef, there's still the supply problem. Gould doubts she has enough steaks to supply even one weekend of service at Bazaar Meats; she can barely supply her shop and direct-to-consumer orders in the surrounding markets, plus one private school in Buffalo and a sprinkling of food explorers around the country. While she admits that dual-purpose beef likely will never overtake industrialized beef, she'd like to make a dent by getting Butter beef on the shelves of a Wegmans or Costco — always with the goal of accelerating the agricultural infrastructure already in place in her home state.
In case you're wondering exactly how much beef it would take to supply even a single Wegmans store, Gould ballparks 50 cows slaughtered per day — a scaling-up that would require working with a sizable co-operative of organic dairy farms. Then there's the matter of finding a processor to handle the volume and stringent processing requirements the USDA hands down for older and certified organic animals.
Meat processing in the U.S. is incredibly consolidated; just four companies (JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef) control three quarters of the beef processing market for the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually in the United States, according to a recent analysis. (The majority of cull cows pass through these processors as well, per the USDA.)
Gould has even considered taking meat processing in house. But the business itself is complex, expensive and high risk with razor-thin profit margins. A small-scale commercial facility costs about $2.25 million to build and needs to process at least 1,500 animals annually just to break even, closer to 2,000 to turn a profit, according to the Niche Meat Processors Assistant Network (NMPAN), an Oregon State University Extension group that supports the small and niche meat processing sector.
"During the pandemic, a lot of volume moved to small and midscale because large plants were shut down or had to reduce capacity," said Rebecca Thistlewaite, director of NMPAN. "Many are feeling the residual effects and still booked out for the rest of the year, but they're struggling to keep up with demand or are unable to expand, and it all boils down to labor shortages."
Last month, the Biden Administration vowed to direct $1 billion in American Rescue Funds toward expanding independent meat processing capacity as part of a broader initiative to break up what it calls a meat and poultry processor monopoly. But that heap of money doesn't address the massive labor shortage or the other major problem facing regional processors in the shadow of the Big Four: market access.
As Thistlewaite so succinctly put it, "You can't just go and build a plant without a market."
Small retailers like Gould have been riding a similar wave of artificial demand as local customers discovered her shop when their local supermarket didn't have beef on their shelves; then perhaps they stayed because they loved the flavor and the environmental benefits of Butter, or they grew up on family farms where turning retired plowing or dairy cows into dinner was an age-old practice.
"I do think there's hope and people who want to work on this, and customers who want to see it and spend their money differently," Gould said. "We're not talking masses here. But I don't need to reach that many customers direct-to-market to move a decent amount because there are so few options in beef. If you think about it, this wasn't an option at all a couple years ago."
As for me, I have a date with the local beef purveyor at next Saturday's farmer's market. If he doesn't come through, there's still 10 pounds of frozen Butter beef in my online cart.
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