In 1994, Robert Rebholtz Sr., the founder of Agri Beef Co., now the most well-known purveyor of premium meat in America, was waiting for an in-bound flight from Japan. On a jumbo jet over the Pacific Ocean, with their seat belts securely fastened, were eight full-grown Wagyu bulls and 30 Wagyu cows, a breed of cattle known for its intense marbling and buttery flavor — today likely one of the most expensive, and delicious, items on any steakhouse menu.
When they landed in America, the cargo signaled the foundation of Snake River Farms (SRF), named for the river that flows from Wyoming to the Pacific Ocean, passing through Idaho, where the river’s namesake valley serves as the grazing grounds for SRF cattle. But the animals also represented a huge gamble. In the ‘90s, the term “foodie” hadn’t yet registered in the national consciousness, and paying a premium for quality meat was a concept foreign to most Americans.
BBQ Masters and Michelin Stars
In the world of competition BBQ, like those events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, Snake River Farms briskets have become a key ingredient to the success of teams both nationally and internationally, according to Annella Kelso, who heads the company’s BBQ program.
On the other side of the table, where the cloth bleaches from checkers to bright white, restaurants like French Laundry, where people expect to pay a premium for quality, serve SRF beef as one of their main courses.
But in Japan, the quality of Wagyu was well known. (The term “Wagyu” translates literally to “Japanese cow.”) However, there were limitations: it’s an island with finite land for grazing, and ranchers import most of their feed, which inflates cost. “So [Rebholtz’s] thought was, ‘I can do this in America. I have the land and ready access to feed,'” said Jay Theiler, who has has been a key part of the SRF program for the past 16 years. “‘And then I can export it back to Japan.’”
However, the last step of this process was interrupted in December of 2003, when a single cow was found in Washington state to have BSE, also known as Mad Cow Disease. Japan, at the time the largest importer of American beef, according to the US Meat Export Federation, banned the import of American beef for the next two years. The whole of the Idaho-based business was in jeopardy. So over night, Agri Beef had to rethink the business and look inside the US, where the market was dominated by commodity beef and imported McDonald’s burgers. In retelling, Theiler’s coworkers joked that he was going around “selling a bag of snakes.” Theiler and his colleagues began by traveling throughout the major foodservice markets of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, visiting restaurants and chefs that were serving high-quality beef. He’d come with Wagyu in hand, to compare cuts, and would offer an unconditional guarantee: if a restaurant or chef didn’t like the product after serving it to their guests, they could return it.
Now, over a decade later, Theiler says he hasn’t met many top chefs that haven’t heard of Snake River Farms.
From Farm to Filet
A look behind the scenes at Snake River Farms
Pork, Not a White Meat
Snake River Farms is also a producer of high quality 100 percent Berkshire pork, which is also known as Kurobuta or “black hog” in Japanese. Since 1987, the National Pork Board has pushed pork as “The Other White Meat” (although the campaign has changed slightly in the last decade). Theiler maintains that this view of pork is simply wrong.
This Kurobuta pork is much darker in color. “The redder the meat, the higher the pH, and pH is an indicator of the ability of meat to retain moisture,” said Theiler. “This juicer meat isn’t efficient. There are less piglets per litter, they are raised slower, they are more expensive.” But the result is pork that can be cooked medium or medium rare, a level that preserves flavor and makes for a tastier chop, that is rarely associated with pork.
The secret to SRF’s success is in their closed-loop system — the carefully controlled management of every step of the beef production process. Whereas some Wagyu beef providers will buy and sell meat from a number of suppliers, some of which they may not be familiar with, SRF keeps careful tabs on everything about their product and has the ability to adjust as needed: SRF partners with many of the top ranchers in the western US (a feat made easier after they rose in notoriety) for breeding purposes; after the Wagyu bulls propagate, the calves are returned to SRF for feeding; while raising the calves, any nutritional concerns are addressed by the company’s own nutrition specialists; and at the market-facing step, during processing, the quality of the beef is carefully assessed. If a bull isn’t producing calves that meet the beef quality expected from SRF, it is removed from the breeding pool. This process fine-tunes the herd to make every generation of cattle better than the one that came before.
These steps produce better beef, but at a higher price. The total cost for raising beef to SRF’s standards is two to three times higher than for traditionally raised cattle. The majority of these costs are incurred by the time involved. Before being considered for the marketplace, cattle raised at SRF feed for about 550 days, along the Snake River on a mix of corn, Idaho potatoes, alfalfa hay and white winter wheat, while traditionally raised cattle go to market in approximately 140 days. Slower growth is comforting to think about for the health of the cattle, but more specifically, this natural growth creates more intramuscular fat — white, delicious streaks in every bite. And this fat, which makes up 25 to 35 percent of the meat nutrition, has a fatty acid profile that’s two parts mono-unsaturated to one part poly-unsaturated. This composition comes from livestock genetics unique to Wagyu, and gives the buttery-sweet taste.
The higher cost for Wagyu beef does not necessarily mean less demand, especially in the future. A recent thesis paper from the University of Missouri found that as price fluctuations occur in the high-quality meat market, when compared to lower-quality meat, the impact on demand is minimal. People are willing to accept paying more for quality. Further, as people make more money, the paper found that demand for beef increases, and the demand for high-quality beef increases the most. This means that millennials, who are more likely to demand the animal-friendly practices found at SRF, and the quality that “foodies” have come to expect, will have a massive impact on the future of beef as they begin making more money. These results are supported by another recent study, this one in the journal Meat Science, which found that meat consumption is likely to increase in the future, and that quality will be a larger driving force in the market than price and consumer income.
These signposts point to a bright future for SRF, but, if their past is any indication, the future will be a slow and steady process. (With a bit more competition from Japan.) The entire business is based on a careful inching forward of breed quality and beef taste, with each generation taking almost three years to come to market. It’s been a slow road, but it means that SRF will be producing the juiciest, tastiest meat in America for the foreseeable future. “This is not an overnight success story,” said Theiler. “This took 20 years, and we appreciate the customers who have supported us.”