Grass-Fed Beef Grab

  • A meet draft allows locavore carnivores to access local beef at a reasonable price. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

November 27, 2013
(Originally published in 2012)

I’m standing in a church basement in Pittsburgh. By the time I get there, the room’s already crowded with people at tables, with big coolers in tow.

“Welcome, thank you, listen for your number,” says Jesse Sharrard.

He and his wife, Aurora, are the impresarios of today’s event. On a small stage in the front of the room, is the main attraction—covered by a plastic “space” blanket.

Sharrard pulls off the blankets, and reveals what we’re all here for: dozens of slabs of frozen beef, overflowing from cardboard boxes.

"Everything is separated by piles by cut basically…we’re going to start over here with tenderloin, getting into loin, plus two skirts getting into two skirts," he says.

Everyone in the room has drawn a number, and will take turns choosing cuts of meat, until all the cuts are gone. It’s just like how pro sports teams pick their players, only this isn’t players. It’s meat. It’s a beef draft.

Jesse and Aurora call out the inventory.

“Ribeyes, round tip rump, Oxtail, heart and tongue,” he says.

"Only two hearts only two tongues," she says. 

Jesse reminds us that there are only two animals. There are top round roast shank, but the animals a little smaller this year.  He says that bodes well for the shank.  They may be a little more tender.

These cuts are the sum total of meat from two steers raised on a farm about an hour away.

Jesse Sharrard, who’s a nutritionist and chef, started the draft a few years ago.

“I wanted to get good grass-fed beef at wholesale prices but I couldn’t take on a whole steer myself,” he says.

Jesse Sharrard found a farm that raised purely grass-fed beef. He invited his friends to hold a draft, and word soon spread. I ended up on an e-mail list, and I signed up for a spot. But I’m not exactly an expert at cooking beef, so when my first pick came up, I turned to my friend, Jason Roth, for a little coaching. Jason is a food critic, actually, and subscribes to Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Not only that, he actually reads it.  I ask him what should I do.

"Well the big question is, do you want – in my mind--tenderloin, brisket, or flank?" he says.

These cuts, he says, simply won’t last past the first round or two.  I pick flank steak.

The meat is frozen rock-hard. It’s not that typical cartoonish red “steak” color you see in the meat case in the supermarket. It’s more of a burgundy color. But it’s not just color that separates this beef from the stuff you can get in stores. It was grass-fed. I had some idea that this was a good thing, but I didn’t really know why. So I asked some of the experts in the room.

Nestor Gomez says it tastes totally different.

"Here’s the thing we have a barbecue at the house, and people say—Nestor, your hamburger’s ‘all that.’ It’s not me, I don’t do anything different—my grill’s not different—it’s the beef.”

One of the people I meet is Anna Scheid. She teaches ethics at Duquesne University. She says there are ethical reasons for eating grass-fed meat.

“Feeding cows corn is completely artificial to the nature of a cow. They like to eat grass," she says.

It turns out there are also health reasons for eating this kind of beef.

"You know how they start putting Omega-3s and Omega-6s in your eggs and putting it in different things? That naturally occurs in grass. So when you eat a cow that has eaten grass, you naturally get those Omega-3s and Omega-6s,” she says.

Scheid says she leaned it from Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  And it’s true—that’s what Pollan—and scientists who study our food say about grass-fed  animals. Our diets are too low in Omega-3s, basically because we eat too many corn-fed animals.

So loading up my cooler with these bricks of burgundy colored chops and ribs is like stocking up on Omega-3 for the year. The first few rounds are relatively easy, but toward the later rounds, things get a little difficult. There are a  bunch of cuts I don’t recognize, so I turn again to my beef draft scout, Jason Roth.

“Well this is when I can’t give you an honest opinion because I don’t want you to take the cuts that I’m looking at. I’d say actually probably get shanks—that’s going to give you the most interesting outcome,” he says.

I take his advice, and get the shanks.  After all the meat has been taken, Aurora Sharrard tallies up how we did.  We collectively take home more than 500 pounds of meat.

“What that actually means to you is we total up $4.92 a pound," she says. 

For me that was $116 for about 20 pounds of meat. We haul our coolers out of the basement. By grill, by crock pot, or by skillet, a year’s worth of cooking awaits.