A beef lover’s sourcing solution: the draft

February 22, 2011

First, 252 pounds of beef get laid out on long tables. Next, 12 numbered slips of paper get plucked from a baseball cap by a clutch of hungry meat buyers. A swarm of the merchandise ensues. And for the next hour or so, the buyers take turns filling their carryout coolers with porterhouses and short ribs and mock tenders, one by one and in order of the most- to least-coveted cuts.

Omnivores, this is the latest way to share a steer: the meat draft.

The concept was cooked up by Seth Cooper and Jon Wrinn, friends and fellow U.S. Navy employees who spent so many of their nights and weekends obsessing over beef sourcing last year that they decided to launch a meat-brokering business, White House Meats. The idea is to supply city dwellers with the kind of beef the business partners love best: dry-aged meat from 100 percent grass-fed, pasture-raised cattle at farms no more than 100 miles from Washington.

Cooper and Wrinn didn’t care to staff a stand every weekend at a farmers market (and there was no guarantee that a producers-only market would take them), nor did they want to merely shuttle deliveries between slaughterhouse and city slicker. The men wanted more, well, meaty interaction with their customers, including a forum where cooks could share ideas for beef in all its parts, from tongue to oxtail, and feasts where they could taste it. But without capital for a shop, then how?

Last March, Cooper and Wrinn had arranged a one-off steer share with a small group of friends. Cooper had decided that in the spirit of fairness, everyone should draw numbers to determine the order in which they’d get to pick their cuts. The group grilled burgers and drank beer while they drafted the beast; at the feast’s end, everyone paid the same price per pound. “It was basically a meat-up,” said Wrinn, employing the lingo he and Cooper eventually chose to describe their startup’s primary means of distribution. At a White House Meats meat-up, one steer yields 12 shares, at about 21 pounds per share and at $9.80 per pound, no matter whether that pound comprises a filet mignon or a pack of ground beef.

The business model requires a basic D.C. business license, liability insurance and some modest overhead for such items as coolers, gas and rental fees for the meat-up venue. The men said they are operating at cost. (They’ve kept their day jobs.) Robert Bright, the Virginia rancher who supplies them, was keen to participate: “I said to them, ‘This is just crazy enough to be genius,’ ” he said.

Cooper and Wrinn, both 33, bonded over their shared love of cooking when they met 10 years ago while working as naval architects. Cooper hails from the food business — his dad makes ice cream for Boston-area restaurants — and has tried his hand at various artisanal food projects, from cheese to charcuterie. Wrinn, who keeps in his iPhone photos of his favorite concoctions — filet of beef with Boddington’s and soy reduction, anyone? — has long been a sucker for red meat. After Wrinn saw “Food, Inc.” and developed a distaste for industrially raised livestock, Cooper, who was already seeking a good source of pasture-raised and local dry-aged beef, seized on the opportunity to arrange the steer-share with their friends. Several months later, once most of the shareholders had exhausted their haul, Cooper and Wrinn began fielding the query “When are you going to organize another meat draft?”

The men attended a meat science class at Pennsylvania State University. Back in the Washington area they began interviewing butchers, researching small slaughterhouses and calling on farmers within a 100-mile radius. What they learned along the way convinced them that there could be an untapped urban market for the specialized meat brokering they envisioned.

For one thing, the area has few sources of local dry-aged beef, which is hung for two to three weeks so that enzymes in the flesh have time to break down and intensify flavor. The process adds cost to the beef, in part because of the real estate that the aging requires.

The other eye-opener for Cooper and Wrinn came during their education in the nuances of grass-fed characterizations and labeling. To qualify for the “grass-fed” label, according to USDA rules, a farmer’s cattle must not consume any grains or grain-based feed. However, cattle may be given fodder composed of annuals and perennials, such as alfalfa, sorghum and cornstalks, which belong to the grass species. The animal also must have continuous access to pasture when the grass is growing. Cooper and Wrinn said they were introduced to a variety of cattle-raising practices, such as cattle residing on feedlots and eating corn but being advertised as “pastured,” which muddied the marketing terms.

Ultimately the partners found a rancher who met their criteria in Bright, who raises 500 free-range steer on about 1,000 acres at Mount Airy Farms in Upperville. Bright’s cattle, which are USDA-certified organic, move to new pasture each day and eat bluegrass and clover throughout their two-year life except in winter, when they feed on hay baled from the grass. Cooper and Wrinn then struck a deal to kill several animals a month at Blue Ridge Meats, a small slaughterhouse in Middletown, Va. The beef is dry-aged and processed there, then carted 75 miles into the District by the partners on the morning of the meat-up.

“We’ve put in the legwork to ease this angst that a lot of people, especially in our generation, have about sourcing,” said Cooper. “Hopefully we can build up trust in our name.”

Cooper and Wrinn held a test draft for friends and relatives in January. The first public meat-up took place in early February at Christ Church on Capitol Hill. A 20-something lawyer arrived with a spreadsheet showing the results of the prior draft, trying to educate herself on the desirability of various cuts. A 30-something Navy lieutenant came with pages of illustrated butcher cuts and a list of his top five choices. A retired administrative assistant was tickled to have lucked into the last spot in the draft after bumping into Cooper and Wrinn on her way out of a meeting at the church. Wrinn grilled burgers and Cooper demonstrated how to cook a dry-aged top round roast. Throughout the draft, Cooper stood by to answer questions and offer guidance on preparation. “A big part of what we’re doing is education,” said Wrinn.

The picks go in order from numbers 1 to 12 and then again in reverse order, with the premium draft spots falling around the lowest and highest numbers. Anil Ramcharan, an IT consultant from Gaithersburg who drew number 1, described his haul — porterhouse, T-bone, rib, sirloin, minute, flat-iron and mock tender steaks, plus short ribs, an arm roast and seven pounds of ground beef — as “awesome.”

C.J. Dunlop, the Navy lieutenant, had previously bought some White House Meats beef in a pre-sorted box and liked it so much that he decided to try the meat-up. By afternoon’s end, the printouts he’d brought along were covered with cooking tips. “Now the box seems so . . . anticlimactic,” he said. “This was fun!” Dunlop had drawn perhaps the least-choice spot, in the middle of the pack: number six. He ended up with filet mignon, two packages of rib steaks, a bottom round roast, short ribs, skirt steak, London broil and 10 pounds of ground meat.

Draftees can forgo any round to hold out for extra ground beef, which is distributed at the meat-up’s end to bring each person’s haul up to 21 pounds. At the February gathering, the ground-beef take-home ranged from four to 11 pounds. (Compared with the meat-up’s price of $9.80 a pound, Whole Foods on P Street Northwest sells dry-aged boneless ribeye steaks for $21.99 a pound, strip steaks for $23.99 a pound and grass-fed ground beef for $5.99 to $6.99 a pound; none is locally sourced.)

Cooper and Wrinn said they will continue to fine-tune the concept. They want to add sausages to the mix and perhaps more formal guidance on recipes.

The men have also been holding regular beef feasts over the past year, building up their repertoire for roasts and offal, and sussing out good techniques for dry-aged and grass-fed parts. At a recent gathering, quick-marinated skirt steaks topped a bright salad of arugula, radish and mint. A luscious beer-braised oxtail was paired with a confit of beef heart. And a rare sirloin was laid out with roasted bone marrow, plus kale and potatoes fried in beef fat. “We were thinking of having people sign releases tonight when they got here!” Cooper joked.

It remains to be seen whether a sustainable small business can function on meat-drafts alone, particularly with $9.80-a-pound pricing. “Even if we ended up with a butcher shop down the road, we’d continue to do the draft,” said Cooper. “I love that idea of the cow and connecting people through it.”

food@washpost.com

The next meat-ups are slated for March 12 on Capitol Hill and March 14 in Adams Morgan. See www.whitehousemeats.com.

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