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Beer. Coffee. Chocolate. Cheese. These keystones of the craft food revolution have given us some of the most easily-recognized emblems of craft, from armies of microbreweries to rainforest-certified cacao truffles to a widespread ability to distinguish Arabica from Robusta. Now Seattle's king of craft food, Kurt Beecher Dammeier, thinks beef is the next food in line for a craft transformation.
(One of the photos I snapped of Mishima Reserve beef, at the "steak-off" Dammeier and I held. A story for another time.)
"There's no doubt in my mind that grass-fed beef is the Hefeweizen and Wagyu is the IPA of artisan beef," Dammeier says as he gestures toward the Wagyu-stocked butcher counter in the entry of his South Lake Union steakhouse, The Butcher's Table.
Comparisons like these roll off Dammeier's
Image credit to Sugar Mountain
In the mid-nineties, a handful of years before the doors of his Pike Place Market phenom Beecher's Cheese opened, Kurt Dammeier accidentally became a beer man.
"I had already figured out that craft beers tasted better, but I wasn't a beer geek."
He insists, "I really wasn't looking to get into beer."
But one day, he received a phone call from a friend savvy in the stock market, letting him know that an upstart Seattle-based beer company called Pyramid Brewing Co. looked like a promising investment. Already on the hunt for just such an investment opportunity, Dammeier channeled his "mini corporate raider" side.
He chuckles, "I bought 20% of the stock before they even knew it."
Dammeier then let Pyramid's leadership in on the secret, and quickly got rolling on recasting the board and bringing in a new CEO. He wanted to help Pyramid continue paving the way for more compelling, interesting, and better-tasting beers. And it worked -- both for Pyramid and the beer market writ large.
While the Pyramid Hefeweizen was claiming gold at the Great American Beer Festival, the grocery store beer aisle was exploding into the land of milk and pilsners it is today. Dammeier had demonstrated a talent for getting in on the front end of craftification.
Just a few years later, he had virtually the same experience with cheese, opening Seattle landmark Beecher's well the expansion and stinkification of the QFC cheese aisle. (When his handmade artisan cheese was first sold at Seattle grocery stores in the early 2000s, he laments, "The next best thing in the aisle was Jarlsberg.")
The cafe menu board at Pike Place Market's famous Beecher's Handmade Cheese
Dammeier claims his craft-food hunchmaking process is half economic analysis and half art.
"There are curves and natural ways [each market] evolves," he explains. But at the end of the day, it comes down to what his gut tells him.
Five years ago, Dammeier says, "I could feel that beef was starting to catch on." He pauses, searching for the right comparison. "If the beer business was in the 8th inning, and cheese was in the 6th inning, beef was in the 2nd."
That was apparently good enough. Dammeier went all in and bought a luxury beef company called Mishima Reserve, animals and all, and decided to open a steakhouse where he could have full transparency "from the gleam in the bull's eye to the plate."
It was an unusual move for the world of steakhouses, whose usual emphasis isn't on de-obfuscation of sourcing, but on other qualities like dry-aging and USDA prime grades. But transparency was only part of what it means for a food to be craft, and Dammeier wasn't done.
If you peruse the Butcher's Table menu, you'll see it features exclusively Wagyu-Angus cross beef, the first half of which is an unusual but increasingly popular breed indigenous to Japan and considered a delicacy because it's genetically predisposed to extreme tenderness and fine-grained, lace-like intramuscular fat, better known as marbling. It's every steak aficionado's dream.
The Butcher's Table in South Lake Union, Seattle
And at only 8-oz portions, Butcher's Table steaks are cut way smaller than normal -- it's not your Outback Steakhouse fare by any stretch of the imagination. He compares the thinking behind his Mishima Reserve beef to what happened when beer went craft.
"It's higher quality, and there's less of it."
Dammeier sees all these factors -- smaller portion sizes, exotic breeds, and transparency -- as some of the touchstones of craft beef. And as for where he thinks craft beef is going next?
"Grass-fed and Wagyu are right at the heart of the beef movement."
He's not wrong. Over the past several years, retail sales of grass-fed beef have been growing at an incredible rate of 25-30% per year. And interest in Japanese and American Wagyu has skyrocketed recently, too, with many more restaurants offering Wagyu-cross beef, and interest in A5 Wagyu imported directly from Japan expanding quickly as well.
When you talk to Dammeier, you get the sense you're in the presence of a craft-food fortune teller. He leaves me with a tantalizing promise.
"If you look back 10 years from now, the beef category will look very different than it does today."