The Five Ways
We say we're 'better five ways'. And we are! But what we mean is that being 'better' in this business is no easy feat. You can't be the best at dry-ageing and rest on your laurels. You can't select the most-marbled meat and wait for the orders to pour in. We've been doing this a long time and we've found that we need to optimise every aspect of our business in order to stay out in front. Every aspect; that means the farm, environmental practices, selection, dry-ageing and butchery. We have to get them all just right.
1. THE FARMERS
Ireland’s climate is perfect for grazing cattle. The winters are mild, the summers are wet enough to encourage fertile growth. Our cattle are truly free range – spending most of the year outside.
On our supplier farms, calves spend ten months suckling from their mother. This diet of rich milk is good for them and beneficial to her too. For the most part, these are farms that have been in the same family for generations. As a result, our farmers have developed strong relationships with their customers, their suppliers and their neighbours. This makes for great consistency and reliability. Our average farmer age is fifty six but their experience goes back generations. These farms are small, family owned affairs so the herds are small. This means farmers get to know individual animals – their habits, appetites and their state of health. Any issues are spotted quickly and nipped in the bud.
The Irish farm environment is traditional and non-industrial but, thanks to EU regulations, it has the oversight of a modern factory.
It’s not easy producing world-class beef. It’s not easy breeding and raising cattle. But we’re used to putting a lot of work into what we do. The challenges facing the beef industry are becoming so great that they will eventually weed out the dilettantes and the journeymen. But we’re here for the long haul. The industry will soon be left with a landscape of soulless, industrial scale producers and a handful of dedicated artisan producers like ourselves. Expect a lot of low quality, bland beef and a few oases of exciting, genuinely different offerings like John Stone.
It will be down to the consumer to decide where their priorities lie: Do they want low cost, low quality beef every day? Or do they want an exceptional product with a story that they can relate to, a story which reassures them that beef is a part of their culture, that it is delicious and nutritious, and that the people who made it care about the animals they raised and the land that they grazed.
The EU forbids hormones and tightly controls use of antibiotics. Animal welfare is also strictly controlled. Animals are traceable throughout their lives and right through to the marketplace. In Ireland, carbon miles are kept to a minimum because cattle graze locally. During the few weeks when cattle are indoors, feed is sourced usually from the same farm or from the immediate vicinity. Our progressive farm practices such as rotational grazing better manage the grass-land and naturally sequester carbon.
The Irish farm culture with tight EU controls contrasts with the ‘feed-lot’ regime common in other counties. There, huge concentrations of cattle in small lots inevitably poison the water table. These feed-lots are also poorer for animal welfare and have a high socio-economic cost as they exacerbate wealth inequality.
The beef market is changing rapidly. Sustainability is no longer a marginal concern. Consumers are rejecting the status quo – industrially produced beef which threatens the environment and undermines the welfare of cattle and farmers alike.
We’re artisan producers. We believe meat is precious. It should be treated with respect and enjoyed as an indulgence.
Our cattle are, of course, grass fed. Grass is the most sustainable possible diet for cattle. It’s an easy winner over the grain-fed regimes in other countries where the abuse of resources like water and fertilisers have led to environmental catastrophe. But we’re not content to settle for an ordinary grass-feeding regime. The environment is in crisis and farming has a central role in shaping our world. We believe that our business can act, not just to limit environmental damage, but to create a net benefit.
We have taken a number of initiatives with this goal in mind. First we practice rotational grazing. This involves subdividing fields into smaller pastures so that cattle intensively graze one area while another recovers. The long, ungrazed period allows grass to recover and, crucially, to grow deeper roots. This draws more nutrients from the soil, protects against soil erosion and sequesters carbon. Remember, it’s not just trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere – two thirds of the world’s carbon is stored in grassland soils. Our cattle graze outdoors for most of the year.
John Stone selects the beef with marbling that falls into U.S. Choice & Prime and Australian MSA 2-3 marble score.
Full John Stone selection criteria:
— Steer (castrated male)
— Heifer (virgin female)
— Breed (Angus, Hereford & crosses)
— Fat Scoring
— Controlled Weight
— Marbling (Our own in-house scores)
Statistics are fine but, ultimately, we rely on the eye and the experience of our master butchers to select the finest beef. Take marbling as an example: Marbling adds flavour and is one of the main criteria for judging the quality of cuts of meat. In general, the more marbling it contains, the better a cut of meat is. But tenderness and marbling don’t necessarily go hand in hand, so while the fillet is possibly the most tender cut of beef, it doesn’t usually have much marbling. We keep that in mind when selecting. Also, marbling can be artificially boosted by feeding animals an unhealthy amount of grain. Quite apart from taste and environmental concerns, grain feeding is not a silver bullet for marbling. We ask, what were they fed? What were their living conditions? We look at the whole picture because there are no short cuts. We look for naturally occurring marbling in grass-fed cattle. Finally, older cows can be heavily marbled but tougher. Again, our master butchers will know the difference.
It’s not all about breeds either. In recent times there has been an attempt to market some breeds direct to the consumer as ‘premium’ breeds. We don’t hold with that. Yes, breeds have different characteristics but there are so many variables which distinguish high quality from low quality meat that we do not limit ourselves to certain breed types.
Dry-aged beef is as it sounds; we dry the meat gently by controlling the airflow, humidity and temperature. This process concentrates flavour. The process involves considerable expense as we hold our beef for several weeks. During this time it is losing moisture as it evaporates in our chamber. Moreover, only high quality selected grades of beef can be dry-aged as the process requires cuts with large, natural deposits of marbling and natural fat cover.
The process changes beef in three ways…
• Firstly, moisture is evaporated from the muscle.
• Secondly, the beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which leads to more tender beef. Connective tissue breaks down. Moisture evaporates. The key effect of dry ageing is the concentration of both the beef flavour and the fat flavours. This, combined with the natural tenderisation of the meat fibres, makes it worth the effort.
• Thirdly, the process of dry-ageing also promotes a natural specific mould on the external surface of the meat. This does not cause spoilage, but helps form the natural external black “crust” on the meat surface.
John Stone has been dry-ageing beef for fifty years. It’s not about gimmicks. It’s not about numbers. It’s not about gadgets. It’s about experience.
This natural process compliments the natural enzymes in the beef to tenderise and increase flavour. The beef becomes more ‘beefy’ and the fats develop a powerful umami flavour which, when combined together, result in a really juicy and delicious piece of beef.
After a month of dry-ageing the beef is trimmed of the black “crust” revealing deep rich purple colour of beef. This beef is ready to be enjoyed.
Find out more about the dry-ageing process by watching this video:
We talk to our farmers and we learn from them and we spend time with the chefs who buy our produce so that we can better understand their needs. This ongoing communication results in a better understanding of the what it takes to make great meat and what our customers value.
A good butcher is a great listener. We don’t tell our customers what we have to sell. We ask them what they’d like to buy.
We know our suppliers and we know our customers but, ultimately, our expertise is in our own trade – we are butchers. We believe chefs should get the cuts they want in the right condition. We supply cuts that are ready to use with minimal waste. We also believe the cuts should be consistent.
Thirty years ago, John Stone co-authored the Meat Buyers Guide for Catering Butchery – a seminal industry publication which standardised meat cutting practices and jargon for a generation. The book was written to fill a vacuum. There was little agreement on standards and nomenclature at the time and no go-to reference book to allow butchers and the catering industry to find common ground. Overall standards are higher today but we are still leaders when it comes to communicating with the trade. We listen to chefs and respond and when we innovate, we make sure to communicate our new ideas clearly.