Cafe Society

Two small-town families made Colorado's Best Beef a sought-after brand

Colorado's Best Beef." The name of the company alone is a bold boast in a state that's home to roughly 13,000 beef producers. But the owners are willing to back up their claim.

"We can give a little more attention to the smaller details that the big [beef producers] just don't have time to do," says rancher Brian Ferris, who partnered with another ranching family to found CBB. "Agriculture usually has a certain facelessness, but our customers can pick up the phone and ask about our product."

Or they can come see where the project originates: an 8,000-acre farm thirty miles from just about everything in tiny Hoyt, Colorado, where the Ferris family has ranched for decades. While antelope play in the grassy pastures, eagles fly overhead...and cattle watch placidly as a pickup truck rumbles past. "If they're not running away from you, that basically means you're treating them right," says Ferris. "We don't use any implants, no growth hormones, and no feed antibiotics."

Gina Elliott, partner in Colorado's Best Beef, agrees: "These cattle are just very well-loved, and top priority for us was to have them raised and processed humanely."

The Ferris and Elliot families have known each other for generations. And over beers at the bar inside the National Western Stock Show in 2003 — a time when people were on edge about unsafe meat and horrific farming practices — they hatched a plan to deliver healthy, delicious meat. At first the families were just selling halves and quarters of beef to family and friends, but word of mouth soon helped make CBB a sought-after brand. The family pickup would drive up and down the Front Range delivering meat to eager chefs and stores while Elliott fielded calls from across the country from folks interested in frozen steaks and burgers.

Ferris compares those days to when microbrewers revitalized a stagnant industry. "Years and years ago, it was just Miller, Budweiser and Coors. Then some of these microbreweries came along, offered people choices and had a story to tell. And I see us in the same place."

All of Colorado's Best Beef's products, from chuck roasts to Cajun-seasoned beef jerky, start with a particular breed of cattle called Charolais. These milky-white-faced and -colored cattle have heavier muscle than other breeds, Ferris says, and are genetically predisposed for tenderness. Charolais come from the eponymous region in France, and according to Elliott, the meat these cows produce is what the best European restaurants have used for generations. "I've had chefs call me when they move from Europe to the East Coast," she says, "and they want to know, 'Why can't I buy Charolais beef back here?'"

The answer is easy: CBB is one of only a handful of places in America that will sell natural Charolais directly to grocery stores and restaurants.

The open secret of CBB's amazing beef is a four-part system, says Elliott. First, there's the breed — the Charolais — and second is the feed. CBB cows are grazed on corn right before they're processed (the company also offers a limited amount of grass-fed beef). Third is the processing: Innovative Foods in Evans was chosen for its humane slaughtering processes, and the beef is dry-aged for up to 21 days there. "This is how you know you're getting a great steak, a great hamburger or what have you," explains Elliott, "because these three variables never change."

And the fourth? That's where Sergio Romero, executive chef of Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, comes in.

"I grew up in northern New Mexico on a hundred-acre farm, and we were the epitome of farm-to-table," says Romero, who was behind the line at Robert Thompson's Argyll, is now at Le Grand, and is looking forward to the opening of Punch Bowl Social in the Baker neighborhood. "We did almost everything on the farm, and I wish that everybody had the ability to experience that." Today Colorado's Best Beef is the only cow on the plates coming from Romero's kitchen, plates bearing everything from the extravagant ribeye (steak de bistrot, at $43) to the humble bistro burger ($13) to the steak frites ($21). "More people have probably experienced Colorado's Best Beef through our steak frites than from any other menu out there," Romero says.

It wasn't easy for CBB to break into the business of supplying beef to Colorado restaurants, though. "These places are usually not that receptive to ranchers," says Elliott, who simply came in, set samples down and let the meat speak for itself. "It was a struggle to get going."

CBB found an early ally in Mark DeNittis, founder of Il Mondo Vecchio, who raved about the beef and began using it for his bresola and at his butchery classes at Johnson & Wales University. "Mark had ins that we did not have," says Elliott. Once DeNittis walked in to other establishments with Colorado's Best Beef in hand, it didn't take long for chefs to catch on. Today Patrick DuPays of Z Cuisine and Sheila Lucero of the three Jax Fish House restaurants are all fans of the meat.

Timing played a part, too. The families started introducing CBB as more and more restaurants were turning to local suppliers for their food. "I treat Shamrock and Sysco and US Foods like I would a big-box store," Romero muses. "The consumer is more educated than they were three or four years ago.... People now want to know where their food is coming from and how it's been processed. And there's some nostalgia to it, too, like, 'Hey, man, you wanna know where those greens came from? I can tell you a story about them.'"

And when they were doing their cattle call for Le Grand, the Stetson-topped ranchers of CBB gave both the front and back of the house an extensive meat-tasting seminar, answering questions about their beef and educating the staff, making sure that "they could put a face to the product," Elliott says.

Chefs can often tell the quality of a restaurant through its burger, and Le Grand's Colorado's Best Beef burger puts lesser-pedigreed versions to shame. This meat tastes just like the word "Charolais" sounds in your mouth: sweet, rich, almost European in its flamboyant flavors. The fresh aioli, the Gruyère, the caramelized onions all melting into each other would threaten to overload the already sweet beef — it if weren't strong enough to hold up. The burger is juicy without being messy, delicate without the fat making it seem too savory. In short, it's just about perfect.

Colorado's Best Beef has raised the bar for Colorado beef. But it's not easy being Best. The beef industry has suffered from stories about so-called pink slime, and this summer's drought has hurt the two families hard, with water scarce and hay and feed prices skyrocketing. But ranchers are used to rolling with the punches. Just as Charolais seem to have deliciousness in their genes, Ferris believes he's got ranching in his bloodstream. "I was born into it, exposed to it from a very young age, couldn't shake it," he says.

"It's just a good way of life," adds Elliott.

And it helps when that life is dedicated to very good beef.