Food News

Six Takeaways From the First-Ever Stockyards Beef Festival

BR Beef cutting up its Red Angus/Charolais strip loin, which was slow-cooked over charcoal and seasoned with sea salt, garlic and pepper.
BR Beef cutting up its Red Angus/Charolais strip loin, which was slow-cooked over charcoal and seasoned with sea salt, garlic and pepper. Brent Lonker
The inaugural Stockyards Beef Festival on January 12 saw ranchers and city folk alike tasting premium wine and beef while listening to bluegrass tunes and enjoying a live cow auction as part of the National Western Stock Show, which runs through January 22.

The festival was an initiative from the Association of Ranchers, which partnered with the National Western organization to bring five rancher and winery products straight to consumers.

Here are six takeaways from the event's debut:

You can explore the stockyards
An inadvertent benefit of the Stockyards Beef Festival is that it exposes you to the wider National Western Center campus and Stockyards Event Center. The two most popular attractions for most attendees of the Stock Show are the rodeo at the Denver Coliseum and the Expo Hall in the National Western Complex Building. However, the Stockyards Beef Festival was located within the Yards at the HW Hutchison Family Stockyards Event Center, far enough from the main attractions that it warrants a golf cart ride through the recently completed CSU Spur campus.

Building the Stockyards Event Center is part of Denver's massive redevelopment plan to accommodate the Stock Show; it includes 48,000 square feet of multi-purpose space with two arenas. The plan and its funding have been part of political jockeying to keep what's known as the 'Superbowl of Stock Shows' in Denver and to ensure that the event remains competitive against upstarts like Oklahoma City, which started its own stock show when Denver’s was canceled because of pandemic concerns in 2021.

Seeing the new event center provided an opportunity to appreciate how these public-use grounds could be used to bring community events, programming and more to the area year-round.
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Patrons of the Stockyards Beef Festival enjoying the event.
Brent Lonker
75 percent ranchers, 25 percent consumers
The primary motivation behind this festival was to provide a common ground for people who work the land and urban consumers. “You guys are the consumer. You know, we can bring pretty animals here, but we gotta promote the beef and what’s on the plate,” explains Brent Lonker, leader of the Association of Ranchers. “We want to make a better product, put it on the plate, put it on the shelf. So hopefully the consumer, the retailer, understands that.”

Based on a quick scan, the crowd seemed comprised of about 75 percent ranchers, all of whom seemed to adhere to the same uniform: jeans, cowboy hat, boots, and a fleece jacket or vest emblazoned with their ranch’s logo. The organizers and vendors were elated with the number of consumers in attendance, noting that 25 percent was more than they'd hoped for, though from what we witnessed, mingling between the two groups was minimal.

For the ranching folks, the vibe was like a family reunion. While one group of friends from Boulder joked about missing the memo on the dress code, most locals seemed to enjoy the event and took the opportunity to chat up the folks serving them wine and beef to learn more about their vineyards and ranches.
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Ribeye and kabobs served by Connealy Angus Meat Market from Sandhills, Nebraska.
Brent Lonker
An awkward layout made for long lines
The inefficient layout of the Beef Festival was the biggest criticism of the event's debut. Although the event was held in the spacious Stow L. Witwer Memorial Show Arena, one half was entirely devoted to sit-down tables while the other half was split between all five wine- and beef-tasting stations and additional tables. Splitting the two halves were pens holding the four heifers for the event-closing live auction.

The festival organizers say they envisioned an “approach-and-go” process; however, turnout was so high for the sold-out event (with an estimated 450 attendees) that one long line formed, slowly moving by all five tables. This meant that if any one of the five stations temporarily ran out of food, the entire line stopped.

There was minor grumbling from the patrons about the long wait time, but the vast majority took things in stride, making conversation with old and new friends, listening to the live band and sipping beer.

There is room for further improvement, too, with attendees suggesting ideas like adding more beef stations, having whiskey pairings, and holding the event later into the evening to allow more time after work to navigate traffic and parking. Even before the event was over, festival organizers were taking notes and debriefing about changes for next year.
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Bluegrass band the O'Donnells from Rockvale, Tennessee, entertained the crowd.
Brent Lonker
Green chile burgers were the crowd favorite
Served up by New Mexico's Bill King Ranch, the cheeseburger sliders had a spicy kick that resonated with the crowd. Another favorite was Connealy Angus Meat Market's beef tallow candle that slowly melted into a pool to mix with balsamic vinegar and various herbs.

Other beef tastings included a minimally seasoned yet intensely flavorful and tender slow-cooked strip loin; a juicy ribeye served with a mushroom, onion and bell pepper kabob; buttery garlic bread served with thick slices of tri-tip seasoned with a Santa Maria barbecue rub; and wagyu brisket.

All of the meats beat anything you can get from the average grocery store. “And there’s been some untrue paradigms about the beef business and how healthy beef is,” notes Justin Stout, the auctioneer at the event. “When you get the right cuts of beef and you get the tenderness, you can get some good, healthy beef, and it’s all available here this evening.”
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Potential buyer inspecting the heifers during the live auction.
Brent Lonker
The heifer auction was an (unexpected) highlight
The evening capped off with Females on the Front Range, a live auction of four heifers that represented the best of the best in their respective breeds: Hereford, Charolais, Angus and Simmental. Justin Stout, son of legendary auctioneer Stanley Stout, held court, providing a great show for the audience with his rapid-fire bid calls punctuated by the staccato of his hand tapping the lectern. “When Brent [Lonker] came up and called me last summer with this idea that he wanted to do, I never envisioned this,” he says. “There’s never been anything like this before in the cattle business, in stock show sales, none of that. And to have this humongous crowd and the most elite genetics in the industry here today. This is just a slam-dunk all the way.”

The auction was a fun reminder that ranching is a business, and an expensive one. For any Yellowstone devotees, it was real-life evidence of the big bucks and high stakes behind these ranches: The Hereford heifer came out on top with a winning bid of $56,000.

For ranchers like Matt Angel, who placed the winning bid of $30,000 for the Angus heifer, the economics work out when you consider that the superior genetics of that single cow can be multiplied to entire herds through super-ovulation and embryo transfers. “I look for cows that are really maternal, that care for their calves," explains Angel.

The auction was the main draw for many of the ranchers, who saw the beef tasting as a nice bonus. By the end of the night, many of the locals in attendance felt the same, despite the fact that some hadn't initially known the auction would be happening. While the opportunity to taste premium beef and wine for just $50 per person was what brought that crowd to the festival, the auction got them talking in amazement about how much a cow can cost.
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A behind-the-scenes look at some of the food being cooked for the festival.
Brent Lonker
This is just the beginning
The success of this event inspired many of the ranchers to think about other activities that could attract urbanites and provide an opportunity to directly advocate to consumers. Podcasters Kerry Clift and Mitch Benes, co-hosts of Charolais Chatter, along with Curtis Ohlde, host of The Cattle Call, all provide an inside look into the life of a rancher with the goal of reaching audiences that are unfamiliar with the industry. All three raised their beer cans and emphatically responded in unison, “Definitely more!” when asked if this was just the beginning for more outreach events.

Lonker hopes this is just the first of many Stockyards Beef Festivals. “We want to keep going. We want to keep lifting this venue up, this event, this industry,” he shares. “And we want more Denver people to come connect with us. That’s what we want as ranchers, to build relationships. And if people want to find a place to buy their beef or where it’s raised, this is the place.”
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Helen Xu is a freelance writer living in Littleton with her beloved senior Russian Blue cat who answers to Thomas or "handsome sir." Her favorite stories to write are either about food and dining, where there's an unexpected, surprising twist in what may initially seem mundane and boring, or being able to fold in data-driven quantitative analysis.

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