By Blaine Davis, Contributing Editor
Off the road and thinking of firing up the backyard grill, I peruse my local butcher’s meat counter. I lay my eyes on a thick, succulent strip, New York or Kansas City, depending on your geographic location, steak with the Certified Angus Beef® brand. Like most of us carnivores, we know this as a mark of quality with its 10 required quality standards, ranging from marbling and maturity to quality appearance and tenderness.
Behind this trademark is much larger story dating back several centuries. Considering that beef cattle weren’t native to America, their story starts in many other regions of the world. First in America were Iberian cattle from what is now known as Spain and Portugal brought over as early as Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Antilles Islands and subsequently migrated through Mexico. These were the forefathers of what we now refer to as Texas Longhorns, subjects of the great cattle drives of the 19th century from Texas to the railheads in Abilene and Dodge City, Kan. Ironically, due to the lack of modern-day refrigeration, they were more prized for supplying leather and tallow, the main ingredient in candles, soaps and lubricants, than for their meat. Known for their resistance to heat, parasites, diseases and their ability to walk miles to water and forage, Longhorns were ideal for these nearly 1,000-mile drives.
A century later, having sustainable traits much like Longhorns, Brahman cattle were imported to southwestern and Gulf Coast regions of Texas. Native to India and originated from Bos indicus, the “sacred cattle of India,” they are recognizable with their characteristic hump over their shoulder and neck. Known as some of the rankest bulls on the rodeo circuits, contrarily they like affection and can be very docile. As a young child, I have fond remembrances of accompanying my late uncle, Curtis Rose, to check his cow-calf herd along the banks of Elm Creek in Barber County, Kan., and seeing his prized Brahman bull eating “cake” right from his hand.
Near the downhill slide of the Longhorn cattle and the end of the great cattle drives, the first Angus cattle came to America from Scotland in 1873. Ironically, George Grant brought four such bulls to the Kansas prairie within shooting distance of the Abilene and Dodge City railheads and founded what he envisioned as an English colony much like his home country. Named in honor of his queen, Grant established Victoria in north central Kansas.
Prior to arriving in the United States, Grant was a cloth merchant in Banffshire, Scotland. In an account published in the January 2008 issue of the Angus Journal, he learned of Prince Albert’s failing health and, nearing death, purchased all the black crepe he could find. Upon the Prince’s death, the loyal subjects searched for mourning badges. Since he was their only source, he made his fortune.
In the fall of 1873, he exhibited two of his bulls at the Kansas City Livestock Exposition. They were considered freaks with their polled heads and black color, but still caused quite a stir. Amassing upward of 69,000 acres of pastureland from his previous good fortunes in his native Scotland, Grant crossed his bulls with native Texas Longhorns, producing a large number of polled black calves that survived the winter range well and weighed more the following spring, demonstrating their value in a new home. Five years after founding Victoria, Grant died at age 56 and was buried there. His grave is marked by a limestone pyramid erected in 1943 by the American and Kansas Angus Associations. On May 17, 1973, an Angus bull statue was placed atop of the pyramid to mark the Angus Centennial.
Between 1878 and 1883, more than 1,200 cattle were imported from Scotland to the Midwest. The Aberdeen Angus breed can be traced to the early part of the 19th century in northeast Scotland from polled and predominately black cattle known locally as “doddies” and “hummlies.” Hugh Watson, Angus, Scotland, is considered the founder of the breed. In selecting the best black, polled animals such as his favorite bull, Old Jock, and notable cow, Old Granny, who lived 35 years and produced 29 calves, a vast majority of today’s Angus cattle can trace their pedigrees to these two animals.
Sir George Macpherson Grant of Ballindalloch, evidently no relation to the founder of Victoria, made it his life’s work of nearly 50 years refining this polled, black breed, along with other early pioneers such as William McCombie. In the rich Scottish Highlands along the Spey River, in locales such as Aberdeenshire, Speyside, Leigh of Moray and of course the breed’s namesake, Angus, their criteria for line breeding and selection for type created what most consider the greatest cattle breed ever. Consequently, these same locales are home to some of the best, if not the best by this author’s standards, single-malt Scotch Whisky with Grant playing even a part in that industry as well with the 1869 lease of Cragganmore Distillery on his land. Still standing and producing award-winning spirits today, Cragganmore’s Distiller’s Edition with its finish in port wine casks creating a smoky, rich, fruity taste begs the accompaniment of a juicy grilled steak.
From its early beginnings on the Kansas prairie to 140 years later, Black Angus is now the most popular breed of cattle in the United States – 327,000 animals registered with the American Angus Association. Founded in 1883 as the American Aberdeen Angus Breeders Association with just 60 members, today, with the shortened moniker established in the 1950s, the membership has grown to more than 30,000 adult and junior members, hailing from all 50 states.
In these modern times, the United States produces the largest share of the world’s beef supply at 18 percent or 11-12 million tons. Established in 1978, Certified Angus Beef (CAB) operates as a nonprofit owned by the members of the American Angus Association to bring their high-quality beef together under one name that is recognized and trusted by consumers. CAB is now one-fifth of the nation’s fed cattle supply with 1.215 billion pounds sold annually. Further enhancing their brand, any cattle considered for the CAB designation must be at least 51 percent black and exhibit Angus influence, which includes black Simmental and other crossbreeds.
With a Certified Angus Beef steak prepared for the grill and a dram of fine, single-malt whisky in hand, I retire to the patio to reflect on what’s behind the name or, in this case, trademark. Not only does this brand represent a quality product, but again the entrepreneurial spirit of the American rancher, both past and present. As my steak reaches the magical medium rare temperature and the last sip of whisky passes my lips, I salute George Grant and all those who followed in making Angus beef great.