A small cattle ranch just over McClure Pass in Hotchkiss has become a darling of gourmet U.S. eateries since it began producing beef in June 2013, and this weekend it’s in the spotlight at the Food & Wine Classic.
7X Cattle Co. started developing its North Fork Valley ranch properties five years back and released its first beef to market just a year ago. Its cuts of prime beef quickly became a sought-after menu item for chefs in Aspen, New York and Boston.
On Friday afternoon at the Grand Tasting Pavilion, 7X showcased its buzzed-about beef, handing out samples of a braised ragout dish with ground beef, sirloin and ribeye over a bed of truffle polenta to the Food & Wine crowd. The ranch has been mixing up its offerings daily, also serving dishes like ribeye bruschetta and Asian-style meatballs.
Company President Rob Gill stood at the booth, shaking hands and talking beef with a steady stream of bon vivants picking up samples. Gill came to Hotchkiss from Oregon, where he’d specialized in natural land management — a skill that he said served as the foundation of 7X. The company uses all-natural feeding systems, with natural grass, grain and spring water, allowing to its cows grow at their own pace without the aid of hormones or antibiotics and to roam freely through meadows and forest.
“I always say the best cow is produced on the best land and the best grass,” Gill said.
The breed of cattle that 7X uses is a strain of red Wagyu from Japan, bred there over the past 150 years to produce intense fleck marbling, juiciness and tenderness in their beef. Gill said he “went on a mission to find the best beef” to make 7X and gathered Japanese cattle from breeders in the U.S.
7X currently has 3,500 head of cattle in Hotchkiss. It does DNA testing on all of its cows and keeps records on each of their pedigrees, keeping it 100 percent Wagyu rather than the mix of Angus and Japanese breed that’s often sold in the U.S.
“Every calf that’s born we can trace back to Japan,” Gill said.
But, he adds, the breed is only part of making beef for succulent steaks.
“It’s a nurturing process, it’s not just genetics. We’ve taken a natural approach with the animals.”
Though the company has just eight employees — including cowboys and luxury-brand marketers — its reach has gone far beyond the North Fork Valley.
Colorado restaurateurs were early adopters and helped bring the brand to national attention. Locally, 7X is on the menu at the Hotel Jerome, the Caribou Club and Cache Cache. Its ground beef is used at Basalt’s Sure Thing Burger. It’s also on menus in Vail and at Denver restaurants like 1515 and 5290 Burger and Elway’s.
But 7X also has expanded to some renowned eateries in foodie capitals of the U.S. It’s used at the New York culinary landmark restaurant Le Cirque, at 2014 James Beard award winner Barbara Lynch’s group of restaurants in Boston and in the chophouse at the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa in Las Vegas.
The company has had to turn down most inquiries, however, as word about its ultra-premium beef has spread and demand has outpaced production.
“We get inquiries a lot, and the types of volumes some of them are after we just can’t do,” Gill said. “So we’re trying to keep demand high rather than trying to flood the market.”
Its premier cuts are sold out until 2015 for restaurants, though it’s still taking individual orders online at the 7X website, where prices range from $20 for 2 pounds of ground beef to $60 for a 6-ounce cut of tenderloin. Gill is looking to slightly increase production, he said, but is unwilling to do so at the expense of quality.
“We’ve had greater success than we ever thought when we kicked off,” he said.