Devil’s Thumb Ranch raises Wagyu on its 6,000 acres in Grand County. Rare and tasty beef awaits resort’s guests
In the culinary world, chefs and gourmands are constantly on the lookout for the next great thing to cook and eat. For those who also happen to love beef, that thing of late has been Wagyu.
A type of beef and cattle that originates in Japan, Wagyu (it translates as “Japanese cow”) is part of the Kobe beef family. In the United States, it is rare to find pure Wagyu, so in restaurants you’re most likely to be getting Wagyu that has been crossbred with other cattle. What makes the beef special is its intense intramuscular marbling. The uncooked beef looks like it has veins or dots rather that the larger white streaks you see in other types of beef.
That fat marbling gives Wagyu its sublime taste. “The first bite is amazing, and as fat coats your tongue and suppresses taste, each subsequent bite is a little less so,” writes Larry Olmstead, author of Real Food, Fake Food, in an article for Bon Appetit. “For this reason, portions in Japan are very small, 3-4 ounces as an entree, thin slices seared rare, served off the bone.”
Not only is it tasty, Wagyu has health benefits. It contains essential fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6, which protect against heart disease and high blood pressure. It also has higher monounsaturated fats, which can lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL).
But these benefits come at a price to your pocketbook. The beef is expensive to produce because the animals are fed and grazed for 30 to 36 months— up to twice as long as typical cattle—before being processed and sent to restaurants and butcher shops.
Its special flavor and rarity are two of the reasons you find Wagyu being raised in Colorado at Devil’s Thumb Ranch. The other is that it’s a way for the property to produce its own food.
“Our Wagyu program is the first step towards a sustainable food supply that is grown on the ranch,” says Bob Fanch, chairman of Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa. “It’s healthy, high in ‘good’ amino acids in addition to being delicious, and is grass fed with our high protein hay harvested from our fields. We plan to add a cold weather greenhouse in the near future to complement our sustainable energy and food production.”
Fanch and his wife Suzanne bought the 6,000-acre four-season resort and working ranch near Winter Park in 1999 and 2001, and have been committed to doing things in sustainable and environmentally friendly way ever since. Among their efforts are solar panels that supply the spa’s electricity, water conservation through low-flush toilets and reduced-flow showerheads; a recycling program and the use of recyclable materials; and electric vehicle charging stations, to name a few.
Fanch could have raised ordinary cattle, but given how special he feels the ranch and its property is, he decided to go for the best to graze on his land, make available to the resort’s restaurants and serve to their guests.
Chefs like Wagyu because of the clean, delicious flavor with great marbling that creates a tender juicy cut of steak, says John Leslie, executive director of food and beverage at the ranch. “The flavor of our Wagyu beef is some of the best beef I have ever tasted. This is a very high-end quality of beef that is desired by many guests.”
Tending to the herd is Garth Eichler, who grew up on a dairy farm in New York and studied dairy science at Virginia Tech. He worked on guest ranches throughout the west before joining the staff of Devil’s Thumb in 2005. As executive director of Agriculture and Grounds, he oversees 150 Wagyu and other cattle, a big jump from the 16 full-bred black Wagyu they started with in 2013. While some initially doubted how well the Wagyu would do at the high altitude, Eichler says that they are thriving on a diet of high mountain grasses, pure water and supplemental protein. He is particular about their diet, noting “the higher concentrate diet of energy and protein comes from pellets/grain or a total mixed ration at the finish yard of wet distillers’ grain, corn, alfalfa, and corn silage.”
The ranch had a herd of almost 150 Wagyu (75 percent full blood) and other breeds going into calving season this spring, according to Eichler. The cattle, which have thick black coats, breed and give birth mostly in the wild. Eichler and his staff use drugs only when an animal’s health is at stake. They vaccinate cattle for common diseases but use no growth hormones or steroids. In 2017, only three animals were given antibiotics, he says, noting, “It is used very sparingly.”
Eichler predicted about 40 animals would join the herd this year. Each month, between two and five animals are harvested for use in the ranch’s restaurants.
The staff offers tours and cattle activities to promote awareness of its programs. Guests can learn about the breeds’ genetics and DNA, and watch team penning and cattle drives. Each September, they do freeze branding, a more humane way of branding the cattle than using hot irons as they did in the past.
It is fitting that cattle are an important part of Devil’s Thumb Ranch life, since the original ranch homestead, built in 1937, operated as a dairy. Those milking cows spent their days in the rolling pastures and Wagyu have now taken their place. They are rotated throughout the ranch, grazing on 1,200 acres. “There’s not a better place to grow up than here,” Eichler says
Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Grand County offers year-round lodging and activities, from hiking and horseback riding to cross-country skiing and snow-showing in the winter. Guests can also go on tours to learn about the ranch’s cattle.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch
3530 Country Rd. 83
Tabernash, CO 80478
Wagyu on the menu
The Ranch House Restaurant & Saloon serves Wagyu filets and steaks, sold by the ounce, as well as burgers. The menu changes frequently.
Heck’s Tavern at Devil’s Thumb Ranch offers a weekly promotion, Wagyu Wednesdays, which includes a Wagyu burger and a draft beer for $20.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch shared its Wagyu meatball recipe for home cooks to try. Serve them with your favorite starch and vegetables. Makes about 25 three-ounce meatballs.
2 ½ pounds ground Wagyu beef
2 ½ pounds ground pork
5 fresh whole eggs
4 tbsp olive oil
1 cup finely diced yellow onion
1½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 ½ tsp grill seasoning (use a favorite pre-mixed blend or make your own using salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder)
3 cups panko bread crumbs
Saute onions in oil until translucent, cool. In a large mixer, add all ingredients (except panko) and mix well with a paddle attachment. Once ingredients are mixed, slowly add bread crumbs and mix until fully incorporated. Use a scoop or soup spoon and hand roll meatballs, placing onto parchment paper-lined sheet trays. Cook meatballs in a fryer at 350 degrees until they are golden brown and hold their shape.
Suzanne S. Brown is the former senior editor for features at The Denver Post. She has visited Devil’s Thumb Ranch several times, enjoying horseback riding, snowshoeing and on her most recent visit, learning about the cattle operation from Garth Eichler.
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