Califonia Bountiful

From castle to cattle

Mar./Apr. 2009 California Country magazine

Although the late William Randolph Hearst built a palatial hilltop estate, it was the ranchland just below that he truly cherished.

Hearst family's beef offers a taste of history

Stephen Hearst continues the ranching legacy established by his great-grandfather, the late William Randolph Hearst.

If you've ever had the pleasure of driving along the California coast on Highway 1 near San Simeon, you undoubtedly have passed one of the most breathtaking pieces of waterfront property in the world—Hearst Castle.

The castle is known to millions as the once-palatial estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Under construction from 1919 through 1947, it is now one of the world's greatest tourist attractions. With 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, tennis courts, pools, a movie theater and the world's largest private zoo, the castle is almost like a self-contained city rather than one man's humble abode.

But it was the land just below his home that Hearst truly cherished—a place referred to simply as "The Ranch." For a man who lived his life in the public eye, this was his one true oasis—a place where he could slip into obscurity.

"He built his castle at San Simeon, but the love of the ranch, the cowboy lifestyle, was always something that Hearst favored," said Dan Eller, director of communications at Hearst Castle. "In fact, William Randolph once wrote his mother a letter that if he could spend a month anywhere in the world, it would be at the ranch at San Simeon."

The castle was gifted to the state of California by the Hearst family in 1957 and by the 1990s the Hearst Corp. took control of the land around it. Almost immediately, ideas to build a golf resort, dude ranch and other development projects on part of the ranch were proposed.

Hearst Ranch manager Cliff Garrison works to ensure the 153,000-acre property provides habitat not only for cattle but a whole host of wildlife and natural grasses.

Then in 1998, Stephen Hearst entered the picture as the new vice president and general manager of Hearst Corp.'s San Francisco Realties and Sunical Land and Livestock divisions. Looking at it from a fresh perspective, the great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst came up with a unique idea: keep the land just as is. A conservation easement agreement was soon reached, thus ensuring this remarkable remnant of California history will stay intact for generations to come.

"Under the deal, the ranch itself remained private property and it was promised by all of those involved to remain a cattle operation, which was obviously pretty special to us," Hearst said.

Today more than 3,000 cows, calves and steers graze on the land at any given time, and the Hearst Ranch has grown to become one of the largest and oldest working cattle ranches on the California coast. In addition to the 80,000 acres surrounding the castle in San Simeon, Hearst Ranch cattle are also grazed on the 73,000-acre Jack Ranch in nearby Cholame.

But when the new generation took over, with Stephen Hearst in charge of all that land and all those animals, the question quickly became, how can the ranch keep thriving in the modern era?

Although the late William Randolph Hearst built a palatial hilltop estate, it was the ranchland just below that he truly cherished.

"It was my ranch manager, Cliff Garrison, who came up with the idea," Hearst recalled. "He said, it's too bad we can't do anything with our beef. And I said, why couldn't we? Ultimately that was the spark we needed to start pursuing a grass-fed beef idea."

So from the shadow of their famous neighbor, the Hearst Ranch is now stepping into the spotlight with their grass-fed beef operation. Grazing on rolling hills with picturesque views, Hearst Ranch Beef is billed as having nothing added but their history. The cattle thrive on nutrient-rich native grasses that have been there since the days of William Randolph Hearst.

The pristine condition of the land today is not in spite of cattle ranching, but because of it and the way Garrison and his predecessors have cared for the land for 140 years.

"The native grass and grassland areas here are a direct result of the cattle," Garrison said. "Without the cattle, there's a lot of encroachment of invasive-type species. Brush and woody species will crowd out the grassland. Cattle grazing protects and enhances the grassland."

In addition, a cow's hoof can actually aerate and cultivate the ground, helping to plant seeds and allow sunlight and water into the soil.

"The perfect balance between man and nature is exactly what my great-grandfather had intended when he began the cattle operation in 1919, and that's one of the reasons he built his famous home overlooking the area," Hearst added.

The result of all those years of dedication to the land and animals is beef with a flavor that's almost as memorable as the surrounding landscape.

"We love all beef, but we think we've got something pretty special with our 100 percent free-range, grass-fed beef operation," Hearst said.

Hearst Ranch Beef is available to consumers at its on-site store and through its Web site. In addition, they sell to the foodservice giant Aramark, which serves the beef at many of their national park properties and convention centers. Other foodservice customers include artisan food producer Let's Be Frank, which uses Hearst Ranch Beef in its all-natural hot dogs, and fine dining establishments across the country. In fact, the once-niche product has become a staple among chefs looking for the newest and greatest products—especially when it comes from a true California legend.

In San Francisco, a city celebrated for its culinary awareness, chefs like Paul Arenstam of the Americano Restaurant jumped at the opportunity to incorporate the new beef into his menu.

"When I put it on the menu, people automatically started asking about it and if it was the same Hearst as Hearst Castle," Arenstam said.

Located just across the street from the historic Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, the Americano Restaurant is known for having a menu that is deeply rooted in tradition, but also offering an authentic reflection of the fresh bounty from local farmers markets.

Since the restaurant opened in 2005, Arenstam reports that one of the most consistently popular menu items is also one of their most basic: the Hearst Ranch burger. He estimates he goes through about 100 pounds of it a week.

"The flavors are just great and it's just a change from some of the other meats on the market," said Arenstam.

The chef buys the whole chuck, sirloin and brisket from Hearst Ranch, cubes the meat, grinds the three together and makes it into 8-ounce patties. He then grills, seasons and serves the patties with locally grown produce, all atop a Berkeley-baked Acme Bread bun, making this a true California burger.

"I have been to the ranch several times and every time I come back, I am inspired to try different things with their beef," said Arenstam. "Customers like to know where their food comes from, and so do chefs."

And now thanks to the positive feedback the family's beef has received from chefs like Arenstam, this historic working cattle ranch looks to the future with a renewed optimism in continuing to do things like their ancestors. It is just one more way the Hearst legacy is living on through the land.

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and associate producer for California Country TV. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or

Cooking grass-fed beef

Ranchers that raise grass-fed beef represent a small, but growing, niche market. Try some and discover why it's gaining popularity throughout California and beyond.

Since grass-fed beef is extremely low in fat, it's best served rare to medium rare. Avoid overcooking!

Here are a few more cooking tips:

  • Coat grass-fed beef with virgin olive oil, truffle oil or a favorite light oil before cooking. This will enhance the flavor, aid in browning and prevent sticking.
  • Experts also suggest marinating grass-fed beef before cooking—especially the leaner cuts like sirloin steak. Choose a marinade that doesn't mask the delicate flavor. Marinades using lemon, vinegar, wine, beer or bourbon are often recommended.
  • Never use a microwave to thaw grass-fed beef. Either thaw in the refrigerator or place the vacuum-sealed package in water for a few minutes.
  • When grilling, sear the meat quickly over high heat on each side. This will help seal in the natural juices. Finish cooking over low or medium heat, basting frequently.
  • Always use tongs to turn your beef. Using a fork will cause precious juices to be lost.
  • Grass-fed beef requires about 30 percent less cooking time than traditional beef. Because meat continues to cook even after it has been removed from the heat source, remove grass-fed beef 10 degrees before it reaches the desired temperature.

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