What is Angus: Angus is a breed of cattle. It is not a quality of beef, it does not imply that the beef is organic, natural, or of a higher grade than any other type of beef. Angus were specifically breed from the indigenous cattle of Scotland by Hugh Watson in the mid-nineteenth century. It is believed that nearly all the Black Angus cattle alive today came from the results of his attempts to maximize the black hide of these animals. In the 1870's these cattle were brought to the United States and by the 1880's the American Angus Association was founded.
There are Black and Red Angus, but the Red Angus is not sponsored by the American Angus Association and is a much rarer breed. The Black Angus, or more commonly Angus is, well, a black hided breed without horns (polled). To make a long story short, the Angus have a number of advantages (fast growing, reliably tender, well marbled) and quickly became popular as breeding stock to reduce problems of over-breeding in other lines of cattle. Because of this and the general popularity of Angus by ranchers, it has become the most popular breed in the United States.
What's so Great About Angus: Angus beef develops with better marbling than most cattle. Marbling is the amount of intramuscular fat. Most people agree that marbling improves flavor, tenderness, and keeps meat moist while cooking (especially at high temperatures). Beef is graded based on marbling with the highest degree of marbling reserved for the Prime grade (Prime represents less than 3% of all beef produced). Frequently Angus grades better on the USDA scale but that doesn't mean that Angus is a grade of quality or that anything you buy labeled Angus is going to be better than any other cut.
Inspecting, Grading, and Classifying: So how do you know that the beef you buy is Angus? All beef in the United States is inspected by the US Department of Agriculture. This is mandatory and performed for reason of food safety. Grading (see Beef Grading for more information) is voluntary and done at the expense of the owner of the cattle at the time of grading. In the inspection process the breed of cattle is legally determined by visual inspection.
This is an important point here. If you remember back to high school biology they talked about phenotype and genotype. Cattle are classified into a breed by phenotype (visual traits). There is no genetic testing done to say exactly which breed it is. If cattle are 51% black they are classified as Angus, at least as far as the government is concerned. This means that meat and meat products labeled as Angus might be mostly Angus, or it might not be mostly Angus. But guess what? That's okay, because Angus is the most common breed of cattle in the United States, most of the meat you buy is Angus, or at least partly Angus. So why are you paying more for beef labeled Angus? Good question.
The USDA lists certified brands of beef that are registered with them. Only beef meeting the criteria of these independent certification programs can carry the brand name. The government oversees this process and protects the brand names from misuse. Of the 86 USDA recognized certified brands, representing 25% of all produced beef in the United States, 63 contain the word Angus. Angus is the magic word for beef marketing.
The Bottom Line: There is a lot of deception in beef labeling. Stores sell lower grade beef with stickers that say things like "Butcher's Choice" or "Prime Value". Similarly lower graded beef, or frequently ungraded beef gets the Angus stamp on it to be sold to fast food chains and a whole host of uses. This is not to say that these products are not made with Angus beef, but that the implication that Angus means quality isn't true. In the past few decades the word Angus has come to imply something it simply doesn't.
Angus of Quality: The vast majority of Angus beef produced in the United States comes under the umbrella of the American Angus Association. This organization, in an attempt to increase awareness of Angus beef and to help command a higher price for their members, created the Certified Angus Beef brand in 1978. It is largely due to their efforts that the term Angus has come to command the power that it does today. Using genetics, ultrasound technology, and the classic breeding registries the people of Certified Angus Beef have worked to improve the breed that will produce the beef that will bear their logo (not necessarily all the Angus beef in the country).
Certified Angus Beef is graded by the USDA and must be in the top two grades (Prime and Choice) plus it must pass eight additional criteria to be labeled Certified Angus Beef. These criteria, revised a few years ago, are designed to determine quality, but also to insure that the cattle they use are Angus by more than just a 51% black definition. The shopper's tip here is that choice grade Certified Angus Beef is generally of a better quality than an average cuts of choice beef.
Final Analysis: A fast food hamburger or a mass market hot dog with the Angus name stamped on it are still the lowest quality of beef that can be sold for human consumption even if it comes from Angus cattle. If you like Angus beef, buy Angus beef of quality and not just something labeled Angus. Angus can be flavorful and tender beef or it can be a name used to separate you from your cash. Be a smart consumer and know what you are buying.