What is Wagyu Beef?
A holy grail of the American culinary world, Wagyu beef is wrapped in enough mystique to be considered legendary. We’ve all seen the name thrown around as a high-class delicacy and heard tall tales of its mind-melting flavor, but is Wagyu all it’s hyped up to be? Let’s take a deep dive into all things Wagyu, from its origins and grading standards to breeding practices and the key reason why American Wagyu might be superior to its Japanese counterpart.
Wagyu Beef Basics
Wagyu, which translates to “Japanese cow,” is the name given to 4 different cattle breeds that are native to Japan: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn. Though about 90% of Wagyu beef comes from the Japanese Black breed, all 4 are known for their extreme marbling (intramuscular fat content) and intense umami flavor. Umami is a savory, sometimes meaty flavor found in foods like parmesan cheese and mushrooms that have an abundance of the amino acid glutamate.
Thanks to these huge amounts of intramuscular fat, Wagyu beef has a buttery taste and practically melts in your mouth. Contrast this flavor profile with the hardier, beefier steak most Americans are accustomed to as a result of more moderate marbling in our domestic breeds. The best Wagyu beef can cost up to $25 per ounce, and a single cow can sell for as much as $30,000! Genetics plays a huge role in why Wagyu cattle have such rich marbling, but there are a few farming techniques that help them develop as much intramuscular fat content as possible.
How is Wagyu Beef Raised?
Rumor has it that Wagyu cattle are treated to daily massages, exposed to classical music, and even fed beer from a young age. While Wagyu farmers don’t ordinarily go to such great lengths to give their livestock a life of luxury, these purebred cows are raised in extremely stress-free environments. Aside from their tightly controlled diets and steady supply of fresh water, Wagyu cattle are kept away from stressors like loud noises or particularly aggressive herdmates. This is because a relaxed lifestyle prevents the release of cortisol, a primary stress hormone that negatively affects the quality of beef.
That being said, Wagyu-farming methods differ from region to region, and slabs of beef are usually shipped and sold under the name of the area where the cow was raised. Kobe beef, for instance, comes from cattle bred in Kobe, the capital city of Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. Kobe also has the strictest grading standards, making its beef among the most prized in the world.
How is Wagyu Beef Graded?
Speaking of beef standards, Wagyu meat is graded on a scale just as detailed and calculated as the care the cattle receive. The Japanese Meat Grading Association assigns grades to beef carcasses for both their estimated yield percentage (a letter between A and C) and the overall quality of beef and marbling (a number between 1 and 5). An A5 grade is the highest rating a cut of Wagyu beef can be awarded, though we’d still be willing to take a few B2 or C3 slabs off their hands.
These grades don’t come lightly. Japanese beef raters train for 3 years before getting certified, and it takes 3 raters to grade a single Wagyu beef carcass. That way, you can be confident that every cut of Wagyu has been thoroughly evaluated and given the appropriate grade. We just appreciate the self-restraint it takes to resist throwing those slabs of beef right on the grill.
How Much Does Wagyu Beef Cost?
As stated above, a whole Wagyu cow can cost as much as a new car. But unless you’re a rancher, a butcher, or enjoy keeping extremely exotic pets, you’re probably not interested in purchasing the entire cow. Restaurants typically sell Wagyu by the ounce, and a whole steak can range anywhere between $100 and $200. Olive Wagyu, considered the rarest type of Wagyu in the world, can even exceed $300 per steak. Driving up the price — and the mystique — in the US is the fact that only 9 restaurants are currently permitted to buy and sell purebred Wagyu beef.
Keep in mind that the prices listed above apply only to Japanese Wagyu. Pasture-raised, American Wagyu is usually available for no more than half the cost of its Japanese counterpart. Supply and demand certainly play a role in the price disparity, but is the difference in cost really worth it?
Differences between American Wagyu & Japanese Wagyu
American-raised Wagyu cattle are generally a crossbreed of Japanese Wagyu and black Angus cows. With their genetic makeup altered, American Wagyu cattle often bring the best of both worlds: the richness of highly marbled Japanese Wagyu combined with the beefy texture and flavor found in domestic Angus beef. American Wagyu is usually the preference among Americans who are used to a beefier cut of meat and may find the richness of Japanese Wagyu too much to handle.
It’s worth noting that American beef-grading standards aren’t as strict as those in Japan, but that’s another element reflected in the price of purebred Japanese Wagyu. And on the subject of price, remember that American Wagyu is far more accessible and affordable in the US. We still encourage you to try some of each and decide for yourself whether Wagyu lives up to the hype.