What is Wagyu Beef?
You may prefer a certain type of grocery-store steak — sign us up for a juicy ribeye, please — but there’s no denying that rare and revered Wagyu beef stands well above them all.
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 (fat content throughout) 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. No wonder it 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 cows 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 cows. 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.
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. For comparison’s sake, online meat supplier Crowd Cow sells 15-ounce A5 Wagyu ribeyes starting at $160 but charges only $45 for a 12-ounce, American Wagyu New York strip steak. So, why is Wagyu in the States so much cheaper than what’s imported from Japan?
Differences between American Wagyu & Japanese Wagyu
American-raised Wagyu cattle are generally a crossbreed of Japanese Wagyu and black angus cows. These mixed bloodlines dilute the genetic makeup that gives purebred Wagyu their extreme marbling, which makes Wagyu so desirable in the first place, and result in steak that tastes beefy rather than buttery. America also has more relaxed rating standards for high-end beef, raising further questions about the quality of Wagyu within the States.
None of this is to say that American Wagyu is poor in quality or not worth your money, but we advise you to be cautious about such beef that’s priced in the same range as Japanese Wagyu. If you can get your hands on the real thing, though, we absolutely encourage you to splurge and see what all the Wagyu hype is about for yourself. In fact, we’ve got a Wagyu ribeye steak recipe that can help you do justice to the holy grail of beef.