Wagyu beef, funny to say, awesome to eat. But not all Wagyu is the stuff high dollar price tags are made of. Here’s everything you need to know about Wagyu.
I remember the first time I spoke to a friend of mine in Temple, Texas about these “‘new fangled’ Wagyu briskets that were making their way onto the competition barbecue circuit. He was convinced that it was a fancy brand of Angus, or some kind of treatment done to the beef to make it extra moist. After a little persuading and some reinforcement from a Google image search, I successfully explained that Wagyu beef is in fact it’s own breed.
It’s a breed that originates in Japan, and is prized for it’s extraordinary marbling ability, and of course, marbling is directly proportionate to flavor and taste. Marbling refers to the little streaks of fat that develop within the muscle, not just on the outside. This is the stuff I am talking about:
The fat is special, too – melting at a lower temperature, so that a mere perfect sliver of raw product will literally melt on the tongue, providing an exquisitely rich and sumptuous experience. The example above from AizakurahH178 rated at the highest level of the Australian grading system, 9+, which is at least three full grades higher than Prime beef.
Genetics are hugely important in the world of Wagyu, and in the upper echelons, where extreme marbling and wildly expensive product is traded, breed lines are carefully traced and tracked, and your beef comes with a detailed provenance. Progeny of sires are monitored down the line, and prize bulls are named and numbered, with pedigree being serious business. So, much like the spoof in Portlandia, your meal may in fact come with a dossier about the animal it came from.
But this level of product is at one narrow end of the spectrum of all the Waygu branded beef on the worldwide market today. Unless you have a trip to Japan in your future, chances are slim you’ll even come across this stuff. So let’s take a look at the broader Wagyu picture…
Fullblood is the industry term for 100% genetically Wagyu beef, and this is the real deal, the authentic product from Japanese lineage. Outside of Japan, fullblood will always be descended from either the Japanese Black, or Japanese Brown Wagyu breeds. If you have an interest in sampling legitimately unadulterated Wagyu product, make sure you are buying 100% fullblood. As this beef has not been crossbred at all, you can generally expect it to have the highest marbling levels of all the strains available in the American market.
Now things get a little tricky. Completely contrary to the name, Purebred only needs to be 93.75% Wagyu, and is referred to within the industry as f4. It’s a fractional difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless. Mostly, the importance of the distinction comes down to pound for pound pricing – if you have a purebred product that is as pricey as, or perhaps even more expensive than a fullblood product, you may as well defer to the fullblood particularly if it has a higher degree of marbling.
In Japan, the highly marbled and rich Wagyu is served in very small sliced portions, used as a flavor seasoning for rice. Feeling that the beef is not designed to be eaten in chunky, thick-cut steaks as is mostly popular with the US consumer, some breeders actually chose to crossbreed the Waygu with Angus cattle. Crossbred Wagyu is also referred to as ‘American-style’ or ‘American Wagyu’.
Still, it’s rare that you’ll ever see a brand boasting the title ‘crossbred’, because it just doesn’t sound very sexy. Wagyu in the United States only needs to have 50% original Wagyu genetics to be sold under than name, which is referred to as “F1”. Technically speaking, even “purebred” is actually cross bred, but by far the bulk of what is sold in the United States as Wagyu is only 50% pure. Semantics aside, even at 50%, this Wagyu product is still a high quality item.
Some steakhouses and meat purveyors specify that they have Akaushi beef, which in the United States means meat which comes only from the Japanese Red/Brown breed lineage, and is not mixed with any genetics from the Japanese Black cow. But, although the Japanese breed percentage needs to be pure, Akaushi branded beef can still be crossbred up to 50%.
In 1994 the first 11 head of live Akaushi cattle were imported to Texas, and this makes up the nucleus of the current breeding program. There are also a host of different branded Akaushi programs, similar to Certified Angus Beef, that maintain their own individual specifications and minimum requirements, so you’ll need to investigate exactly what kind of Akaushi you are buying on a case by case basis.
America had a wild and beefy affair with the concept of Kobe beef a few years back. The thing is, until 2012, none of the beef being sold in the States as Kobe beef actually was Kobe beef…
Kobe beef is a branded program, in much the same way as Champagne or Bourbon is, because there are multiple requirements and standards that need to be met before it can be called Kobe.
As the saying goes – all Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe (as evidenced by the flow chart above). In order to be true Kobe beef (the stuff beef aficionados dream of), it first and foremost has to be born, raised and slaughtered in the Hyogo prefecture in Japan, of which Kobe is the capital. Which automatically means that any American beef cannot qualify. In addition to location, Kobe also has to meet a host of other requirements, including being from the Tajima lineage, having a minimum yield score, quality score and marble grade, and all authentic Kobe is officially certified. And as if that’s not enough, authentic Kobe beef also comes with a 10 digit identification number so you can verify it’s the real deal.
The percentage of certified Kobe beef in the United States is fractional, with only a handful of restaurants around the country selling it, and even then it commands around $50 per ounce. So, when you see “American-style kobe beef”, it’s just an alternative marketing term for American Wagyu.
What to know when buying Wagyu
It’s a luxurious and worthy experience for any hardcore carnivore and meat fan to spend good money on excellent quality meat, but just because the label reads Wagyu, doesn’t mean you should be swiping your credit card right away. The level of cross breeding, the age of the animal, the genetics of that particular herd, the feed and a host of other variables come into play. There’s every possibility that a quarter-cross, grass fed, early slaughtered steer will produce average marbling, even less so than USDA Prime graded beef. Maybe if that animal had been grain fed, it would have marbled better. Maybe if that animal had been allowed to grow another 8-12 months, it would have marbled better. So you see, it really all depends.
It frustrates me when vendors use vague marketing terms like ‘world prized Kobe Wagyu’ (much like when they boast about wet aging). These words don’t mean much until you have context about the minimum grading standards they accept, or the particular animal your meat is coming from. For example, even if you buy 100% Angus beef, the quality and eating enjoyment completely depends on how that steer graded after slaughter.
Luckily, you have a very valuable grading tool at your disposal – your eyes.
The pictures above demonstrate the degree of marbling required to make certain USDA grades. Most often, high quality Wagyu will grade “beyond prime”, but it’s not uncommon to find American Wagyu that is Prime equivalent, or even slightly below. Yet, you’re probably going to pay more per pound than you would for a non-Wagyu Prime steak.
Putting it simply, the whole point of Waygu is the intense intramuscular marbling that leads to the luxurious eating experience. If you’re going to pay a premium for Wagyu, make sure the cut you are buying has a decent amount of marbling. Happy eating!