Wagyu beef is one of the most coveted menu items in the world—up there with caviar from the Caspian Sea, Hokkaido uni, black truffles from Périgord, and of course, Champagne straight from Épernay. But why is it that we’re so taken with the likes of Petrossian Caviar, Périgord truffles and Wagyu beef? And what could possibly explain the Wagyu beef price tag?
To delve into the luxury world of Japanese and American Wagyu beef, we consulted two highly regarded chefs who have long-standing experience handling this coveted class of meat: Chef Hiroki Odo, the mastermind behind Michelin-starred, 14-seat Flatiron restaurant o.d.o by ODO in New York City and Chef Shingo Hayasaka, executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko. At the property’s teppanyaki restaurant, Chef Hayasaka prepares cuts of Wagyu offered exclusively to the hotel. Both chefs trained and started their careers in Japan; Chef Odo hails from Nagashima Island, while Chef Hayasaka was raised in Hokkaido.
Thanks to these acclaimed chefs, we’ve broken down exactly what makes Wagyu beef so special.
What Is Wagyu Beef and Where Does it Come From?
Wagyu is a breed of Japanese cattle. The cattle do indeed have to be certified and native to Japan, much in the way Champagne has to come from the Champagne region of France. “Wa” means “Japanese,” and “gyu” means “cow.” The coveted cows that produce Wagyu beef metabolize fat in a way that creates a marbling effect in their meat. Most fattier cuts of steak have an exterior layer of fat (picture a rib-eye with fat on the bone and encrusted on the edge of the steak). However, the way Wagyu cows metabolize fat allows it to integrate into their muscles, producing the marbled Wagyu steak.
That coveted marbling is what makes Wagyu beef melt in your mouth. Japanese Wagyu beef is largely thought of as the most tender and succulent steak in the world—which is why Wagyu beef prices are so high. There’s also, of course, a limited amount of Wagyu beef in Japan. And while Japanese Wagyu can come from anywhere in the country, certain regions are known for their Wagyu production.
“Although it is supplied from all over Japan, the famous production areas are Miyazaki, Matsuzaka, and Kobe,” said Chef Odo. He points out that beyond the Wagyu sourced from Miyazaki, Matsuzaka, and Kobe, Wagyu from Hokkaido and Tohoku is also highly coveted. There are only four breeds of cattle—Kuroge, Aakage, Nihon Tankaku, and Mukaku—that can produce Wagyu beef. But most Wagyu comes from Kuroge cows because these cattle offer the most prized, perfectly marbled cuts of meat.
Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?
Wondering why the Wagyu beef price is sky high? Or, for that matter, how much Wagyu beef costs? A pound of Wagyu beef is likely to cost nearly $200, and cows producing Wagyu beef can sell in the five figures ($30,000 is typical), in comparison to an American cow that will sell for closer to $2,000. Because there are four cattle breeds that can produce Wagyu beef, the stronger the genetic makeup of the cow, the higher the price tag. Essentially, it’s the quality control in Japan that rigorously vets each cow’s genetics that makes this meat so expensive. Only the most celebrated cattle genetics achieve the status of Wagyu beef, which is why foodies will pay top dollar for the steak. Next time you’re at the butcher shop, wondering “Why is Wagyu beef so expensive?” just remember the amount of work that went in to producing that cut of meat.
What Is the Wagyu Grading System?
Wagyu beef must hail from Japan and the highest-end cuts of Wagyu are likely to be sourced from places like Kobe, Miyazaki, or Hokkaido. Nonetheless, there are five grades of Wagyu beef, A5 being the top tier. Several factors go into determining where the meat falls on the Wagyu grading system, but the most important qualifications are the aging and marbling. “Wagyu is coveted because of the remarkable balance of fat and redness,” said Chef Odo. “Classes with higher fat and reddish marbling are of a higher standard.”
Chef Hayasaka pointed out that, not only are their five tiers of Wagyu beef, but there are also four categories they can fall into. Wagyu can be Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled, which correlates to the type of cow the meat comes from. “They [each] feature different flavors and texture,” said Chef Hayasaka.
Of the four types of Wagyu, Japanese Black is the most common. “Japanese Black Wagyu can be said to be the representative of Wagyu, with its distinctive rich flavor, tender texture, and beautiful marbling,” said Chef Hayasaka. “Japanese Black Wagyu actually makes up around 95 percent of all Wagyu, so it is not wrong to associate Wagyu with black-haired and marbled beef.”
Wagyu vs. Kobe Beef
In the discussion of Kobe beef vs. Wagyu beef, which steak prevails? Better question: what is the difference between Wagyu vs. Kobe beef? The answer is simple: Kobe beef is a type of Wagyu. Kobe beef is Wagyu beef that must come from Kobe, Japan. If a restaurant serves a Kobe steak but the cattle did not specifically hail from Kobe, then it is not Kobe beef, much in the way that sparkling wine made in the U.S. is not Champagne. Kobe beef must be licensed by the Kobe Beef Association and it must have an A4 or an A5 rating on the Wagyu grading system.
Japanese vs. American
Everything we’ve learned so far about Wagyu beef suggests that Japanese Wagyu is the only authentic version of this revered cut of meat. But what about American Wagyu beef, and Japanese versus American Wagyu? American Wagyu beef is once removed from Japanese Wagyu beef in that the Japanese cattle are crossbred with American cattle to produce American Wagyu. For example, that might mean a Kuroge cow from Japan was crossbred with a cow producing Angus to create American Wagyu. Something to keep in mind: the American Wagyu grading system is less high-brow than its Japanese equivalent. While American Wagyu still undergoes rigorous quality control, its grading system is regarded as less stringent than the Japanese Wagyu tiered rankings.
How Is Wagyu Beef Raised?
Wagyu beef-producing cattle—mostly Kuroge, but Aakage, Nihon Tankaku, and Mukaku cattle—are indeed raised by specialty breeders for the first year of their life. At 10 months old (though they could be as young as seven months old), they are sold to Wagyu beef farmers who have experience working with this type of cattle. Japanese Wagyu farmers are known for raising their cattle humanely. They often give the cattle ample space to roam and graze freely, rather than being cramped into a pen with dozens of other cows. Over the next two to three years, the cows are raised naturally—never injected with hormones or steroids—until they mature to about 1,500 pounds and 50 percent body fat.
The Flavor Profile of Wagyu Beef
Chef Odo compares the melt-in-your-mouth texture of Wagyu to eating Otoro (which he calls “the most desired part of the tuna belly”). He says each bite of Wagyu is “full of creaminess and sweetness,” while Chef Hayasaka also points out that Wagyu has a noticeably richer flavor—almost like a fuller bodied wine.
There’s legitimate science behind that melt-in-your-mouth experience when taking a bite of Wagyu beef. “The melting temperature of fat inside Wagyu is close to body temperature,” said Chef Hayasaka. “So when you eat the Wagyu beef, the fat melts in your mouth and you can enjoy its tender texture with rich and robust flavor.”
Maya Kachroo-Levine special to Polo lifestyles 2021