Wagyu is becoming more popular but its not on every store shelf by any means. Most high-end steak houses offer Wagyu. Generally speaking, if you’re eating a $100 steak at a restaurant its going to be F1 or American Wagyu, if you’re paying $50 per ounce its full blood or Japanese Wagyu. Some higher end burger restaurants are adding Wagyu as options. You may be lucky enough to find some Wagyu from your local farms or farmers markets. And of course, you can buy Wagyu beef online right here at NuWagyu, we ship Wagyu steaks to your door.
Wagyu are a breed of cattle that originated in Japan. There are several lineages or prefectures that divide this group into smaller classifications. Tajima being the most popular as its the best marbling of the prefectures. Wagyu steak is well known for its high marbling content thus making the beef have a richer smoother texture and flavor. Japanese black in the general sense is just referring to cattle that are 100% Wagyu, and thus have originated from Japan. American Wagyu is another popular term, this refers to cross bred (F1) animals. Generally, Wagyu bulls are turned out with domestic cows in order to improve the beef quality. Kobe beef is specific to beef that comes from this area of Japan and meets a few requirements in order to obtain the Kobe label. Kobe steak has started to become colloquial language intending to mean Wagyu, but this is a mis-use of the word. The genetic difference between Wagyu cattle and other breeds is that it has a unique allele that triggers the animal to produce fat that melts at a lower temperature than traditional beef breeds, thus making for a softer ‘melt in your mouth’ feel.
In terms of the Wagyu cattle, they differ from traditional breeds in the sense that they are very docile, they produce smaller offspring which creates great calving ease especially for first time heifers. They can cover more cows than traditional breeds as well. They grow much slower than normal breeds and the mamas often struggle to produce a good amount of milk, the two biggest downsides of the breed.
It can mean either beef that has come from Japan or has originated from Japan. Colloquially it means the animals are ‘full blood’ Wagyu and not crossed with other breeds such as Angus. Most of the Wagyu beef sold in the USA is cross bred. If an animal is 48.5% Wagyu, it can be marketed as Wagyu beef and no transparency is enforced with product labeling.
A5 Wagyu beef refers to the Japanese grading scale for beef. In the USA we generally only see three grades of beef, Prime, Choice, and Select, although there are others. With Wagyu having extreme marbling, the beef grading scales are different. A5 is the highest grade achievable. The image below shows A5 graded beef. As you can see there may be more fat than muscle, its a unique taste.
It all comes down to the DNA profile of the animal and how that affects the fat they produce. The fat that leads to marbled meat is called intra-muscular fat, as its deposited within the muscle itself, vs. on the outside of the cut. There are several fatty acids associated with this and some melt at lower temperatures than others, with oleic acid being one with the lowest melting points. This fat, in Wagyu cattle, is much more predominant than in other breeds. Breaking this down even further, the DNA can be broken down into either A or V alleles, A standing for Alanine and V for Valine. Cattle can have the following markers, AA, VA, and VV. These will be represented as “SCD-AA” or “SCD-VV” or “SCD-VA”. The A is the lower melting fat. Tajima cattle are often AA animals and thus have the reputation of being the most sought after for tasty beef.
While these cattle are genetically dispositioned for highly marbled muscle, many other factors go into the final quality of the beef. These are things such as feeding program, health program, stress levels, etc.
American Wagyu perhaps can be thought of as ‘super prime’. It tastes like highly marbled beef, similar to some of the best Angus cuts. Generally, you’ll sense a softer texture and richer flavor. On the other end with A5 Wagyu beef, it will taste extremely soft and rich and unlike traditional steaks people are used to eating. See 'What is A5 Wagyu Steak' for more detail.
For Japanese or Full Blood Wagyu, the highly sought-after cuts like the ribeye or tenderloin (filet mignon) generally sell in the $100-150 per pound range, for American Wagyu its perhaps half that, this pricing being from online stores. Restaurants will be higher, steaks are usually around the $100 mark for American style Wagyu and topping out around the $50/ounce mark on A5 Wagyu type beef. At the lower end of things, like ground beef, they typically sell for around $8/pound for American and $15/pound for Japanese. Going out to eat, a burger may cost $15-20 or so. If you’re buying a lot like bulk freezer beef, you may find American Wagyu being offered for around $5/pound hanging weight.
Wagyu beef price is on the higher end of things. There are two main reasons why Wagyu sells at such a high premium. The first is supply and demand. The demand for both healthy beef and the demand for great tasting beef continues to rise as consumers educate themselves, and more restaurants offer this on their menus. The other side of this is supply. Roughly speaking there may be 30,000 or so full blood Wagyu animals in the USA. Versus about 90 million traditionally bred cattle. Wagyu continues to grow, but it can only be accelerated so far, they take 9 months in the womb and almost three more years to feed out before slaughter. Logically the price gap will close as the supply gap closes, but this won’t happen overnight by any means.
The second reason why the Wagyu steak price is more expensive is that Wagyus take longer to finish out. A normal animal may be slaughtered around 13-15 months of age whereas Wagyu, in order to maximize the marbling, are harvested around 30 months of age. That’s a lot of extra money not only in feed but tied up in land cost as well.
This will vary by farm and by location. While some folks will grass raise their Wagyu, this doesn’t lead to extreme marbling and thus most folks have a feed program for their cattle. On our operation their life looks something like this: They’re born, usually either around October or April. During that first month they’re dehorned and given vaccines and vitamins. They’ll have a couple more round of vaccines and such by the time they are weaned from their mamas around 6 months of age. From then on, they pretty much hang out for a couple years. We keep them in a low stress environment, they have a nice life that’s for sure. We keep them on pasture year-round but also supplement with feed which is crucial to ensure good growth and good marbling. Other operations may move them to a feed yard around 13 months of age or so. This gives better control of the diet inputs and its easier to restrict Vitamin A as the slaughter date gets closer. One of my most asked questions is ‘do you feed them beer and give them massages’? The answer to that is no. Apparently, they did/do this in Japan, but I’ve yet to see any such thing go on in the USA. We don’t do this as the ranch manager would be too jealous.
A registered black Wagyu bull or Wagyu cow will generally sell between $5,000 and $10,000. Non-registered animals (buyer beware) may sell for closer to $4,000. Some animals will bring north of $100,000 justified by their genetic performance.
Not sure this has only one answer! Generally speaking, Wagyu steaks turn out great just by adding some salt and tossing it on the grill. Searing or reverse searing often goes over well. If you’re eating something like Japanese A5 Wagyu, slicing it and cooking it hot rock style is both great tasting and fun. Different cuts should be cooked different ways, as some of the muscle is tender as is, some cuts require ‘slow and low’ cooking to make the meat tender. Ribeyes, filets, strips, skirts, flank and such cuts are great to toss right on the grill. Other cuts are better slow roasted in a crock pot or oven, these would be things like briskets and roasts such as prime rib. Sous vide style cooking also works well. We are also often asked ‘what is the internal temperature of brisket when its done’, to which there is no right answer, but most agree its somewhere between 185-195F.
Wagyu literally translates to Japanese Cow. “Wa” for Japan and “gyu” for cow. It can also be translated to ‘heck of a good burger’.
There perhaps is fierce debate between a hard or soft pronunciation of the letter ‘A’. If you pronounce either way, people will understand you.
Soft ‘a’ – Waa Gyoo
Hard ‘a’ – Wag You
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