Is Wagyu the World's Most Overrated Steak? - AgWeb

Of the various products and ingredients that have seen a spike in popularity, wagyu might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented to the general public.  I wasn’t much different, in terms of my knowledge of the subject, until I moved to San Francisco, to work with a friend at Alexander’s Steakhouse (ASH), a fine dining restaurant that offered between twelve and sixteen different prefectural varieties of wagyu at all time (prefectures are the names of different regions throughout the country).

There were many things about the restaurant that enticed me to move half-way across the country to work there, but possibly the most alluring was the ability it afforded me to work very closely with this coveted product.  There, I learned all about what wagyu actually is.  I don’t claim to be a wagyu expert (I might even get a few little things wrong), but  I’ll try to set straight a lot of misinformation people hold about it, as well as disinformation a lot of restaurants and food retailers give you.

wagyu rib loin cap, rolled with shaved truffles, ASH New Years Eve menu, 2017

What is wagyu?

Wagyu is the Japanese word for beef that comes from a cow that meets four certain standards.  The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) is a Japanese government-run testing organization, that confirms that all meat defined as “wagyu” meets all of these standards

  1. The meat must come from one of four specific breeds of cattle: Japanese Brown, Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, and the Japanese Polled.
  2. It must come from an animal that was born, bred, raised and slaughtered in the particular prefecture of Japan that it represents.
  3. It must have a documented lineage of a purely wagyu cattle bloodline, going back at least three generations.
  4. Lastly (but maybe most importantly), It must meet certain marbling (the fat that is interspersed throughout the muscle) standards, that are graded on the following scale:

First it’s given a letter grade, ‘A’ being the best, ‘B’ being good, but not great (within the perspective of wagyu), and ‘C’, being barely up to standard.  Each individual animal’s meat is graded, and there’s no guarantee that any animal of a particular farm, herd or bloodline will be given a particular grade.  Therefore, no farmer knows what grade each animal he/she has raised will receive until after slaughter.

If awarded an ‘A’, the meat is then given a number grade, 1-5 (it actually can be graded as high as 7, but virtually no beef is ever awarded A6 or A7 status).  If you’ve ever heard the term “A5 wagyu”, it’s referring to the highest grade that wagyu is generally given.

A5 striploin, from the board of our grill chef

Fun fact: any meat graded above A3 can’t be dry-aged, because there’s too much fat present for the bacterias necessary for the aging process to grow.  So if anyone ever mentions dry-aged A4 or A5 wagyu, you can cleverly and correctly call bullshit.

Prefectures of wagyu

I made mention of the prefecture of Japan that any given piece of wagyu represents, and this is where it gets interesting — and important: every piece or cut of beef that meets wagyu standards, is always referred to by the prefecture of the farm (or farms) that produced it.  This is important because, just like anything else that is farmed, wagyu cattle are significantly effected by their climate.

Climate and terrain also subsequently dictate what types of things the animal will be eating for most of its life, as animals consume what grows and flows naturally in their environment, or what has been procured by the farmers, which usually comes from a nearby source.

All these factors have significant effects on the flavor, texture and appearance of the meat produced by the animal.  For example, an animal that hails from the colder northern regions of Japan will develop more fat to keep itself warm, so it will produce richer, fattier meat.  On the other hand, beef from the warmer, southern regions of the country, will be much leaner, as they did not have to develop the same kind of fat to keep warm.

While I worked at ASH, I probably handled, cooked and tasted wagyu from over twenty different prefectures.  They varied immensely in flavor, texture, color — and price (menu cost for 3oz  portions ranged from $65-$185, depending solely on the prefecture/farm).

Prominent types of wagyu

It’s come to my attention that there are certain types of wagyu that are more recognized in pop culture than others. There are a few that I’d like to make sure everyone is clear on what they are, and why they’re distinctive. Let’s start with the elephant in the room…


People seem to think that Kobe is synonymous with wagyu. It is not.

That’s right, that little word that seems to make people salivate with the very mention of it, despite usually not knowing anything about it. People seem to think that Kobe is synonymous with wagyu. It is not.

Kobe is the name of an area in the Hyogo prefecture, that produces very high quality wagyu (pictured below).  There are hundreds of other types of wagyu that are not Kobe, and in fact, when I worked at Alexander’s, we didn’t even refer to the product as “Kobe”, but rather as “Hyogo”.

Raw Kobe beef, ribeye

There is also a believe held by many (most of whom ironically have never tried it) that it is the best beef in the world — a distinction, by the way, that totally relies on subjective opinion.  Having had it, and many other prefectures of wagyu, I can say that it is very good (but I consider Hokkaido to be the best wagyu I’ve ever had), and for the majority of my time working at that restaurant, Hyogo (Kobe) was the most expensive selection of wagyu offered, at the menu price of $185/3oz. portion.

At the time I worked at ASH (2016-2017), there were nine restaurants in the country that served authentic Kobe wagyu from Hyogo.  Five of them are in California, and three of those are Alexander’s Steakhouses.  So if you’re ever dining somewhere claiming to serve it, there’s a good chance that’s not true.

Furthermore, any establishment that actually receives a large enough shipment of beef from the Kobe region of Hyogo to sell it commercially, receives a little golden figurine to display for their guests, with an engraved plaque in both English and Japanese, that states that the establishment serves authentic imported Hyogo prefecture Kobe wagyu. Now, just because a restaurant receives this, doesn’t mean they need to have it on display, but if you’re ever curious about the authenticity of a restaurant’s offering of alleged Kobe — or wagyu of any kind — you can always request to see the documentation (more on that later).

Hokkaido “Snow Beef”

The northernmost wagyu producing prefecture of Japan is Hokkaido. And as one might expect, it’s very cold and very snowy. And given what we’ve already discussed about the effect that climate has on the meat from a cow living in that climate, you can probably guess that this meat is outrageously marbled. So much-so in fact, that particular beef from Hokkaido has earned the nickname “Snow Beef” — named not only for the climate from which it hails, but the snowflake-like pattern of the highly marbled beef.

Hokkaido “Snow Beef” rib loin, in the cooler at ASH

As mentioned when talking about Kobe beef, most wagyu connoisseurs hold that Snow Beef is actually the finest beef in the world, though I do concede that with a marbling ratio that can climb upwards of 55%, it may be a little too rich or fatty for many palates. At the restaurant, Snow Beef was sold for a menu price of $165/3oz. portion.

Kagawa “Olive Beef”

Kagawa is a small island in the middle of Japan that is best known for producing olives — primarily utilized in the making of olive oil. As is the case with olive oil production, the olives are pressed to squeeze all of the oils out of the little fruits, and what results is a mass of olive pulp.

Not long ago, an innovative wagyu farmer thought to sun-dry these pressed cakes of olive pulp, and see what would happen if they were then fed to their cows in the weeks leading up to slaughter. The meat produced by such cows wound up with an intensely complex flavor profile, rich with a sweet funk, dense minerality and (you guessed it) olive flavor.

This particular Kagawa wagyu was immediately nicknamed “Olive Beef”. While it isn’t nearly as well-known as Kobe for example, that could be because it’s relatively new to the wagyu world. In fact, it was in the last month that I worked at ASH that we were fortunate enough to try it — because that was when it was first available. Due to its scarcity, it was the most expensive wagyu option sold on our menus during my time there, at $210/3oz. portion — the equivalent (albeit a menu price) of $1120/lb!

Now to the issue of authenticity confirmation that I alluded to earlier…

Wagyu authenticity: ask to see the certificate!

That’s right: every shipment of certified wagyu beef from every prefecture in Japan, leaves its packaging facility with a certificate of authenticity of “Traceability Certified Wagyu Beef”.  This will come in the form of a proper certificate (we kept all of ours in a binder under the chef’s pass), as well as around 20 miniature (around passport-sized) copies that we would encourage our guests to take them home.

Each certificate served as an ID card (in both Japanese and English) of the steer that produced the meat. This would include the animal’s name, breed, date of birth, age at harvest, owner, and even the names of its mother and father (among other things). Also on each certificate is the official seal of whichever prefecture produced it, as well as the nose-print of the animal. *side note: a cow’s nose is like a human finger, in that it has an intricate pattern, solely unique to the individual.

Certificate of Traceability for Miyazaki prefecture wagyu

If right now, you’re thinking about all the restaurants and stores that have advertised wagyu beef to you, the consumer (presumably in America) over the last five years, and are feeling like that’s a lot of meat to make it over here, having gone through all of that, you’re correct.  It would be, if that’s what was happening.

A while back, restaurants all over the US decided to just start calling their beef wagyu or Kobe.  But after not too long, the JMGA (remember them?), the wagyu farmers of Japan, and the Yakuza got together and opened an ongoing lawsuit against any establishment falsely claiming to offer their product. If you didn’t know, the Yakuza is basically the Japanese mafia, but they are also a registered corporation — the third largest corporation in Japan, as a matter of fact — and they control all exportation of Kobe wagyu out of Hyogo

Meanwhile, certain American cattle farmers started buying and importing Japanese wagyu cattle/specimens to their US farms, where they either attempted to raise cattle with a pure wagyu bloodline, or (more commonly) cross-bred wagyu specimen with a domestic breed (most commonly, Angus).  Either way, since one of the major wagyu qualifications is that it’s born, bred and slaughtered in a singular area of Japan, these cows (and their meat) cannot rightly or legally be declared “wagyu”, without the demarcation of “American” or “Domestic” as a prefix.

Treatment of wagyu cattle

Speaking of the farmers, one of the other widely held misconceptions about wagyu is that all wagyu cows are given massages and fed beer.  I can’t say those are entirely myths, because some farmers do treat their cows in such ways. However, most of them don’t.

Wagyu farmers are a lot like beer brewers, bakers or chefs: each one has their own way of doing things.  Most wagyu farmers are actually quite secretive of their treatment and feeding methods, and as long as they pass the inspection from the JMGA, they don’t have to disclose their specific methods.

Farming and ranching methods regarding treatment of wagyu cattle vary widely, but suffice it to say, all of them are an amassment of gestures of love and respect towards the animals. Great efforts are made to make each animal as calm, happy and healthy as possible throughout its entire life: virtually all wagyu cattle are addressed by their name, given a curated diet, and provided a stress-free lifestyle. Japanese cattle farmers very firmly believe that happy healthy cows produce the best meat, and should likewise be appreciated for it.

Why is wagyu so expensive?

Finally, the question is frequently asked regarding why it’s so expensive. I’ve already explained several facets about wagyu that hopefully (at least in part) answer that question. It takes time and money to raise wagyu cattle in such ways, and even more of those things to raise the best. Not only does the money you pay for a wagyu steak go towards recouping those costs, but in any open market, you can charge more for quality — and certain types of wagyu are quite simply the highest quality beef in the world.

Another thing that drives up cost is scarcity: how abundant is a given product? Wagyu beef doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and the Japanese government is not interested in lowering their grading standards to allow for more beef to be declared A-grade wagyu. Not to mention, given that true wagyu can only be produced by one country, there’s a particularly finite amount of it that can enter the market space.

In conclusion…

Unfortunately for most of us, wagyu will continue to be a delicacy: something very uncommon and very expensive — but well-worth it to the refined palate. If you ever come across it at a restaurant, I encourage anyone to give it a try. But I also encourage you to make sure it’s real wagyu — and ask to see the certificate!

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