Much Ado About Wagyu
Wagyu is one of the most sought-after types of beef in the world. Its distinctive fatty marbling has become synonymous with luxury, intense flavour, and indulgence which has only served to push demand up through the roof.
If you haven’t heard of Wagyu (pronounced “WAH-gyoo”, yes you pronounce the “y”) then buckle up for a wild ride into the upper echelons of steak.
What is Wagyu?
If you strip it back to its bare bones, Wagyu simply means “Japanese Cow”. However, this somewhat simple definition is actually the highest tip of a misinformation-strewn iceberg.
The kind of Wagyu beef that is adorning Michelin starred menus and gracing the palettes of the most discerning steak fan is from a genetically distinct and very specific type of cow that stores its fat in a totally different way compared to more common breeds.
When you think of a regular steak, it will usually have relatively lean muscle mass and a distinctive fat cap running along one side. Not Wagyu though.
As a Wagyu producing cow grazes and fattens up, the fat is stored within the muscle mass instead of on or around it. This produces the incredible marbling and smooth, almost buttery textures and tastes that Wagyu is famous for.
Although Japanese in name and connotation, Wagyu beef is actually produced successfully in many countries. Probably the most well-known and certainly one of the largest produces of this beef is Australia.
Australian Wagyu is no newcomer to the market and has been enjoyed since the early 1990s when Wagyu producing cows were introduced to Australia and reared successfully. Over the years, the Australian Wagyu has hurtled in popularity with around 80% of Australian produced Wagyu being exported to steak-loving countries across the globe.
How is Wagyu produced?
There is a common misconception that Wagyu beef-producing cows are kept confined and force fattened not unlike the way the controversial foie gras is produced. This could not be further from the truth. Although incredibly decadent and indulgent, Wagyu beef is actually produced by some of the happiest and well-kept cows on the planet.
The life of a Wagyu-producing cow begins in the hands of a specialist breeder who raises the cattle until they turn around 10 months old. Once they reach this milestone, they are auctioned off to expert farmers who can expect to pay upwards of £20,000 for a prime example and all of its associated paperwork proving exemplary bloodline.
You may have heard the rumour that Wagyu cows are given daily massages and serenaded with classical music. Unfortunately, for the cow at least, this is also a myth. What is true though is that the key to the finest quality Wagyu beef is a very happy cow.
While the process may not include massage oil and strings, the farmers do ensure that the cows lead as stress-free a life as possible because stress causes adrenaline and adrenaline causes tense and tough meat. Not ideal for Wagyu.
The cows will then spend the next few years grazing peacefully in stress-free environments with farmers taking great pride in the humane treatment of their herd. No overcrowding in pens, true free-range grazing, and up to three meals a day consisting of hay, grain, and wheat. In optimal conditions, a Wagyu cow would gain just over a kilogram every day which is a fantastic rate for cows that have no added growth assistants such as steroids and hormones in their diet.
Why does Wagyu cost so much?
Even if you’re not intimately familiar with Wagyu, you will know that this extraordinary cut of beef comes with an equally extraordinary price tag attached. Although Australian Wagyu does come at a more affordable price point than its pure-blood Japanese counterpart, you should still be ready to loosen the purse strings a little if you want to experience one of the most fantastic cuts of beef available.
But what is it that makes Wagyu cost so much more than regular steak? It's a combination of the increased specialisation needed to properly rear the cattle, the much lower yields due to the long life and free-range nature of their upbringing, as well as the increased cost of specialist feed and of course the massive initial investment on purchasing the cow itself.
One thing to be mindful of when purchasing your Wagyu is the grade to which it is rated. Not all Wagyu is created equally, some cuts have far greater marbling and flavour than others so it's important to familiarise yourself with the grades. When you order your Wagyu in a restaurant, you will usually see A4 or A5 next to it and these grades refer to the Japanese BMS or Australian AUS-MEAT scores along with the yield of the cow.
Firstly, the A part of the code denotes the yield of beef that was obtained from that cow. A grades are awarded to cows that produce a great quantity of beef while B grades are given to slightly scrawnier cows who do not quite make the cut. This is largely for the bulk meat purchaser to worry about and has no real bearing on the quality of the steak so don’t pay much mind to it if you see a “B” on the menu.
What you’re more concerned with though is the number that follows, that determines the flavour of the steak.
For a little background info, the Japanese BMS (Beef Marbling Score) runs from 0 which is no marbling whatsoever all the way up to 12 which is a cut of beef with marbling so perfect and complete that it will be admired more as art than food and have songs sung about it for generations.
Australias AUS-MEAT or MS system runs alongside the Japanese scale for the most part with an Australian MS5 cut being graded the same as a Japanese BMS5. The only difference is the Australian system tops out at 9 with everything above that on the Japanese scale (10, 11, and 12) being graded simply as 9+ in Australia.
For Wagyu to be rated A5 it must be cut from a high yield cow and feature marbling with a BMS / MS score of 8 or greater. For A4, it only needs to be from a high yield cow with a marbling score of between 6 and 8.
If you are ever lucky enough to be in the presence of A5 BMS12 Wagyu steak you should jump on it as an almost once in a lifetime experience but be ready to break out the platinum card because it's going to cost you.
Wagyu in a nutshell
Wagyu beef is cut from specially reared cows that stare their fat inside their muscle mass rather than around it. They enjoy a stress-free life with free ranged grazing and special diets that promote healthy fattening. This gives the steak an unmistakable marbling with a texture and flavour as smooth as butter, truly a steak to be tried and enjoyed by any steak fan worth their flaked salt.
Australia has become a prominent Wagyu producer on the world stage with their steaks being enjoyed in 3 starred restaurants across the globe. The Australian Wagyu comes at a more affordable price than its Japanese counterpart and can be enjoyed as a traditional steak, mince, burgers, or almost any other beef composition you can think of.
If you haven’t tasted the sublime flavours that Wagyu has to offer then there really is no time better than the present. Grab your A5 grade beef today and get ready to change the way you appreciate the finest quality of steak.