Wagyu Beef Explained — What Makes This Illustrious Meat So Expensive and Is It Worth the Price?
The rich, buttery taste of wagyu beef — along with its high price tag which diners digest afterwards — has helped make this meat one of the world's most revered delicacies. But as wagyu beef has grown in notoriety, making appearances in dry-aged steaks and pint-size sandwiches alike, so too have questions about whether savoring wagyu is worth dipping into your savings account? Here's how we can all be better prepared to make an informed decision the next time our server attempts to upsell us on their wagyu specials.
What you need to know about wagyu beef
Wagyu's literal translation, "Japanese cow," is a not so subtle hint that the characteristics of the beef you're about to eat are defined by birth — and its birthplace. To be eligible for a wagyu designation in Japan, a purebred cow must be genetically tied to one of the following four Japanese born breeds: Akage Washu (Japanese Brown), Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black), Mukaku Washu (Japanese Polled), or Nihon Tankaku Washu (Japanese Shorthorn). Chosen primarily because of their endurance and predisposition for marbling — the white specks of intramuscular fat you'll see spread throughout a cut of lean pink meat — the heritage and subsequent nurturing of these breeds is what commands top dollar.
As Business Insider reports, an adult cow can be sold for as much as $30,000. Like many luxury foods, the sky high prices are due in part to the exclusivity of the product, the experience it delivers to customers, and the expenses breeders incur, such as the import prices of the concentrated feed required to expand their bovine's waistline. Prior to slaughter, a cow bred for wagyu beef can amass up to 50% of its weight in fat thanks to a meticulous feeding routine, which can last up to two years. The payoff — and the reason farmers, restaurants, and ultimately customers are willing to spend whatever amount is necessary — comes down to taste. When cooked, the marbled fat melts into the muscle fibers within the steak cut, helping it retain moisture and remain juicy. Another added bonus? According to Eat This, Not That!, the ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fat ratio is higher in wagyu than other red meats, making it an appealing option for those with dietary constraints.
If that's wagyu, then what's Kobe beef?
If you're pondering what is and isn't wagyu, chances are you've come across Kobe beef and have some questions. All Kobe beef is wagyu specifically from the Kuroge Washu breed, but to qualify as Kobe beef, these cows must carry a particular bloodline commonly acknowledged to produce a superior percentage of marbling known as the Tajima or Tajiri strain. Additionally, to be called Kobe beef, the cow in question must have been born, raised, and slaughtered within Japan's Hyōgo prefecture, which just so happens to include the city of Kobe. While Kobe beef is one of the most popular varieties of wagyu, it's not the only one, as different regions offer varieties of wagyu like Bongo and Miyazaki; there are more than 300 varieties of wagyu available. Each regional variety of wagyu carries with it different regulations, with all wagyu being graded on a ratings scale from A1 to A5. A designation of A5 is the highest grade awarded, and only wagyu that's graded between A3 to A5 is available for sale in Japan. As Forbes notes, the United States began allowing the importation of small amounts of Kobe beef in 2012, and while many restaurants claim to include Kobe beef in everything from meatballs to cheesesteaks due to the gray area created by USDA labeling laws, as of 2018 Japan only exported 600 pounds of Kobe beef.
And American and Australian wagyu? Are these authentic or just a gimmick?
Though wagyu references are so often tied to Japan, the promotion of American wagyu made menu items — like Arby's Wagyu Steakhouse Burger — is making a previously hard to procure food item more approachable to those curious about tasting the hype. The difference is that American wagyu is typically a mix of Angus beef and a variety of wagyu; Australia predominantly crossbreeds with Holstein cows. While American wagyu tends to lack the powerful umami like sensation of Japanese wagyu, its beefy flavor and easier to stomach price point at $10 to $15 per pound has plenty of fans.
No matter which version you try, the pride breeders, farmers, and chefs have in raising and preparing certified wagyu beef has the food connoisseurs hooked. Though wagyu won't come cheap, the incredible sensation it provides in terms of taste and novelty is an experience that can last well after the cows come home.