A bluffer’s guide to Wagyu beef

November 8, 2017, 2:00 pm
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Wagyu is a highly prized meat because it is incredibly tender and has a buttery soft flavour. It’s all about the intense, fat marbling in the meat, which is what gives it the rich flavour. And a good quality, high grade piece of Wagyu will simply melt in your mouth.

But do you know what makes Wagyu different from a piece of Aberdeen Angus steak? And why this meat commands such high prices in restaurants and supermarkets?

Here’s what you need to know about Wagyu beef:

What is Waguy?

Wagyu is actually a generic name for beef in Japan; Wa (Japanese) and Gyu (Japanese for beef). Four main breeds are used for Wagyu production in Japan, namely Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Polled (an Aberdeen Angus cross). Modern Wagyu is usually a cross between the native breeds (used in agriculture) with imported breeds like Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean. Kobe beef, one of the most highly prized meats, is a type of Wagyu from the Tajima breed and it can only be raised in the Hyogo province of Japan.

Why is Wagyu so expensive?

The rearing method is what makes this beef expensive. In Japan, to qualify for the Wagyu mark, the cattle have to be reared and fed according to strict guidelines. Breeding cattle and pregnant cows are grazed on pasture while calves are fed in a specific way, with special feed, to ensure that the meat has a lot of marbling. Young Wagyu calves are fed a milk replacer by hand and they get jackets to wear when the weather gets cold. They stay on a farm until they are seven months old before they are sent to auction to be sold to fattening farms. On the fattening farms, Wagyu cattle are raised in barns and are given names instead of just a number. They are kept on a diet of rice straws, whole crop silage and concentrate, and allowed to grow up to about 700kg, which takes about three years (for normal beef, it’s 15 months). Every single cow has a birth certificate, which identifies its bloodline, so every piece of Japanese Wagyu steak can be traced back to a farm. There is a myth that cattle are fed on beer and massaged daily in Japan but this is not true. However, they are sometimes brushed with a stiff brush to increase blood circulation and to relieve stress. There is a Welsh Wagyu producer who does feed his cattle local craft beer and occasionally massages his cows though.

Wagyu might not be as good when eaten as a steak

In Japan, Wagyu beef is eaten in dishes like Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu, where the beef is sliced thinly and cooked briefly. The UK Wagyu beef import ban was lifted in 2015 and there was a rush to put this fabulous meat on the menus. You can also now buy Wagyu beef from specialist butchers and even some supermarkets in the UK. Just expect it to be very expensive, at around £200 a kilo. In London, we are used to eating Wagyu steak as the premium option. It is much more expensive than other beef but it doesn’t mean that it is the best choice when you order a steak – the meat might be very tender but due to the high-fat content, but it could also be a bit too fatty to eat. Having an understanding of Wagyu beef grades will make you better informed when you next order a steak.

 

Different grades of Wagyu beef

The Japan Meat Grading Association gives each piece of meat a score based on its yield (A-C) and level of marbling, firmness, colour and overall quality (1-5), with A5 being the highest possible mark. Most Japanese Wagyu beef is in the A4-A5 range. Wagyu from Australia and the UK use a similar grading system, which is based on the Japanese system. There is no regulation with using the term Wagyu in the UK, which makes it hard to tell what quality you are buying or eating. Unless it is from Japan and carries the Wagyu mark, it is probably not 100% Wagyy. British, US and Australian Wagyu are generally just 50% Wagyu crossed with other breeds. And most Wagyu burgers are made with a mix of wagyu trim and other meat.

 

By May Chong

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