‘Wa’ means Japanese and ‘gyu’ means cow
There is a lot of mystery and misunderstanding surrounding Wagyu beef in America. Stories run rampant even through the kitchens of the Nation’s best restaurants about sake massages and cows quaffing pints of delicious brews to fatten them up. The word wagyu simply means Japanese cow and refers to several Japanese breeds known for their intense marbling and high percentage of healthy unsaturated fat. There are four main breeds used. Japanese Black, Japanese Brown (also known as Japanese Red), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Out of these four breeds are roughly 200 unique wagyu programs, each with slightly different rules governing the characteristics. The most well known and often over generalized wagyu program available in the United States is Kobe beef. It has become as synonymous with the word wagyu as Xerox is for copying, Kleenex is for tissues or calling all sparkling wines Champagne.
A Timeline of Wagyu
- Domesticated Cattle arrives in Japan around 400 BC.
- Scrolls from the Heian Period (794-1185) show lavishly decorated ox pulling nobles in carriages
- Cattle were improved for farming use and people began to eat meat after the Meiji Period (1868).
- A survey in 1887 said there was 1.07 million head of cattle
- 1912 Importing foreign breeds is banned. Improvements performed on Japanese Black breed to increase body weight, meat quality and fertility.
- 1944, Wagyu approved as a fixed breed by Japanese government
- 1955 – 1965 Fattening method similar to current method is refined
A Very Short Breed History
Wagyu trace their roots back to their days as draft cattle when they were an important tool of the farming industry. Prior to 1877, beef was generally not eaten in Japan. The diet was mainly pescatarian. In 1877, 558 gyunabe beef hot pot restaurants opened and ushered in Japans westernization phase. Modern Wagyu beef are the result of selective crossing of native cattle with imported breeds. Crossing began in 1883, during the early Meiji era, when Shorthorn and Devon cattle were first introduced. During the period of 1903 to 1911, the Japanese government established the Nanatsugahara breeding station in Hiroshima. Crossing native cows with foreign ones continued till 1912 when the Japanese banned imports and began to focus on improvement. There were too many variables with so many foreign cattle. Improvements on body weight gain, meat quality, strength and fertility were performed solely on the Japanese Black breed. By 1944, wagyu was approved as a fixed breed. During 1955 to 1965 the fattening method was perfected and a universal system was put in place.
How Wagyu are Raised
Wagyu, raised one by one like part of the family
Wagyu calves stay on the farm for up to 7 to 10 months. Breeding cattle, pregnant cattle and calves graze on a healthy diet of grass and rice straw to help develop excellent flavor, marbling and the pure white fat they are renowned for. Calves are weaned shortly after birth and hand fed milk. During the colder months, calves are wrapped in special handmade jackets to help keep them snug and warm. Within four months of being born the calves are inspected and registered. This involves a document inspection, calf inspection, abnormalities check and other tests. If they pass they are issued a “Calf Registration Certificate”. The certificate lists the calf’s parents, grandparents and great grand parents so that lineage can be traced. It also lists it’s age, birth and death. Newborns are issued ten digit individual identification numbers with the National Livestock Breeding Center which track date of birth, sex, breed, history of the mother, relocation history, fattening information, slaughterhouse information and date of slaughter. The dna is tested throughout all stages from birth to slaughter to distribution to confirm the information. When the calves are old enough, they are sent to auction houses and sold to fattening farms.
There are 61,300 farms raising wagyu in Japan with 2,642,000 cows. The average farm has 43 cows. Southern Japan accounts for 40% of all wagyu production. The average fattening farm has 120 head of cattle. This has started to change as smaller farms are disappearing and larger, more economically viable operations are taking over. The fattening usually begins at 9 to 10 months and continues till they are 28 to 30 months. The body weight of a wagyu bull is 900 kg. Males are about 150 cm high and females are 133 cm. They average weight gain is approximately .85 kilos of weight per day on the fattening farms. The hung carcass weight is approximately 479 kg for a steer and 423 kg for a female.
Our group visited a modest size operation near the Akune Plant in Southern Japan. Soft Japanese music played as the cows grazed on corn imported from America and local grains that grew in the nearby fields. Their diet is a mixture of corn, rice straw, barley flakes and barley bran. The farm was very sanitary and spotless and most importantly did not have the same rank smell you got driving past CAFOs in the United States. The animals were very relaxed and even seemed happy, oblivious to the fate that waited for them.
Satsuma Wagyu, the Unsung Hero of the Wagyu World
Everybody has heard of Kobe but I like Satsuma Wagyu better. I know I am splitting hairs here. It is much like the phenomena of tasting Dom Perignon versus smaller, better quality producers like Vilmart et Cie. We all have heard of DP but when you taste Vilmart you understand what Champagne is really about. We fell in love with Satsuma at first bite. The high quality and distinct flavor of the beef makes it our favorite wagyu program in all of Japan. Kagoshima has a rich natural climate with the Shibi Mountains in the east, Kuroshio of East China Sea in the west and Izumi plain in the central area. The climate is the perfect storm for raising the best cattle. Kagoshima is the best production prefecture of Japanese wagyu. It is located in the southern most part of Kyusyu, near the China Sea. Many of the calves raised here are auctioned off to wagyu producers nationwide. Forget American wagyu or even Australian. They are good but they do not compare. The standards are different and brand names like Kobe are generic. I love sparkling wines from Italy or Spain, even America. They do not hold up to great grower producer Champagnes.
Akune Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, Southern Japan
The Akune plant in Southern Japan is a state of the art facility. A true marvel in technology, sanitation and productivity to behold. I have toured many slaughterhouses and meat production facilities in the United States and few compare to the hygienic standards evident there. They process an astounding 90 head of wagyu and 1,400 pigs per day. I was part of a group hosted by the Japanese government that was offered a rare behind the scenes glimpse at how wagyu is produced. It was amazing to watch the carcasses run through the cycle of operation. Each piece of meat is chipped and monitored throughout the process. A special revolving light goes off if pieces of beef from other cows gets mixed in.
There are two criteria for evaluation of the carcass: meat quality grade and yield grade. For meat grading a five step evaluation is made on four points: marbling, color and shine of meat, firmness and texture, and fat color and shine. Yield grades are to judge the final meat ratio. It is based on a specific calculation that would boggle the mind of most mathematicians. The score is recorded in three categories, A for above average, B for average and C for below average. The scores are combined to give the first important rating. BMS, or beef marbling standard, is the next score of importance. It is a measurement for the amount of marbled fat in the meat. BMS 12 is about as rare in the United States as a golden unicorn. Click here for a thorough look at Japanese grading.
Factors of Deliciousness
The three elements that make delicious wagyu are texture, flavor and aroma. Wagyu has a unique rich, sweet aroma that no other beef has. People compare it to the sweet aroma found in peaches and coconuts. It is a retronasal aroma and flavor that spreads in your mouth when chewing. This sensation is activated when the meat is cooked 176 degree fahrenheit after dry aging. Once the wagyu aroma is released it stays within the meat and is released again when chewed.
Wagyu fat has a high content of oleic acid which enhances the taste. In addition to boosting the flavor, oleic acid is reported to promote the proliferation of intestinal good bacteria and may be effective for autoimmune disorders like rheumatism.
After the tour of the Akune Plant we were treated to an amazing buffet hosted by Starzen and the Mayor of Kagoshima. Six cooks furiously prepared wagyu of all grades and cuts. Many not available in the USA yet. I remember talking to Phillip Foss about how rich the meat was and that we could not eat anymore. To sound a bit like Forest Gump I had it sushi style, sashimi style, in a hot pot, carpaccio, seared, sauteed. Hard to believe but we hit the wall hard. Wagyu is a very rich beef. I often find in the United States that people tend to view it in the same light as other beef and serve enormous portions. I think it is best prepared Japanese style, thinly shaved and in one to two ounce portions. It lends itself and enhances everything it comes in contact with. To try real wagyu contact the sales team at Foods in Season at 866.767.2464 or message me (I work there too).