Getting Wonky about Wagyu

I've been lucky to have a lot of fantastic culinary adventures in my career and foremost among them is my trip to the Meat Grading and Auction House in Tokyo, where I saw firsthand the wagyu grading and auction process. It was an incredibly educational -- and delicious -- day.

The import of all Japanese beef in America was banned in 2009 because of concerns of foot and mouth disease. You have probably seen the word "wagyu" on menus since then, because wagyu can also come from Australia as well as the U.S. Fortunately, this August, beef from Japan got the all clear from the USDA, and we've been able to get some real wagyu into the States in limited quantities.

The first thing to know about wagyu is that not all wagyu is Kobe, but all Kobe is wagyu. Are you still with me? The literal meaning of wagyu is Japanese cow, but when people refer to wagyu they're more often than not talking about four historically Japanese breeds that are generally considered to be the best quality. Kobe is the beef that comes from a breed of wagyu cattle known as Tajima raised in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture. The capital of Hyogo is Kobe, which is where the name of beef originates. Kobe can only come from the Tajima breed and is raised according to very strict traditions.

In addition to Tajima, different breeds of wagyu are raised all over Japan. One breed hails from the Miyazaki region and has a huge international following for its tender, fatty flavor. Miyazaki wagyu is some of the most expensive beef from Japan.

When you hear the word "wagyu," the word "marbling" often follows close behind. This refers to the fat in the muscle, which resembles a marble pattern. This fat is what gives wagyu its incredibly rich, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Wagyu breeds are genetically disposed to have a much higher fat-to-meat ratio than cattle in the States. In fact, the highest grades of wagyu have almost 70 percent fat. That makes your 80-20 burger look like Lean Cuisine, doesn't it?

In addition to genetically being bigger cows prone to intense marbling, wagyu are all fed a very rich grain and carb heavy diet. There are myths about the cows being given beer for sweeter tasting meats, but they're actually fed beer mash or the by-product of beer production. Their exact diet is generally kept a secret by breeders, so don't expect a Portlandia skit on touring a wagyu farm anytime soon.

What's not a secret is the grade of wagyu you're eating. There are three yield grades of wagyu: A, B and C. This grade refers to the proportion of meat obtained from between the sixth and seventh rib of the carcass. Once the yield grade is determined, it is time to assign a grade to the marbling, which is classified in five grades -- one to five, with one being the lowest and five the highest. That grade is determined by its Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) ranking, which ranges from one to 12. A BMS score of eight to 12 is considered best.

Confusing, no? Let's put it this way -- if you ever see an A5 cut of wagyu on a menu, with a BMS of no between 8 and 12, just know you're in the presence of something extremely special.

Once the cattle have been graded, they're taken to auction. On the auction board, buyers can see details like the weight, origin and grade of the animal. Top grade carcasses go for as much as $12,000 to $18,000 an animal. Wagyu auctions are incredibly entertaining and the speed and skill of the auctioneers and buyers is incredible.

Wagyu is an incredible product unlike any other you can find in the States, and I'm thankful the recent lifting of import restrictions on Japanese beef enable me to serve it.