Seattle chef Thomas Dodd’s customers demand the best, so the only steak on the menu is marbled, tender, and flavorful American wagyu.
He sees orders climb each week for the breed developed largely from Washington State University research to help Northwest ranchers compete with Japan’s famed Kobe beef and other specialty brands.
“When people were tasting it for the first time, they were kind of freaking out over how flavorful it is, saying things like it’s the best steak they’d ever had,” says Dodd, executive chef at Liam’s. “Now we’re starting to see this expectation because people know … or have heard about American wagyu.”
Basically, wagyu is to beef what Cougar Gold is to cheese.
“The flavor and quality is great,” Dodd says. “I think people are more into what they are eating now, how it’s taken care of, and where it comes from.”
Indeed, wagyu herds in the United States are different from the traditionally dominant Angus and Hereford. They take longer to reach maturity, are a bit smaller and tend to be picky eaters themselves. But instead of carrying a lot of saturated fat that must be trimmed before serving, wagyu are instead rich in the healthier unsaturated fats that give the beef a highly marbled appearance and its unrivaled flavor and tenderness.
Although it still represents barely a fraction of the U.S. cattle industry, American wagyu has essentially taken control of the high-end domestic market. According to researchers, just 2 percent of all beef carries the USDA’s top grade, and wagyu typically accounts for about 95 percent of it.
Scientific development of an American wagyu breed began largely in the late 1980s.
WSU was alerted by then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley that Japan, under pressure in trade negotiations, was preparing to ease its import quotas on beef. The University’s IMPACT program assembled a team of researchers to explore how Northwest ranchers could best take advantage of the new export opportunities.
“We realized very quickly that Japan’s beef market was very different,” explains Jerry Reeves, a retired animal sciences professor who was part of the WSU research team sent to Japan in 1989. “At that time we thought our USDA choice meat was really good. But when we saw their meat, it was amazing.”
Wagyu is the dominant breed in Japan, where beef is a delicacy and consumers pay a premium for its superior flavor, tenderness, and marbling. Reeves, fellow animal sciences professor Ray Wright, and rural sociology professor Ray Jussaume, who speaks Japanese, knew U.S. cattle ranchers would have to boost quality to have any chance of competing.
Back in Pullman, Reeves and Wright put together plans for creating a super breed by crossing Japanese wagyu bulls with Angus heifers and then tracking the genetic traits. But bureaucratic reluctance in Japan to allow any wagyu to leave the country put the effort on hold.
Until a bull named Alvin was found in rural Texas.
“Alvin is quite famous in our circles,” says Oregon rancher Julie Barnes, who serves on the governing board of the American Wagyu Association and raises wagyu cattle along with her husband, Ken. “WSU was instrumental in developing American wagyu.”
Back in 1989, with efforts to obtain a wagyu through official channels bogging down, WSU turned its attention to the southwestern United States. The research team had learned that a Texas rancher was able to import four head of the prized Japanese cattle back in the 1970s. Reeves and Wright traveled to the Longhorn State in search of the offspring.
That’s how they discovered Alvin.
Odd-looking by U.S. cattle standards, Alvin wasn’t necessarily the best specimen, the researchers now acknowledge with a chuckle, but he contained the genetic roots WSU needed to get the project under way.
Researchers used Alvin and several generations of his offspring to quickly develop cattle that were 15⁄16 wagyu, which in genetic terms can be considered pure blood. Additional wagyu specimens were added to the mix and in 1992 ranchers eager to start building their own specialty herds paid $50,000 or more per head for the first cattle auctioned off by WSU.
Jussaume, now at Michigan State University, traveled with the first shipment of American wagyu to Japan in the mid-1990s. The cattle had been purchased by a Tokyo-based supermarket chain and Jussaume remembers visiting with the company’s head butcher.
“He thought they were Japanese,” Jussaume says. “When he found out they were from the U.S., he said, ‘Wow, this isn’t what American beef usually looks like.’”
American wagyu steadily built market share in Japan until December 2003, when a dairy cow in Mabton, tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
Although it had no connection to American wagyu, Japan along with several other nations banned all beef imports from the United States. Australia, which had been developing its own wagyu herds, took over the U.S. share of Japan’s lucrative beef market.
“We thought it was over,” Reeves recalls. “The mood was terrible. You had all these ranches that had put their money into developing wagyu herds for export to Japan and all of a sudden they had nowhere to send it.”
In retrospect, however, it turned out to be the impetus the industry needed to expand into an even bigger opportunity: the domestic market.
“As tough as things were, it turned out better for the industry overall,” says Reeves, who raises wagyu breeding stock along the Snake River and earlier this year sold his first bull to Germany. “The share of the American market for wagyu is now bigger than Japan ever was.”
Many ranchers, chefs, and restaurateurs believe American wagyu has helped improve the overall quality of U.S. beef.
Chef Dodd says wagyu has become his first choice when it comes to beef. The restaurant is part of the Sugar Mountain family of businesses, which includes its own wagyu brand, Mishima Reserve, drawn from Northwest herds.
“One of the things about wagyu is that it’s really taken care of at every level—what they’re fed, how they’re raised,” he says. “That’s important to people and the difference in flavor, appearance, and preparation is part of that overall experience.”
Preparing wagyu beef
Be prepared to move quickly when cooking wagyu beef.
The unsaturated fats that give wagyu its world-renowned marbling, flavor and tenderness melt fast. Restaurant chefs and others recommend cooking it at hotter temperatures with noticeably less time on the grill, stovetop, or under the broiler than other beef.
“If you try preparing wagyu the same way you would, say, a medium well Angus steak, you’ll probably be disappointed,” says Fred Reeves, who serves American wagyu at his San Francisco restaurant, the Brickhouse Cafe. “Wagyu is delicious but needs to be cooked fast because if it’s overdone it can taste kind of dry and chewy.”
Reeves, whose father was part of the WSU research team that helped develop American wagyu, suggests searing each side of the meat first, then cooking it over high heat for about four or five minutes: “You want to go with the highest heat you can and get it on and off the cooking surface really quickly.”
It helps to use smaller cuts of meat, which is customary for wagyu because of its richer taste. Experts suggest cooking ground wagyu more like you would a steak rather than a typical hamburger.
In Japan, where wagyu beef originated and often sells for $150 per pound, the meat is typically cut into thin slices and cooked in oil-coated pans. Because wagyu contains unsaturated fats, also known as good fat because they’re easier for the human body to break down, the meat provides a fuller, richer meal even with smaller portions.
With the holidays approaching, WSU Premium Beef—the retail arm of the University’s animal sciences department—is preparing for the customary seasonal increase in orders for campus-raised wagyu and other high-end beef.
“I tell people you have to keep an eye on the wagyu…because it cooks fast,” says research associate Jennifer Michal, who periodically is asked by folks placing orders for the University’s beef whether they should be aware of any special preparation needs. “It’s really rich.”