The growth in popularity and demand for wagyu beef throughout Australia has been one of the consumer phenomena of the past decade.
Now perhaps the single most in-demand Japanese dish after sushi and teppanyaki, red meat lovers have installed wagyu ("wa" means Japanese and "gyu" means cattle) as the premium choice for discerning steak eaters.
With its distinctive, highly marbled appearance, wagyu is renowned for its texture, tenderness and flavour and, significantly, has a higher percentage of unsaturated fat (much favoured by the cholesterol conscious) than other comparable meat.
WHAT IS WAGYU?
Wagyu is actually the generic term for several breeds of beef cattle - the four major ones being Japanese black, Japanese brown, Japanese polled and Japanese shorthorn.
|Wagyu reasearcher Sue Mack’s bull named Shigenaga. He is of Tajima bloodline and his sire and dam live in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan.
Synonymous with Japan, wagyu beef has also for the past 30 years been produced in the United States and more recently in other countries, including Australia.
Even in its homeland, wagyu beef is a fairly recent development. Although there are accounts of much earlier activity, it is generally accepted that it was not until the early 1960s that raising cattle specifically for commercial consumption became common. Prior to that most beef in Japan was produced from cattle primarily used for draught work.
Now, as then, grazing is seldom practised. Scarcity of suitable land (where rice and other crops still take precedence) means most cattle is confined to barns and small adjacent stock pens.
|The Hammond Family’s herd being mustered from their island to their mainland property.
Another factor in all this is dictated by basic economics: the herds are so limited in number and extremely valuable, few farmers are prepared to risk placing them in remote locations (such as mountain regions where crops will not grow) for fear of losses due to extreme weather or other physical hazards.Thus, on breeding farms, calves are kept with their mothers in the strict confines of their pens. Both are hand-fed on various combinations of carefully-chosen grains and commercial feed, plus roughage and fodder such as hay, silage and grass newly cut elsewhere.
The recipes among breeders are the subject of great secrecy, with each striving against the others to achieve the most succulent product. There's a long-standing rumour that many even include beer in the diets of their cattle and that Kobe producers rub sake, the Japanese rice wine, into their coats!
|Rolled wagyu from Tetsuya’s restaurant.
Invariably, the hand-fed calves are raised from the time they are two to three months old by what is known as the "creep feed" process and weaned about six months later before being sold as feeder calves to fattening farmers or as replacement heifers to other breeders.
In the years of wagyu development, Japan has developed a grading system - up to nine-plus - as a guide to quality and the key to a high mark is the marbling "score" (more marbling indicates an improved ratio of mono-unsaturated fats to saturated fats).
Wagyu is sometimes referred to as Kobe beef. However, Kobe beef is but one distinctive style of wagyu, bred from Tajima-gyu, which is a type of Japanese black, and produced exclusively in the Tajima region.
|Wagyu steak from Blue Angel Restaurant.
Another, more recent, step to protect the term "wagyu" came last November. In a tactic reminiscent of the successful French campaign to preserve the name "champagne", and in recognition of growing worldwide popularity and production, Japan's Ministry of Agriculture moved to reject any beef from foreign-based cattle as wagyu.
Nevertheless, the burgeoning international wagyu industry continues to refer to beef with wagyu genetics by that name.
In Japan at least, the upward march of wagyu consumption was halted only by the mad cow disease scare of a few years ago, but with that (for now, at least) consigned to memory, the future looks as tantalising as the product itself, especially with its lower-fat bonus in an increasingly health-conscious world.
The challenge for consumers, however, is to identify one wagyu from another, then equate them in value-for-money terms to the premium prices being asked in retail outlets and restaurants.
And, given the secrecy of its producers, the buyer needs especially to beware of any product labelled ``Kobe-style'' beef. It's all too easy to attach such a label in the quest to charge extra dollars per kilo.
As for anyone trying to sell you Kobe beef, simply don't believe them - unless, of course, you are purchasing it in Japan.
WAGYU IN AUSTRALIA
The story of wagyu production in Australia is laced with elements of innovation, perseverance, financial risk - even a touch of intrigue.
It has all happened in the past 20 years or so. New South Wales businessman Chris Walker is generally credited with being the pathfinder. He had lived in Japan for 15 years and first tasted wagyu in the 1970s.
As he told the ABC TV program Landline: "I thought if I could get the right genetics out of Japan, that would be the way to go, so I started to pursue it avidly in '89. Nobody knew they were selling to a gaijin (a foreigner)."
Mr Walker bought Westholme, two-and-a-half hours west of Sydney, with the sole intention of developing it into a wagyu stud. Over time he bought a herd of 84 females with the correct, registered genetics - some with the highest and second-highest registration obtainable - and also found three sires, one from each of the three major bloodlines.
"I paid a lot of money - and then couldn't get them out [of Japan]," he told the ABC.
After two years of searching to find them, having paid for them and trying to get them out of the country, Mr Walker finally got the green light - then went to the Japanese quarantine stations and were told they were fully booked for two years.
So, with typical Aussie drive and determination, he built his own quarantine station!
After a further two years the cattle, worth $2 million, were flown to the United States.
A year later they were allowed in to Australia.
Little more than a decade later Westholme carried 700 breeding females, but not without a lot of work adapting and refining the embryo process and no doubt other factors including feed to the point where export to Japan became a reality.
The property is now a showpiece for visiting Japanese, down to the main office with a specially-themed guest area - Japanese furniture, sleeping mats, figurines and prints.
Another to pioneer wagyu in what now seems the distant past of the early 1990s was the Hammond family, who had an island off the north-west coast of Tasmania, almost 10,000 hectares in extent.
Their mainland property is directly opposite the island and every year, co-ordinating with the tides, locals help muster the 400-plus herd of cows and their calves and guide them through the shallow waters from the island to the main property.
Yet another Australian pathfinder is beef scientist Sue Mack and husband Darby, who have a property near Inverell, in north-west New South Wales. But, as with the Walkers and Hammonds, it was not just a matter of importing a few of the animals and waiting for them to produce quality wagyu.
"I think [it] was a belief that all wagyu performed; that it was as simple as taking a wagyu bull, putting it over any old cows and the performance was going to be elite. Unfortunately, of course, that's never the case, in whatever breed," Sue Mack told the ABC.
There's some big names - and very big money - working behind the scenes in wagyu investment in Australia, including successful retail entrepreneur Gerry Harvey. Australia's largest beef cattle company, AACo, has more than 7000 wagyu at its Aranui feedlot in Central Queensland. It began with 17 beasts in 1998 - something like $20,000 to $20 million growth in seven or eight years.
One of the most high-profile early investors in Australia, David Blackmore, commands top prices at a top Sydney meat retailer, with his premier wagyu cuts - scotch fillet, porterhouse and tenderloin - reaching the optimum marbling score of nine plus.
His wagyu has even been served at one of the prestigious Academy Award functions.
The Japanese, so justifiably jealous of their product, have not been slow to identify the opportunities in Australia. With a decline in their own herds and the spiralling cost of feed-lot breeding in Japan, a number are doing just that in this country.
It might have been viewed as a fad 10 years ago, but wagyu beef is obviously here to stay, and with an estimated 90 per cent-plus of the Australian product already being exported - mainly to the United States and Japan - it is destined to be a valuable contributor to our external earnings, as well as an increasingly sought-after item on the lunch and dinner table at home or in your favourite restaurant.
Wagyu guru - Sue Mack
|Taro Mishima & Sue Mack (right) in Kyoto. Mishima-Tei is the oldest family owned butchers shop and restaurant in Kyoto. It is Sue's favourite place to eat Sukiyaki.
If there is one thing in the fast-growing Australian wagyu industry on which there is unanimity it is that Sue Mack, from northern New South Wales, deserves the mantle as its most respected authority.
And that accolade extends beyond Australia - Sue has over almost two decades earned the admiration of wagyu operators, researchers and government officials for her knowledge of, and passion for, the breed and management of this very special cattle.
A PhD scientist herself, now in her 50s and married with one daughter to a fifth-generation cattle farmer, Sue says she started working with wagyu - "we in the science community call it Japanese black" - because she was fascinated by the high standard of cattle production and beef quality in Japan and wanted to learn how it was achieved.
|Some donor and recipient cows.
"I hoped that by learning about Japanese cattle breeding and management I would be able to help Australian farmers improve the quality of their beef," she says.
"My family has a long association with Japan. My grandfather began to visit there more than 100 years ago and this link has continued through my father and myself."
For the past 16 years she has been studying wagyu and Japanese beef production systems and how to pass that on in Australia. Sue is closely involved in co-operative research with Japan's National Institute of Animal Industry. She has also done similar work with Kobe University and advised the Japan Cattle Industry Co-operative, as well as continuing close liaison with the National Wagyu Registry Association. "The president, Dr Riichi Fukuhara, has been a kind mentor to me for many years," Sue says.
Back in Australia, Sue and her husband live on a cattle farm near the town of Bingara on the north-west slopes of NSW which also has a laboratory and a government-licensed artificial breeding centre. Her research herd and the bulls owned by businessman Gerry Harvey for his wagyu business are bred and kept there.
"Since wagyu have been available to Australian farmers I have seen the attitude change,'' Sue says. "At the beginning most were not interested but now many want to learn. Of course Australia is only starting to learn how to manage wagyu cattle and we all have a lot to learn about these shy and gentle cattle."
|The Mack Family's wagyu feedlot.
Sue says the most important lesson to be learned is that simply using a wagyu is not sufficient to make beautiful beef; that Australia must also study and learn the Japanese methods if it is to make beef that is truly Japanese standard.
Of her career motivation, she says: "My decision to work with wagyu was both emotional and scientific. Anyone who worked with them in Japan falls in love with these gentle creatures. I certainly did.
"From a scientist's perspective there are some very interesting facets to the wagyu that can help cattle farmers. They are very high yielding, very net feed efficient. Good wagyu beef that carries the fat mutation on Stearoyl CoA Destaturase might have potential to give extra health benefits to consumers."
Sue adds that wagyu beef that is correctly bred and fed is especially enjoyable to eat because of its tenderness but, most importantly, because of the extremely palatable fat type.
One final piece of advice: "Australian farmers who have diligently studied Japanese methods understand that to get the best-quality beef they must look after the cattle very carefully. Cattle must never be hungry or thirsty; never too hot or too cold.
"There is a saying 'happy cattle make good beef'," Sue points out. "This is very true in wagyu farming. Good management of wagyu is a mixture of excellent science and excellent craftsmanship - it is almost a magical mixture of both."
Australia's F1 wagyu dilemma
An F1 is a quality wagyu crossbreed obtained from a wagyu sire and a secondary-breed cow (often an Angus or Holstein). Japan has been importing an increasing number of these 50 per cent wagyu breeds from countries like Australia,
Currently, foreign-bred F1 cattle beef is sold as "imported beef" in Japan and, because of Japanese consumers' label-conscious shopping habits, even high-quality meat generally sells poorly if it is labeled in this way. If F1 beef producers in Australia continue to spend considerable amounts of money producing quality meat, they may not be able to gain proportional returns in this particular market.
In Japan supermarket shelves are already stacked with beef of five general categories: wagyu, F1 domestic, regular domestic, grain-fed imported and grass-fed Australian. Australian F1 producers will be faced with the difficulties of finding a niche in a very tight market.
Naturally there are no label restrictions in restaurants, so this might seem a potential market. Unfortunately, however, this market segment does not have the scope to boost Australian F1 to the status of a popular product.
Customers more knowledgeable
Owner, Azuma Restaurant
"We are encountering more and more local customers who are knowledgeable about wagyu beef. The majority, however, have heard of wagyu but have never actually tried it," says Kimitaka Azuma of Azuma Japanese Restaurant. "Diners who try wagyu often become quite fond of it, make repeat orders in subsequent visits and develop very discerning tastes about what they expect from wagyu meals. Most customers are simply curious and ask questions like 'do they really feed the cattle beer and give them massages?' Here at the Azuma Japanese Restaurant we offer six different wagyu meals.
"Generally speaking, the quality of Australian wagyu has improved immensely in recent years, so much so that it is very easy to distinguish Australian wagyu from the beef of high-grade grain-fed cattle. However, even top restaurants in Australia find it difficult to obtain premium-grade marbled wagyu beef like that available in Japan. A lot of Australian-produced wagyu is exported to Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, although recently we were fortunate enough to secure a supplier of a grade of wagyu fetching $200 per kilogram.
|Azuma Restaurant's seared shabu-shabu beef served with sesame dressing.
"For those readers interested in purchasing wagyu, we recommend approaching a reputable butcher or meat dealer. The best wagyu is not too dark or juicy and ideally it should be a scarlet or red colour. To cook wagyu at home we recommend a cooking style called wagyu tataki. First add some salt and pepper to the meat and, at a moderate temperature, grill the meat until the outside edges are cooked but the inside is still rare. Then cut it into thin slices and eat with pon vinegar or ginger soy. For wagyu tataki, it is best to choose meat with less marbling."
An immediate major hit
Owner, Blue Angel Restaurant
"I originally opened the Blue Angel Restaurant in 1967, specialising in Italian dishes and lobster sashimi made from customer-selected lobsters kept in our display tanks, says owner Marcelo Marcobello. "At the time we had a largely Japanese clientele but over the years we began to earn a reputation among Australian, Chinese and Korean diners as well.
"After tasting wagyu beef in Japan two years ago I decided to introduce wagyu into Blue Angel's menu utilising Australian suppliers. It was a big hit; we sold over 500 kilograms of wagyu last year and we expect to sell much more this year. Our supplier's wagyu is rated grade nine and above, which is the top export quality.
|Wagyu beef can be ordered a la carte or as part of a set course at Blue Angel.
"At Blue Angel wagyu beef can be ordered a la carte or as part of a set course and is brought to the table as an uncut fillet or sirloin. The customer can then request how many pieces and what size the beef is cut into to suit the number of people. The pieces are weighed to the customer's satisfaction and, unless stipulated otherwise, the beef is char-grilled medium-rare and sliced accordingly. Wagyu fat is monounsaturated, which is good for your body, so we recommend not over-cooking the beef; the marbling can actually help lower cholesterol.
"Wagyu has been so overwhelmingly popular at Blue Angel that we plan on keeping it as a permanent part of our menu."
Australian producers object to wagyu definition
Referenced from Nikkei Weekly, Jan 23, 2007
Last December, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries held an investigative commission at which it was suggested that only cattle born and raised in Japan should be referred to as "wagyu". There is no concrete way of enforcing this rule but any impacts on supply would result in increased prices.
Australia, another country which produces wagyu beef, is resisting the investigation on the grounds that "'wagyu' is defined by the breed of the animal (not the birthplace)".
"Wagyu" is an arbitrary expression and its use has never been governed by law. However, there have been objections that wagyu is a unique Japanese type of cattle or meat that has been developed through the efforts of Japan-based producers.
Public opinion is now being sought and the commission plans to make a final decision on the rule at another meeting being held in February.
According to the producer-owned company Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), there are approximately 6000 to 8000 wagyu and 80,000 to 100,000 wagyu crossbreeds currently in Australia.
Where to eat and buy wagyu
||Butchers and Shops
Level 1, Chifley Plaza,
2 Chifley Square, Sydney 2000
Blue Angel Restaurant
223 Palmer St.,
East Sydney, 2010
340 Pacific Hwy., Lindfield 2070
Iwa Japanese Yakiniku
380 Victoria Ave., Chatswood, 2067
The Westin Hotel, Level1,
GPO, 1 Martin Place 2000
The Wharf, 6 Cowper Wharf Rd.,
GPO, LG, 1 Martin Place,
73 Miller St., North Sydney 2060
529 Kent St., Sydney 2000
174 Marion St., Leichhardt 2040
David Jones City
65-77 Market St., Sydney 2000
Terry Wright's Gourment Meats
32 Clovelly Rd., Clovelly 2031
Shop27, Northbridge Plaza,
Vic's Premium Quality Meats
10 Merchant St., Mascot 2020
Premium breeds on remote island
|The Hammond Family's youngest son Chauncey (Right) with family friend Ren Suzuki.
One of Australia's most well established wagyu operations is thriving in one of the nation's most remote locations - the far north-west corner of Tasmania.
There the Hammond family has had a presence for almost a century, with great-grandfather purchasing two islands off the coast, adjacent to a 600-acre mainland property also owned by the family, in 1916.
Robbins Island (25,000 acres, or 100 square kilometres) and Walker Island (1750 acres, or about seven square kilometres) have had interesting histories.
The larger Robbins Island had a cheese factory and ran dairy cattle. This continued for several decades and at one stage there were three dairies, the factory, a school and 70 people were living there.
The grandfather's son Gene bought the islands from his dad in 1958 and Gene's sons John and Keith took over the running of the property when their father died in 1991 (a third brother and equal partner lives in Sydney).
John and Keith have developed wagyu breeding since then and this year will mate 1200 wagyu cattle. Most of the male progeny are sold and shipped live to Japan when 12 months old. A feedlot customer there will further develop them for 500 to 600 days before marketing the beef.
"We do keep some male progeny as bulls, based on DNA testing results," Keith explains. "We DNA test for marbling and soft fat genotypes and select the bulls based on those results.
"The bulls are sold to Angus farmers who produce first-cross cattle for domestic Australian feedlots and also the live trade," he says.
It's a fascinating operation. Robbins Island is 1.2 kilometres offshore and when the tide is low horses are used in a droving exercise to get the cattle to and from the mainland farm. "The trip from the island paddocks to the farm is 25 kilometres and takes up to eight hours of droving," Keith says.
"Our customer in Japan particularly likes buying our cattle because of the environment in which they are raised. We have the cleanest air and water in the world. Not only that, he has had good performance from our cattle and likes our genetic lines."
|(Top-right and bottom) Wagyu mustering on the Hammond family's property in Tasmania.
After their father's death and years of working a conventional beef farm, John and Keith decided they needed to progress to a product of higher value for a niche market - hence wagyu.
"Our initial wagyu operation was producing first cross cattle. Then we imported frozen embryos from Canada and the United States and implanted them into surrogate cows to produce our own wagyu," Keith says.
"Once the female embryo cattle were old enough, we started our own embryo production, freezing and implantation program in 1996 and in the past 10 years we have produced and transferred more than 5000 embryos. Through embryo production we had one cow produce 150 or more progeny before having her first calf."
The Hammonds' market is Japan but the meat quality of wagyu is now generating countless markets elsewhere; not only in Australia and the product's country of origin but Korea, the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, to name just a few.
Keith Hammond points out that their cattle going to Japan are not sold as wagyu beef but sold under their customer's brand, which allows the domestic production there to remain segregated and at the elite end of the market.
"Our aim is to take no market share from the Japanese wagyu farmers," Keith emphasises, "only to supply superior cattle that produce superior beef compared with other imported product, thus giving the customer a more acceptable product."