If you’ve come across Japanese Wagyu on restaurant menus before, you will know just how expensive it can get. It’s definitely on the more refined end of the food spectrum and can cost up to 10 or 20 times more than other types of beef. Some are even priced in the thousands!
What makes Japanese beef, or wagyu, so special though? Surely there are other cuts that provide just as much melt-in-your-mouth buttery softness and distinct rich taste.
We’re not so sure about that, to be honest!
Let’s take a look at what constitutes wagyu first.
What Is Wagyu?
In Japanese, ‘wa’ means Japanese, and ‘gyu’ means cow – so wagyu directly translates to Japanese cow, or beef.
The biggest difference between Japanese cows and other cows is how they are bred. They are often raised by the breeder until they are around 10 months old, and then sold to a fattening farm. There, they are kept on a solid quality meal of rice, wheat, and hay until they become around 50% fat. The meat of Japanese cows tends to contain more intramuscular fat cells, and fat is more evenly distributed throughout their muscles than most other cow breeds.
Wagyu meat is always given a grade that depends on its marbling, color, and brightness, firmness and texture, and quality of the fat. As such, only A3-A5 grade wagyu can be sold.
You can read more about the different types of Wagyu beef here.
When eating wagyu, you can immediately tell that it’s on another level. It’s so much more tender and juicier than standard beef, with the perfect amount of fat that lets it quite literally melt in your mouth after a good grill. The buttery texture and savory taste of it are unmatched.
Why Is Wagyu So Expensive?
As you can tell from above, there are many elements to take into consideration with pricing wagyu. From its conception as a baby calf to years later as a fully bred cow, years of time and effort are poured into the process.
Here are some of the main reasons why wagyu is so expensive:
1. Breeding Conditions
The conditions that Japanese wagyu cows are brought up in are relatively immaculate. From only eating quality rice grains to being fed beer and sake, their top-tier diet correlates with their price. Not only that but it is also believed that a less-stressed cow makes for more delicious meat. Therefore, they will often be massaged and given regular baths in mineral water from hot springs to relax their muscles.
Breeding wagyu cows is a time-consuming and labor-intensive job.
2. Time to Breed
On average, a wagyu cow will be slaughtered after a minimum of three years. Considering how normal cows take about 18 months to 24 months, this is a much longer time frame. Within that time, of course, their high-quality diet and treatment are maintained, and thus the efforts and time of the breeder need to be compensated.
3. Breeding Locations
Unlike many other breeding farms around the world, where cows are kept in caged feedlots, Japanese wagyu cows are raised on small family farms. Their focus is on natural feeding practices and cows are allowed to graze on open pastures.
On one hand, it is to allow for the cows to de-stress in a tranquil environment, but it is also because of the lack of larger farming lands in Japan. Less land to breed the cows means their value goes up in price.
4. Soaring in Popularity
Wagyu has always been a sought-after meal option in Japan, however, in recent years it has absolutely boomed in demand around the world. People are realizing just how much more tender and juicy wagyu beef is, and popularity for Japanese wagyu has gone through the roof.
With limited supply, however, the cost is always going to be significant, even more so after it became a household favorite around the world.
If you’ve got a few hundred dollars to spare, try and book yourself into a Japanese restaurant for some grade A5 wagyu, stat.
If not, well, there are plenty of restaurants selling anywhere between A3 and A5 wagyu – all of which are bound to leave lasting impressions with their melt-in-your-mouth textures.
Many restaurants in Japan will specialize in wagyu beef so get your dinner reservations in as soon as possible if you’re planning to go. If you’re not willing to break the bank, many restaurants will have a cheaper lunch option where you can still experience wagyu but in a lighter, more casual setting.