Missouri farmers embrace Japanese-style beef

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Terry Neuner worked eight years for 3M in Japan before his employers treated him to a Kobe beef dinner. The meal was worth the wait.

"It was so good, I knew then that this was something I wanted to bring back home," said Neuner, who owns Westphalia Vineyards, a farm southwest of Jefferson City.

And he did bring Kobe beef to central Missouri — as much as anyone could have. Trademarked Kobe Beef is found only in Japan and costs up to 100,000 yen per kilogram, or $550 a pound, said Daisuke Terao of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. It is one of several brands of upscale beef from a Japanese breed of cattle called Wagyu. Scientists and farmers say Wagyu cattle produce some of the highest quality beef in the world, and it is prized for its flavor, tenderness and snow-white marbling.

The extravagant delicacy has spawned equally extravagant myths. Legend says the Kobe cattle achieve their silky meat from living a pampered life of luxury before they are led to slaughter. They are massaged with sake, drink beer and tune in to classical music.

While experts are quick to debunk or qualify these claims, on some level, the truth doesn't matter: the rumors have spread. They're part of the product, and the myth now extends to America, where steaks and hamburgers made from American Wagyu are called Kobe on some menus.

As Neuner develops his Wagyu herd through crossbreeding, each generation of calves comes closer to the mythical Kobe ideal, but never quite reaches it. Seven years ago, Neuner began with 14 Angus cows artificially inseminated with Wagyu semen imported from Japan. Today the herd is 65 strong with cows that are a minimum of 75 percent Wagyu, with many of them at 88 percent or higher.

On a recent morning, Neuner watched two of his black Wagyu cows graze in front of hills lined with grapevines. Farther from the barns, the cows can also eat brewer's grains from blue metal bins.

"This one is No. 28," Neuner said, gesturing to a tag on the cow's ear. "This cow is so accommodating, he'll follow me around like a puppy dog. They're contented, and easy to take care of."

The cows are raised without hormones or chemicals, Neuner said, except for whatever shots are required by law to prevent diseases.

Neuner isn't the only Missouri farmer crossbreeding Wagyu cattle. The American Wagyu Association, a registry, has nine members from Missouri farms on its list, and has between 150 and 200 members around the country.

The niche market for higher-end beef has made permanent inroads in the U.S. in the past decade. In 2003, a mad cow scare in the U.S. halted beef exports, causing American Wagyu beef produced for the Japanese market to flood the American market. Japan still hasn't resumed imports of high quality American Wagyu, but Americans caught on.

American Wagyu beef still fetches high prices despite the market's recent dip with the economic downturn. Four 8-ounce steaks cost $225 at — a farm in Oregon that sells them online.

Neuner recently started selling American Wagyu beef to markets in St. Louis, and he has been supplying the meat to the Broadway Brewery in downtown Columbia since August. The cows may not be massaged each day, but word is that it's good stuff.

Brewery owner Walker Claridge, who purchases the Wagyu beef from Neuner by the cow, said he was impressed with its "soft mouth-feel" and the flavor of the steaks, which cost between $16 and $30. Brewery chef Aaron Polston enjoys working with the beef, too.

"You can rub a Kobe steak and melt fat off of it with your hands," Polston said. "Anything you can do with a normal beef product you can do with it; you just have to assume it's going to be twice as good, because it's Kobe. It's really cool to have a product of that quality."

Ingredient, on Ninth Street, sells a Kobe burger for $9.95, $3 more than a regular burger. The restaurant began offering Kobe burgers in April, and buys American Wagyu from the distributor U.S. Foodservice. Ingredient does not bill it as a luxury option, but simply as a healthier, leaner beef, manager Crystal Martin said.

Kobe Japanese Steakhouse off Broadway on the east side of town has also offered Wagyu steak hibachi for two years. It costs $30.99, and the Wagyu beef comes from herds in Australia. Owner Simon Kim said he started the restaurant because "some people want better beef." And Wagyu is just better, he said.

"When I cut Wagyu the first time, I was surprised. Wow, that's why this is Kobe beef. I feel like I'm cutting 1-inch-thick jelly, or tofu," Kim said.

While the lifestyle of Japanese cattle are steeped in stories, there's nothing mythical about the quality of the beef. One of the most important factors that influences the eating experience is marbling, or the amount of fat distributed around the muscle.

Japanese beef is graded on a marbling scale from 1 to 12, on which USDA prime cuts rate around 5 or 6. Marbling scores apply to certain cuts of meat like a rib-eye or porterhouse, not necessarily to others parts of the cow. Higher marbling scores can enhance the eating experience in a few ways, MU meat scientist Carol Lorenzen said.

The fat causes people to salivate, increasing the impression of the meat's "juiciness." It also has a lot of flavor and coats the mouth. Likewise, there are theories that marbling improves tenderness, such as the "bite theory" — which says increased marbling decreases density and makes it easier to chew through the muscle — and the "insurance theory" — which says marbled meat stays tender at higher levels of doneness.

Wagyu cattle grow more slowly than other breeds and are genetically disposed to marbling. They're fed high-grain diets for up to 30 months, as opposed to 14 months for regular cows, which makes them expensive to raise. They're also a risky investment. There's no guarantee that a Wagyu cow will score exceptionally high on marbling, researcher Charles Gaskins of the American Wagyu Association said.

American Wagyu can yield grades as high as in Japan, but is it the same? Many say it is, but Texas A&M Wagyu researcher Stephen Smith is a purist.

"It's like (producing) beef in Missouri and calling it Texas beef — if we have good genetics and good production, we can get close to what they can do in Japan," Smith said. "They truly have (beef production) down to an art. Their production system reduces the amount of saturated fats, and they prefer fat that's white as the driven snow and very soft."

But the aim of producing Wagyu in America is not to get full-bloods to hit a 12 on the Japanese scale. Smith said he thinks Wagyu crossbreeds could bring domestic genetics up, and help produce a consistent, higher quality beef for the U.S. market. R.L. Freeborn, a Wagyu breeder and producer since 1987 who sells all grades of Wagyu, says America doesn't need extreme marbling as a steak-consuming society.

"The product is way too rich. Would you ever sit down and eat eight ounces of foie gras?" Freeborn said. "There are certain boutique restaurants in the U.S. that want the very, very highest product, but they don't sell it in a steak application, but as shabu-shabu or sukiyaki or as an hors d'oeuvre. For a large percentage of the American palette, a 7 or 8 or 9 is all the Wagyu influence people want."

But even having a market for beef above the U.S. Department of Agriculture's designation of prime is something new. A long-held assumption of the American meat industry has been that prime beef was the most people would pay for, Freeborn said.

"We've proven without a doubt that's not true. We broke an old mold that existed for 100 years," Freeborn said. "The whole success of this has not been driven by breeders or feeders, but by consumers' acceptance of this product."

The American Wagyu market, he said, is here to stay.