Wagyu beef is known for its intense marbling and melt-in-your-mouth texture. For chefs, slapping a "wagyu" label on anything from prime cuts of steak to beef sliders can mean diners hungry for premium meat will pay a much higher price. But "wagyu" is a broad term, and quality varies greatly. So if you're a producer, how do you ensure restaurants are serving a product that guests understand is on the high end of the wagyu spectrum?
Feed your cows chocolate.
At least that's what they do at Mayura Station Farm in southern Australia, where full-blood Wagyu chow down on chocolate during their last few months on earth. Scott de Bruin, managing partner at Mayura Station, started feeding his cows chocolate in 2006 because he couldn't find the recommended feed ingredients in his remote corner of the continent.
"I broke down the feed into the nutritional components and then pieced it together, inventing my own feed recipe," recalls de Bruin. "The macronutrients are the same, or similar, but we are getting there a slightly different way."
His recipe included a key ingredient: Cadbury chocolate (cows don't exactly care whether they're eating bean-to-bar). What started as an experiment is now as much of a defining characteristic of his Wagyu as the snowflake-like marbling and buttery flavour for which it's known.
Feeding chocolate to cows may sound unconventional, but it's a not a brand new concept. After a surge in corn prices in 2012, many farmers in the US turned to confectionary to save money on feed, because ruminant animals like cows have four stomachs and can digest pretty much anything. Pennsylvania State University—one of the leading agricultural authorities in the US—even lists chocolate among its alternative feed ration recommendations.
"People ask me about the ethics of feeding chocolate to cows. But they're not on a long timeline here," says de Bruin. "They are going to go to baby cow heaven soon, but this way they are happier and taste better."
Cultivating delicious beef has kept Mayura Station in business since 1845, making it the oldest farm in southern Australia. Today, de Bruin shepherds the family business, which began importing Wagyu cattle from Japan in 1998. It's one of the largest privately run full-blood Wagyu farms in the world, with 7,500 heads of full-blood Wagyu cattle on the 3-hectare property. That's nearly a quarter of all full-blood cattle in Australia.
Not every bull gets to enjoy the indulgent diet. Only Mayura's calves eat chocolate and, even then, it's limited to specific points in their short lifespans.
The calves spend the first six months of their lives with their mothers, drinking milk and grazing the fields. Then they're weaned from their moms to embark on a set of six carefully designed ration schedules—each two-month ration is tailored to their age and nutritional requirements. Chocolate doesn't come in until the cattle reach 30 months old—the closer they get to the slaughterhouse, the more chocolate they consume.
"The last two rations are about producing as much marbling as we possibly can, so that's why they consume such a high-calorie ration," says de Bruin. "Think about it. If you eat a lot of chocolate, you're probably marbled really well."
By the last ration, when they have four months left on earth, each animal consumes approximately 4.4 pounds of chocolate a day—or about 20 percent of their 22-pound daily diet.
"All I can say is that in those last four months, they are really, really happy cows," he says. "They'll be sifting through the feed, trying to find the chocolate. And if you have it in your hand, they'll trot after you. It's like giving kids candy. They just love it."
De Bruin calls this last step the "flavour" ration, saying that it's responsible for his beef's unique texture and flavour. Most other farmers skip this last phase of feeding, as it tacks on a few more months in the production process without an immediately obvious payoff—after all, the price of Wagyu is largely determined by its marbling score, which is based on the percentage of marble rather than texture or flavour.
"It's like judging a book by its cover to say what it's worth," says Jason Lo, managing director of Waves Pacific, a Hong Kong-based meat distributor. "But it's not just about the marbling—just like a nice wine is not just about the region or colour."
The Wagyu market is also moving in the direction of wine; just as drinkers want to know the grape, year, and producer, increasingly more educated consumers want to know the specifics about the source of their meat. That's why Mayura Farm asks restaurants to include the brand name on menus—de Bruin wants diners to think of it as a unique product with its own distinct story.
"When you market it too much as Wagyu beef, there's a built-in expectation that there will be a Japanese A5 product that's really fatty in the middle," says Lo. "By labelling it Mayura Station Wagyu, diners have fewer preconceptions of what it will taste like."
Wagyu—which literally means "Japanese style cattle"—falls under a giant umbrella. Wagyu is rated on a scale of 1-10 according to its marbling and ancestry. Most Wagyu on the Australian market will be from mixed origins. There are several grades: Full-blood, meaning it's 100% genetically Wagyu; F1, a Wagyu father and an Angus mother; F2, a Wagyu bull with an F1 mom; or an F3, a Wagyu bull with an F2 mom.
But regardless of diluted genetics, it's all called Wagyu. As de Bruin only cultivates full-blood Wagyu—albeit with his own sweet twist—he wants to distance his product from the broad category of wagyu. According to the chefs in Hong Kong—a booming market for Wagyu—who are eager to serve Mayura on their menus, Mayura's slow and precise strategy seems to be working. Italian Chef Umberto Bombana, of 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, was one of the first to embrace Mayura Station. A long list of high-end restaurants in Hong Kong have followed, ready to pay the premium price tag—20-30 percent more than an F1 beef—for what they consider superlative Wagyu.
"You can't get as many small producers in Hong Kong as you can in Europe or Australia. That's what's great about Mayura… its traceability," says Shane Osborne, chef of Arcane, a contemporary British restaurant in Central Hong Kong.
From tongues to the cheeks to the flanks, Mayura is almost always on the menu at Arcane, though the specific cut constantly changes. "We do a short rib that people go crazy for. It's likes beef meets creme brulee—sweet and crispy on the outside."