Our Journey to the Inside of The Japanese Beef World

Crowd Cow broke into the innermost chambers of the Japanese beef world to become America's first-ever direct sourcer-seller of A5 Wagyu from Japan. Here's the story of how we did it.

There are not a lot of people out there who have tried Japanese A5 Wagyu. But if someone you know has tried it, you've probably heard about it, in the form of happy ranting and raving. And as you can probably tell from the photo below, this is not the steak most Americans are used to. Between its through-the-roof marbling levels, and the way it's trimmed into careful, neat blocks, it really doesn't much resemble the New Yorks or Rib Steaks favored in American steakhouses.

And the taste, of course, marks Wagyu as distinct, too (to put it quite mildly). It's a beef so rich and buttery it melts in your mouth. Literally. It's so intense and decadent, in fact, that it's best enjoyed in small bites while sipping something equally rare. It's an experience more than anything else.

A5 Wagyu in Japan

So where does this incredible beef come from? And how does it... happen?

Japan's culture is well-known for being private and closed to outsiders. The Japanese beef world, in particular, has historically been inaccessible to outsiders of any sort, but especially to foreigners. And while whipping out a padded wallet at a nice Japanese restaurant can sometimes put the right things on your plate, there's a whole big world behind the plate that even money can't buy. It starts with the producers and processors.

We have to go back 20 years to get to the beginning of my journey to the inside of the beef world.

I was just a curious college student looking for some sort of language immersion. And soon enough, I found myself on a farm homestay in a small, rural town in Japan (whose name, to this day, elicits only confused stares when I ask a Japanese person if they've heard of it. It was seriously remote).

On that farm, I learned the Japanese language while harvesting armful after armful of diakon, negi and jagaimo. It was just about as immersive as you can get as far as language-learning goes, and I really caught the bug: I followed that homestay experience with five more years of language study and countless return trips.

I turned 20 while on that farm. To celebrate, the neighbors from the surrounding farms all got together and roasted an entire Wagyu cow. I could feel, even at that age, how special that was. It was my first-ever taste of Japanese beef; and sadly, it would have to last me two more decades, until my next taste.

Fast forward 20 years, to Crowd Cow.

We were feeling pretty happy with how things were going. We'd already worked with dozens of U.S. producers to source their beef directly, one animal at a time, and had established relationships with hundreds more. But an unexpected and wonderful realization was also dawning on us, as those relationships accumulated and our knowledge of the beef world grew.

Unbeknownst to most, there is a startling and seemingly endless diversity in breeds, climates, and methods of raising cattle, plus countless stories of families who, in different ways, have entirely devoted themselves to the land they cultivate.

We had started Crowd Cow to make it easier to get beef from independent farms; but we quickly stumbled upon an equally awesome, if unexpected, reason to continue doing what we were doing: Like wine, coffee, chocolate, and microbrew, beef is a flabbergastingly diverse world that deserves to be fully explored and celebrated.

Hyogo Prefecture Carcass Rating

That brings us to Wagyu.

Since Crowd Cow tipped its first cow, countless people had been asking if we'd ever carry A5 Wagyu from Japan. The suggestion fit perfectly with our growing conviction that we should be showcasing the diversity of beef we'd discovered. A5 Wagyu, after all, sat at the very apex of our delicious findings. And our unique model of a direct-source marketplace built around close producer relationships enabled us to get it.

Working with the Japanese beef industry reinforced our growing sense that Americans weren't being exposed to the full diversity of beef in all its flavors, textures, and methods of production -- in short, beef's culture.

In Japan, those myriad differences are already celebrated and understood. While over 80% of American beef is sold through four multi-billion dollar corporations at terrifying, industrial scale, the Japanese beef industry is set up to emphasize quality and to highlight the regional diversity that naturally emerges.

Exhibit A: There are over 300 distinct brands of beef in Japan, each of those brands regulated carefully and applied to carcasses only when they meet the exact criteria. (You've probably heard of "Kobe Beef." It's a luxury brand, and the only brand to have jumped the shark internationally.)

See video: A5 Wagyu at a Department Store in Japan

When we started cold-calling Japanese producers, local government offices, and marketing associations, we found that our focus on celebrating a long-underappreciated diversity in beef began opening up doors immediately.

It was clear to those on the other end of the line that Crowd Cow was a new kind of company -- one better-suited to explaining Japanese A5 Wagyu to an American audience than others who had come along before. We would make it a priority to highlight the unique differences between producers and types of beef. We would tell the stories, explain the unique genetics, and dig into the ecological details of Wagyu from Kagoshima and other top Wagyu-producing regions.

In short, we would work hard to do A5 Wagyu justice.

Talking Beef in Kagoshima

Beef Carcass Rating in Japan

Awaji Beef A5 Wagyu Grand Prize

By now, many months into our Wagyu education and exploration, we've met with producers in three regions of Japan.

We've gone into the heart of Kobe Beef country, where we were guests at a rating ceremony and carcass-inspection auction. (It's there that the luckier cattle get marked with an A4 or A5 designation.)

Olive Wagyu in Japan
Masaki Ishii, a producer on Shodoshima Island in Kagawa Prefecture is the originator of Olive Beef

We also met with the innovative farmer behind "Olive Wagyu," who operates a unique and sustainable system wherein cattle producers lend manure to nearby olive growers as fertilizer in exchange for pressed olives to feed the cows. What results is a beef that's high in antioxidants and carries a soft, olive-y sweet aftertaste.

And we met, of course, with producers in Kagoshima and Miyazaki, areas renowned inside Japan for producing the best Kuroge Washu cattle.

From those wonderful farmers, we're bringing you A5 Wagyu to Crowd Cow.

For us, it's been a huge education and a wildly exciting journey to dive into the world of A5 Wagyu. Now all that's left is the best part: Dinner.


Crowd Cow in Kagoshima

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