Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Vermont Waygu: Pure Breed, Pure Deliciousness

For many people, they mainly know that Waygu beef originated in Japan and is expensive. They may also believe some of the myths about Waygu, such as that the cows must be fed beer or sake, and get regular massages. Although that might happen in some isolated cases, there are actually no regulations that mandate such matters. And the vast majority of Waygu cows are never massaged or fed beer or sake. Waygu is also sometimes confused with the term Kobe, which actually refers to a type of Waygu raised in a specific geographical area under strict regulations. 

In August, I traveled to southern Vermont, visiting a few different farms with a couple friends. One of our stops was at the Vermont Waygu Farm at Spring Fork Farm in Springfield. The owner is Dr. Sheila Patinkin, a Vermont native, who spent a significant period of her life working as a pediatrician in Chicago. Around 2006, she returned to Vermont, and purchased the 350-acre, Spring-Rock farm, whose origins extend back to 1790. What would Sheila decide to do with the farm?

In 2006, Sheila also went to visit her cousin in Montana, and he primarily raised Angus cattle. However, he served Sheila some Waygu beef burgers and it was a transformative event. Sheila loved the incredible taste of the Waygu, and that led to her deciding to raise Waygu on her new farm. The farm first needed to be reconstructed and renovated, made ready for her new endeavor, so it wasn't until 2008, that she started raising 20 Waygu calves, and never looked back.

Since then, Sheila has become a mini-expert on Waygu. She stated that many of the other small farmers in Vermont have become mini-experts in their respective fields as well, part of the nature of the artisan operations in Vermont. Sheila also made the significant decision to raise only 100% purebred Waygu, certified by the American Waygu Association, and not the hybrids which are common throughout the U.S. 

I found Sheila to be extremely hospitable, intelligent, down-to-earth, and clearly passionate about her farm and Waygu. Not only did she provide us a fascinating tour of the farm, but she also provided us a delicious Waygu dinner. It was a superb experience, and I also ended up purchasing a variety of Waygu products. 

Let's begin our exploration of this farm with a couple important questions. What exactly is Waygu? And what is its history in the U.S.? 

The term "Waygu" simply translates as "Japanese cow" and refers to four breeds, including the Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu), which constitutes about 90% of all Waygu. There is also the Japanese Brown (Akage Washu), which is called Red Waygu in the U.S. There are also the Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu) and Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankakushu). In the U.S., you'll obviously find primarily Japanese Black with a few Red Wagyu as well. 

Historically, Waygu cattle were originally agricultural draft animals, bred for physical endurance. This breeding led to animals which possessed greater muscular fat, which comprised an important source of available energy for the cattle. As such, Waygu beef has extensive marbling, more fat than other cattle breeds, and this greater marbling makes their meat more unique, more rich and silky.  

Although you might think the higher proportion of fat in Waygu beef is unhealthy, that isn't true at all and it is probably even healthier than other breeds of cattle. For example, the saturated fat in Waygu contains about 40% stearic acid, which does little to raise cholesterol. Wagyu beef also contains a higher proportion to a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is known to be an anti-carcinogen, an anti-inflammatory, and helped in reducing heart disease and diabetes. Wagyu beef contains more CLA than any other food, and about 30% more than any other cattle breed. So, consuming Waygu is healthier than probably any other type of beef. 

There is some ambiguity as to when and how the first Waygu cattle were exported to the U.S., with differing sources stating the year was 1975 or 1976. One of the more prevalent stories is that four Waygu bulls were brought to the U.S. by Texas cattleman Morris Whitney and an unidentified Japanese investor. These cattle were named Mt. Fuji, Judo, Mazda and Rueshaw, but the endeavor ended as a financial failure, and the cattle were sold. As the U.S. didn't possesse any Waygu females, they needed to crossbreed the Waygu with other cattle breeds like Angus and Holstein. 

About 14 years later, The Pantagraph (IL), May 28, 1991, noted that there were currently about 300 Waygu cattle (all male) in the U.S., mostly in Texas. It was also mentioned that a single Waygu commonly sold for $50K-$100K, and in Japan, their meat sold for an average of $68 per pound. In addition, the article stated that 12 black Wagyu cattle had recently been born from Holstein mothers on a farm in Illinois. 

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), April 6, 1992, reported that no purebreed Wagyu existed in the U.S. There were about 60 Waygu crossbreeds, ranging from ratios of 7/8 to 15/16; as well as several thousand half-breed Waygu. There still weren't any female Waygu in the U.S. but that would soon change.

Everything changed in 1993, when the first female Waygu were permitted to be exported to the U.S. The Des Moines Register (IA), September 12, 1993, reported that 3 purebreed Waygu cows and 2 bulls were delivered to Iowa. The cattle had initially spent several months of quarantine in Japan and then New York, before finally arriving in Iowa. The Waygu were owned by two Japanese investors, under the corporate name of New Era Genetics Limited, who spent two years trying to make this happen. 

There had been multiple previous attempts to import Waygu cows into the U.S. but they all had failed, primarily because they lacked Japanese investors or consultant who would have been able to better cut through the bureaucracy in Japan. So why did these Japanese investors get involved in this endeavor?

One of the two investors owned a restaurant in Japan, and he wanted to raise Waygu in the U.S. as production costs were much lower than in Japan. Japan had also recently lowered their tariffs on imported beef, making Waygu production in the U.S. even more attractive and financially lucrative. Once those tariffs were lowered, beef exports from the U.S. to Japan started increasing. About 42% of the beef that Japan imported came from the U.S. The article also finally noted that there were only about 1500 Waygu in the U.S. which were half-blood or greater. 

The Great Falls Tribune (MT), November 6, 1994, noted that the three purebred Waygu cows had given birth during the summer to the first purebred Waygu born in the U.S. More Waygu cows were soon be imported into the U.S.  For example, the Miami Herald (FL), February 22, 2004, reported on Gary Yamamato, a Texan who owned the BK Ranch and one of world’s largest herds of full-blooded Waygu. In 1999, six years after the first three Waygu cows were imported to the U.S., Yamamato purchased 88 Waygu cows and 12 bulls, as well as hiring a Waygu expert, Shogo Takeda, a Japanese veterinarian.

Sheila started her farm with 20 Waygu but has now become one of the country's top breeders of purebred Waygu cattle. She conducts a very scientific approach to raising the Waygu, undoubtedly due to her prior medical training, which "...uses live ultrasound results, DNA information, and phenotypic growth data to make in-time decisions that prioritize the health of the mother and calf. Our on-farm lab,..., gathers statistics on, steer frame size, hip height, rump fat thickness, birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, average daily weight gain, basic marbling scores, all to ensure a best-of-the-best breeding program generation after generation.

All this is done to protect the health of her Waygu as well as to improve each new generation. In addition, Sheila sells some of her cattle at auction, so all of the genetic and medical information she obtains helps in that regard. Although Sheila has previously owned over 500 Waygu cattle, she presently owns about 260 breeding cows, although she will selling about 65 in the near future at a live auction.

Sheila held her first cattle auction in 2018, and stated that her farm is actually best known for its livestock, not its beef. At her next auction, which will be held live and online on October 23, she will sell off about 65 cows and 15 bulls. Check out the Auction Catalog and you'll see the extensive and comprehensive information that Sheila has gathered on each of her Waygu. When Sheila states her farm is "data-driven," the auction catalog gives you a great insight into what they entails.  
The Waygu cattle are raised naturally, without antibiotics or hormones, and there's about 1-2 acres of pasture for each cow-calf pair. A special Waygu feed is given to the calves, which constitutes about 70% roughage and 30% grain. One of the most important aspects of raising the Waygu is to present them with a low stress environment, as low stress leads to better marbling. Fortunately, Waygu have a good temperament and calve easily, making raising them easier. Although Red Wagyu technically make better cows, their marbling isn't as good. 

The Waygu are raised for about 25-30 months before they are slaughtered. At that point, they typically weigh around 1400 pounds, having gained about 1.7 pounds per day. That will yield an 850 pound carcass, and about half the meat will end up as ground burger. Their breeding Waygu live long lives, and they still have a few from back in 2007, making them about fourteen years old. Sheila also mentioned that it's more expensive to raise Waygu in Vermont rather than places like Texas and Iowa. 

Prior to Covid, Sheila sold about 95% of her Waygu beef to restaurants, but just prior to the pandemic, she instituted an e-commerce site, with the help of two of her children, making the meat available to consumers, and that greatly helped when all the restaurants had to close. Now, about 80% of her business is through e-commerce and only 20% for restaurants and food service. 

Through her e-commerce site, Sheila offers a wide variety of Waygu meats and she ships all across the U.S. You'll find plenty of typical cuts of beef, from New York Strip to Ribeye, as well as some of which you might not be familiar, like Coulotte and Denver Chuck. The cuts generally come in several different sizes, and everything ships in vacuum sealed packages. Waygu is more expensive than other beef, but it's worth the extra cost. And for those in Massachusetts, the base shipping cost is only $14.99, which is very reasonable. 


I got a glimpse inside her refrigerated storage area, which was packed with Waygu beef, separated by specific cuts and types. Some of the boxes and containers were empty, as she was out of stock of those particular meats. There was also a section of Misfits, meat that didn't meet her aesthetic standards, which Sheila wouldn't sell because she only wants to sell quality Waygu. As Sheila said, "You have to be the best of the best." 

In the future, Sheila wants to acquire more cattle, to increase her supply, as her meats sell out quickly. She can't currently meet all the demands for her products. After tasting a number of her Waygu products I fully understand why they sell out so fast. I've already eaten nearly all of the Waygu products I purchased, and I'm ready to buy more.

Her Waygu beef has won numerous awards as well at various competitions.

After our tour, Sheila provided us a special Waygu beef dinner, including several different cuts and types of beef. We first began with a cheese and meat platter, which contained a phenomenal Bresaola, made from Sheila's Waygu, from bottom round. Bresaola is basically an air-dried, salted beef that is also aged for 2-3 months. This Bresaola possessed such an alluring aroma, and was tender and flavorful, with nutty notes. What a compelling product and could be one of the best Bresaola that I've ever eaten. 

The Bresaola was produced by Oliver Perkins, of A Small Good, in Rockport, Maine, as part of an experiment, to determine whether Sheila would like more produced so she could sell it. Perkins makes "salumi with terroir," using wild fermentation, and they are the only facility in the U.S. doing so. Perkins also uses many local ingredients to craft his salumi, such as northern spice bush which he uses to spice his Bresaola. I think this experiment was a smashing success as that Bresaola was amazing, and it makes me want to seek out more of Perkin's products.

For the main course, there were a variety of different Waygu cuts and types, including Ribeye, Denver Chuck, and A5 Kobe (not from her farm). You can see all the compelling marbling in the Waygu. We certainly weren't expecting such an amazing dinner, but it was a very generous treat.

As Sheila prepared the rest of the dinner, we cooked the meat on the grill. As Sheila has said, cooking Waygu can be very simple, just adding a bit of salt and pepper and then cooking the meat on the grill. She wants the meat to speak for itself, and not be concealed beneath any sauce. You just need to be careful not to overcook the meat, so timing on the grill, oven or stovetop, is very important.

I was very pleased with how the Waygu was cooked on the grill, and it was an intriguing comparison test to assess the different cuts and types. We were disappointed with the A5 Kobe, as it just wasn't as tender and flavorful as it should have been, and didn't compare to previous such samples I've tasted. However, the other cuts were all delicious, tender and very flavorful. I had brought some wine and we had a fine feast, with great conversation as well. 

My favorite was the Denver Chuck, a cut that is lesser known but worthy of more recognition. It comes from the shoulder, and is commonly well-marbled and tender, with a rich, meat flavor. A skilled butcher is required to obtain the Denver cut, which is one reason why this cut isn't as well known. When it is available though, it is commonly less expensive than other cuts, making it an excellent value too. It is a fine steak for the grill, and only needs salt and pepper.

In the weeks that followed my visit to the farm, I've enjoyed several Waygu products that I purchased there. I got a package of two 8-ounce Waygu Burgers, and prepared them simply, without any cheese or other toppings, to experience the ground beef. And it was quite juicy and tender, with lots of meaty flavor. An excellent burger which possessed greater flavor than many other regular beef burgers.

The Waygu Smoked Beef Chorizo was amazing! First, it too was juicy and tender, with a meaty flavor enhanced by the spices. There was a pleasing spicy heat to the Chorizo and they were juicier than many other Chorizo I've previously eaten. I highly recommend these Chorizo and I'll definitely pick up more in the near future.

The Waygu Smoked Beef Kielbasa were also juicy and tender, a commonality to these Waygu products. They definitely taste like a finely made kielbasa.

The Waygu Flat Iron is a less expensive cut, which sometimes can be tough, but that wasn't the case with this steak. We cooked it simply on the grill and it was tender and juicy, with plenty of flavor. It was thin so didn't take long to cook on the grill. 

Most recently, I had some more of the Denver Chuck, with Shitake mushrooms, which was nicely marbled, tender and flavorful with a rich, silky mouthfeel. For a lower cost cut, this packs an excellent value and is highly recommended.

Rather than purchase cheap, factory-farm beef, a better option would be to purchase locally grown beef, raised on small, artisan farms, like the Vermont Waygu Farm. Sheila raises purebred Waygu cattle, a rarity in the U.S., and does so both naturally and with a strong scientific foundation. She sells a wide variety of Waygu cuts and products, and they possess great flavor, much better than some of the beef you find at the chain grocery stores. Yes, they are more expensive, but you are paying for the high quality and taste of the beef, and they are certainly worth the price. It's easy to order the Waygu online, and I strongly encourage you to give it a try. 

1 comment:

wizardtho said...

Giving it a try! Thanks for the recommendation.