Aussie wagyu wows World Steak Challenge
Japan's rivals increasingly making the cut in premium beef industry
GEOFF HISCOCK, Contributing writer
SYDNEY -- Well, hand me a beer and toss another steak on the barbecue. For the third straight year, Australian wagyu beef producer Jack's Creek has won gold at the World Steak Challenge, held in London.
The company's 450-day grain-fed wagyu cross took the award for world's best fillet steak, while two of its other wagyu cross entries picked up a second gold in the striploin, plus a silver in the rib-eye category.
For the past two years, Jack's Creek, run by the Warmoll family in New South Wales state, has also held the overall title of "world's best steak producer." This year, that honor went instead to ABP Poland, for its grain-fed sirloin steak from a Limousin cross.
Jack's Creek and ABP Poland were among more than 100 international beef producers from 17 countries who competed in the World Steak Challenge on July 4.
Jack's Creek Managing Director Patrick Warmoll said he was delighted with this year's results. "A third consecutive set of gold and silver medals as well as the world's best fillet steak award confirms that we are producing a consistent, high quality product," he said.
Whether the beef comes from Australia, Japan, or anywhere else, wagyu is always among the winners, with a tenderness and flavor that comes from the intense marbling of intramuscular fat in the meat. It commands premium prices in top restaurants in Asia, Europe and North America. At Nobu restaurant in Tokyo, for example, 150 grams of wagyu tenderloin is on the dinner menu for 10,000 yen ($88), while the same quantity of Australian-raised wagyu at Nobu in Melbourne goes for 162 Australian dollars ($123). A mere four ounces (113 grams) of wagyu steak costs $144 at Nobu in Dallas, Texas.
Until only a few decades ago, wagyu was the sole preserve of breeders in Japan. In 1976, four bulls were exported to the U.S., but there was little progress over the next decade. Then, from the late 1980s onward, a number of wagyu bulls and females were shipped to U.S. breeders, with some of these animals and their progeny moving on to Australia. At the end of the 1990s, Japan decided that no more live animals would be exported. Since then, the world's genetic pool has been enlarged by frozen sperm and embryo exports from the U.S., and by intensive breeding and registration programs in countries such as Australia.
Globally, there are about 1.8 million full-blood wagyu cattle, of which about 96% are in Japan, with Australia having the second highest number of full-bloods, at about 20,000 head. The U.S. boasts the largest number of "purebred" wagyu cattle (about 40,000), which have 93% or more wagyu blood. In addition, there are about 1 million crossbred wagyu around the world, with about half of them in Japan.
In the last decade, Australia has become a major supplier of high-quality boxed wagyu cuts to top restaurants in Asia, Europe and North America, while thousands of young wagyu feeder cattle are exported to Japan every year for fattening and processing. After 400 days or more in a Japanese feedlot, these Australian-bred wagyu can legally be marketed as Japanese.
According to the Australian Wagyu Association, registrations in its wagyu herd book have tripled in the past five years. By April this year the numbers had risen to more than 80,000 head of full-blood and crossbred animals. AWA Chief Executive Matt McDonagh told the association's annual conference in May that within five years he expected Australia would be the definitive source of wagyu information outside Japan.
Meat & Livestock Australia, the national meat research and promotion body, says Australia is the world's biggest beef exporter, shipping almost a million metric tons in 2016 valued at $A8.5 billion. Its biggest markets are Japan, the U.S., South Korea and China, which between them account for about three-quarters of all sales. Of the 265,000 metric tons that Japan bought from Australia in 2016, about 130,000 metric tons were high-value grain-fed beef. A proportion of this was wagyu.
Out of Australia's total cattle population of 27 million, an estimated 1% are wagyu-infused, meaning they have at least 50% wagyu blood. With its potential for massive growth among status-conscious new consumers in Asia, the wagyu sector of the Australian beef industry has attracted some of the country's biggest agribusiness groups, including mining billionaire Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting.
Exports to China
In February this year, Rinehart launched her 2GR brand of full-blood wagyu beef for export to China and other parts of Asia. She has about 8,000 head of prime full-blood wagyu on three cattle stations in western New South Wales, near Dubbo. In May, she followed up by buying Maydan, a 10,000-head feedlot property near Warwick in Queensland where the nation's best wagyu cattle are grain-fed before processing. Jack's Creek cattle, for example, are sent to Maydan for up to 450 days of feeding.
Another significant name in the wagyu trade is the Australian Agricultural Co. (AACo), which is controlled by billionaire British investor Joe Lewis through his Bahamas-based Tavistock Group. AACo, established in 1824, is the oldest continuously operating company in Australia and runs 500,000 head of grass-fed and grain-fed cattle on 7 million hectares in Queensland and the Northern Territory. It runs the world's largest wagyu-infused herd of 50,000 head and describes its Wylarah brand of luxury marbled wagyu as "the best steak you will ever eat."
Its Westholme wagyu stud in southern Queensland originates from what it claims to be the best-credentialed full-blood Japanese black wagyu sires and breeding females to leave Japan.
Westholme, Wylarah and 2GR brands compete in the Australian wagyu trade with names such as Andrews Meat's Tajima, The Phoenix, Stockyard, and Jack's Creek.
The Jack's Creek story started in 1947, when Patrick Warmoll's grandparents Jock and Lola Warmoll began growing crops and grazing cattle on the lush Liverpool Plains. Later, they expanded south to the small town of Willow Tree, where they bought a cattle property known as Big Jack's Creek. Their sons David and Phillip entered the family business in the 1970s, and in 1991 took the plunge into wagyu cattle, cross-breeding them with their black Angus cattle. Phillip's three sons Patrick, Robert and Stuart now work in the business, with Patrick as managing director.
"We became one of the first companies to breed, grow, feed, process and market wagyu beef," Patrick Warmoll told the Nikkei Asian Review. The cattle graze free-range in New South Wales before being sent to a feedlot in southern Queensland for up to 450 days of grain-feeding. The company now ships its wagyu cuts to 20 overseas destinations, including Japan, China and other Asian markets, Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
According to Warmoll, the consistency of Jack's Creek wagyu beef comes from the family's passion for breeding high quality cattle. "You have to love what you do, because when you have a brand, your customers want supply 52 weeks a year," he said.
"Our biggest challenge is dealing with evolving overseas government policies and food safety standards. So it's important for us to have a diversified customer base," he said.
For the record, this is how Patrick Warmoll says the world's best steak should be cooked. Bring the steak to room temperature. Some 20 minutes before cooking, season with salt on both sides. Put the pan on super high heat. Turn or flip the steak every 15 seconds for 3 to 5 minutes or until the meat springs back quickly with a little resistance. Rest the steak, uncovered, for half the time it was cooked.