Half a world away from the secretive farms that produce Japan's legendary Kobe beef, Jerry Wilson raises the American version of the meat that will become $50 steaks and $13 burgers.
The chocolatey brown cattle at Wilson's Meadows Farm don't technically produce Kobe beef -- that term is reserved for the Japanese super high-end cut famous for its succulent taste and eye-popping prices. Wilson calls his meat "American Style Kobe Beef." Other ranchers use similar names like "Kobe-style beef" or "wagyu beef," a reference to the breed of cattle.
Whatever the name, domestic production of the pricey product has grown from practically nothing a dozen years ago to a flourishing boutique niche, with recent growth fueled in part by a ban on Japanese beef because of reports of foot-and-mouth disease. While American ranchers might not be able to match the mystique of Japanese Kobe and much of the domestic product is crossbred, they say their product compares to the legendarily luscious stuff.
"We can get through any door we want," said Wilson, watching his high-priced herd crowd a bucket of barley dumped on the ground. "All we have to do is a taste test."
Kobe is to beef what a Maserati is to sports cars: the epitome of pricey, exclusive luxury item. Steaks can retail for more than $100 at high-end restaurants and specialty stores. Don't look for it plastic-wrapped in the meat aisle of your local supermarket.
Kobe is fatty, but not in a bad way. The thin veins are laced in so uniformly that cuts really do look like marble. Wagyu meat has a higher proportion of unsaturated fat -- the "good" kind of fat -- when compared to meats from other breeds. It's the fat that helps give the beef a flavor and mouth melt that sends tasters to the thesaurus in search of adjectives like velvety, scrumptious, silky and savory.
"You mention fat and it's like saying 'rat poison.' We've been conditioned to believe that all fat that you eat is bad. And that's simply not true, especially with wagyu," said Robert Estrin, co-owner of Lone Mountain Ranch Cattle Co. in Golden, N.M. Estrin raises "full blood" or 100 percent wagyu cattle.
There are about 150 U.S. producers in the American Wagyu Association, many of them with 25 head or less, said Michael Beattie, executive director of the industry group. The largest, Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Farms, slaughters 10,000 to 15,000 head of wagyu a year -- a very thin slice of total annual U.S. commercial slaughter of around 34 million.
Snake River's Jay Theiler said their wagyu business is growing about 20 percent a year, with growth coming not only from steaks, but from hamburger, hot dog and barbecue meat.
U.S. officials stopped the import of meat from Japan last year after the foot-and-mouth disease reports. So connoisseurs dropping $145 for a pair of 12-ounce wagyu rib-eyes are likely purchasing from a domestic producer or from Australia.
Most American wagyu can be traced back to a small herd that came over from Japan in the '90s. Many of the animals were crossbred with Angus and Hereford cattle, which diluted the breed's unique attributes. At the Meadows farm southeast of Syracuse, all the steer they kill for meat are "purebred," or more than 93.75 percent wagyu. But farm manager Tod Avery said that not all wagyu sold to consumers has the same level of quality.
"They think Kobe is Kobe," Avery said. "They have no idea."
U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines do not permit the use of the term "Kobe" alone to describe American-grown wagyu beef, but labels like "American Style" or "American Brand Kobe Beef" are OK. And beef that comes from cattle crossbred with Angus or other breeds needs to be labeled as such.