As a former food writer, I've eaten a lot of expensive steak. But from the moment I unboxed an A5 Olive Wagyu — a top quality, hard-to-get steak from Japanese cows that are fed toasted olive peels — it was obvious that it stood apart from all the others.
Crowd Cow, an online meat distribution company and the first to import Olive Wagyu to the U.S., sent a 16-ounce, $240 rib eye (in about three pounds of dry ice) so I could put a Wagyu Olympic-winning steak to the test. But more on that later.
A cut above
And then there's Olive Wagyu.
Olive Wagyu is a brand of Wagyu that comes from cattle raised on a small Japanese island called Shodoshima that is famous for its olive oil industry. In 2006, cattle farmer Masaki Ishii wanted to find a way to use the by-product of olive oil production as feed for his cows, according to Joe Heitzeberg, founder of Crowd Cow.
"He went to olive oil makers, took the olive peels and toasted them so they became sweeter and mixed it with rice straw, barley, grains, and the cows loved it," Heitzeberg said. "He shared the recipe with other farmers in the area and they all bought in and started doing it."
Because of the cows' diet, Olive Wagyu is highly marbled with fat that's a light yellow color, and it produces a flavor profile so unique that the meat beat out 182 others for the Best Fat Quality category at the 2017 Wagyu Olympics, a six-day contest that takes place every five years. Beef producers from all over Japan enter their finest cuts.
Because of its origin, Olive Wagyu is also extremely scarce.
Heitzeberg says last year about 2,200 head of Olive Wagyu were harvested with a tiny fraction of that being exported. Now there are 70 producers raising Olive Wagyu, the largest having just 300 head of cattle. Heitzeberg says Ishii currently has just 12.
"Even in Japan, if you go to a Tokyo restaurant for high-end steaks, there is coin toss chance they've even heard about it," Heitzeberg tells CNBC Make It. "It's on the cutting edge of beef geekery."
George Owen, executive director of the American Wagyu Association hasn't even tasted it. "Not on my budget. I can't afford that stuff," he tells CNBC MakeIt.
He has a point.
When available, Crowd Cow sells a 16-ounce A5 Olive Wagyu rib-eye steak on it's website for $240, and Heitzeberg says if Olive Wagyu were on a restaurant menu, a 16-ounce rib-eye would cost about the same as a top-grade Wagyu, or about $480. However Olive Wagyu is nearly impossible to source on a consistent basis, so it is not really sold at restaurants, he says.
"It's basically not available anywhere because of it's limited quantity," he says. Heitzeberg who is fluent in Japanese, says it took him two years of relationship-building to even be able to import the meat through Crowd Cow.
Putting Olive Wagyu to the test
Simon Kim, the owner of Manhattan's Michelin-starred Wagyu beef mecca Cote, where I took the steak to be cooked for the taste test, had only heard about Olive Wagyu.
"I'm always looking for new beef to bring to the restaurant," Kim said as he looked over the inch-thick chunk of meat. "The marbling is beyond sick and visually it's stunning."
Something called oleic acid is part of what gives steak its umami flavor and its texture. It's found in both olive oil and beef fat, so Olive Wagyu has higher than usual oleic acid fat content of 62.5% — the high percentage is reportedly what makes Olive Wagyu tastier and more tender than other cuts of equally expensive beef.
For the taste test, Crowd Cow and Cote provided three cuts of 16-ounce rib eye steaks: American Wagyu (one side of its lineage is full-bred Japanese cow); A5 Japanese Wagyu (Japanese beef is rated from 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest quality, and "A" corresponds to the amount of edible meat on the animal); and A5 Olive Wagyu. Cote's executive chef, David Shim, cut each of the steaks into one-inch squares then Kim sprinkled them with sea salt and cooked them over an open flame to a perfect medium rare.
First up was the American Wagyu, which costs $85 at Cote or about $5 per ounce. Online meat retailer Snake River Farms sells an 8-ounce American Wagyu rib-eye steak for $41. The meat sizzled as Kim laid it on the grill and carefully turned it to ensure a nice char on each side. The American Wagyu was leaner than the others, so the texture was chewier than I'd want in a steak with Wagyu lineage. It wasn't much different than other rib-eye steaks you can get at most decent steakhouses.
The A5 Wagyu, which costs $30 per ounce at Cote, or the equivalent of just over $14 an ounce on Crowd Cow, had incredible fat marbling; I watched it melt out of the steak as it cooked on the grill. It made the meat melt-in-your-mouth tender and incredibly juicy and buttery. The open flame created wonderful crust giving the exterior a nice crunch. But the meat was so rich, I actually couldn't handle eating more than two bites.
Then the Olive Wagyu: The steak, which would cost about $30 an ounce at a restaurant or about $15 an ounce on Crowd Cow, was soft like the A5 Wagyu and incredibly tender — reminiscent of foie Gras. But the flavor profile was notably different. The fat seemed to melt in my mouth, which was was deeply satisfying and full of that elusive umami flavor, and it had hints of olive oil (thanks to the cow's diet). It also left a peppery note in the back of my throat. The aftertaste lingered well beyond each bite. But again, it was so rich I can't imagine eating an entire steak.
Kim, who also tried all three steaks, was impressed by the Olive Wagyu. It's "very much like beef chocolate," he said through a wide grin, referring to the way the meat melted in his mouth.
"You don't' even have to chew. The flavor just continuously goes." The fat "tastes like gold," he says.
But to me, spending hundreds of dollars on an A5 Olive Wagyu is not worth it, at least not if you want to eat more than a couple of ounces. The fat-laden meat is just so rich, it's best served in bite-sized portions. It's more of an experience than a meal, but perhaps that's the point.
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