Two centuries of Japanese beef-raising tradition has merged with contemporary New Zealand farming techniques – with the result that Kiwis can now enjoy the world's tastiest beef, Wagyu beef, in home kitchens and barbecues.
Now available in the country's best restaurants and also aimed at home kitchens and barbecues, Black Origin Wagyu prime beef cuts has been a long time in the making – four years in New Zealand, as well as the aforementioned 200 years perfecting the raising of Wagyu cattle in Japan.
Sam Hooper, general manager of Black Origin, says it grew out of Waitaha Wagyu – a Canterbury company which has grown and marketed the rich, buttery cuts from Japan's Wagyu cattle, widely regarded as the world's premium beef breed – since 2015.
Now the move is being made to channel into New Zealand's restaurants, home kitchens and barbecues – but only after the company is satisfied that the prime beef adheres to the strict quality standards of Wagyu traditions.
"It takes three and a half years to grow a Wagyu animal, says Hooper. "The meat is a delicacy, created through a combination of genetics and the feeding process."
On the farm south of the Rakaia River, cattle start life on pasture, eating grass or hay. They are moved into loafing barns, specifically designed to be hormone- and antibiotic-free with maximum airflow; with sawdust bedding and plenty of room to move around.
A vet monitors conditions and animal health regularly for approximately 420 days. As the cattle move from pasture to barn, they are also carefully transitioned onto a new diet, consisting of only a special blend of New Zealand grain.
This unique, custom blend was created specifically for Black Origin by Japanese Wagyu experts and increases marbling, makes muscle fibre finer, fat whiter, and gives the nutty and elegant Wagyu aroma and taste.
Tokuhiro Nakao, President of the Hyogo Meat Industry Cooperative Association in Japan (and chairman of Black Origin) says he is "very excited about growing Wagyu in the proper, precise Japanese way, in New Zealand's great environment".
It's this combination of Japanese Wagyu mastery, nutrient-rich Canterbury grains and high quality water, direct from the Southern Alps, that goes into making Black Origin such a carefully configured product.
"We've evolved and innovated," says Hooper. "The farm captures 100 per cent of the effluent and is distributed back on the farm and the crops are grown on site, where possible. This creates a bumper crop with huge yield, maximising land productivity and minimising our carbon footprint by reducing freight to farm. The process creates a product similar to Japanese Wagyu in flavour and texture."
The origins of Black Origin stem from Arato Tsujino, originally from Wagyu's home turf of Kobe. Educated at high school in New Zealand, he later returned to Japan and opened a number of successful businesses. Tsujino met Andy Ellis, the 2006-2015 All Black halfback then playing for Kobelco Steelers and who is a partner in Black Origin.
Hooper says Japanese growers have worked on genetics, rearing and feeding methods for 200 years to produce the four accepted Wagyu breeds. He also says Black Origin has already won rave reviews from chefs who have experienced it, calling it the best New Zealand-, Australia- or USA-bred Wagyu.
So as Black Origin Wagyu becomes available in restaurants, and to home cooks through online sales, the company is educating beef fans how to prepare it. The marbling of the animal means cuts traditionally stewed become steak cuts. For instance, chuck – normally made into a stew – is cut into steaks.
"They're beautiful," says Hooper. "If you want to go low and slow, you have the more common brisket and the short ribs, which are amazing, but you can branch out and try the cheek which has outstanding intense flavour and texture.
"If you want to have a good solid barbecue with a bunch of mates, you have your chuck eyes and crosscuts, the sub-prime cuts. If you want to really turn the volume up and get into the premium cuts, you've got beautiful ribeye, fillets and sirloins."
Wagyu has a grading scale based on the intramuscular marbling – as the beef goes up the scale from 3 to 4-5, 6-7 and 8-9, it becomes more highly rated, exclusive and expensive. The premium grades are likely to be reserved for selected restaurants while there will be a choice of price points at supermarkets or online purchasers.
Black Origin might be the new kid on the butcher's block but Hooper holds high hopes for the brand's future – in New Zealand and overseas.
"As time goes on and genetics get stronger, and we start building up on our breeding lines, we're going to be up against Japan for quality.
"Japan still holds the best Wagyu in the world - there's no doubt about that, they've been doing it for a long time. But we're really pushing for the ultimate experience in Wagyu."
Find the range of products on blackorigin.co.nz