MAKING THE GRADE: A Day with Nebraska’s Imperial Wagyu Beef
Published on Tue, 09/29/2015 - 1:56pm
Story and Photos by Jessica Clem
It was a Japanese military leader who predicted that Wagyu beef would power soldiers through war, and give them vital energy to fight for hours. An animal that once was utilized to tend rice fields and serve as an agricultural asset slowly became the key in sustaining farmers and soldiers alike with their healthy and delicious meat.
But the Japanese are not uninformed consumers. They recognized that quality of care and tedious feeding programs would be crucial to the quality of the final product: deep red cuts of beef, with luscious fat ribboning throughout.
It was here that a specialized care program was developed and the Wagyu name (which literally means “Japanese cattle”) became associated with high-quality and luxurious cuts of beef.
It was a farmer named Greg Muller who showed us these animals, right here in the Midwest. The dust of Iowa and that big sky confirmed that these Wagyu cows weren’t in Japan anymore. American farmers noticed the demand for quality beef and began to implement breeding programs for these cattle here in the States. One company in particular is known throughout the nation for the promotion of high-quality Wagyu cattle and sound animal care, an ever sought after business practice.
Welcome to Imperial Wagyu Beef.
In 2004, seven cattle producers came together with a similar vision in mind. “Imperial was started by a group of gentleman with years of experience in the cattle industry,” said Tami Tibben, Vice President of Imperial. “One of them, who owned a feed yard, had been feeding Wagyu calves and recently acquired some of his own. The group got to talking and decided, ‘let’s create a beef company and produce the finest beef available.’ So the mission began.”
These men wanted to create a company that demanded the very best in beef. And we aren’t talking about any ordinary ribeye. These producers wanted to open the eyes of the American consumer to the absolute pleasure of quality beef, along with all the heath benefits-Omega-3s and monounsaturated fatty acids-that are provided. Before they could operate, they had to nail down the process of selecting the genetics for the best Wagyu cattle possible.
Each animal had to be selected from authentic Japanese bloodlines, under the careful eye of the Wagyu breed registry, which tracks each animal’s lines for authenticity and performance. This stringent monitoring, and an equally strict feeding program, has given these producers the ability to consistently produce a marbled, tender, leave-your-wife-for-it cut of beef.
“Being very passionate about this plan, their vision included a holistic approach to offer the beef to the finest chefs, consumers & beef connoisseurs around the world,” said Tibben. “They wanted others to enjoy the ultimate dining experience for special times, whether at a restaurant or at home with family and friends.” Lawrence Adams and Joe Hoye were elected as the original managing partners, molding the concept of Imperial with the help of their first employee, Tami Tibben.
In 2005, their hard work paid off and Imperial planted its name in the rich soil of Nebraska. Five of the original partners remain, with Tibben added as a partner in 2013.
What makes Imperial truly unique is the focus of one mission, to provide the best Wagyu beef, from American cattle on local soil, while respecting the ancient, prized feeding tradition of Japanese Wagyu programs. “Imperial owns Full Blood Sires, which are sold or leased to producers across the nation,” said Tibben. “This ensures the genetics are of the quality that we expect.” All the beef is raised here in the States on family farms, giving consumers a chance to enjoy local beef bred with the finest bloodlines from across the Pacific.
10 years later, I was walking through Muller Farms in Clarinda, Iowa, watching the relaxed cattle graze and laze about, invited as a guest on the 2015 Behind the Scenes Event. This three-day event is an opportunity for Imperial to showcase the conditions of the cattle to producers and customers, and show the process and details that go behind feeding and care.
A variety of professionals were present, including chefs and writers, from all over the country. Producers, customers, associates and ranchers from Minnesota to Florida joined to see the condition of their animals and enjoy the fruits of their investment: happy cattle and delicious beef.
Muller Farms has been feeding and tending to cattle for nearly 150 years, and the general ease of the environment showcases their knowledge. They began feeding Imperial’s Wagyu cattle in 2007, with breeding programs to follow in 2008.
“These animals are meant to be outside in the fresh air,” said Greg Muller, watching as the cattle walked to and from the water containers. “They are built to withstand the heat and cold, and they really enjoy being outside throughout all seasons.” These cattle enjoy the sun and sky daily; a veritable paradise. Imperial has built its business on the importance of ethically raising and treating their cattle. “We chose to humanely raise the cattle outdoors on sustainable farms with no growth promotants or hormones because we feel that’s the right way to do it,” said Tibben.
400 days. That is how long it takes for Wagyu cattle to eat it their way through the mandatory feeding program. There are 13 lots on the Muller Farms, housing animals on a variety of feeding schedules. Calves, who are primarily crossbred with Angus mothers and Wagyu fathers, are raised on their mother’s milk, walking about on the grass till they are weaned and enter the Imperial feeding program. Each animal consumes nearly 31 pounds of feed per day. Over 100 bales of hay are consumed yearly, which are locally sourced and baled. If the bales aren’t from the Muller Farms, they are from close neighbors.
We could smell lunch cooking from the minute we stepped off the bus. Smoked Wagyu tri-tip perfectly tender with thick rivers of fat melting through each bite. The taste of Wagyu is something bordering on ethereal. The succulent fat cuts the chew of the beef, creating a variety of textures and tastes. To accompany, baked beans, chips, a variety of sodas, and ice-cold Michelob Ultras. “The best way to convert a non-Wagyu consumer is a taste test,” said Michael Beattie, Executive Director of the American Wagyu Association. “You don’t need salt or pepper. The taste is to die for.”
After lunch we continued our tour around the farm. One can sense the ease of these cattle’s daily lives throughout each paddock. Complete with water sprayers and wind blocks, these cattle enjoy an open-air existence. And this is just as important in the quality of the meat.
“We take pride in the conditions of our lots,” said Greg, showing us the variety of tools they use to keep the paddocks clean. “We use a box blade that scrapes the entire pen of manure, and we then use that to spray on our corn and bean fields.”
It was a beautiful day on the way to and from Clarinda, the bus rolled through rivets of cornfields, their stalks bowing and swaying in the wind. Our day began with breakfast and an incredible lunch, the very finest in barbeque available. But we were in for an exceptional treat: The 2015 Behind the Scenes Event Dinner at the Magnolia.
The vision of Imperial is to be the most trusted source of Wagyu beef available, and to provide the utmost dining experience for all consumers. This vision was evident all day, but particularly clear throughout each course that evening. Appetizers included Wagyu meatballs, dipped in a savory sauce and velvety in texture. Skewers of beef were complimented by fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, zucchini and red onion. Slivers of rare Wagyu lounged seductively on pieces of crunchy bread, dotted with garlic and tomato. I could have died happy at that point, but the real heart of the meal was yet to come.
Each table in the dining room was decorated beautifully, with bottles of red and white wine on each. The spring salad and seafood risotto were lovely, but I was ready for more of the good stuff.
I was a steak Carpaccio virgin until that night, and what a way to lose it. Thin strips of raw Wagyu glistened under a veil of olive oil, naked in all their glory. The marbling spanned throughout each paper-thin slice. The taste? Exceptionally mellow, rich and tender, and gave me a primal sense of urgency when eating it, lest a predator come along and snag it from me.
When the Reserve Wagyu Beef Tenderloin hit the table, it was almost delicate in presentation. As red as the flesh of a plum, the beef nearly melted upon contact with my mouth. Served on a bed of greens, this dish was, in my opinion, the understated star of the show. And should be, as the Reserve grade of Wagyu beef is a scoring of over 10 on the marbling scale.
Finally, the Signature Wagyu New York Strip Steak glided onto the table.
Enhanced with a puff pastry dotted with sautéed mushrooms, this steak was a perfect finale to a Wagyu dinner. The richness of the steak was cut with the sudden, savory taste of fat, blending together to create amnesia of the palate that made me forget all the other steaks I had ever known.
Though the meal was one of the highlights of the day, there was a sense of community and care that was present throughout all the events. Imperial’s deep focus on quality and care of the animals was seen through the way that Muller Farms prize lot conditions, all the way to the excitement in the voices of customers from around the country.
Their products are sold to fine dining restaurants, upscale butcher shops and various other commercial establishments. “Our business model was designed to wholesale the product to protein distributors,” said Tibben. “Specialty distributors in several major cities are our biggest buyers. Specialty distributors focus on selling niche premium products, such as ours, to high-end restaurants, caterers, hotels, butchers, etc.”
Their products are also available to be purchased online by general consumers. Through hard work and dedication to top quality beef, Imperial Wagyu Beef will be a force in the Wagyu scene for years to come.
Contact Imperial Wagyu Beef at 402-426-8512, online at www.ImperialWagyuBeef.com, or email cattle@ImperialWagyuBeef.com. You can also find them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ImperialWagyuBeef) and Twitter (twitter.com/imperialwagyu).
This article first appeared in Food & Spirits Magazine. Reprinted with permission.