Now that you know the popular types of steak cuts, the next thing to learn are the different grades of beef.
Most beef produced in the world is graded for quality. Beef quality refers to the expected eating characteristics (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor) of the cooked product.
This grading is typically done by a government agency. Grading not only helps ensure the quality of the beef you buy but is also a powerful marketing tool for the beef industry. High grade beef sells for many times the price of lower grade beef.
Degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade.
The quality grade of beef is based on the amount of intramuscular fat or “marbling” found intermingling within the meat. The greater the quantity of “marbling,” the better the taste, the juicier the bite and the higher the grade.
The local market for beef is still small so most of the premium cuts sold in restaurants in the Philippines are imported from Australia, New Zealand, United States, and the European Union.
Each country grades their beef differently. Some use labels like “Choice”, while others use letters and numbers like “A4”. Local restaurants tend to mix-and-match these grades in their menus which can confuse the steak novice.
Premium steaks are usually evaluated based on one of three beef quality grading systems. Either from the United States, Australia, or Japan. So let’s break each one down.
The United States Department of Agriculture (or USDA), separates beef into eight different grades. The top five are sold to the consumer as cuts of beef, while the three lowest grades are typically only used for processed meats and canned meats.
Prime grade is the highest quality distinction awarded to cattle. It has a high degree of marbling and very flavorful when cooked. A USDA Prime cut is pretty rare (pun). Only 2% of all the cattle raised in the United States make the grade annually. These expensive cuts are destined almost exclusively for hotels and fine dining restaurants.
It’s important to point out that not all Prime grade beef is created equal. While Prime is a great assurance of flavor, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee the other most significant factor to selecting a great steak: tenderness. Other attributes must be considered, such as how fine the marbling is and how well and evenly distributed it is throughout the meat.
Do not mistake Prime and “prime rib.” Prime is a quality rating given by the USDA. A “prime rib” is a cut of beef from the rib section of a cow. While historically known as a “prime rib,” the USDA does not require the cut “to be derived from USDA Prime grade beef.”
Choice grade is the second-highest meat quality grade.
It’s still a high quality beef but has less marbling, less flavor and less juicy than Prime. If prepared well, it’ll still taste excellent. So if you’re on a budget, this is a good choice. Get it?
Select grade beef is slightly marbled but mostly lean.
It’s going to be tough to chew and will taste dry if not prepared properly. A marinade is usually needed to help tenderize and make the meat more flavorful. And then you’ll probably still need to sprinkle lots of salt and bathe it in sauce or gravy to enjoy it.
Typically served in lower-end steakhouses because it can be sold cheap.
Standard and Commercial grades are often sold as “ungraded” or by a grocery store brand in the US. These grades definitely need to be marinated with a good tenderizing agent to make it tolerable enough to eat.
Utility, Cutter and Canner grades are very rarely sold as cut meat. Often it is used for ground beef or in canned products ranging from corned beef to dog food! If you’re eating something made from ground beef, it might be good to ask what grade of meat it was made from.
Restaurants generally only sell the three highest grades. High-end steakhouses only serve USDA Prime and/or Choice.
Aside from seeing “USDA Prime” or “USDA Choice,” you also might see “Grade 6 Ribeye” on the menu. This means the meat was probably imported from Australia and is graded differently.
When calculating the MSA grade for beef, a number of attributes are measured such as meat color, marbling, fat depth, carcass weight, maturity and pH.
Restaurants don’t focus on the overall MSA grade though, but prefer to promote just the marbling attribute.
Two standards are used in combination to measure marbling.
The AUS-MEAT Marbling system provides an indication of the amount of marbling in beef. It uses a scale of 0 (no intramuscular fat) to 9 (extreme amounts of intramuscular fat) in increments of 1.
The Aussies don’t just want to know how much marbling is present. The MSA marbling system provides an additional indication of distribution and piece size of the marbling. You want marbling like fine little dots spread around evenly everywhere.
The MSA marbling system is graded on a scale of 100 (no intramuscular fat) to 1190 (extreme amounts of intramuscular fat) in increments of 10.
Since the assessment criteria are different for both standards, both the AUS-MEAT and MSA scores are provided.
Being only a few years old in Australia, the MSA marbling standard is fairly new and I haven’t seen beef being marketed with this scale locally. The older AUS-MEAT marbling standard seems to still be the norm.
But you never know. From a marketing perspective, a “Grade 400” steak sounds better than “Grade 5” even though the latter is higher, so it’s good to know the difference.
Japan doesn’t mess around when it comes to beef. They have the highest and strictest standard of all the countries. The grading of meat is managed by the JMGA (Japanese Meat Grading Association) Beef Carcass Grading Standard.
The overall grade consists of two grades: Yield Grade (designated by a letter) and Quality Grade (designated by a number).
Yield Grade measures the amount of usable meat on a carcass and range from A (the highest) to C (the lowest).
Quality grade is calculated by evaluating four different factors: 1) meat marbling 2) meat color and brightness 3) meat firmness and texture and 4) fat color, luster and quality.
Each factor is grade from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score.
The quality grade is VERY strict!
In the quality grade, the lowest score from the four factors is used. In other words, even if a 5 was given to meat marbling, meat color/brightness, and meat firmness/texture, but fat color/luster/quality was a 3, the quality grade of this beef would be classified as a 3.
Beef are classified into 15 grades from the bottom end C1 to the top end A5.
In restaurants, you’ll normally only see the top three grades offered (labeled in green).
A3 will suffice if you’re craving a steak. A4 beef are for special occasions.
The highest grade A5 are for those really special occassions like when you forget your significant other’s birthday or when you’re feelin’ YOLO! A steak that is graded an A5 is really expensive and if you eat it, you’ll never want to go back to a lower grade beef. You’ve been warned.
Beef Marbling Standard
Aside from seeing “Wagyu A4” or “Wagyu A5”, you might also see “Grade 10 tenderloin” on the menu.
When numbers get that high, the restaurant is referring to the Beef Marbling Standard (BMS).
While marbling is rated between 1 to 5 as part of the Quality Grade, BMS breaks it down even further with a rating from 1 to 12, with 12 being the highest score.
|Quality Grade||BMS No.|
|5: Excellent||8 – 12|
|4: Good||5 – 7|
|3: Average||3 – 4|
|2: Below average||2|
Here’s how marbling looks like for each rating.
That’s why even if the highest grade of A5 is achieved, its marbling can still vary from No. 8 to No.12.
Talk about precision!
Whether you order an A4 or A5 beef, the overall quality is already established so what you want to focus on is the actual BMS score.
A good piece of Wagyu like Kobe beef usually ranks around 10.
A score of 12 is extremely rare. Even in Japan. It’ll probably cost an arm and a leg also. And I’m not just talking about the cow’s.
If you’re curious about how a BMS 12 steak looks like in real life…
Dam yum! Notice how the meat is practically snow white from all the intense marbling!
If you see grades of 8 or higher locally, and the restaurant is basing it on the Japanese standard, I’d be really skeptical.
Such high scores require beef from fullblood Wagyu and that’s usually only possible if the meat came from Japan. Which is highly unlikely, given that Philippines banned importing beef from Japan until recently.
The chart below gives a general comparison between the grading systems of the three countries.
I focused on marbling because that’s what is popularly promoted by restaurants.
Notice how some beef grades from Japan are literally off the charts for US and Australian standards!
That’s because Japan has Wagyu beef.
Wagyu beef is generally regarded as the highest grade due to its extreme levels of marbling.
An A5 grade with BMS 11 or 12 is extremely rare. Not as rare as spotting a unicorn. But pretty darn close.
Other breeds of cattle can’t even compare to Wagyu in terms of marbling. Angus beef averages a BMS of 2 but reaches a maximum BMS of 5.
On the other hand, Wagyu cattle averages BMS 4-6 but depending on genetics, nutrition, and age at time of slaughter, can go all the way up to BMS 11-12.
Kobe beef must have at least BMS 5 (or A4). USDA Prime, what you’ll find at most high-end steakhouses, has the equivalent BMS score of 4-5. USDA Choice has a BMS 2-4 score.
Notice the difference in marbling between a USDA Choice NY Strip and a Wagyu A5 Grade NY Strip.
Before Wagyu arrived in Australia, the highest marbling score for beef was 6, since few cattle ever exceeded a score of 3!
Due to fullblood Wagyu, the highest marble score has been raised to 9. There are times when even that level is breached by Australian Wagyu. The score is simply called “9+” and is considered close to the quality of A5, the top Japanese grade.
When ordering Wagyu at a restaurant, ask questions. That Wagyu may not really be Wagyu.
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