How many words can you think of to describe the taste, aroma and texture of beef?
Incredibly, a team of tasters and scientists has come up with around 800.
That’s as many as are used in the famously wordy world of wine.
Trent Robson is the chef at a leading steak restaurant in Brisbane and even he could only think of a handful.
“Absolutely, it’s a surprise,” he said.
“Eight hundred words to describe beef… the general public would put it down to three or four.”
University of Queensland sensory scientist Heather Smyth had the job of finding all the words to describe wagyu, the most expensive beef produced in Australia.
“I’ve done some ripper projects over my years but this would be one of my highlights,” Dr Smyth said.
“The [tasting] panel were absolutely excited when they heard they got to be tasting wagyu, premium wagyu at that.”
Steak that sells for $200 a kilogram
Wagyu is a Japanese beef breed prized for its fine ribbons of marbled fat. It can sell for hundreds of dollars a kilogram.
Dr Smyth’s expert palate and nose can detect what most of us can’t.
“Roasted, caramelised, brassica, barnyard, white pepper, cheesy and fresh bread crust are [just some] of the flavours we can sense in the beef,” she said.
“We know there are around 800 flavour volatiles that are present in wine, which create the diverse bouquets you experience across all the different varieties, so in beef there is a similar number of flavours.”
Tasters tried dozens of two-by-two-centimetre squares of wagyu to determine exactly what those 800 words were.
Brisbane woman Tamami Kawasaki is regularly asked to bring her fine palate into the tasting laboratory.
She insists it’s a tougher job than you’d think.
“We get to taste all sort of food but sometimes you’re so focused, you can’t even enjoy it because you have to describe what it’s like,” she said.
A point of difference in the market
Dr Smyth put the 800 words together on a flavour wheel.
She has done similar wheels for the seafood, coffee, native foods and wine industries, but her wagyu wheel is a world first for the beef industry.
“Genetics of the animal, the region that it was grown, the way it was processed, all of those different factors that create these flavours are then released upon cooking,” Dr Smyth said.
Australia’s biggest beef producer, Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), commissioned the research.
It believes providing chefs with a tool to better describe the eating qualities of wagyu will help it stand out in the high-end dining market.
“Chefs are always looking for a point of difference and the flavour wheel helps them when they think about planning menus,” AACo CEO Hugh Killen said.
“Not all chefs really understand wagyu versus other types of beef,” he said.
“The flavour wheel will help explain and give a reference point in terms of flavour and mouthfeel.”
Mr Robson said having a deeper understanding of the taste and smell of different cuts with varying fat levels would help chefs match side dishes and wine to deliver a superior dining experience for discerning customers.
“There are definitely beef lovers out there that can taste the difference in the different cuts and different scores,” he said.
AACo hopes its investment in the flavour research will boost sales here and overseas, adding to a 20-per-cent increase in wagyu sales last year.
Dr Smyth would like to see more parts of the food industry invest in flavour science.
“Consumers already think Australian product is amazing,” she said.
“Let’s get on board and try and describe what our point of distinctiveness is in Australia … and communicate that to the rest of the world.”