What is Wagyu, or Kobe Beef?
Have you ever seen the word “Wagyu” or “Kobe” on a menu in a high-end restaurant and wondered what makes this beef so unique? Wagyu is one of the most expensive meats in the world, but for good reason. These unique cows produce such incredibly tender, juicy beef, that it’s earned world renown as being the absolute pinnacle of beefy perfection.
Translated from Japanese, the word Wagyu means literally “Japanese cow”, from “Wa-”, meaning “Japanese”, and “-gyu”, meaning “cow”. Considered one of Japan’s national treasures, Wagyu cattle are bred and raised with the utmost care and attention through every stage of life.
Originally used mostly as draft animals in the early days of Japan’s history, and in fact it was forbidden to slaughter and eat cattle up until the 1800s. Around 1872, Emperor Meiji publicly consumed meat and permitted and encouraged the nation to do the same. From then on, domestic cows were crossbred with foreign breeds to improve the quality and production of the meat, and strict registration guidelines were put into place, giving us the amazing Wagyu beef we enjoy today.
In Japan, four breeds are considered Wagyu cattle - The Japanese Black (the predominant Wagyu exported to the United States), the Japanese Brown or Red Wagyu (also known as Akaushi), and the Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn breeds, both of which are only bred in Japan.
Although the Japanese Black cow makes up most of the Wagyu produced inside and outside of Japan, all four breeds follow the same guidelines and grading system for raising and producing Wagyu beef.
How is Japanese Wagyu raised?
Wagyu calves stay with their mothers until around 7-10 months old, raised by specialty breeders. After this, they go to auction along with a birth certificate certifying their Wagyu bloodline, and are sold to local farmers. As they grow, Wagyu cattle are fed for over 600 days with a carefully selected blend of high-energy ingredients, including hay, grains, and wheat. In their pens, they often share the space with only four or five other cows, and are given plenty of time in the pasture to graze and wander.
Farmers take great care to ensure that their animals don’t become tense, and noise levels are strictly monitored. Stress in cows toughens the muscle and ruins the quality. Wagyu cattle in Japan are also never fed artificial steroids, hormones, or drugs to make them gain weight faster. This means a longer maturation time, but the natural way the cows are fed and raised gives them an incredible quality of life, which translates into supremely delicious meat.
What Makes Wagyu So Special?
The first thing you’ll notice when you look at Wagyu beef is the streaks of white fat marbled throughout the meat. This marbling is what gives meat its tenderness, and Wagyu has just about the most marbling you can find in a cut of beef. In fact, Japanese Wagyu consistently has the highest scores of Intermuscular Fat, or IMF scores, of any beef in the world, with only Japanese beef able to earn the coveted A5 rating that designates it as the best beef you can buy within Japan.
The careful monitoring from birth to harvest of Wagyu cows, including breeding for strong, healthy bloodlines, feeding only healthful foods, and keeping stress to a minimum, all translates into the highest quality finished product. Incredible amounts of effort, time, and money go into ensuring Wagyu cattle have the best life possible, and thus produce the best meat possible.
The texture of Wagyu is unparalleled. Its high fat blog-content and extraordinary marbling gives even lesser cuts a silky, tender, and buttery texture. This meat literally melts in your mouth.
In addition to its succulent texture, Wagyu is one of the most flavorful meats you can eat. Its flavor is incredibly savory and rich, with a deep, uniquely beefy and fatty flavor that has to be tasted to be believed.
So, what is Kobe Beef?
The short answer? All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Kobe beef is actually Wagyu beef that specifically comes from the Kobe region in Japan, raised only in the Hyogo Prefecture, and only from Tajima black breed cattle. Because of this, authentic Kobe beef is extremely rare to find outside Japan.
Wagyu is often labeled as Kobe beef in the United States, even when it isn’t, because the term “Kobe” is not regulated anywhere outside Japan. This leads to a lot of confusion as to whether or not you’re getting genuine Kobe beef when not in Japan. In fact, real Kobe beef has only been imported and distributed to around 50 restaurants in the United States as of Jan, 2022, so you’re much more likely to find regular Wagyu masquerading as Kobe on menus. That’s not to say it isn’t still delicious Wagyu beef, but for the true Kobe experience, you might need to visit one of the few lucky restaurants, or take a trip to Japan!
Where is Wagyu produced?
- A letter grade (A-C), and
- A number grade (1-5).
In Japan, Wagyu cattle are bred and raised all across the country, but there are three main regions that produce what is considered to be the best in Japan. Japan’s “Big Three” include: Hyogo Prefecture, Mie Prefecture, and Shiga Prefecture.
Hyogo produces Kobe beef, arguably the most famous, and regarded around the world as the highest quality beef you can buy. It’s rare to see this beef outside of Japan, and the meat produced by these cows is outstandingly tender and marbled.
From the Mie Prefecture comes Matsusaka beef. Japanese natives consider this region’s Wagyu to be the cream of the crop, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, an even deeper beef flavor than Kobe, and an almost sweet aftertaste.
The Shiga Prefecture is home to Omi beef, the Japanese Wagyu with the longest history, dating back over 400 years. During the Edo period, Omi beef was produced only as a gift to the Shogun. Today, Omi beef remains soft and tender, with balanced and intense marbling and a significantly lower melting point that equates to an incredible melting sensation in the mouth.
Other notable Wagyu brands include Saga beef, Miyazaki beef, and Kagoshima beef. Kagoshima Wagyu actually makes up around 20% of Japan’s total Wagyu production, the highest quantity in the country, and often the most exported. Produced from the Kuroge Washu Japanese Black breed cow, these cattle enjoy a temperate climate with plenty of sun and natural surroundings. Kagoshima Wagyu has a full-bodied flavor and a deliciously tender bite from its rich but balanced marbling.
How is Japanese Wagyu Graded?
Japanese Wagyu is graded into two factors:
The letter grade is given based on how much meat is yielded from the cow at harvest, with a grade of A given for a yield of 72% or more.
The number grade is given based on a few factors, including the color, the quality of the fat, the texture of the meat, and the marbling, based on the Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) score.
The BMS is a scale from 1-12 that determines how well a piece of meat is marbled. To achieve the highest A5 grade, the beef needs to be given an Excellent BMS score, which would put it between 8-12 on the scale.
Only the best of the best Wagyu achieves the top A5 rating, marking it as the highest quality beef in Japan.
First bred in the States in 1975, American Wagyu started with just four Japanese bulls imported from Japan. From there, these four Wagyu steers were bred with local breeds such as Black Angus cows to produce intensely marbled meat, following Japan’s lead with high-quality feed and stress-free environments. In the 1990s, further imports of Red Akaushi and Black breed cattle strengthened American Wagyu bloodlines into the melt-in-your-mouth, delicious beef we know today.
American Wagyu exceeds USDA Prime marbling scores, and often has to be rated on the Japanese Beef Marbling Standard, or BMS score. Wagyu cattle in the United States are normally fed for around 400 days before harvest, with plenty of pasture time. Used in restaurants across the country, and much more common to find in American grocery stores than its foreign counterparts, domestic Wagyu is worth the hype (and the splurge).
Australia is one of the largest producers of Wagyu in the world. With ample land on which to raise cattle, Australia’s Wagyu is rich and buttery, with some natural variations in flavor from the differences in climate and native grasses. Australian Wagyu cattle are fed for 350-450 days before harvest, and have excellent marbling.
Australia has its own systems for grading beef. The first, known as the AUS-MEAT marbling system, is numbered from 0 (no marbling), to 9+ (extraordinary marbling), with Wagyu consistently on the high end. The second system is the MSA Index, which grades the marbling of the meat on a scale from 100-1100.
Okay, but how do I cook Wagyu?
Wagyu has an incredibly low melting point, and is best enjoyed before the fat has had a chance to melt and render completely for that true melt-in-your-mouth texture. Allow your steaks to come to room temperature for around 15 minutes before cooking. Use simple seasonings like salt and a sprinkle of pepper to really allow the taste of the beef to shine. Wagyu is incredibly rich and fatty, and doesn’t require any additional oil or butter to cook. Simply add your Wagyu to a hot pan and sear on each side for 1-2 minutes, or until the meat is cooked to rare or medium-rare, then rest before enjoying.
A5 Wagyu in particular is very, very rich, and a little goes a long way. When serving A5 Wagyu, cut into small cubes or strips and cook and savor one by one for a sublime experience.