Wagyu vs Kobe Beef – Definitive Guide to Japanese Beef

wagyu-vs-kobe-beef

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As a pitmaster, you’ll always be looking for premium ingredients to use in your recipes. Any search for premium steak or beef will quickly see you bombarded with the words Wagyu and Kobe, 

Unfortunately, these words are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. In the worst cases they are used to sell meat that has very little in common with the legendary Japanese beef you’ve heard about.

Genuine Japanese Wagyu or Kobe beef is the best in the world, beautiful marbled, full of umami flavor, and well worth a price that runs from $150 to over $800 a steak. 

However, Wagyu and Kobe have specific meanings that aren’t immediately clear.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what the terms Wagyu and Kobe mean, what the difference is between them, and if they live up to their reputation.

What’s the big difference between Wagyu and Kobe beef?

The first important thing to understand about Wagyu and Kobe beef is that they are basically the same thing with one significant difference. 

The term Wagyu is a combination of two Japanese words, “wa,” meaning Japanese, and the word “gyu,” meaning cow. So, Wagyu literally means Japanese cow. Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.

This is because all Kobe beef comes from the famous Kuroge Washu cattle, allowing it to qualify as Wagyu.

However, Kobe beef is raised in a particular part of Japan under the intensely restrictive criteria of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association.

Think of Wagyu and Kobe beef like wine. If Wagyu beef is an excellent French sparkling wine, then Kobe beef is the finest Champagne. 

Only around 3,000 cattle per year meet all of these restrictions, and each one has its own 10-digit serial number linked to its lineage. This serial number allows its Kobe designation to be validated.

To understand the specific differences between Wagyu and Kobe beef, we are going to have to look at those terms in a little more detail.

What is Wagyu beef?

At a basic level, Wagyu beef, including that marketed as Kobe beef, comes from cattle that produce intensely marbled meat and have reached at least an A5 rating on the Japanse beef grading criteria. 

Wagyu beef has become famous the world over for its fine-grained, speckled fat marbling that runs through the inside of the meat.

This video from Farm to Table gives you a good overview of Wagyu, with a tour of a Wagyu farm and beef processing plant.

The marbling of the Wagyu beef, which spreads throughout the meat, adds to the flavor of the beef and gives it a smooth, melt-in-the-mouth texture when cooked properly.

A5 graded Wagyu and Kobe beef are regarded as some of the best beef in the world.

The history of Wagyu beef

Cattle were traditionally used as draught animals in Japan. The major religions of ancient Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism, both promoted veganism and Emperor Tenmu actually enacted a meat ban in 675 CE.

Over centuries, cattle have been treated like members of the family as only a few head were raised on each farm

http://www.wagyuinternational.com

The Japanese attitude to beef changed with the arrival of the Dutch to the shores of Japan. Foreigners in Japan demanded access to the meat they were used to and imparted the idea that meat was a healthy addition to a daily diet.

In 1872, Emperor Meiji ate meat in public, cementing its place in the Japanese diet and increasing beef consumption by thirteen times in Tokyo alone.

Increasing industrialization, a change in attitudes towards beef, and trade with the rest of the world allowed Japan to start the breeding of what would become Wagyu cattle by combining native strains with European imports.

The varieties of Wagyu Cattle

There are four main varieties of Wagyu, all of which represent cattle that combines European breeds introduced in the 1880s with native Japanese breeds.

Wagyu shorthorn cattle grazing

These four main breeds are:

  • Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu) – Kuroge Washu make up around 90% of all Wagyu beef cattle and are renowned for the marbling of their meat and its melt in the mouth texture. When people outside of Japan refer to Wagyu beef, they are most commonly referring to Kuroge Washu that has reached an A5 score on the Japanese rating system.
  • Japanese Brown (Kassyoku Washu) – The Kassyoku Washu produces leaner milder tasting beef without the extensive marbling on the Kuroge Washu.
  • Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankakushu) – The Nihon Tankakushu is prized in Japan for its lean meat and the savory flavor of its beef, caused by high levels of inosinic and glutamic acids.
  • Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu) – The Mukaku Washu makes up the last of the four types of Wagyu cattle and has a rich gamey taste profile.

While the term Wagyu can apply to any of these breeds of cattle, outside of Japan, it almost exclusively refers to Kuroge Washu. 

How Wagyu is graded

Unlike the USDA system, the Japanese beef grading system uses a letter grade, to indicate yield, and a number grade, to indicate quality.

The yield grade indicates how much meat can be obtained from the most desirable parts of the steer’s carcass. An A-grade means above standard, a B-grade is standard, and a C-grade is below standard.

The quality grade is based on four different factors, marbling, color, texture, and the quality of the animals fat and is graded on a scale of 1 (Poor) to 5 (excellent).

Image courtesy of wagyuinternational.com

This is more complicated than the USDA grading, which only looks at the meat’s marbling.

In addition to the letter and number grading, Wagyu beef is graded on the quality of its marbling. The Beef Marble Score (BMS) runs from 1 (little or no marbling) to 12 (extreme marbling). 

This means that the best Wagyu is rated A5 and, within that scale, A5-12 is the best of the best. Although this quality of beef is both extremely rare and very expensive. 

How Wagyu cattle are raised

Wagyu cattle farms have become infamous for their unusual rearing techniques, including feeding their cattle saké to stimulate their appetite, massaging and brushing them daily, and even playing classical music to them to keep them calm.

“In the hottest months Sake beer is fed to stimulate appetite”

http://www.wagyuinternational.com

While stories of Wagyu cattle being pampered and feed beer at every meal helps to stoke our imagination, many of these practices are not widespread.

It is definitely true that Wagyu cattle are fed higher quality food than cattle in the US.

Wagyu cattle breeding is carefully managed. Japanese Wagyu Registry Association research has suggested that 99.9% of all Kuroge Washu breeding cows can trace their lineage to just one bull, called “Tajiri,” from the 1950s.

The export of live Kuroge Washu cattle and even DNA samples is strictly forbidden by the Japan Livestock Industry Association, although some animals were exported to the USA and Australia during the 1970s.

Now that you know everything about Wagyu cattle, we can explain what makes Kobe beef so special.

What is Kobe Beef?

Kobe Beef is actually a type of Wagyu beef reared in the Hyogo prefecture in Japan. The city of Kobe is the capital of Hyogo prefecture, hence the name.

Kobe became linked to the beef trade because of its strategic position as a port through which beef raised in the south of Japan could be shipped down to Yokohama. 

The city of Yokohama acted as a trade center for the Japanese and traders from across the globe. It had a substantial population of foreigners who massively increased the demand for beef.

Because the beef was shipped from Kobe, the city became inextricably connected with the idea of Japanese beef, despite the meat it was shipping coming from all over southern Japan.

How the Kobe brand came to dominate

In modern Japan, Kobe Beef is a brand name, managed by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association.

The association has stringent guidelines that must be met for any beef coming out of the Hyogo prefecture to be marketed as Kobe Beef.

To be marketed as Kobe beef, the cattle must meet all the following restrictions at the time of slaughter: 

  • Both the producer and slaughterhouse must be paid-up members of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association
  • The steer, or virgin cow, being slaughtered by must be Tajima-Gyu, a particular type of Kuroge Washu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture
  • The steer must be born in Hyogo prefecture
  • The steer must be raised and fed in Hyogo prefecture
  • The beef can only be processed at associated slaughterhouses in the cities of Kobe, Nishinomiya, Sanda, Kakogawa, or Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture
  • Have a meat quality score of 4 or 5 on the JMGA meat grading scale and have Marbling rating (BMS) of 6 or higher on a 12 point scale.
  • The gross weight of beef taken from the animal can be no more than 470 kg

Why is Kobe so expensive?

Outside of Japan, authentic Kobe beef is considered to be the finest Wagyu beef available. The creme de la creme of a breed of cattle already famed for its quality. 

The requirement for all Kobe beef to be A4 or above, with a BMS of more than 6, marks it as some of the best quality beef, with the best marbling, in the world.

The restrictions put on what can be considered Kobe beef put in place by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association mean that it remains rare and the price remains high, up to $500 a steak in Japan.

What are the best Wagyu beef cuts?

1. Filet or Tenderloin

What sets Wagyu beef apart from other breeds is the marbling of the meat. This additional fat, weaved into the lattice of the meat, adds to everything that makes a Filet Mignon steak so amazing. 

Cuts from a Wagyu tenderloin, such as the Chateaubriand, Tournedos, or Medallions, have a well deserved global reputation for being intensely flavorsome and having a soft buttery texture.

2. The Ribeye

Much like the Tenderloin, the Ribeye benefits from the additional marbling that is so characteristic of Wagyu beef. If you are buying USDA graded Wagyu, this is the cut that they use to judge the quality of the whole animal.

3. Strip Steak

Strip steak is one of the most sought after cuts of Wagyu beef in Japan, where the extra marbling of the meat gives them a delicate, juicy, and extraordinarily smooth texture. 

Traditionally this cut is eaten as part of a Shabu-shabu or Sukiyaki in Japan, where it is cooked quickly to preserve that texture.

Read More: Where to buy Wagyu Beef Online

Domestic Wagyu Beef

So far we’ve focused on Wagyu beef coming out of Japan. However, domestic, US raised, Wagyu beef is available. 

Between 1975 and 1997, Japan did allow the purchase of a small number of Kuroge Washu cattle by the US and Australia.

The number of purebred Kuroge Washu animals in the US is tiny, just 0.029% of the total cattle in the US.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service certifies Wagyu beef producers in the US, giving retail buyers a way to identify whether beef advertised as Wagyu actually comes from Kuroge Washu animals.

How does American Wagyu compare to Japanese Wagyu?

Pretty much any Japanese person will tell you that there is no comparison between authentic Wagyu beef from Japan and that raised in the rest of the world. As with most food, however, the difference is mostly subjective.

The only measurable difference between US Wagyu and Japanese Wagyu is how strict the certification process is. The Japanese grading system is more rigorous and looks at more variables than the USDA system.

In Japan, Kuroge Washu animals must come for 100% Kuroge Washu percentage, while the USDA Wagyu certification only requires them to be a minimum of 46.875% pure Japanese blood.

US and Australian beef producers do not use the same rearing methods as their Japanese counterparts and the food, soil, and environment the cattle are raised in are distinctly different. 

That’s not to say that American Wagyu isn’t a great product. Retailers like Snake River Farms have gained a reputation for their American Wagyu beef, especially their Wagyu brisket.

Image courtesy of snakeriverfarms.com

Snake River Farms use a Wagyu/Angus cross and utilize many aspects of Japanese feeding methods which can take up to four times longer than traditional U.S. cattle production. They also follow the Japanese marbling scale.

The best option is to try both Japanese and American Wagyu and pick the one you think tastes best.

What about domestic Kobe Beef?

There is no such thing as domestic Kobe beef! 

Five out of the seven requirements to be certified as authentic Kobe beef involves being raised, fed, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture and being part of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.

A vanishing small amount of authentic Kobe beef makes its way to the US, so if you are being offered “Kobe” beef at less than around $200 per portion, you are probably being lied to.

Watch out for fake Wagyu and Kobe!

In Japan, Wagyu beef certification is very strictly enforced, and Kobe is a brand name, meaning it is challenging to pass anything off as Wagyu or Kobe without getting caught.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in the US. High-profile restaurants, such as Old Homestead Steakhouse, Le Bernardin, and McCormick & Schmick’s has all been outed for erroneously claiming to serve Kobe beef.

Until recently no Kobe beef was sold at retail in the US, and only eight restaurants in the whole country served it.

Now there are a few select retailers like Holy Grail Steak Company that sells a range of imported Japanese Wagyu and Kobe beef (at premium prices).

Holy Grail Steak Co SHOP NOW Holy Grail Steak Co We may earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no extra cost to you.

Wagyu is also not a perfect indicator of quality.

Beef served in restaurants as Wagyu can be sold as such with very little Wagyu DNA in it or it may come from one of the non-Kuroge Washu breeds of Japanese cattle.

Most restaurants serving real Wagyu beef will be able to tell you the percentage of Wagyu that it is and what breed it is if they can’t give you that information, best to not spend out on it.

Remember, USDA regulations require 46.9% Wagyu genetics for beef sold at retail. So, if you are buying Wagyu, look for that certification.

Great beef, as long as it’s genuine

Wagyu and Kobe beef has a reputation for excellence for a reason. Unfortunately, it is precisely that reputation that leads the unscrupulous to take advantage of the general lack of understanding around Japanse beef to pass off inferior meat.

Now you know what the terms mean and what kind of certification to look for, you won’t be caught out by promises of a $20 “Kobe” beef burger at your local steakhouse.

Do you think Wagyu beef lives up to its reputation? Is domestic Wagyu just as good as anything from Japan?

We’d love it if you’d drop us a comment below and let us know your thoughts!

Joe Clements

Joe Clements

As the son of a vegeterian, I grew up dreaming about meat. Now as the founder and editor in chief of Smoked Barbecue Source I get to grill, barbecue and write about meat for a living! I'm sharing everything I learn along the way on my journey from amateur to pitmaster.
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