Wagyu vs Kobe Beef – Definitive Guide to Japanese Beef

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

The term Wagyu is not exclusive to Japanese beef. Wagyu is commonly used to describe Japanese cattle breeds or cattle raised in accordance with Japanese methods.

Wagyu actually refers to the type of cattle that are bred using traditional Japanese methods. The name literally means Japanese breed.

The word “hybrid” is derived from combining the words “hybrid” and “American.”

Currently, there are four beef breeds raised in the U.S. that are considered true Wagyu:

  • The Japanese Black cattle breed;
  • The Japanese Brown cattle breed;
  • The Japanese Polled cattle breed;

The Japanese Shorthorn cattle breed.

The term Kobe beef refers only to the beef from Tajima cattle breeds raised primarily in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan.

The Tajima cattle breeds are devoted to producing the highest quality beef and are raised using traditional production methods. Tajima cattle are smaller and the meat that comes from Tajima bulls is often considered the most tender beef in the world.

This means that Kobe beef, unlike regular Wagyu beef, comes from strictly defined production areas, producers, and methods. If a producer were to deviate from any of the rules, they could lose the official Kobe beef branding rights.

What is Wagyu beef?

Wagyu beef is a Japanese brand of beef cattle that comes from two cattle breeds from two different prefectures: the Japanese Black (iwagyu) and Japanese Brown (ushi), which were interbred to create the modern Japanese wagyu.

The history of Wagyu beef

Wagyu cattle and humans have a long history together. Legend has it that humans first started to consume and make use of this breed of cattle about 1000 years ago.

Anywhere from thousands to hundreds of years before that, humans started to retain and breed the wild Japanese black cows.

These were the wild cows which are still found today in the wild on the main Japanese island of Honshu.

Over the years and generations, the Japanese have honed the raising and breeding of these cattle to produce the finest meat and the most sought-after beef.

The Japanese have a long history of consuming beef, but most of it was beef from local breeds as opposed to Wagyu.

One reason for this was for religious reasons as beef was associated with Buddhism.

Even throughout the history of Japan, beef was not consumed by the Japanese in excess or regularly. The more important kind of cattle was the oxen used for agricultural purposes.

But in the last 100 years, there has been a bit of a rise to the consumption of beef across Japan.

Today, Kobe beef accounts for only 5% of all beef consumed in Japan, while the rest is made of various breeds of local Wagyu.

The varieties of Wagyu Cattle

Wagyu is the name that is given to the beef that comes from the traditional Japanese beef cattle. Wagyu is derived from the word “Wa” which means “Japanese” and the word “Gyu” which means “cow”.

Wagyu cattle come from different breeds such as the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, and Japanese Polled. They can also be separated into two major groups “purebred Wagyu” and “hybrid Wagyu”.

Although detailed origin and classification data is contradictory, the best approximation of the classification of Wagyu beef cattle can be illustrated as below:

  • Japanese Black – 25-30 % of the total Wagyu population
  • Japanese Brown – 25-30 % of the total Wagyu population
  • Japanese Shorthorn – 20-30 % of the total Wagyu population
  • Japanese Polled – 10-20 % of the total Wagyu population

How Wagyu is graded

Wagyu beef comes from the Tajima strain of cattle. This breed is the most popular type of Wagyu beef in the world. It is a very common belief that Japanese Wagyu is one breed. This is not true. All Wagyu cattle are pampered and revered in Japan, but the name which cattle fall into depends on their breed, production technique and the area they are raised in.

In Japan, there are four main types of Wagyu beef:

  • Zusetsu – Fullblood Wagyu (100 percent Wagyu)
  • Hakusyu – Fullblood Wagyu (100 percent Wagyu)
  • Bafyaku -hyakushu – Wagyu-F1 Hybrid Beef
  • Bafyaku-dewasaku – Wagyu- Holstein F1 Hybrid Beef

And that’s why it’s called Wagyu beef. Wagyu is a brand name by the Wagyu Association of America and is synonymous with Kobe beef. Only purebred cattle meet this criteria to be called Kobe beef, which is why WAGYU is so well known.

Nakajima beef is the most commonly available type of Wagyu beef in the United States.

How Wagyu cattle are raised

Wagyu beef cows are not fed grains, but rather, they are entirely grass fed. They are allowed to roam the countryside freely, enjoy natural sunlight, and have positive, stress free life. This ensures the best beef in terms of taste and texture.

For every three cows fed, one of them will be selected to become a special grade Kobe or Wagyu cow. The most favored parts of the cow include the Tajima Back Rib, the Marbled Loin, the Rib Eye, the Chuck and the Loin.

The Tajima Back Rib is the premium cut of Wagyu, it is prepared by the Matsusaka Beef Association and will fetch a very high price. Only a small number of cows are raised yearly due to the costly nature of this process. The cattle are raised in a very natural setting, and it is estimated that only about 0.5% of all Wagyu cattle qualify to be considered the Tajima or Matsusaka grade.

The cattle are fed exclusively on grain for about 35 months or longer. The grain feeding ensures the fat content of a cow’s meat to increase by about 20%.

After about 35 months, the cow, which has grown to its full maturity, will be slaughtered.

What is Kobe Beef?

Kobe beef is a high grade of beef in Japan. It is produced using Tajima (Wagyu) cattle raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. The meat is also often simply referred to as wagyu …

Wagyu comes from two words, “wagyuu” and “gyu”, which mean “Japanese cow” and “beef”, respectively.

The breed originated in the 13th century and was imported from Japan to the USA in 1985.

A Wagyu beef product must be graded through a grading system that is administered by a certification body and is traceable through a detailed birth certificate.

The Japanese Beef Grading Association (JAGA or JA) was established in 1951 and is the largest of such associations in the world, and it is responsible for the grading standards of wagyu products.

According to JAGA, most beef available in the United States that is labeled as Kobe beef is not genuine Kobe beef.

How the Kobe brand came to dominate

Kobe beef is made from the finest Japanese Wagyu cattle, a very special breed of cattle that demands a great deal of attention and care. Only the top 3% of Wagyu cattle qualify as Kobe beef, as they are fed beer and massaged daily by skilled handlers. The cattle are also fed a special diet of hay, rice straw and soybeans.

The Wagyu cattle were bred with Devon cattle from the UK in the 1960s and the offspring became known as Kobe beef, after the city of Kobe where they were reared.

Kobe beef got its first international exposure during the 1980s when it was featured in Gucci advertisements. During this time, Wagyu cattle were highly prized but expensive, and Japan’s main beef supplier, the USA, was locked in a trade war with Japan. In response to the trade war, Japanese beef was substituted with Australian beef on the Japanese market. Of course, not all beef was equal. Company A could sell Australian beef fresh from the refrigerator for  A1000 per kilo, while Company B could sell the same product to the same restaurant for  A660 per kilo.

Why is Kobe so expensive?

The Kobe beef origins are written on the world map at its very beginning. Documented way back in the 8th century, the legend goes that a shogunate soldier by the name of Tajimara Oinosuke noticed in the town of Tajima that the cows in the area were particularly well-marbled.

He ordered that they be kept alive and began the tradition that when one of them died, its carcass would be delivered to the imperial family for consumption.

The practice evolved over time, and the cattle produced by this village became sought after by the Emperors of Japan and the nobility of feudal lords, so that the tasty and exquisitely tender beef would not be enjoyed by everyone. To protect the quality of the beef, the town in which the cattle were bred was closed to the public to avoid mixing the breed with others that would degrade its quality.

Fast-forward to the year 1868, when all feudal domains were abolished in Japan. The law was passed to open the village and its residents were told that they could now sell their beef as they pleased.

The news was a bit unexpected, but it signaled the beginning of a great business opportunity and opportunity is what one man in particular realized.

What are the best Wagyu beef cuts?

Wagyu beef comes from the legendary Japanese cows. This distinctive type of Kobe beef comes from animals that have been bred for more than 300 years to produce a unique and highly sought-after meat.

Wagyu are a special breed of Japanese cattle. They are born on grass pastures, unlike most cattle that are born in calves.

Wagyu cattle have a very particular genetic makeup that produces a meat that is extremely marbled. This makes Wagyu beef the most tender and flavorful beef in the world.

In Japan, Wagyu beef is known as Kobe beef – the name comes from Kobe, Japan – and is widely considered to be the best beef in the world.

The best cuts of Wagyu beef are well marbled and contain intramuscular fat (marbling) in long muscle fibers.

Long muscle fibers soak up a lot of marbling fat. That is why you should look for long muscle fibers when buying Wagyu beef.

Domestic Wagyu Beef

The Wagyu then are the domesticated version of Japanese Beef. This is where all the famous styles like Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, Mishima beef, Omi beef, Nami beef take their names from.

As most people think that Wagyu is the breed, they also think that Kobe beef is the same as Wagyu beef. However, both Kobe and Wagyu are only regionally based names, not cow breeds.

Kobe is from the Hyōgo prefecture in Japan, while Wagyu has other regions where the cattle is bred.

In other words, Kobe beef is just one type of Wagyu beef.

What people want to know when they come across these terms are which are the best breeds of Wagyu cattle?

These breeds are called “Gyu-Dashi”, which are some of the most sought after breeds in the world.

These breeds are revered for their prime qualities of marbling and for the quantity of their delicious fat.

It is because of their fat that Wagyu are also known as the “Rolls Royce of Steak”. The best steaks are taken from the back, from the “Rolls Royce” of Wagyu breeds.

How does American Wagyu compare to Japanese Wagyu?

This is a tough question to answer as most of the time the sellers don’t disclose which Wagyu variety was used.

However, if you can read the fine print, you will probably spot the words “American Wagyu” or maybe “Super Wagyu” and if you are lucky, you might just read “Wagyu”.

Wagyu is the common name given to cattle breeds originating in Japan with black and brown coat and rounder body. They are generally fed a special diet of soybeans and beer or free-range land and corn based feed.

A lot of people are of the notion that all the Wagyu cattle in North America comes from the Kobe region. However, that is not true.

There are only three out of twenty farmers in the US who are licensed to sell the real thing. The rest of the farmers use the name for marketing purposes to sell their not-so-excellent beef at a premium.

The bottom line is, not all Wagyu beef is Kobe beef. You should consult a reputable seller of the product to know more about the farm, feed, cattle, and destination before you buy any meat product.

What about domestic Kobe Beef?

In Japan, wagyu is recognized as a distinct breed. Wagyu comes from four identified original breeds [Wagyé, Kedagawa, Dewa and Tajima] and most cows raised today are a combination of gilts (female) and bulls (male) from all four types. Gainsborough Farm, located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, is perhaps the only distributor of domestically produced true Japanese beef in America.

However, because most commercial producers mingle Kobe, Wagyu, and global breeds, labeling is inconsistent, misleading, and inaccurate. Many Japanese and American ranchers proudly proclaim that their beef—beef that costs thousands of dollars per pound—is true Kobe-style beef.

Sorry to burst your bubble but, to date, no one, in the U.S. or abroad, has legally exported Kobe-style beef from Japan.

There is variation within the classification of Kobe beef; some cattle are considered Kobe if the beef has less fat, some if the farm is in a certain region, and so on.

Watch out for fake Wagyu and Kobe!

Wagyu and Kobe beef are the prized Japanese beef. They are known to be the best in the world and most of the time you can taste the difference. But there are now a lot more people out there trying to cash in on the reputation of the real thing, and trying to sell regular beef as Wagyu or Kobe.

So the usual test of authenticity is to check the marbling of the meat and the country of origin. You can also ask the butcher or seller for a certification and the location where it was raised.

Kobe beef can be bought in selected butchers’ shops and restaurants in Tokyo or in Kobe, the prefecture where it is harvested.

The Kobe Beef Association is the authority on the beef and runs inspections and verification on the authenticity of the meat. But because one can produce fake Kobe beef easily, they only allow entry to registered slaughterhouses, restaurants and shops, and they only allow export after slaughtering.

A true Kobe Beef should have this certificate, usually tattooed on the outside of the cow’s ear. Make sure you look carefully at the numbers and company name, and the location of the slaughterhouse.

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Wagyu vs Kobe Beef is a question that has been going on since ages.

Are you still wondering which is the best? Well, you have landed in the right place.

There are actually several types of wagyu cattle raised in Japan. However, of all of these types, Kobe beef is the most appreciated by the lovers of beef.

Read on and find out how it is made.

In the following piece, we will be talking about the most delicious cuts of beef named Kobe and Wagyu Beef.

We will look into the history, the genes, the production, and the ultimate question of.

Which is the best?

We will uncover what makes these two the finest of the best.

Lastly, we will get to know the characteristics of these two high-end beefs.