In this brief breakdown, I hope to address what Wagyu beef IS, and what it isn’t. Far too often, a pitmaster shares with others his or her latest cook conquest labeled as Wagyu, and they are met repeatedly with comments such as “that’s not real Wagyu”, “you got lied to and ripped off”, “real Wagyu looks like this” as they post a picture of Japanese A5 Wagyu or Kobe beef.
Wagyu beef is simply meat that comes from Wagyu cattle. While the word “Wagyu” literally translates to “Japanese Cow”, this is only partially accurate in defining Wagyu, as, like many other regions in the world, Japan has both dairy and beef cattle.
Wagyu is comprised of the four beef cattle breeds recognized in Japan: the Japanese Brown (Akage Washu, also called the Japanese Red or Akaushi), the Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu), the Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku Washu), and the Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu).
For a brief time in the 90’s, Japan allowed two of the breeds, the Red and the Black, to be imported by the US. While imports are no longer legal, strains from these originally imported Wagyu cattle have been maintained and expanded upon here in the states. The American Wagyu Association recognizes purebred Wagyu cattle from either breed.
So What is “American Wagyu”?
American Wagyu is Wagyu cattle born and raised in the United States. While some ranchers like to cross Wagyu on their American-bred cattle to improve beef quality, “American Wagyu” IS NOT is a cross between Wagyu and an American breed of beef cattle (this would be an F1) regardless of claims by a popular Wagyu beef supplier.
While Wagyu beef is known for its heavy marbling/intramuscular fat, not all Wagyu beef will grade out at the highest marble rating of A5. Just because a cut of beef from Wagyu cattle doesn’t resemble A5 beef does NOT mean it is not Wagyu beef. Much of the Wagyu beef on the market today in the United States will resemble in appearance what we know as USDA Choice or Prime-grade beef. I’ll say it again for those in the back if it comes from Wagyu cattle, it is Wagyu beef.
Following are photos of Wagyu beef:
What is Kobe Beef?
If this isn’t confusing enough, let’s discuss Kobe beef. Kobe comes from one strain of one breed of Wagyu cattle, the Tajima strain of the Japanese Black. In order to be classified as Kobe, the beef must come from only Tajima cattle bred, raised, and slaughtered in the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, AND it must meet a lengthy list of strict requirements.
There are less than a dozen approved importers of Kobe beef in the United States to date (I believe last year, there were only EIGHT), and they pay quite a premium for this exquisite beef. No, your local grocer or meat market is not one, and neither is Fuddruckers or any of the other low-mid range restaurants with “Kobe” on their menus.
Unfortunately, due to the huge misconception about what Wagyu and Kobe actually are, the terms have been thrown around erroneously for decades. Because Wagyu cattle are growing in population in the United States, and Wagyu beef is becoming more readily available to the consumer, these false claims are coming to light a being called out. Just remember: All Kobe is Wagyu. Not all Wagyu is Kobe. When you see something advertised as Kobe beef, it might be Wagyu, but it is highly unlikely to be true Kobe. And if you see “American Kobe” listed? Fuhgeddaboutit. That’s an atrocious oxymoron.
True Kobe beef:
Below you’ll find images of Wagyu beef demonstrating the varying degrees of marbling, as well as charts that illustrate how Wagyu beef is graded.