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What Is Wagyu Beef?

Luxurious and delicious are the two words that first come to mind when you read the word Wagyu and you are not wrong in thinking that. Wagyu is synonymous with the best of cuisines and Michelin-starred experiences, but what do you really know about Wagyu beef? 

Time to deep dive into all and everything about Wagyu beef and why it is the premium meat in the market. 

What Is Wagyu Beef & What Does It Mean? 

Wagyu beef originates from Japan, the word itself is a combination of the Japanese words ‘wa' meaning Japanese or of Japan and ‘gyu' meaning cow or cattle. Wagyu technically refers to the breed of cows from which the highly coveted beef is produced. 

Originally the Wagyu breed was used for agricultural purposes, like hoeing or pulling carts and thus were selectively bred for their physical endurance. This selective breeding led to the animals we know today with the larger amount of intramuscular cells which creates the unique marbling on the meat that Wagyu beef is renowned all over the world for. 

What is Wagyu Beef

The Wagyu cows have a solid-coloured hide in red or black and as it is a horned breed, both male and female Wagyu have horns. They are also known for being one of the calmest cattle breeds. 

Japanese History Of The Wagyu 

The original Wagyu breed—the native cattle of Japan—has been found to have had a separate strain as far back as 35,000 years ago, according to research. However, the modern Wagyu that we consume today comes from cross breeding a variety of different cattle breeds. 

It all began in 1868 when during the Meiji Restoration in Japan the government encouraged the population to explore the Western culture and food habits. This included of course agriculture and farming practices, which led to a number of different cattle breeds being imported into Japan during this period including Devon, Simmental, Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Korean and Ayrshire. 

Out of these arose the four major types of Japanese Wagyu cattle called;

  • Japanese Black
  • Japanese Brown
  • Japanese Polled and
  • Japanese Shorthorn  

… and soon their amazing marbling and taste were discovered by delighted chefs.

Wagyu production, breeding and rating is a highly regulated and controlled process in Japan, with only the best of the best stock being preserved to maintain the excellency of the beef. In Japan, the meat is rated from A1 to A5 with A5 being the best Wagyu beef available anywhere in the world. 

Wagyu cattle are highly prized in Japan as a national living treasure and thus the export of live animals or even embryos and semen have been frowned upon and banned in Japan. 

What is Wagyu Beef

American History Of The Wagyu 

However, before Japan banned the export of Wagyu cattle several of the cattle had been exported to the United States in the 1970s and then again in clandestine operations in the early 1990s. So is the American Wagyu also true Wagyu? Yes, and no. 

This is because of the small number of animals that managed to make it to the United States, which made it difficult to grow a herd of purebred Wagyu cattle. The American Wagyu available in the markets today is meat from a crossbreed of the Japanese Wagyu and the American Angus beef cattle. 

While the American Wagyu still has great marbling and a delicious taste, it is not as amazing and luxurious tasting as the purebred Japanese Wagyu beef. 

Another factor that plays into this is that the American Wagyu industry is not as tightly regulated and graded as the Japanese version, meaning that cattle stocks often have varying degrees of Wagyu and Angus descent which are reflected in the taste of the meat. 

In fact, before 2003 most American Wagyu was produced for export to Japan where it would a cheaper alternative to the expensive national product. However, with the discovery of BSE or ‘Mad Cow Disease’ beef exports were halted and the producers started targeting the domestic American market more thoroughly. 

Difference Between Wagyu And Kobe Beef 

You might have been confused upon seeing Wagyu and Kobe beef in the meat section, or maybe you thought they were one of the same things. Well, you are kind of right and kind of wrong about that. Kobe is a specific type or brand of Wagyu, much like how Birkenstocks are a brand of shoes. However, not every Wagyu can be a Kobe! 

To be classified as a Kobe beef, firstly the meat must come from cattle reared in the Kobe district of Japan. Secondly, everyone associated with the cattle and meat process must be approved and licensed by the Kobe Beef Association in Japan. This includes everyone from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the wholesaler to even the restaurant which buys the meat. 

What is Wagyu Beef

Another factor is the grade of the meat, like it was mentioned earlier Japanese beef gets rated from A1 to A5 for meat quality. Kobe beef can only be classified as such when it is of a grade A4 and higher, anything less and it cannot be sold as ‘Kobe beef'. 

Additionally, there is no such thing as American Kobe if you ever do see that phrase in the supermarket. Just like Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France, Kobe beef can only be called Kobe beef if it comes from the Kobe region in Japan. No such rule for basketball stars though! 


The Last Cut 

Whether you pick American Wagyu or Japanese Wagyu, you are guaranteed an amazing dining experience. Make sure to do your research on brands and restaurants advertising Wagyu meats to ensure that you get the best experience that you are looking for. 

If you like you can even share this article with your significant other as a hint for an upcoming anniversary or special day! What could be better than bonding over a glass of wine and some of the most beautiful and delicious food known to mankind?