Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 15 years, you’ve heard about the holy grail of beef. Chances are good you have never seen the real thing at your local butcher. There are some very good reasons why Wagyu is so hard to find (we'll get to those in a minute). There is a good chance, however, you've seen Wagyu-style beef, or even Kobe-style beef raised in Australia, the US, or in the UK. So, when we say Wagyu vs Kobe, what’s the difference and are they really better than USDA Prime US Grade A beef?
The Origins: What is Wagyu Beef
Thousands of years ago, cattle were imported from mainland China to the shores of Japan. The bulk of the breeds originate from Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. Religious and cultural practices relegated these animals to work rather than food. Japan ceased importation of cattle in 1910. Cross-breeding imported cattle with four of the six native bovine species resulted in the recognition of four distinct Japanese cattle: Japanese Black (tajima gyu), Brown, Polled, and Shorthorn. These breeds are known as “improved Japanese Cattle” and are the breeds that it comes from. These breeds were standardized by the Japanese government in 1944.
What is Different About Kobe Beef?
All Kobe Beef is Wagyu Beef, but only when it's from Hyogo Prefecture is it considered to be Kobe. Hyogo Prefecture is a Japanese prefecture in the Kansai region of the country’s main island, Honshu, with Kobe being the prefectural capital. The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association trademarked the name Kobe Beef in 1983. As with all wagyu beef, kobe beef must meet strict standards for how the cattle are raised and fed, where the cattle are raised, and set standards for grading. Kobe beef is only harvested from heifers or bullocks (cows that haven't given birth and steers or castrated bulls.)
What Makes Beef Wagyu Special?
Wagyu means Japanese Beef as a rough translation, but only includes very specific grades harvested from specific breeds of domestic wagyu cattle. Actually, since Wagyu means Japanese beef, it's actually redundant to say Wagyu Beef. Only the very highest grades can be called wagyu in Japan. Very strict controls on how beef wagyu cattle are bred, raised, and harvested prevent widespread breeding of cows responsible for this meat. In most cases, it's against the law to export domestic wagyu cows to other countries. Although, some breeding stock has found its way to foreign shores. Prior to 2012, importing of Japanese beef to the US was strictly forbidden. Very low numbers of these domestic wagyu cattle are slaughtered each year. Coupled with the strict regulations, it's a rarity to find, even in Japan. As with all things, rareness drives the cost up, making it some of the most expensive beef in the world. However, melt in your mouth meat is something worth paying a premium for.
Kobe Beef vs Wagyu Beef: Is Kobe Beef Better?
Kobe beef is considered to be the ultimate cut, the meat that will truly melt in your mouth. Think pink, insanely marbled, and a unique flavor that's different from anything else you can buy. Kobe beef accounts for a large percentage of all wagyu beef each year. Only about 5,000 head of wagyu cattle are certified as Kobe beef each year, and that number is 90% of all wagyu produced. The cattle are fed grain fodder including rice, wheat, and hay, and are not allowed to pasture.
However, the term “better” is very subjective. We know many people that will happily devour an ungraded store-bought ribeye steak but won’t touch a USDA prime-grade fillet mignon. It’s all about preferences. Kobe beef is perhaps better known than any other style of wagyu simply because it is the most common type exported to the US. The reality is that most carnivores would have a hard time telling the difference between kobe and other types of similar meat.
Grading Japanese Beef
In order for beef to qualify as wagyu, it must meet very strict standards. All cuts will be graded A or B for yield and 5 or 4 marbling ratio, called BMS. Anything else, and any Japanese beef sold as kobe or kobe-style lacking these grades is faux-wagyu. Unfortunately, since the US doesn’t recognize the trademarks for Kobe beef, American sellers are able to label steaks in the US as Kobe or Kobe-style.
What the Grades of Wagyu Beef Mean
Grading for beef in Japan follows the A through C for yield, indicating the ratio of meat to the actual weight of the carcass; and the BMS, which relates to the marbling content. It might surprise many of you how complex grading of Japanese beef can become, and marbling is just an example. Other factors that contribute to grading of Japanese beef are firmness and texture. Kobe beef should be laced with marbling throughout, be light in color, tender, and fine-grained.
Japanese Wagyu vs American Wagyu
As mentioned above, Japanese wagyu comes from only very specific breeds of cows. In the US, ranchers have imported Japanese Black (tajima gyu) cattle, the source of 90% of wagyu beef, and crossbred with Angus Black steers. This American wagyu, while descending from the real deal, is nothing more than a fancy way of selling beef. Japanese wagyu cattle are not pastured like American wagyu, which impacts the way marbling develops. In fact, there are no standards in the United States to regulate Angus black cows except that they must have a black hide. The United States does not regulate whether a processor is using terms like wagyu, kobe, kobe-style. In fact, there isn’t even a requirement that beef be graded in the United States, it’s a decision made entirely by the processor. And they must pay a government agency to conduct grading.
US beef grading consists of USDA Prime, Choice, Select, and a bunch of lower quality meat that isn’t even worth discussing right now. USDA Prime cuts are largely reserved for restaurants and are difficult to locate in store. In comparison with wagyu, prime cuts are less marbled and are darker red in color. USDA Prime is usually very tender, but not as tender as Japanese wagyu. It also has a more pronounced, robust flavor compared to the mild and delicate flavor of wagyu.
How to Tell Real Wagyu from Mislabeled Beef
There are a few things you can do to know whether what you are buying is the real deal or not. The most obvious is price; it is some of the most expensive meat in the world. You should expect to pay no less than $10 per ounce. Compare that to USDA Prime Grade A ribeye at $1.60 per ounce and you immediately see the difference.
Another way to tell is by appearance. Wagyu is trimmed expertly and never has a bone. There are different types of fat on a steak, and a wagyu will be trimmed to remove almost all fat on the outside.
Another key is the shape of the steaks. Because of the extensive trimming that is done, the steaks tend to be square or rectangular as opposed to the shapes of steaks Americans are used to buying.
It might be hard to tell the difference in tenderness between American wagyu and USDA Prime; but since you rarely see Prime in stores, there is a massive difference in tenderness to Choice-grade US steaks commonly available. Color is another key; US steaks will be bright red while Japanese wagyu will be light pink in color.
Where Can You Buy Wagyu Kobe Beef in the US?
Authentic, Japanese-raised wagyu and kobe beef is insanely hard to find in the states. Only around 20 restaurants sell it, and even then it’s in limited supply. Probably the best way for US buyers to get their hands on true wagyu is through an importer. Crowd Cow was the first importer in the US and is still one of the very best sources for true, ridiculously high-quality meat straight from the farm.
Periodically, you may see true wagyu and Kobe in places like Costco, but it’s a rarity and supplies typically don’t last long. More often, you will find American wagyu, sold as Kobe or Kobe-style in US stores. Breeding stock in Australia, the US, and to a lesser degree the UK, has opened up supply of wagyu cattle descended from Japanese Black cattle. If raised in the right conditions on the appropriate diet, there is no reason that product from other countries won’t be as good as the real thing, but a lack of standards enforcement outside Japan presents a lot of opportunities for unscrupulous sellers.
Dispelling Myths About Wagyu and Kobe Beef
There are a few well-rehearsed myths about wagyu beef that should be put to pasture. Probably the most common myth is that wagyu cattle get massages, drink beer, and listen to classical music. It’s simply a myth. Herds in Japan rarely get larger than 150 head, but still, a farmer would have to spend all his time massaging. Beer is generally considered to be not good for animals. However, tons of spent grain from the making of beer are in fact fed to wagyu cattle worldwide, especially in the US. But, no, Japanese Black aren’t getting a beer belly in Japan.
Another myth is that wagyu is unhealthy because of its fat content. Wagyu contains about 25% fat, around three times that of American beef. The key is the type of fat: Wagyu is primarily monounsaturated fat with oleic acid, which has been shown to reduce bad cholesterol.
Wagyu also does not mean that the beef is of high-quality. Wagyu refers to all Japanese cattle, but only Grade A or B with a BMS of 5 or 4 qualify as Wagyu Kobe beef.
A fun fact, though: the late superstar basketball player Kobe Bryant was named after Kobe beef when his father saw the name on a restaurant menu and liked it.
Final Bites on Wagyu vs Kobe
The opportunity to eat true beef Kobe is a special moment and deserves to be treated with respect and reverence. It’s a rare meat that should be savored and appreciated. The good news for the rest of us (who don’t have bottomless bank accounts) is that very high-quality wagyu-style beef from the US is out there. As time goes on, the demand for ever higher authenticity may very well drive up quality and increase standards regulation. But, if eating a Kobe beef ribeye is on your bucket list, online retailers can help you check that one off.
Want to watch Seth and Scott breakdown how we butcher a Wagyu cow? Check out our YouTube video below! And if you want to be able to process your own Wagyu, or any other beef at home, here are the most important tools for a DIY butcher:
- Seth's favorite Grill Heat Aid gloves
- Bearded Butcher cutlery (including the 6 inch Victorinox)
- Bearded Butcher Blend seasoning
- Disposable cutting boards to keep things clean and safe
- Our favorite Rockwood Charcoal for the Big Green Egg
- Latex free food prep gloves