Last Updated on July 29, 2021
Food photo created by KamranAydinov
If you’re a fan of meat, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “Kobe beef” before, and have likely at least heard the term “Wagyu” as well. Kobe beef in particular is used as a huge selling point for a lot of high end restaurants, or as a common and lazy way to make an “expensive whatever” (be it a Big Mac or some other fast food item or just an at home meal) for food influencers on Youtube and other platforms.
However, if you’ve never looked into it before you might not know exactly what Kobe beef is, save that it’s an expensive, quality cut of meat, and likely don’t know much more about Wagyu (and perhaps even less). So let’s try to clear up that confusion real quick.
1. What is Kobe Beef Anyway?
It might be surprising to learn that Kobe beef is, essentially, just a brand name of beef. Specifically, it is wagyu (there’s that word again) beef from the Hyogo Prefecture, the capital of which is Kobe.
That is a bit of an oversimplification, however. There are a few other very specific criteria that a type of beef must meet to be considered real Kobe beef.
The first few are all about location, but more specifically. The type of cow must be the Tajima breed, born in Hoyogo, which must also be raised and fed in Hyogo, then processed in Hyogo (at one of a few very specific facilities). The cow must be a heifer or bullock, and the meat must meet stringent quality standards: grade A or B, with a marbling rating (BMS) of 6 or higher, from a cow that has a carcass weight that doesn’t exceed 500 kg.
As you can guess, these restrictions result in a very small amount of beef that’s considered Kobe every year, which is why it’s so expensive. It’s hard to get ahold of in Japan, and nearly impossible to get true Kobe beef internationally.
2. So What’s the Deal with Wagyu?
If Kobe is the best known brand name of wagyu, then you can likely guess the difference already: wagyu is just a type of beef. Specifically, it’s a type of Japanese beef, with wagyu even roughly translating to “Japanese cow”. It’s strictly tied to the country of origin, similar to the only “true” Champagne being manufactured in Champagne, France (with the generic term being “sparkling wine”).
However, the restrictions are actually a bit tighter than that. Wagyu is beef from Japan, but it’s not just ANY beef from Japan, it’s beef from one of four specific breeds of cow with a strange genetic anomaly that changes the fat distribution of the beef.
On most cows, the fat accumulates on the outside of the muscles; this is why most beef has a “fat cap” on the edges that provides a lot of flavor.
On the cow breeds that produce wagyu, the fat is almost perfectly evenly distributed INSIDE the muscle instead, creating a ludicrously rich, melt in your mouth beef with a unique (and almost not beefy at all, oddly enough) flavor.
If you’re curious, these breeds are the Japanese Black (the Tajima cattle that make up Kobe beef are a subset of this breed), Brown (or Red), Polled, and Shorthorn variants, but that’s largely irrelevant when it comes to buying your wagyu.
In addition to genetics, care and raising play a large part in modern wagyu’s quality. The cattle are raised with extreme care, eliminating stress almost entirely from their environment. They’re well fed, kept away from other cows they don’t get along with, and checked on as often as every 4 hours!
If you’ve ever worked on a cattle farm, you know exactly how unusual that is. Even on a small farm, we only checked the cattle once, maybe twice a day and otherwise let them roam and take care of themselves.
3. So What’s This I Hear About “American Wagyu”?
American wagyu is fake wagyu. That’s actually not a disparagement on the quality of the beef (the stuff they call American wagyu is actually quite good), just a definition of the terms we’ve established so far.
American wagyu is made from a crossbreeding of one of the breeds of wagyu producing cattle, and the standard American Angus beef cattle. The meat produced is absolutely delicious, with a fatty, melt in your mouth texture (compared to most Angus beef in any case) and a deep, beefy flavor.
However, it tastes almost nothing like real wagyu, and should honestly just have its own name; borrowing wagyu is a marketing gimmick that is starting to backfire in food connoisseur circles, as it’s (somewhat unfairly) disparaged as being an inferior imitator of real wagyu.
American wagyu is relatively expensive, but not exorbitantly so. If you’re looking to splurge on a great steak for a special occasion, it’s a really interesting experience, whether you get it from a high end restaurant or grill it up yourself.
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