As you probably know, there are many different grades of meat. All with varying levels of quality and fat marbling throughout. It’s no doubt that if you are looking for some extremely high-quality tender beef, Wagyu beef is a top option.
An option that you’ll often find in steak cuts gracing the menus of Michelin Star restaurants or briskets in the smokers of the world’s top BBQ Pitmasters at competitions. Some have even referred to it as the “most luxurious” beef and it’s growing in popularity even more lately.
You may have heard someone you know talking about how delicious a Wagyu steak was that they recently had. Or maybe you’ve even recently tried it for the first time. But do you know the answer to the popular question “what is Wagyu beef?”
In this article, we’ll break down the answer, fill you in on everything you need to know about Wagyu and clear up some common confusion as well.
Simply put, Wagyu (pronounced wahg-yoo, not wah-goo) translates to Japanese cow. But, not every Japanese cow is actually considered Wagyu. True Wagyu beef that is sought after so highly refers to a specific breed of Japanese cattle with special genetic qualities.
Four of the six genotypes of Japanese cattle make up the Wagyu breed – Japanese Black (Kuroge), Japanese Red/Brown (Akaushi), Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku Washu), and the rare Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu). These cattle originated in Japan over 35,000 years ago. Originally, these Wagyu cattle were used as working animals in agriculture because of their strong stature and physical stamina. This stamina comes from the high amount of intramuscular fat that provides a steady supply of energy.
Japanese Wagyu cattle have a genetic predisposition that causes the cow to metabolize fat internally, so it integrates with the muscle tissue itself. This causes a finer meat texture and an incredibly high level of fat marbling in the meat. Because of this, true Japanese Wagyu beef has an unmatched taste bursting with umami and such tenderness to it that it literally melts in your mouth.
No other livestock does this the way these cattle do. So, any other breed of cattle, even when raised in the same conditions as Wagyu by award-winning Wagyu cattle farmers, will not produce Wagyu beef.
As the breed became more revered over the years, this led the Japanese government in 1997 to declare Wagyu cattle a national treasure and ban exports of the cattle to outside countries. Before this happened though, some embryos and live cattle had already been exported to the US. Currently, Japan still exports cuts of Wagyu beef.
Most cuts of Wagyu beef are labeled by type, which is named after the Japanese town or prefecture they come from. Sometimes the label will also include the breed of cattle it is. Some common types of Wagyu include: Miyazaki, Ohmi, Matsusaka, and Hida.
Similar to the USDA Beef grading scale, there is a grading scale for Wagyu beef. The Japanese grading scale, which is judged by the Japan Meat Grading Association (in Japanese), shows yield grade as A, B, or C and meat quality grade as 1 through 5. “A5” is the best of the best Wagyu beef. This means it has the highest yield and the highest meat quality.
The grading scale also incorporates a Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) which denotes how much marbling wagyu includes. The BMS goes from 1 through 12 and is determined by checking the amount of marbling in the rib eye and its surroundings. A BMS of 12 has the most marbling, while a BMS of 1 would mean there is no marbling. For the meat to be an A5 rating, it has to have a BMS of between 8 and 12. An A4 will have a BMS between 6 and 8.
Source: Zen-Noh Wagyu
Sometimes the terms Wagyu and Kobe are used interchangeably and it can cause some confusion. Kobe is a specific type of Japanese Wagyu beef and it originates from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, raised in the capital city of Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture, Kobe. Then, there are a few other stipulations for the meat to be considered actual Kobe beef as well.
Everyone who has a hand in the production of the meat, from the farm to the restaurant it is being served in, has to be licensed by the Kobe Beef Association. Finally, the meat has to be rated an A4 or A5 on the Wagyu Beef Grading Scale.
If you see American Kobe on a restaurant menu, don’t fall for the marketing gimmick. As you can see now, Kobe is not able to be produced in the US. So, American Kobe beef does not actually exist.
There are currently only 37 restaurants in the US that are certified and sell authentic Japanese Kobe beef.
But, American Wagyu is a real thing. Confused yet? Here’s how that’s possible. As we mentioned early, before Japan halted the exportation of Wagyu cattle in 1997, some had already been exported to America. These cattle were then bred with top American Black Angus cattle. This crossbreed of cattle is what is now known as American Wagyu.
Meat from these cattle will still have a high degree of marbling and be very tender, making it some of the best American beef you can buy. But, it will not have near the marbling levels of purebred Japanese Wagyu or the same flavor or mouth-feel. A distinct feature of American Wagyu is that it will still have the robust “beefy” flavor that comes from Black Angus beef.
There are some myths and rumors that the reason Japanese Wagyu cattle taste so good is that they are raised in a life of luxury and are even sung to. This is not entirely true, but not entirely false. They are intentionally raised in an environment where the stress levels on the cattle are reduced as much as possible. This is because stress causes an increase in cortisol in the body, which can cause the cattle’s muscles to become less fatty and degrade the quality of the meat.
So, Wagyu cattle-breeders in Japan go to great measures to create a zen-like existence for their cows. This means controlling the noise levels so that the cattle are not startled, constantly refreshing their water, and separating cows that are not getting along.
Source: Japan Times
Japanese Wagyu cattle are also monitored more closely than American cattle who often roam huge open pastures. They are not restricted in movement or force-fed and are actually raised on controlled open-air farms, where they are given a name versus a number and checked on every few hours. Also, to qualify for Wagyu certification the adult cattle have to be fed a special diet made up predominantly of grain.
So, as you can see, the way the cattle is raised has an impact on the quality of the fat marbling within the meat. Combine their stress-free lifestyle, diet, and careful attention with the fact that Wagyu cattle commonly live longer than other beef cattle, and the flavor of the beef is significantly improved. Japanese Wagyu cows live an average lifespan of three years, while normal beef cattle live to roughly 15 months.
All of these things in the way the cattle are raised and the strict regulations from the Japanese government is what makes Wagyu beef so much more expensive compared to traditional beef cuts.
Yes, you read that right. There are actually some great nutritional benefits of Wagyu beef compared to traditional American Angus beef.
Wagyu beef is loaded with a higher concentration of monounsaturated fats (the good fats) and a much lower level of saturated fats (the bad fats) compared to traditional beef. It’s also packed with more Omega-3 than other beef. It is also high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This is a naturally occurring Omega-6 fatty acid that is associated with aiding in weight loss, lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes, and even lowering the risk of cancer.
As you can see, Wagyu beef will provide a taste and quality unmatched by many other cuts of beef. If you have the opportunity, try Japanese Wagyu beef at least once in your life. Trying different types of Japanese Wagyu and even comparing those to the taste of American Wagyu is the full experience.
If you want to try your hand at cooking this delectable meat yourself, there are some great high-quality beef wholesalers you can order from online. Then you can have authentic Japanese Wagyu beef shipped straight to your door.
Have you recently tried Wagyu beef? Mastered how to smoke a Wagyu brisket? Tell us all about it below, we want to hear from you!
If you’re ready to cook a Wagyu steak like the pros, check out the one-of-a-kind online grilling classes taught by Champion Grillmasters here at BBQ Champs Academy. You’ll learn everything you need to know to master your grill or smoker.
Also, check out the BBQ Champs YouTube channel for all the latest insider tips and BBQ info straight from the Champion Pitmasters and Grillmasters. Hit “Subscribe” to make sure you don’t miss the latest from BBQ Champs Academy!