Kobe, in short, is a variety of Wagyu. Wagyu, literally means “Japanese cattle” (“Wa-” meaning Japanese or Japanese-style, and “-gyu” meaning cow or cattle). So “Wagyu” refers to any cattle that is bred in Japan or the Japanese-style. Kobe beef is comprised of a very particular strain of Wagyu called Tajima-Gyu (Black Cow) that is raised to a very particular standards in the prefecture of Hyogo, the capital city of Kobe, Japan.
What is the difference between Wagyu cows and other breeds? The difference comes down to selection, care, feeding, and the extraordinary efforts of breeders.
The roots of Wagyu’s superiority can be traced to the late 1800s. During the 1880s, several breeds of European cattle were introduced to Japan and crossbred with native Japanese breeds. The four strains of cattle that resulted dominate the Japanese beef trade to this day.
The ONLY true strains of Wagyu cattle are:
- Japanese Black: Originally raised as work cattle, Japanese Black beef is prized for its intensive marbling.
- Japanese Brown: A leaner, healthier breed of cattle, known for its light, mild taste.
- Japanese Shorthorn: While also lean, Japanese Shorthorn is rich in inosinic and glutamic acid, highly prized for the savory flavor they give beef.
- Japanese Polled: Similar to Brown and Shorthorn in leanness, Japanese Polled is known for a gamier texture and rich, meaty taste.
Over 90% of all Wagyu are Japanese Black strains, so when someone says “Wagyu,” they are usually referring to Japanese Black cattle.
There are several strains of Japanese Black cattle, including the highly prized Tajima-Gyu strain. The most sought after regional varieties of Wagyu all come from Tajima-Gyu cattle, including Matsusaka, Omi, and of course Kobe beef.
In developing Wagyu cattle, breeders took extraordinary care. Special feeds were created out of forage, grasses, and rice straw, then supplemented with corn, barley, soybean, wheat bran, and in some cases, even beer or sake. It is sometimes said that herders would massage their cattle to alleviate muscle tension caused by cramped spaces (though many people consider this only a myth).
Because of these stringent standards, only 3,000 head of cattle qualify as authentic Kobe cattle each year!!! These are uncompromising regulations the region uses for its cattle. To be labelled “Kobe”, cattle MUST meet the following seven standards upon slaughter:
- Bullock (steer) or virgin cow.
- Tajima-Gyu born within Hyogo Prefecture.
- Fed on a farm within Hyogo Prefecture.
- Meat processed within Hyogo Prefecture.
- Marbling rating (BMS) of 6 or higher on a 12 point scale.
- Meat quality rating of 4 or higher on a 5 point scale.
- An overall weight not exceeding 470 kg.
Wagyu marbling is also better tasting. Wagyu fat melts at a lower temperature than any other cattle’s, resulting in a rich, buttery flavor unseen in other strains of beef. This fat is also unsaturated and high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, meaning not only is Wagyu marbling more delicious, it’s also healthier.
Confused yet? Here is what you REALLY need to know so you get taken advantage of at restaurants and markets
In Japan, wagyu refers to purebred cattle. Per Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF)this link opens in a new tab, wagyu refers to 100% pure strains of Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, or Japanese Brown cows.
In the United States, most wagyu is half-blood. Specifically, the USDA defines wagyu as being at least 46.875% pure Japanese blood.
That’s according to George Owen, who’s Executive Director of the American Wagyu Association, the regulatory body for wagyu in the United States. He syas “Most of the Wagyu served in the U.S. is a F1 or half-blood Wagyu. USDA requires that any label claiming Wagyu must be from one registered parent of Purebred [93.75-99.99% Japanese blood] or Fullblood level [100% Japanese blood]. There are restaurants that do serve 100% Fullblood Wagyu as well. Due to the limited number of 100% Fullblood animals, most are used for breeding purposes and not for eating.”
So, does wagyu raised in America (whether it’s full-blood or half-blood) have to be called “American wagyu,” or can it just be called “wagyu?”
According to Owen, it can just be called “wagyu.” In his words: “Wagyu beef is what the members and breeders of the American Wagyu Association produce.”
However, restaurants should specify when they’re offering imported wagyu versus domestic wagyu or American wagyu—and usually they will, because they want to brag that they have a product that’s perceived as more premium.
If you see “A5” or “A4” on a menu, know that that’s a Japanese rating system and that beef is from Japan, Mori says.
Anytime you see the words “Miyazaki,” “Bungo,” “Matsusaka,” or “Kobe” on a menu, also know that, by definition, they are imported from Japan. You can’t have American Kobe or American Miyazaki—that’s oxymoronic.
In recent years, Wagyu cattle have been exported from Japan to countries like Australia and America. In these countries, such cattle are referred to as “Domestic Wagyu,” and are raised under controlled breeding programs, ensuring true Wagyu quality. In America, 90% of authentic Domestic Wagyu rate as USDA Prime, the highest possible rating afforded to beef. Cuts from these cattle typically exceed the quality of other Prime steaks. American Wagyu beef cuts include boneless strips, filet mignon, flat iron, and even burgers. These luxurious steaks will definitely impress your friends and family at your next barbecue!
Sources: Food & Wine, Steak University, American Wagyu association,