Kobe. Wagyu. Everyone's heard of them, speaks the words with reverence as a descriptive preface before more commonplace terms like burgers, meatballs, and steak. And yet…how many people really know what these fancy, gold-plated, caviar-crown (as opposed to health haloed) terms really denote? And how many of us are being willfully deceived, turned into victims of overpriced food fraud, thanks to the lack of protected terminology in food labeling here in America?
Well, we can answer both of those questions today as we break down what on earth Wagyu cattle and Kobe beef mean, and why—when you hear folks use the terms interchangeably—in Inigo Montoya's words, "I do not think it means what you think it means."
Why the Obsession?
Ironically, most Americans, with our emphasis on lean meats and an 80s-indoctrinated aversion to fat, would not find Wagyu beef appealing at first glance. We're used to seeing the supple, purplish-tinged filet mignon as the creme de la creme cut, a theatrical tomahawk ribeye with bright red flesh and clearly separated cream fat sections as a mealtime piece de la resistance. But raw Wagyu cuts so praised for their rich flavor due to the higher levels of marbling present in those cattle breeds, look distinctly different.
To those familiar with the culinary technique, it looks like beef wrapped in caul fat, which is "the thin, lacy membrane of an animal surrounding the internal organs." To those who aren't, it's like seeing meat wrapped in a fatty cobweb. Neither of which is appealing to the common American diner, who has been raised on lean sirloins and other neatly trimmed red meats with well-defined fat caps.
But as "foodie" culture took hold, Wagyu and Kobe became buzzwords in much the same way the addition of (imitation) truffle made bar food gastro-pub gourmet. No one really understood what it was exactly, just that it was better, more elevated…and they wanted it.
The real skinny on this extra-fatty type of beef, though, is that it's renowned for that lovely dispersion of light fat that lends itself to that netted appearance that breaks down at a lower melting point than human body temperature, dissolving even as it floods your mouth with flavor. As it renders down, it creates richness and succulence that penetrates every bite due to its even distribution, giving the meat a tenderness and depth of flavor that has made it so prized around the world. Additionally, the meat texture is supposed to be finer, more supple, creating a real melt-in-your-mouth sensation even as the taste expands throughout it.
Beyond just taste experience, there are health benefits, too. Wagyu has a higher concentration of omega-3 and omega-6 than other breeds—as high as that of olive oil and wild salmon—and is high in good monosaturated fats and conjugated linoleic acid. As if we needed more reason to crave this cattle more!
What Is Wagyu?
First things first: all Kobe is Wagyu, but very little Wagyu is Kobe. The answer to why is quite simple: Wagyu means "Japanese cow," specifically Japanese Black, Brown, Shorthorn, and Polled genotypes, which are genetically predisposed to develop fat inside the muscle tissue. All four were deemed national treasures and banned for export until 1997.
However, as all forbidden fruit goes, there's always a way for the wealthy to find a sample on their plates, and this type of cattle was no exception. Previous to the blanket ban, some embryos and livestock had already been exported to the United States, whose breeders then sold to Australian producers. In the vacuum left by the Japanese and the demand created by its rarity and quality, Australia answered by becoming the largest producers of these cattle worldwide (outside of Japan) and building economic strength in this sector through export.
Now that we've clarified that, let's complicate it: all Wagyu may technically Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is all Wagyu.
Just because it may have that label slapped on it does not mean it's created equally. Breeders will often muddy their bloodlines, cross-breeding Wagyu cattle with more common types for hardiness and profitability. According to Kimio Osawa, Japanese beef expert and founder of wholesale supplier Osawa Enterprises, "Over 95% of Australian Wagyu cattle are crossbred with other breeds," making them technically no longer full Wagyu.
Then there's a classic nature vs. nurture scenario. Although these prized cattle live their three years of life—as opposed to the typical 15-month lifespan of conventional beef—in relative luxury whether they're raised in Australia or Japan (in a low-stress environment and pampered in ways to maximize quality marbling), certification is stricter in Japan than in Australia. In both cases, they're grain-fed, but of course, with the different seasons and types of grass, pasture affects flavor.
The only time, however, you can be absolutely certain your Wagyu is Wagyu? Well, that's where Kobe comes in.
What Is Kobe?
The short answer? The Beluga caviar of that surf's turf.
In order to be called Kobe beef, a specific set of criteria must be met. First and foremost, it must come from Tajima cattle—a type of Japanese Black—and even more restrictively, must be descended from one of that government's 12 ideal bulls. The calves must also be born, fed, and processed in the Hyogo prefecture. Additionally, it must spend at least 26 months being fed to reach a gross weight of around 1,036 pounds of produced meat…but no more. So naturally, that culls down the supply in several ways, while demand remains what it is.
Then, that meat that it provides has to be scored and graded to at least A4 yield level (out of A5; this is more for breeders) and Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) rating of 6 (out of 12). To put this in context, Joe Heitzeberg, CEO of Crowd Cow explains, "In the U.S. system, we have four grades, from select choice to prime. A4 and A5 pick up where Prime leaves off and goes beyond." And although these Tajimas have the genetic predisposition to marble to this standard, still only half the certified slaughtered cattle make the "grade." The annual yield sits at less than what one mid-sized domestic ranch would produce.
Lastly, as visually distinct as it already is, it's then marked with a Japanese chrysanthemum to ensure authenticity.
Economics aside, however, the reason this very, very painstakingly specific type of beef is even more coveted than general Wagyu derives from the aforementioned rating system. Kobe beef consistently scores this phenomenally; domestic Wagyu or hybrids reach 6 to 9 on the BMS scale while Kobe typically reaches 10, despite 6 being the minimum. Now imagine the juiciest, most tender, velvety steak you've ever had and realize that it was likely a Prime cut…which is only ranked a 4. Then you can really begin to understand why Kobe is clearly king.
Have I Had Real Kobe or Wagyu?
Hate to break it to you, but that $40 Kobe beef burger you thought you had? Yeah, it more than likely…wasn't. If you've ever been told you've ordered Kobe beef from an American menu, in Maury Povovich's words, "that was a lie." After all, at roughly $50 per ounce, it's too precious to waste on grinding into something not only so commonplace but into a final product that makes it impossible to actually taste the quality of the meat. Think about it—there's a reason why ground meat is typically made of lesser cuts.
And when you consider that by the time export of Wagyu cattle was banned, the U.S. only imported about 200, and that today, there are less than 5,000 registered full-blooded Wagyu in the country, the odds are more than likely that you've never had the real deal.
Most consumers have only tasted cross-bred Wagyus with less than 50% of this royal bovine blood running through their veins, and more than half the common cow we call Angus. This is true for both American and Canadian Wagyu. In England and Scotland, Wagyu breeding wasn't even available until 2011, nearly two decades after lobbying began in Canada and four since the first Wagyu bulls were brought to the States; they're mixed with anything from Aberdeen Angus, Beef Shorthorn, Highland, Dexter, and Holstein cattle. And the Australians that have cornered the market on global distribution? Their Wagyu is often mated with Holstein dairy cows.
Sure, there are beefs on the market and served at fine restaurants marketed as Kobe, but that's largely due to our lax regulations. As Bon Appetit reported, "USDA regulations require only 46.9% Wagyu genetics for beef sold at retail." However, "Exempt from these labeling requirements, restaurants can call any beef Wagyu, and often do."
So be wary of anyone who claims to serve American Kobe, there's no such thing; the owner is wilfully or accidentally deceiving you for top dollar. Avoid spending primo dollars on meatballs, sliders, and burgers that claim this pedigree (even if it's a Wagyu mix, you won't taste its distinctive flavor), and approach Wagyu labels with a grain of salt (excellent on steak anyway).
However, that's not to say you can't still enjoy a superlative steak. A hunk of our heartier, more toothsome cattle standbys mixed with genuine Wagyu will still yield a damn tasty bite and more marbling than our average steaks. Enjoy its beefier flavor, something the purely Japanese breeds can't provide due to its fatty richness. And don't be afraid to ask questions. Find out if it's North American or Australian Wagyu—if it's real, they'll have an answer for you…and a real treat for your dinner.