Japan is famous for it’s succulent Wagyu that melts in your mouth. If you’re looking to understand more about Wagyu this feature will cover everything you need to know.
What is Wagyu?
Wagyu means beef from Japan. Wagyu beef is famous for being tender, succulent (from its heavy marbling) and quite possibly the best type of beef in the world.
Wagyu beef is from four breeds of Japanese cow: The Japanese black, the Japanese brown, the Japanese shorthorn and the Japanese polled. If you’ve eaten Wagyu (or are planning to eat it), chances are that you’ll be eating the Japanese black as this breed represents 93% of cattle in Japan.
Raising cattle to be eaten is a relatively new thing in Japan’s long history. Traditionally cows were used as work animals rather than for their meat or milk. In the 19th Century, Japan opened up to Western culture and native European breeds such as Shorthorn and Holstein were crossed with native Japanese breeds to create cows that have become the four Wagyu breeds.
Kobe Beef and other Wagyu brands
Outside of Japan, Kobe is the most famous Wagyu beef. However, there are a number of other Wagyu brands which rival Kobe’s claim to having the best beef.
There a three major brands of Wagyu: Kobe, Matsusaka and Ohmi beef and a number of other important brands such as Hida, Maesawa and Yonezawa beef. Each of these brands has a strict certification system using the same breed of cow (Japanese black) and rules on where the cow is raised. In effect, Kobe, Matsusaka and the other Wagyu names are really geographical brands of Wagyu beef.
You can click on the map below to find out more about the different brands.
Grading Wagyu Meat
The Japan Meat Grading Association has set a common grading system for Wagyu beef. The grade is alphanumeric with fifteen possible grades.
The alphabetical grade detailing the yield (amount of edible meat) is A, B and C (A being the highest yield and C being the lowest yield) while the numerical grade is determined by four factors: the amount of marbling (the more marbling the higher the score), the colour of the fat (the whiter the better), the colour of the beef and the firmness and texture of the beef. The numerical grades are from 1-5 with 5 being the highest grade.
The grading criteria is tough and only the best beef will be marketed as branded Wagyu (for example only A4 and A5 beef qualifies to be certified, branded and sold as Kobe Beef).
What does Wagyu and Kobe beef taste like?
Wagyu beef tastes different from European beef. Japanese cattle are raised in pens and are fed a special diet to make them as fat as possible. This results in tender and heavily marbled beef.
The taste is often described as a buttery sweetness, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s like a sponge cake that has soaked up beef dripping. Biting into Wagyu unleashes a wave of sweet, deeply satisfying succulence. Higher end Wagyu like Matsusaka and Kobe amplify this experience.
Is Kobe the best steak in the world?
It depends. Comparing Kobe beef against something like the British Longhorn or Rubia Gallega beef is a bit like comparing a Belgian wheat beer with an English ale. Some people will swear by the beefiness of the Rubia Gallega while others will stand behind the tender succulence of Kobe. At Steak Society, we swear by the beefiness of the Rubia Gallega.
You may come across restaurants and butchers outside of Japan selling Wagyu steak. This is likely to be cross bred and from outside of Japan. The problem is that some restaurants and butchers will let you believe you are eating the real deal Wagyu unless you ask. Often the ‘Wagyu’ is from Australia, the United States or even New Zealand. We’ve had friends swear that they have had Kobe beef at a restaurant that has no business selling a half decent steak. We’ve directly come across ‘Wagyu’ beef at both Flat Iron and Turner & George which was actually raised in Britain and crossed with Angus while Aldi has been promoting it’s £8 Wagyu steak from New Zealand (which we were not fans of).
We use the term ‘Hafu-Wagyu’ to describe Wagyu-style beef that is not from Japan. Hāfu is the japanese word for half-caste (based on the English word for half), while Wagyu means Japanese beef. So we’re calling it half-caste Japanese beef. It’s a better way of describing what you’re getting. If you’re at a restaurant claiming to serve Kobe or Wagyu beef they should be able to prove that its the real deal.
If you want to know more about how Wagyu bulls made it outside of Japan, to the United States and beyond, you can check out an article on it here.
Our features on Japan
This article is one of a number on Japan. We have additional guides on Kobe and Matsusaka Beef as well as restaurant reviews.
- A guide to Kobe beef
- A guide to Matsusaka beef
- Review of Kobe and Hida Beef
- Review of Matsusaka Beef
- Review of J-Steak
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