What is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu is a generic name for beef in Japan: WA (Japanese) and GYU (Japanese for beef). There are four main breeds of cow used for Wagyu production in Japan:
KUROGE - Japanese Black:
The most common breed of Wagyu. Japanese Black cattle comprise about 90% of the Wagyu cattle breeds. Well-known for the exquisite flavour of its fat and its intensive marbling.
AKAGE - Japanese Brown:
Red Wagyu, it is found in Kochi Prefecture and Kumamoto Prefecture. Its meat is known for its healthier breed of cattle, for being lean yet pleasantly firm, and its fat has a surprisingly fine texture.
NIHON TANKAKU - Japanese Shorthorn:
Found in northern Japan, it is distinct from other wagyu because the meat takes time to eat and it’s lean meat.
MUKAKU - Japanese Polled:
These cattle have the smallest population among all Wagyu breeds, making up less than 1%. Its meat has high lean meat and a distinctive Wagyu flavour.
Condition for cows to be called Wagyu Beef:
- Breeding cattle and pregnant cows are grazed on pasture.
- Calves are fed in a specific way, special feed to ensure that the meat has a lot of marbling.
- Sent to auction to sold to fattening farms when young Wagyu is 7 months old.
- Diet: rice straws, whole crop silage and concentrate.
- Grow up to about 700kg which takes about 3 years while for normal beef it’s 15 months.
- Every piece of Japanese wagyu steak can be traced back to a farm.
- Sometimes brushed with a stiff brush to increase blood circulation and to relieve stress.
In Japan, there are more than 160 brands of cattle, and each brand has its own evaluation method. Different standards are used, including the place of origin, bloodline, breed, feeding method, feeding period, and meat quality. Only beef meeting strict criteria can be crowned with a specific brand name. This approach not only promotes quality management but also builds customer trust.
Japanese Wagyu Brands
Japanese cattle refer to all cattle bred in Japan. Any cattle can be called “Japanese or domestic cattle” as long as its rearing was done in Japan. This category includes all breeds and of course wagyu.
Wagyu refers to domestic cattle with a specific bloodline and breed, which can be classified into those four types, as we said at the beginning. So, any Japanese cattle breeds besides these four should not be called Wagyu.
The four major beef brands of Wagyu are Matsusaka beef, Kobe beef, and Yonezawa or Omi beef. All of them must come from a KUROGE – Japanese black breed heifers. These main brands are well-known for their high meat quality.
- Kobe beef, one of the most highly prized meats, is a type of Wagyu from the Tajima breed. A steer or heifer can only be raised in the Hyogo Prefecture province of Japan.
- Raised on breeding farms to the age of 8 to 9 months, raised and fattened in feeding farms for about 2 years and reach maturity between 28 to 32 months from birth.
- Yield grade and meat quality grade of A4, B4, or above. Beef marbling standard (BMS) of No. 6 or higher.
- If there are any flaws in the edible meat, it must pass an evaluation set by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.
- More info: Kobe Beef article
MATSUSAKA BEEF: £65 - £150 per steak - the main rival of Kobe
- Cattle belong to Mie Prefecture, where Matsuzaka is the capital.
- Matsusaka wagyu is exclusively virgin females (females have more fat than males)
- Only 2500 Matsuzaka cows are slaughtered each year
- Raised in specified Matsusaka beef production areas, from at least the age of 12 months in Mie Prefecture.
- Tasty reputation and virgin status from the special treatment the cattle are given.
- Highest degree of quality and care: Individual care system for each cow.
- Special diet for 3 years: feed with wheat, barley, rice, corn and soya beans, hand massages to promote better blood circulation, and fed by beer to create a healthy appetite (not a requirement for the grading)
- Grading system: only beef with A4 or A5 grade will be marketed and sold as Matsusaka beef.
- Registered in the Matsusaka Cattle Individual Identification Management System.
- Situated in the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture.
- The breeder must possess certification by the Yonezawa Beef Brand Promotion Council.
- The (mother) cows must have spent most of their lives at a registered slaughterhouse.
- Yonezawa cows are heifers that have never given birth.
- Conditions to be certificated as Yonezawa Beef: Only beef from cows with good quality of meat and fat is carefully selected; Beef is directly purchased from the market; Only Yonezawa Beef that passes the test of the experienced fifth-generation owner is offered.
- Raised with a long-term fattening method for over 32 months.
- Diet: rice straw.
- Grade of 3 or above, with excellent appearance, meat quality, and marbling.
- The Yonezawa cattle black is not raised for meat production.
- Uses Japanese black cattle grown in Siga Prefecture.
- Raised according to a rich and natural environment: blessed with fresh and clean water of Lake Biwa “the mother lake”, fed with carefully considered nutritional balance.
- High-quality fattening processes lead to meat: well-marbled and soft with tender fat.
- The Omi Beef is the oldest wagyu brands in Japan: 400 years of history
- Not internationally famous as Kobe Beef and can also be bought at a relatively reasonable price compare to other wagyu brands.
Japanese Wagyu vs British, American & Australian Wagyu
We should know that Wagyu doesn’t have the same meaning in Japan than in the United States, Australia and the UK.
In Japan, Wagyu beef refers to purebred cattle for four reasons:
- Raising cattle uniformly and produce high-quality beef,
- The marbling is soft and fine so the texture is also soft,
- Wagyu beef has a tender fat that easily melts leading to a soft mouthfeel,
- Fine and evenly proportion of fat on meat-producing rich flavour.
While, in the US, Australia and the UK, most of the wagyu is half-blood, so 50% Wagyu crossed with other breeds, and raised in a different way:
- The first bloodlines came out of Japan to America in the 1970s and Australia in the 1990s, both become quickly influential in their respective beef industries. The first version of Wagyu beef in the UK was 2011.
- Wagyu Beef Trade: F1 – 50% crossbred Wagyu; F2 – 75% crossbred Wagyu; F3 – 87% crossbred Wagyu; F4 – 93% purebred Wagyu; 100% full-blood Wagyu.
- American Wagyu: Crossbreeding of Angus and Wagyu which yields a beef with rich marbling and deep muscle colour. Kobe Beef in the US is not the real Kobe Beef from Japan. It is “Kobe-style” beef to make the connection to the real Japanese Beef.
- Australian Wagyu Beef: Crossbreeding Holstein and Wagyu to achieve high marbling and light muscle colour. The cattle are all Naturally Raised, free of added hormones and antibiotics and fed a clean diet of grains and grasses. The muscles of their cattle are smaller than Japanese Wagyu.
- British Wagyu Beef: Follow the same crossbreeding than Australian Wagyu Beef.
The comparison between Japan and those countries is depending on what the cows are eating, how they are raised, where they are growing up, which kind of water they are drinking. But every country has its own Wagyu Association but doesn’t benefit from as detailed a rating system as Japanese Wagyu Beef.
There is no regulation in the UK, so to be sure about the meat, you can find where the meat comes from by the Wagyu mark. This Wagyu mark is proof of authenticity only for Wagyu born and raised in Japan. “Wagyu refers to specific breeds and its crossbreeds of beef cattle originated from Japan. These breeds have been selectively bred for a hundred years by Japanese beef cattle producers and breeding agencies.” See more info on MAFF, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, website.
Why is Wagyu beef expensive?
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 cattle have to be reared and fed according to strict guidelines. Raised differently in each region and by different farmers, but they're often raised by a breeder until they're about 10 months old and then sold at auction to a fattening farmer. The fattening farm will keep the animals in small pens and feed them a mixture of fibre and high-energy concentrate made from rice, wheat, and hay. They're often fed this three times a day for almost two years until the animals are almost 50% fat. The length of the fattening process and the import prices of the huge amount of concentrated feed increases the cost of the beef, and over this fattening period, each cow will eat 5 tons of feed.
High marbling is the common goal, but the approach varies by farm and area. While there are more than 300 varieties of wagyu available, the most notable cuts come from 10 regions. The best-known cut of wagyu is Kobe beef, which comes from the city of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture and is made exclusively from steers, or castrated bulls. It is also considered the most abundantly marbled in the world. Wagyu marbling is also better tasting and healthier. Wagyu fat melts at a lower temperature than any other cattle, resulting in a rich and buttery flavour.
DIFFICULT TO SOURCE WAGYU
A lot of tariffs and quotas on Japanese beef imports, not allowed to import live cattle. The exportation of Wagyu beef is controlled and certified by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Kobe Beef is even more controlled by the traceability system and certified by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.
Incredibly tender: intense, fat marbling in the meat. Buttery soft flavour: high-grade piece melt in your mouth.
Both of Wagyu and Kobe Beef have to score the perfect yield and meat quality, which corresponds to Japanese Wagyu Beef A5 or A4.
The value of Japanese exports of wagyu has risen over 200% in the past five years. And as Japan's population ages, farmers are struggling to keep up with the increased global demand, raising prices even more. 2013: Japan exported 5-billion-yen worth of wagyu. 2019: exports hit 24.7 billion yen.
KOBE BEEF LICENCE
All sellers must have a licence to sell Kobe Beef by Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. This licence is a certificate of authenticity respecting the stringent standards for Kobe Beef and showing the provenance of the Wagyu to consumers.
Price guide from £130 to £300 per steak.
Wagyu beef refers to any cattle that are bred in Japan. Kobe beef is comprised of a very particular strain of Wagyu called “Tajima-Gyu” that is raised to strict standards in the prefecture of Hyogo.
So, Kobe Beef is Wagyu Beef, but not all Wagyu beef is Kobe. For being Kobe Beef, a carcass of Tajima-Gyu cattle has to match stringent criteria set by Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.
For being Kobe beef, cattle have to be born, raised, slaughtered and processed in Hyogo Prefecture specifically and his maturity age is between 28 and 60 months. So, the carcass needs to score:
Yield score: A or B
Meat quality score: 4 of 5
BMS: 6 to 12
Carcass weight: 470kg or less
Tajima Beef Certification System
Kobe Beef is the most internationalized beef, and as you read, it is produced from Wagyu lines of cattle in the region of Kobe in Japan. The Kobe Beef Association only certifies about 5.000 heads of Kobe cattle per year and then trace movements at any point in the supply chain around the globe:
- Genetic lineage
- Birth record
- Harvest record
- Ownership of the animal
- Farmer to slaughterhouse, wholesaler and retailers
The strict certification process requires that the beef comes from Tajima-Gyu cows, a pure breed whose lineage traces back to the 1600s. The cows also must be born, raised, and slaughtered in the Hyogo Prefecture, and the beef must pass strict marbling standards. Under this traceability system, restaurants and shops can prove the provenance of their Kobe Beef by showing their certificate of authenticity, which includes a 10-digit ID number that traces the cow’s lineage.
Kobe Beef has been registered as a regional brand product under the Geographical Indication protection system of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Because it’s a product with a specific geographical origin and process qualities or a reputation that is due to that origin.
Kobe Beef Trade Mark:
Trademark of Kobe beef is stamped on carcasses that satisfy all the requirements set by Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association.
Tajima Bronze Statue:
Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association promote and uphold the stringent standards for Kobe beef. Wholesalers, importers/exporters, retailers and restaurants must be authorized by the Association before marketing Kobe Beef. Bronze statue of Tajima-Gyu placed at their shop front is the symbol of the authorized Kobe agent.
Wagyu beef grading
Price guide: from £96 to 241£ for a steak
Japan Meat Grading Association score Wagyu Beef on the basis of the yield grade and meat quality grade. Although, the Association includes the marbling standard as a requirement of Japanese Wagyu Beef.
Yield grade = ratio of meat to the total weight of the carcass. 3 grades = A to C, A providing a higher yield.
Meat quality = 5 grades, from 1 to 5, based on four criteria: fat marbling; the colour and brightness of the meat; its firmness and texture; and the colour and brightness of the fat.
The lowest of the four individual grades becomes the final grade allocated to the meat. A5 being the highest possible mark.
Most Japanese Wagyu Beef is in the A4-A5 range. Australia & the UK use a similar grading system based on the Japanese system.
Please note that the grading system only evaluates the beef’s appearance and quality and does not guarantee the taste as people have different preferences when it comes to flavours and textures.
Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) 1-12
There is definitely some interplay and overlap with the quality score, as marbling is a factor considered when assigning a quality score of 1-5, but the BMS score is much a more specific look at the intramuscular fat. Here is the relationship between quality and BMS:
Quality 1 = BMS 1 (average)
Quality 2 = BMS 2 (good)
Quality 3 = BMS 3-4 (very good)
Quality 4 = BMS 5-7 (excellent)
Quality 5 = BMS 8-12 (exceptional)
As you can see, a score of 5 covers a wide range when it comes to the BMS scale. BMS 8 is very different from BMS 12, yet they are both a 5 for quality.
Quality takes meat colour, fat colour, texture and other variables into account. BMS is purely about the marbling.
How to cook Wagyu steak?
1. Pick the right cut.
You can choose for a standard cut like a filet, a ribeye, flank steak, flat iron or chuck steak.
2. Store your beef.
Your steak storage knowledge takes part in the cooking process. If you are ordering Wagyu online, your beef should arrive completely or partially frozen in vacuum-sealed packaging. You will need to put your steaks in the freezer right away until you are ready to enjoy them.
3. Thaw your beef.
Before cooking, put your Wagyu steak on a plate in the fridge in their original packaging. The best way is to thaw your steak from frozen for 6 hours per pound of meat. When your steaks are thawed, pull them out of the fridge about 30min before you are ready to cook them, so they can reach room temperature. Now, cook them right away so you can maximize their freshness and flavour. Having your Wagyu steak at room temperature lets cook evenly from the centre to the edge.
4. Go light on the seasoning.
The highest-quality Wagyu beef is best with just a bit of salt and pepper, but feel free to use your favourite steak seasoning. Just be sure not to overwhelm the inherent flavour that Wagyu delivers on its own without sauces, marinades, and seasonings.
5. Cook your Wagyu well-not well done.
Kitchen tools: pan-fry, cast iron skillet or oven on a grill mode.
The best temperature to enjoy the luxurious texture and sweet, buttery flavour of Wagyu steak is medium-rare to medium. For cooking, follow these steps:
1. Preheat your cast-iron skillet over high heat.
2. Grease the pan lightly with butter, olive oil, or the pro move of using some of the fat cut from the edges of your Wagyu steak.
3. For a rare finish, sear for three minutes per side. For a medium-rare sear, aim for four minutes per side.
4. Check your Wagyu for doneness by using the magic of the touch test. Or, if you’re old school, check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. Whichever way you go, you’re looking for medium-rare or an internal temperature of 50°c.
5. Remove the steaks and let them rest for at least five minutes but as much as 10 minutes before enjoying.
Ready to eat?
Best advice ever, let rest your steak to have a delicious juice in your mouth.