Japanese & American Wagyu: Complicated like Fine Wine
Japanese & American Wagyu: Complicated Like Fine Wine
The Japanese beef industry is thought to have the highest quality beef in the world. Highly marbled with it's own exclusive grading system, an A5 lineage Wagyu cow can sell for as much as $100,000 and a single serving can fetch upwards of $500. Translating literally to “Japanese Cow,” Wagyu Beef and the evolution of American Wagyu Beef is as convoluted as it is coveted.
For a long time, Japan was isolated under the Tokugawa shogunate. During this period between 1600 and 1868, religious and cultural expectations prohibited meat and dairy consumption, restricting any Japanese livestock to work animals. Strict social norms and being surrounded by water resulted in zero cross-breeding with any foreign cattle, leaving the Japanese cattle lineage virtually pure until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Attempting to catch up with developing Western societies, almost 3,000 heads of cattle were imported into Japan between 1868-1887.
After about a decade of cross-breeding, Japanese farmers started to notice that despite the larger size and increases dairy production, the work capacity of these hybrids suffered and the meat quality diminished. In 1919, in an attempt to curb the decline in quality, four cross-breeds were chosen based on being superior to native Japanese breeds, foreign imports and all other cross-breeds. The Japanese Black, Japanese Polled, Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Brown were given the label of “Improved Japanese Cattle.” In order to maintain quality, very specific requirements were put in place to ensure that the desired traits were not bred out overtime.
Here is where it starts to get interesting. Before we go into any detail, it is important to know that this article will focus on two kinds of beef that carry the name Wagyu. One is beef born from 100% Japanese lineage and raised entirely in Japan that we will refer to as Wagyu and the other is beef that a cross between imported Waygu and another species of beef, raised in the United States, which we will refer to as American Wagyu. Both these labels are broad strokes in an attempt to make some sort of sense of all the possible breeds and species involved.
All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe
Known globally for being extensively marbled with a fat so supple that it begins to melt around 56F — literally melt in your mouth — Wagyu Beef is categorized regionally similarly to how the wine industry operates. Each region specializes in specific breeds and raising practices, with some revered more than others. The most well-known and sought after of the dozen or so brands are Kobe, Matsusaka Ushi, Ohmi and Miyazakigyu. These are referred to as Sandai Wagyu, or “3 Best Brands.” The argument over whether Ohmi or Miyazakigyu deserves the 3rd spot is a hot and sometimes sensitive topic. However, with Miyazakigyu earning first place at Japan’s National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu — the Wagyu Olympics — in 2017, the case for Ohmi may be running out of steam.
Branding of Wagyu meat is very specific. Much like how a true Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, only certain regions can grown certain brands of Wagyu. The most well known brand, Kobe is a great example.
In order to be marketed as Kobe, a cow needs to be a Japanese Black species that is from pure Tajima Lineage. It must be born and raised in the Hyuga Prefecture — who’s capital is Kobe. They are grown to age in 28-60 months and must have a rating of A4-5 or B4-5 (see below). There are also raising practices that are traditional and exclusive to the Kobe brand. They are fed beer to promote eating and are misted with Sake which acts as a bug repellent. Only about 5,000 out of 2 million Japanese cattle goes to market as Kobe and of that 5,000, only 10% is exported. If a Waygu cow doesn't meet all of these requirements, it is not legally allowed to be called Kobe.
Similarly, other Wagyu brands have specific requirements. Matsuzaka cows are held to a strict 900 day growth period and only allow virgin females to be marketed under the brand. Miyazakigyu cattle are fed sake mash and are raised on grass grown in coastal volcanic soil, nutrient rich with fish bones and mineral deposits.
Wagyu Beef is visually stunning, with the highest rated meats being almost completely white with intramuscular fat. The quality of all Wagyu is based on 15 possible grades, involving several factors with specific rating measurements and standards. Each carcass is is given a final grade consisting of a Letter (A, B or C) and a Number (1-5).
The letter designation, referred to as the Yield Score, is assigned based on the percentage of meat that is present in a given carcass. A requires 72% percent or higher, B requires 70%-71% — considered average — and C is any carcass registering 69% or below.
The number grade refers to the quality of the meat. Broken into four categories, each is rated on a specific scale and then scored on a 1-5 scale. The categories include: Beef Marbling, Color & Brightness of Meat, Firmness & Texture of Meat and Color, Luster & Quality of Fat.
Beef marbling is rated using the Beef Marbling Score (BMS). BMS initially included ratings of 1-12 but has since eliminated scores of 1 & 2 and now the lowest rating is 3. The higher the intramuscular fat, the higher the rating, with BMS ratings of 8-12 bringing a score of 5.
Color & Brightness is scored using the Beef Color Score (BCS) and is quite subjective. The BCS is rated based on a scale of No. 1 - No. 7 with 1 being closer to pink and 7 being closer to maroon, with brightness being scored from Very Good to Below Average. The depth of color seems to be more of a description and the visual inspection of brightness is what determines quality. The combination of the two delivers the 1-5 grade.
Firmness and Texture falls into the subjective camp with Color & Brightness. Firmness is scored on a Very Good to Inferior scale and texture on a Very Fine to Course scale. Both will be considered when assigning the 1-5 grade.
Color, Luster & Quality of Fat is slightly easier to comprehend than the last two categories. Using the Beef Fat Score (BFS) and is ranked on a No.1 - No. 7 scale based on the color of the fat; 1 being pale white and 7 closer to beige. Luster and Quality is a visual appraisal that influences the overall quality rating.
Once these categories are assigned their numerical grade of 1-5, the lowest of the 4 ratings determines what number will be assigned along with the Yield Ratings. For example, a Kobe beef cow that comes in and yields 80% meat to total weight and has quality scores of 5, 5, 4, 3, then the meat will earn a rating of A3. If it scores 5, 5, 5, 5, then it gains the coveted rating of A5 the highest rating possible. For perspective, the highest USDA rating of Prime would register a total score of no higher than A3 on the Wagyu scale due to it's respective lack of marbling.
Exporting & the Appearance of American Waygu
Wagyu beef is a point of pride for Japan. It can fetch hefty sums on any restaurant menu in the world, not only because of the quality it infers, but the exclusivity of actually serving true Wagyu.
In 1997, Japan labeled Wagyu as a national treasure and instated an exporting ban that lasted until 2012. During the ban, the market for smuggled and fraudulent Wagyu exploded due to there being no active US trademark on the term Wagyu or any iteration of the word. In 2009, the US officially banned any Wagyu being brought into the county amidst concerns of an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease in Japan.
The first appearance of Wagyu Beef in the US happened in 1976 with the import of two Tottori Black and two Kimamoto Red bulls. Between 1976 and 1997, only 200 head of Wagyu were imported to the US. The imports struggled in their new environments, so ranchers began to cross them with proven Black & Red Angus, as well as Holstein cattle. These hybrids are referred to as American Wagyu and were first exhibited at the 2012 National Western Stock Show. The following year, only 17 Wagyu cattle were imported to the US.
American Wagyu does not follow the same Letter/Number rating that is enforced in Japan. Instead they have the F Scale. F1 refers to any cows that have 50% Wagyu bloodlines. F2 means 75%, F4 means 93.75% and Full Blood grade means exactly that. Anything less than a 46.875% Wagyu lineage does not allow it to carry the American Wagyu label to market. Even though these Flood Blood rated cows have pure lineages, they are not raised in the same manner or regions, thus they cannot be considered Wagyu cows. Of the 30,000 Wagyu influenced cattle in the US, only 5,000 are Full Bloods.
Due to aging farmers and declining production numbers, the price of locally raised Wagyu Beef is skyrocketing in Japan. Ironically, most of the American Wagyu Beef is being exported back to Japan.
If You’ve Had Wagyu Outside of Japan, You Probably Haven’t Had Wagyu
Once Japan realized the economic potential of exporting Wagyu Beef, they did so under very controlled circumstances. Only four Japanese distributors are allowed to export globally and in the case of Kobe, any buyer must apply for a membership with the Japanese Kobe Beef Association and each cow exported is tracked from source to destination.
Though the exportation ban has been lifted, due to there still not being any regulations on what can and cannot be called Wagyu, misrepresentation of Wagyu Beef on US menus is still rampant. Therefore, you should be careful of what you are buying and where.
As of 2017, only 9 restaurants in the US offered genuine Kobe Beef. While that number is growing, it is still a very exclusive product. If you see a Kobe Beef product for less than $200, it's probably not real Kobe, especially that 12oz - $19 Kobe Beef Burger you’ve been waiting to try. True Kobe Beef is so rich that more than a few ounces is too much for most eaters.
If you want to know if the Kobe Beef being offered is legitimate, ask the restaurant to see the meat’s certification papers. Each Kobe Beef grown in Japan is assigned a number, much like a vehicle’s VIN number. This number follows each cow from birth to consumption. Any restaurant that is serving Kobe Beef should have the certificate. Often times the certifications are written in Japanese but all official Waygu imported beef will carry a sticker with the Wagyu symbol as well as the grade.
Is Wagyu worth all this?
Clearly, this is left this up to the individual. As a life experience, sure, Wagyu Beef is borderline magical. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford the steep cost, it will be well worth it, but there are a few things to consider.
Wagyu meat is actually healthy, in moderation. Typically high in monounsaturated fat at a rate of 3:1 compared to other beef, they are considered heart healthy due to the amount of Omega-3 and Omega-6.
Historically, some of the raising practices are questionable. While it doesn't appear torturous, some types are limited to small spaces to encourage fat rather than meat development. The whole feeding them beer to encourage eating is also debatable. While I don’t disagree that a drunk cow will eat more, I do question the voluntary nature of the process. So, the choice is your’s.
If you do get a hold of true Wagyu Beef, there is really only one way to prepare it. Invite over a few close friends and ask them to gather around to witness the spectacle. Slice the snowy meat into 1 inch slices and lightly salt both sides. Heat a dry pan over med-high heat and place the meat in without any added oil. Wagyu is so fatty that it will render out almost immediately and cook in it's own fat. Sear quickly on all sides and serve over lightly dressed greens — you don’t want to take a chance of masking the flavor of your $20 bite.
At Buy Ranch Direct, we do not offer Wagyu Beef because of everything you just read. What we are doing is integrating the Wagyu bloodline into our entire herd. Our goal is to give you the highest quality meat at the best possible price. We want all the delicious grass-fed and finished flavor without the 2nd mortgage level cost.