What is Wagyu? – Your Ultimate Guide to the best beef ever

wagyu meat for sous vide

If you’ve ever been to a posh restaurant, chances are you’ve seen Wagyu steak on the menu (and probably had your eyes bulging at the price!). This brings about the questions: What is Wagyu? What makes it so special and why does it taste unlike any other steak out there?

Whether you were able to order it or not, Wagyu beef makes one of the most delicious steaks you can ever taste. Although the transcendently tender, umami-packed Wagyu steak has recently become synonymous with luxury meals as caviar or black truffles, a lot of inaccurate information about this beef is going around even at the most seasoned diners of the country.

Today, we’re answering these questions in detail and diving deep into the Wagyu world. So buckle up and let’s get started with our ultimate guide to the world’s most luxurious beef.

What is Wagyu Beef?

Wagyu is a Japanese breed of beef cattle derived from native Asian cattle. It’s a horned breed and the cattle are either red or black in color.

Wagyu literally means Japanese cow (‘Wa’ means Japanese and ‘gyu’ means cow) and it’s pronounced wah-gyoo rather than the common US mispronunciation wah-goo.

What is wagyu? This is a wagyu cow on a farm
Japanese wagyu cattle (credit: dartagnan.com)

Even though Wagyu refers to all Japanese beef cattle, it’s not an umbrella term for just any Japanese cow. The luxury version of Wagyu that everyone wants on their plate is actually a certain breed of Japanese cattle with a unique genetic set.

Before all the jazz, Wagyu were originally draft animals used mainly in agriculture. They were chosen for their physical endurance.

This selection process favored cows with more intramuscular fat cells. Known as marbling, these serve as a readily available energy source.

Wagyu cattle have a genetic tendency to create marbling of fat integrated within the muscle. Compare this to the average piece of steak that’ll typically have a fat cap on the outside.

But why is this trait so important?

Well, it is what sets Wagyu apart from any other breed. See, when cattle eat a lot of food and get fat, Wagyu is the one breed that metabolizes fat internally and incorporates it on the inside of the muscle instead of outside.

This means that any other breed can’t produce Wagyu beef. Even if it’s raised by an award-winning Wagyu cattle farmer in the same exact conditions.

History of Wagyu Breed in Japan

Some evidence of genetic separation into the Wagyu genetic strain suggests its occurrence as long as 35000 years ago.

Modern-day Wagyu cattle are the result of the crossing between the native cattle in Japan and imported breeds. This crossing started in 1868 after the Meiji restoration in the same year.

The Japanese government wanted to introduce its country to Western food culture and habits. So, it imported Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean during this period.

In 1910, the infusions of these British, European, and Asian breeds were closed to outside genetic infusions.

The variation of conformation within the Wagyu breed is greater than that across British and European breeds. The three major black strains – (Tajiri or Tajima, Fujiyoshi (Shimane), and Kaka (Tottori) – evolved because of regional geographic isolation in Japan.

These breeding differences resulted in the production of a Japanese national herd that’s 90% black cattle with the rest being red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.

Four breeds are considered Wagyu in Japan, and those are:

  • Japanese Black (the predominant Wagyu exported to the United States)
  • Japanese Brown (referred to as Red Wagyu in the United States )
  • Japanese Polled
  • Japanese Shorthorn
Four main breeds of Wagyu. Japanese black, brown, shorthorn and polled. Kuroge Washu is the most important.
The four main wagyu breeds. Image credit: crowdcow.com

All Wagyu strains were isolated according to prefecture (jurisdiction). Breeds imported for the crossing weren’t the same in each prefecture. No Japanese Polled or Shorthorns being bred outside Japan.

The production of Wagyu beef in Japan is strictly regulated and testing for progeny is mandatory. Only the very best proven genetics are approved for breeding.

Upon realizing the value of their distinct product, the Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu in 1997 and declared them a national living treasure. Zenwa is the Japanese Wagyu Register Office that oversees the registry for Japanese Black, Brown, Polled, and Shorthorn.

History of Wagyu Breed in the United States

Wagyu beef is relatively new to the US grounds since Wagyu cattle were first imported in 1975. Back then, two black and two red bulls were imported from Japan.

In 1989 the Japanese government began to reduce their tariffs on imported beef, which encouraged US producers to develop a high-quality product for Japan.

In the1990s, several importations of quality Wagyu were already in action.  They were mostly black, but a few were red Wagyu. These cattle had the greatest effect on the US herd.

Most US production was exported to Japan until BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow) was discovered in 2003. Since then, Japan and other countries stopped the import of beef for the U.S. 

However, chefs and restaurants in the United States are aware of the superior eating quality of Wagyu as well as the domestic market, and now utilize much of the US production.

How are Wagyu Cows Raised?

Due to its elevated fat content, a common misconception about Wagyu beef is that it’s produced in the same manner as foie gras. Foie gras is where the movement of the cows is restrained and they’re force-fed to produce fatty, tender meat.

But in reality, the truth couldn’t be further away from such claims. In fact, the number one rule in Wagyu farms is managing the stress level of the cattle to zero.

High levels of stress stimulate the release of cortisol hormone which deteriorates the quality of beef. To avoid this, farmers tend to make sure that the cows live in a stress-free environment from birth to harvest.

In line with this notion, Japanese cattle breeders spare no effort or expenses when it comes to giving their cows a zen-like existence. For example:

  • Farmers control the noise level around the cattle so as not to scare them.
  • They constantly fill up the water so there’s always enough supply of fresh and clean water to drink.
  • Unlike some American farms where cows are free to roam in open pastures, Wagyu cattle in Japan are kept on smaller open-air farms where they can be closely monitored.
  • Cows who don’t get along are separated.

What is the Wagyu Rating System and How does it Work?

The rating system for Wagyu beef is a way to provide consumers with consistent palatability. It is just like any other meat quality grade standard.

However, the Wagyu rating system isn’t the same across the globe. Slight discrepancies arise depending on the country and the supervising organization.

Still, all these organizations seek pretty much the same qualities in Wagyu beef even if they grade it somewhat differently.

The ratings of Wagyu are taken quite seriously within each rating system because Wagyu steak is expected to be of exquisite quality, appearance, and flavor. Here, we’re discussing the grading systems in Japan, the USA, and Australia.

Japanese Wagyu Beef Rating System

The JMGA (Japanese Meat Grading Association) is currently responsible for overseeing the grading of Wagyu beef, similar to how the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) oversees the beef from cattle in the USA.

The JMGA grades Wagyu beef to ensure that it meets the standards expected by consumers when they purchase it. The JMGA gives a score for Wagyu beef based on several factors including:

  • Fat color
  • Meat color
  • Ribeye shape
  • Size of ribeye area
  • IMF% (refers to beef marbling)

The Japanese beef grading system gives Wagyu beef an overall grade from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. Within these grades, there are quality scores ranging from 1 to 12, which encompass all of the factors we just mentioned.

wagyu marbling scale ranging from 1 to 12, 12 being the most marbled.
Up to No.5 is what you can get outside of Japan. Image credit: wagyu-authentic.com

The final grade (1 through 5) is based on the following quality scores:

  • Poor (Quality score of 1)
  • Below Average (Quality score of 2)
  • Average (Quality score of 3 or 4)
  • Good (Quality score of 5 to 7)
  • Excellent (Quality score of 8 to 12)

Accordingly, Wagyu beef Grade 12 would be the crème de la crème as far as Wagyu beef goes because it has both the highest quality score and the highest Wagyu rating.

What does Wagyu A4 or A5 mean?

You may encounter some cuts designated as Japanese Wagyu A4 or A5, but what does that mean?

A5 is the highest grade that Wagyu beef can achieve, outside of Japan. It’s typically reserved for cattle who were fed the best foods (such as corn and grain) and have had excellent care during their raising.

The “A” particularly refers to the yield grade, which is different from the quality grade that’s always a number.

Yield grade demonstrates the cutability of the Wagyu cut, where the higher yield of quality meat gets the A grade. Cuts with a 72% or higher percentage yield are eligible for the A grade, while B and C grades are for lower percentages.

Wagyu grading explained. A to C means the meat yield of one cow, and 1 to 5 means the quality of the meat.
A to C is the yield, 1-5 is the quality grade. Image credit: livejapan.com

USDA Wagyu Beef Rating System

Although it’s true that the numbers of American-raised Wagyu cattle aren’t nearly as high as in Japan or Australia, their meats are still subject to the same standards of these countries.

However, the USDA uses a grading system that revolves around three important words: Select, Choice, and Prime.

Wagyu beef usually falls in the Prime category, which indicates the presence of generous marbling, low carcass maturity, as well as optimal coloring and appearance.

Grade 12 Wagyu beef in the Japanese grading system would equal a Prime rating in the USDA grading system.

Australian Rating Wagyu Beef System

As for the Australian Wagyu beef grading system, it’s rather similar to the Japanese system. But instead of having the quality score go up to 12, the Australian system goes up to 9 only.

The ranges of quality scores needed to achieve a final grade from 1 to 5 are also the same, but the Excellent rating includes quality scores of 8 and 9 only.

Grade A5 Wagyu meat in Australia, accordingly, is very similar to an A5 score given to Wagyu beef in Japan.

Is Wagyu Beef Healthy?

It’s no secret that Wagyu beef is one of the tastiest culinary experiences you’ll ever have. But luckily for all of us, it’s also one of the healthiest types of beef available today.

Research has found that highly marbled Wagyu beef has a high proportion of MUFA (monounsaturated fatty acids) due to high concentrations of oleic acid. Many studies show that MUFAs have very limited effects on total cholesterol.

They’re actually heart-healthy dietary fat because they reduce bad LDL cholesterol while increasing good HDL cholesterol. Studies also found that Wagyu beef may reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

What is the Difference Between Wagyu and Kobe Beef?

Many people use the word “Kobe” interchangeably with “Wagyu”, but what exactly is Kobe beef?

Kobe beef is simply a brand of Wagyu beef, just like Apple is a brand of electronics and Nike is a brand of shoes.

There are a couple of parameters required in order for Wagyu beef to be labeled as Kobe beef:

  • First, it has to originate in Kobe, Japan.
  • Second, all parties involved in getting this meat to your plate must be licensed by The Kobe Beef Association. This includes everything from the farm, to the slaughterhouse, to the buyer, and finally to the restaurant.

Keep in mind that if you see the words “American Kobe” on a menu, you should consider it a huge red flag. There’s no such thing as American Kobe; Kobe is strictly from Kobe, Japan, just like Champagne comes from Champagne, France.

What is the Difference Between Japanese and American Wagyu?

Besides the looser rating system and varying cattle-farming techniques, the major difference between Japanese Wagyu and American Wagyu is that Japanese Wagyu is purebred, whereas American Wagyu is crossbred. The latter is most likely Wagyu bred with Angus cattle.

Wrap Up

There you have it, everything you need to know about the luxurious Wagyu beef. If the opportunity presents itself, try different types of Wagyu from different countries.

By comparing various types of Wagyu beef, you’ll learn something new every time and you’ll recognize it to be more than just a delicious and expensive steak.

The Editorial Team

The Editorial Team

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wagyu meat for sous vide