Wagyu vs Kobe Beef: A Complete Guide
Maybe you enjoy summer cookouts with friends. Maybe you’re a meat aficionado who loves dining out at gourmet eateries, All-American steakhouses, Japanese restaurants, and everywhere great meat is served. Maybe you like your beef paired with a fine wine, or maybe you’re more of a beer and mashed potatoes kind of meat lover. Great meat goes well with any number of settings and events, but wherever and with whomever you share it with, one thing is for sure – you want the best beef possible.
For beef buffs in Japan, America, and around the world, Kobe beef is one of the most tantalizingly tender steak entrees in the world.
But, as the classic commercial asks, “Where’s the beef?”
Let’s get to the meat of the matter and see what’s behind Wagyu vs Kobe beef and whether they’re all sizzle and no steak or if they live up to their scintillating reputation.
- An Intro to Wagyu Beef
- Explaining Wagyu vs Kobe Beef
- The Myth and Reality of Kobe Beef
- Japanese vs American Wagyu
An Intro to Wagyu Beef
For the uninitiated, Wagyu Beef is nothing more or less than a catch-all descriptor for Japanese beef. Wagyu took off in the late 1800s, during which time Japan opened up to the West with a great deal of intercontinental trade and exchange, including cows and breeding methods. Breeding Japanese and European cows together created four distinct strains of beef (Black, Brown, Polled, and Shorthorn) which continue to dominate the Japanese beef market.
So, what makes Wagyu beef taste so good?
The story starts with the quality of its monounsaturated fats. In high-quality beef such as the finest Wagyu varieties, this fat doesn’t clump together but is instead spread out among the meat in marbling patterns. Wagyu beef is renowned for its marbling, which is those little white flecks you see in raw red meat. Marbling can add a great deal of flavor to meat as well as consistency, making it nice and soft. This creates a blend of fat and meat which is soft and sumptuous without being as unhealthy as the unsaturated fat found in other types of steak.
What’s more, monounsaturated fats melt at lower temperatures than your body temperature, allowing it to melt in your mouth. It’s that special combination of superior breeding, marbling, monounsaturated fats, supple consistency, and its overall savory and flavorful taste which make Wagyu beef one of the most sought-after varieties in the world.
Then there is the fact that, due to Japan’s topographical situation, ancient Japanese farmers needed innovative feeding techniques to ensure that their cows got enough nutrients. Some of these methods survive today and help give Wagyu cows their characteristic flavor.
All of this helps produce the soft sumptuous beef which has made Wagyu beef an international sensation.
Explaining Wagyu vs Kobe Beef
The confusion and disagreement over Wagyu vs Kobe beef can be as hot as both meats are when they’re cooked as scintillating steaks. The simplest way to draw a distinction between the two is that while all Kobe beef is Wagyu beef, not all Wagyu beef is Kobe beef. As stated above, Wagyu beef is, if not necessarily all Japanese beef, the vast majority of it.
Kobe beef, by contrast, gets its name from the Kobe region in which these cows are bred and raised. Despite the fact that “Kobe” and “Wagyu” are often erroneously used interchangeably, Kobe beef is, in its own right, also one of the most lauded beef variants in the world.
You’ll want to beware of restaurants trying to pass the two off as the same thing. They are not, and if you’re paying for Kobe beef, chances are you’re paying a great deal for the privilege of eating something much rarer and more rarified than “regular” Wagyu beef. Don’t be fooled – Wagyu is the broad, catch-all term for most Japanese beef, whereas Kobe is the more specific and exclusive option.
If you see beef listed specifically as “Kobe,” there’s a greater chance that you’re actually getting what you’re paying for. If it is listed as Wagyu, however, you may want to scrutinize the choice a bit more. Don’t just assume that you’re getting Kobe beef.
The Myth and Reality of Kobe Beef
That great fame has led to Kobe beef being associated with tremendous price tags. It is not uncommon to see Kobe steak selling near or at triple figure prices in upscale restaurants. Much of that has to do with myths such as the cows being fed beer, given massages, listening to classical music, and otherwise being treated to a life of bovine luxury. While it’s true that these cows are often raised in better living situations than your average cattle pen, these outlandish claims are almost entirely false.
What is true, however, is the fact that the standards for judging something to be Kobe beef are incredibly high. All of the cows need to come from a virgin cow or steer, their lineage stretching back several breeding generations needs to be approved, and the cows must indeed enjoy reasonably good standards of living.
The bar for acceptance is high, as only a select number of Kobe cows from the Tajima area of the Hyogo region make the cut.
In a way, Kobe beef is the Champagne of the cow world insofar as its much-lauded quality and reputation is based as much on an aura surrounding a location and ideal as it is on the actual product. As any wine snob will eagerly tell you, sparkling wine can only rightly be called “champagne” if it’s from the Champagne region of France. Likewise, for as mythologized as it has become, something can only be called “Kobe beef” if it’s beef from the Kobe area in Japan.
On the one hand, as mentioned above, Wagyu beef is still of good quality overall, just as there are plenty of sparkling wines without the fancy “Champagne” status.
On the other hand, if you’re paying for those mythologized qualities – real or imagined – you want to make sure you get the beef you’re expecting.
Japanese vs American Wagyu
While “fullblood” vs. “half-blood” is the kind of debate usually relegated to the pages of a Harry Potter novel, it’s incredibly important to know what is and isn’t classified as Wagyu beef. As indicated above, Japanese beef regulators take these classifications quite seriously, examining every branch of a bovine’s family tree before awarding them the status of Kobe beef or any other type of beef within the Wagyu label.
As you might expect, all of that extra inspecting and care which comes with the exalted Wagyu and Kobe beef statuses has led others on the market to try to produce their own alternatives. While they aren’t authentic to the region-specific rules, it’s worth knowing what “American” Wagyu is all about.
While these varieties might be tasty on their own, they aren’t typically viewed as being on par with their Japanese counterparts. For one thing, American cows are half the Wagyu quality Japanese ones are – literally. Where Japanese breeding regulations strictly enforce those family tree checks to ensure purity, in American alternatives, only one of the two parents needs to be a Wagyu cow.
While the effects on the taste are debatable – after all, there is more to quality beef than mere bovine breeding – it is worth noting that specific qualities of Wagyu beef, such as the marbling and low melting point, will be dissipated with “only” a half-blood breed.
In keeping with those standards, while the American system for evaluating meat as prime grade is stringent, it is not perfectly congruous with its Japanese counterpart.
By contrast, the USDA uses a grading system of Commercial, Select, Choice, and Prime, with many factors determining the ranking.
The issue is somewhat like trying to convert inches to meters, or vice versa – if you don’t know the differences between the two metrics, you can wind up with some wildly inaccurate readings.
Even that analogy, however, does not fully capture the differences on display between these ranking systems. After all, while the “size” of the measurements may change between inches and centimeters, what they’re actually measuring does not change. Conversely, American and Japanese cows are different – after all, that’s part of why the breeding of the latter are prized above that of the former in this example.
Authentic Japanese and “American” Wagyu each have their place – it’s just important to know what to expect from each of them.
If you are looking for the special kind of marbled meat which makes well-raised Japanese beef so internationally beloved among beef aficionados, you’ll want to go with authentic Wagyu.
That said, “American” Wagyu cows are often far cheaper for Western markets to buy.
Asking “where’s the beef?” thus first requires knowing where the beef came from and what it’s all about. Authentic Japanese beef can make for some of the best steaks in the world. Kobe steaks in particular are prized, and even if their legendary status is equal parts sizzle and substance. “American” Wagyu is an affordable, tasty alternative to its much more expensive authentic counterpart, which remains the gold standard when it comes to both taste and texture.
While you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the type and cut you want, any beef lover should be happy with any of these options on the menu.