Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Wagyu and Kobe Beef, Explained
If you’re dropping $150 for a steak, you should know what you’re getting into. All your questions, answered.
The words "wagyu" and "Kobe" get thrown around a lot, probably because of the dollar signs their refined perception evoke in the eyes of restaurateurs. After the 2016 Inside Edition exposé blew the lid off the matter—letting everyone know that, at the time, there were only eight restaurants selling certified Kobe beef in the whole United States—both consumers and chefs started getting more conservative with these terms.
Still, there’s a lot of confusion, because a lot of these terms can get super detailed and technical: Down to percentages of genetics, import laws, and the numbers and letters of the Japanese meat grading system. However, if you’re dropping $150 for a steak, you want to know what you’re getting into. We talked to several experts—a leading butcher, a restaurant general manager, a chef, and the leader of the American Wagyu Association—to clear up all the facts.
First off: What is Wagyu, and how is it different from Kobe?
Let’s start with the most basic definition of wagyu, which is pretty well known at this point. The term literally translates to “Japanese cow.”
“Wa means Japanese, and gyu means cow,” Eiji Mori says. He’s currently the executive general manager of Sushi Roku in Newport Beach, California, which is one of relatively few restaurants nationwide to serve Bungo beef, a type of imported wagyu. Mori, having lived in Japan, also maintains connections to its beef industry and has toured what is, he describes, the beef equivalent of the famous Tsukiji fish market. There, a single cow can sell for $20,000 or $30,000.
Not all beef in Japan or from Japan is wagyu.
Technically, wagyu refers to any of four specific Japanese breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Brown. (Kobe beef comes only from Japanese Black, for example.) Any Japanese cattle breeds besides these four (and they do exist) should not be called wagyu, Mori confirms.
Kobe is one kind of wagyu. There are many.
All Kobe is wagyu. Not all wagyu is Kobe.
Other types of wagyu include Matsusaka, Ohmi, and Bungo beef, all raised in different prefectures in Japan and subject to their own regulations.
Miyazaki beef from the Miyazaki prefecture is another type of wagyu that has actually been ranked higher than Kobe, at Japan’s primary wagyu judging event. Wolfgang Puck also served it at this year’s Oscars, which Miyazaki’s marketing team probably had something to do with, Mori speculates. “Their marketing team is really, really good,” he says.
However, for now, Kobe is still the most internationally recognized wagyu brand. It’s so successful, in fact, that NBA player Kobe Bryant sued the ancient city for profiting off “his” name for its beef. But we digress.
Read more on different types of Wagyu on the Japanese government’s website here.
What can and cannot be called "wagyu"?
Well, for starters, that word means two different things in Japan and in the United States.
In Japan, wagyu refers to purebred cattle.
Per Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), wagyu refers to 100% pure strains of Japanese Black, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Polled, or Japanese Brown cows.
In the United States, most wagyu is half-blood.
Specifically, the USDA defines wagyu as being at least 46.875% pure Japanese blood.
That’s according to George Owen, who’s Executive Director of the American Wagyu Association, the regulatory body for wagyu in the United States. He tells Food & Wine in an email, “Most of the Wagyu served in the U.S. is a F1 or half-blood Wagyu. USDA requires that any label claiming Wagyu must be from one registered parent of Purebred [93.75-99.99% Japanese blood] or Fullblood level [100% Japanese blood]. There are restaurants that do serve 100% Fullblood Wagyu as well. Due to the limited number of 100% Fullblood animals, most are used for breeding purposes and not for eating.”
So, does wagyu raised in America (whether it’s full-blood or half-blood) have to be called "American wagyu," or can it just be called "wagyu?"
According to Owen, it can just be called "wagyu." In his words: “Wagyu beef is what the members and breeders of the American Wagyu Association produce.”
However, restaurants should specify when they’re offering imported wagyu versus domestic wagyu or American wagyu—and usually they will, because they want to brag that they have a product that’s perceived as more premium. Imported wagyu has to pass through stricter production and grader standards than its American counterparts, so this perception isn’t necessarily off base.
If you see “A5” or “A4” on a menu, know that that’s a Japanese rating system and that beef is from Japan, Mori says.
Anytime you see the words "Miyazaki," "Bungo," "Matsusaka," or "Kobe" on a menu, also know that, by definition, they are imported from Japan. You can’t have American Kobe or American Miyazaki—that’s oxymoronic.
How does full-blood American wagyu stack up to its Japanese counterpart? Is Japanese wagyu really better just because it’s Japanese?
“There really is no comparison,” Walter Apfelbaum says, implying that the Japanese version is stronger. He’s been a butcher for three decades and currently serves Miyazaki beef (which, by definition, is imported from Japan) at Prime + Proper steakhouse in Detroit, where he is executive butcher.
In theory, both full-blood American wagyu and its Japanese counterpart come from genetically pure pools, but wagyu “is about more than just genetics,” Apfelbaum stresses. “It’s what the cows are eating, how they’re raised, the kind of water they’re drinking, everything. Miyazaki cows, for example, are fed sake mash and are grazing on vegetation grown in volcanic soil, which is super fertile. Volcanic soil is where the best things on earth grow. It’s also close to the ocean so there are fish bones and minerals in the soil, which also enriches their diet.”
American wagyu also doesn’t benefit from as detailed a rating system as Japanese wagyu.
Because Japanese beef is so intensely marbled, both Japanese and American wagyu are literally off the charts on USDA’s marbling rating system.
This is kind of a problem, because that means that American wagyu doesn’t benefit from the same rating system that Japanese wagyu does. Japan has a scale called the Beef Marbling Standard, or BMS, which goes from 3 to 12. 12 being super, super marbled. Here’s a picture of a BMS 12 cut below, courtesy of Apfelbaum.
Per a Washington State University report, USDA Prime (the best possible classification for U.S. beef, comprising just 1.5% of all beef in the country, according to Apfelbaum) clocks in at a BMS 5. The USDA Marbling Score scale itself tops out at the Japanese BMS equivalent of 7. Thus, it’s really hard to compare American wagyu to its Japanese original when they don’t even have the same universal rating system.
Check out page 7 of the report for the full BMS vs. USDA comparison.
Perhaps a better question to be asking here is: How does American wagyu compare to USDA Prime?
If you’re looking for that melt-in-your-mouth feel that makes wagyu so special—and if you value highly marbled meat—then American wagyu is the best beef produced in this country. Period.
Owen says, “The full-blood product can achieve a level of Prime that the majority of Americans have never seen. Both half-bloods and full-bloods produce a product so highly marbled that the USDA grading scale does not have a designated grade that accounts for the high level of marbling.” Owen being the Executive Director of the American Wagyu Association, one would forgive him for being biased, but his statement is objectively backed up by the Washington State University report.
Does "American Kobe" mean anything?
The short answer:
No. It’s totally meaningless.
The long answer:
Much like Champagne, which has to be produced in France and meet a strict set of additional standards to be able to be sold as Champagne—notice the capital C—Kobe is a regional brand of beef from cows that must be born, raised, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyōgo prefecture. It should always be capitalized, because it’s a registered trademark.
(In theory, wagyu is also a trademarked term in Japan and thus a proper noun, but it is not universally capitalized.)
"American Kobe" is an oxymoron. It doesn’t exist.
Going with the Champagne analogy, it’s like calling something "Spanish Champagne." It doesn’t make sense. If you see these words on a menu, run.
You could call something “American Kobe-style,” but that is still iffy.
American Kobe-style beef would be more accurate, although it’s still misleading. Either something is American wagyu or it’s not, as objectively defined by the USDA.
Owen says that the AWA discourages the term “American Kobe.”
“Kobe is a name or term that Americans are familiar with, so that has been used in the past to help ‘identify’ the product to the average consumer,” he says. “We do not encourage the use of Kobe here in the US. Over the past several years the recognition of Wagyu in the US has grown and is familiar to most consumers, resulting in Kobe not being used as often. Kobe beef is produced from Wagyu lines of cattle in the region of Kobe in Japan.”
Is Kobe really the best beef in the world?
Obviously this is subjective. But according to Japan’s National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu, the country’s definitive wagyu contest, no.
As you may have heard, the honor of “best wagyu” goes to Miyazaki beef, which won first place in the beef category at The 2017 Wagyu Olympics. That’s the colloquial name for Japan’s National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu, the top beef industry show held in the country once every five years. To clinch the honor, Miyazaki beat out Kobe and a handful of other types of wagyu. Judging is based on marbling and texture of the meat, along with other qualities. Bungo beef, a lesser known type of wagyu, won first place in the “Champion Cow” category which judges cow physique, and Kagoshima wagyu won first place in the overall competition.
Apfelbaum also says no, Kobe is not the best.
He prefers Miyazaki. “There’s no comparison in a side-by-side test,” he says. “The marbling is so much better.”
Mori and another chef we spoke with, David Walzog, were on the fence. At the end of the day, both of them actually preferred less marbled meat. Apfelbaum prefers USDA Prime, and Walzog is a fan of Lobel’s, the New York-based supplier that sells American wagyu and USDA Prime.
“In Japan, you might be getting your wagyu served sliced, dipped in a light broth like shabu,” Walzog says. “That’s how you would eat it. An eight-ounce [wagyu] steak is going to be overload. Guests come in here and want 16 ounce Kobe ribeyes. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
Even though Apfelbaum has the most expensive imported steaks at his fingertips, at the end of the day, he prefers USDA Prime. “When I eat a steak, I want to actually be able to eat a steak,” he says. “Miyazaki is so rich, I can have just a couple ounces of that, and I’m good. If you get the stuff with a BMS of 12 [the highest marbling grade], it’s so white it can look like a piece of lard.”