Wagyu beef has made quite a reputation for itself here in the United States. Often thought of being and marketed as synonymous with Kobe beef, wagyu beef is known primarily for two attributes: it’s unique, fat-marbled texture that gives it a somewhat light and delicate, but still rich taste, and for it’s cost-- sometimes up to $200 per pound. When comparing the raw cuts of meat to ordinary beef, it is quite obvious that wagyu is different from appearance alone, but what exactly makes it so special? And what about it makes it worth the sometimes very steep price? The answer to both of these questions lies in the source of the meat itself-- specifically in the peculiarities of Japanese cattle.
The term “wagyu” simply means in Japanese, “Japanese cow” and refers to the breeds of cattle endemic to Japan. Due to Japan’s nature as an island, Japanese cattle breeds genetically diverged from other breeds sometime around 35,000 years ago. This variation results in Japanese cattle possessing a genetic predisposition to carrying body fat intramuscularly, rather than in deposits over top of the muscle and beneath the skin. Fat deposits within the muscle tissue leads to the marbled, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the cooked meat that wagyu is known for. About half wagyu’s superior taste is attributed to the genetics of the cattle. The other half has entirely to do with how the cattle are raised.
There is a common misconception that wagyu is delicious because the cows are raised in small sheds, massaged and fed beer for the duration of their lives, but with their movement restricted in a similar fashion to the ways that foie gras or veal are produced. This is actually not true. While there is a great deal of care put into raising wagyu cattle, they are allowed to roam freely as they wish within outdoor pens and are fed (but not overfed or force-fed) a nutritious diet of grain feed, and natural grazing. Wagyu farmers put a lot of effort into raising their cows with as little stress in their lives as possible-- as high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can decrease the quality of the meat. Their pens are kept in quiet areas, away from loud and potentially scary noises, and cows that do not get along are separated from each other. The animals’ enclosures are large enough to provide ample room for them to move and graze, but not so large that they can get lost or disappear from the farmers’ careful supervision.
The amount of care put into creating a low-stress animal centered life for wagyu cattle by Japanese farmers is largely what results in the high price. Fewer cows can be kept on larger plots of land, and both the environment and cows’ well being must be meticulously tended. This results in a much higher labor cost for the farmers, which in turn leads to a more expensive cut of meat. However, the effort of the farmers’ care, coupled with the cows’ unique genetics makes for a beef quality unparalleled by any other.
While the terms Kobe beef and wagyu may be used interchangeably in the United States, Kobe beef actually refers specifically to wagyu from the Japanese city of Kobe. However, Kobe wagyu was the first type to gain fame in the US for its flavor and price, and as such the name “Kobe beef” stuck. Most wagyu for sale in the United States is from not purebred Japanese cows, but a hybrid cross bred with Black Angus cows. The meat from these hybrid cows retains the classic fat marbling that wagyu is famous for, but is slightly leaner making it easier to eat without becoming overwhelmed.