Wagyu Beef vs Kobe Beef: What’s the Difference?

Steaks on a cutting board

A cut of legitimate Kobe beef will cost a diner around $200, and a Kobe burger is around $50.

What is it about Kobe beef that makes it such a delicacy? Its unparalleled flavor, texture, and tenderness make it a particular indulgence for fine beef connoisseurs.

Lately, many fine restaurants have been offering menu options made from another delicate Japanese beef called Wagyu. What is the appeal of Wagyu beef vs Kobe beef? Let’s have a look.

Wagyu Beef Vs Kobe Beef

Wagyu is literally translated “Japanese cow.” If you see an A4 or A5 rating system describing your Wagyu steak, it is probably an authentically Japanese piece of meat, as distinguished from domestic or American Wagyu.

The Japanese use a Beef Marbling System (BMS) from 3-12, with 12 being almost white with marbling. The higher the BMS of your cut, the more expensive it will be.

Wagyu beef is savory and creamy in flavor. It is low in cholesterol and high in sodium. It is also higher in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fats.

The USDA requires that any restaurant claiming to be serving Wagyu must have meat from the registered parent of a purebred (93-99% Japanese blood) or full blood (100% Japanese blood.)

Kobe beef is a type of Wagyu. Wagyu is not a type of Kobe, so there are types of Wagyu that are not Kobe, including Bungo, Matsusaka, and Ohmi.

It is important to know the differences between Kobe and other Wagyu. Not only does it allow a discerning beef connoisseur to better appreciate each type and its qualities, but it also helps a consumer in the United States to realize if they are having genuine Wagyu or Kobe. Even after significant revisions to menus across the country after having been caught red-handed for misinformation, beef consumers still have trouble knowing if a restaurant is telling the truth.

One way that restaurants work around the Wagyu labeling is by using a hybrid of domestically-raised Wagyu breeds and US breeds and trying to pass it off as Kobe. One such kind of hybrid beef is often called “Wangus” because of the crossbreeding of Wagyu and Aberdeen Angus. That is not to say that Full-blooded Wagyu is impossible to get, but there is a difference and they are rarer than the hybrid variety. But by becoming better informed, one can learn to tell real Kobe and other Wagyu from Wangus and other crossbred iterations.

The Origin of Wagyu Beef

According to the American Wagyu Association, the Wagyu genetic strain may have first appeared as far back as 35,000 years ago. It was during the late 1800s when several breeds of Japanese cattle were crossbred with breeds of imported European cattle. Four of these breeds dominate today’s Japanese beef trade: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn.

While there are domestically-bred Wagyu in the US (Wagyu breeds that have long since been crossbred with US breeds), there are no Japanese Polled or Japanese Shorthorns being bred outside of Japan. If a US ranch were to try claiming to have Japanese Polled or Shorthorn in their hybrid Wagyu, chances are the claim is not legitimate.

Wagyu beef retains its immense value because of the long-standing tradition of high-regulation and mandatory testing for genetics. And to make Wagyu all the more valuable, in 1997, Japan had placed a ban on exporting Wagyu cattle. Wagyu was declared a national treasure of Japan.

Japanese black cattle are known for their marbling, and Japanese brown cattle are known for being leaner with a light, mild taste. Japanese Shorthorn, rich in glutamic acid, is praised for its savory flavor. Finally, Japanese polled cattle have a richer, meatier taste.

90% of Wagyu beef is from strains of black cattle. There are three major black strains that have contributed to black cattle having the majority: Tajiri/Tajima, Fujiyoshi (Shimane), and Kedaka (Tottori). The rest of the cattle population is of the brown/red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.

Great care is taken in feeding them flavorful food such as forage, grasses, rice straw, corn, soybeans, wheat bran, beer, and even sake.

The marbling in black cattle means that meat will melt at a lower temperature. The higher the marbling, the more buttery the flavor. Wagyu beef is also high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

It was not until 1975 that the US received their first imported Wagyu cattle: two Japanese Black bulls and two Japanese Red bulls. In 1993, three Japanese Black females were then imported. Before the ban on Wagyu cattle being exported in 1997, the US had less than 200 full-blooded Wagyu cattle.

In the United States, since 1990, the American Wagyu Association was founded to help register Wagyu cattle and provide information for those in the industry and those who wanted to learn more about it. The association also strives to promote the Wagyu industry as there are generally more health benefits to Wagyu than traditional American beef.

According to the American Wagyu Association, it is estimated that there are about 30,000 Wagyu-influenced cattle (crossbred). And of that number, less than 5,000 of them can be considered Full-blood Wagyu (100% genetically Wagyu, no crossbreeding). Both in the crossbred and the Full-blood Wagyu, the beef quality is known to be better than traditional Angus. While around 3% of Angus receives a Prime Grade, about 90% of beef that is influenced by Wagyu (crossbred) gets a Prime Grade. Even better, when looking at a Full-blood Wagyu, it can have as much as five times the marbling as traditional US Prime beef.

To Be a Kobe

Kobe beef is considered to be the most marbled beef in the world. In order to be considered Kobe, it must meet a certain number of requirements.

Kobe must come from a steer or virgin cow. The cattle must also be 100% pure Tajima black strain Wagyu, and its every known ancestor must also pass muster.

It has to have been born in Tajima-Gyu within Hyogo Prefecture, a fertile region of Japan on Honshu Island. The volcanic soil is rich in vitamins. The region is also close to the ocean, allowing fish bones and minerals to enrich the soil.

Kobe beef must be fed on a farm within Hyogo Prefecture, and the meat must be processed within Hyogo Prefecture.

Kobe beef needs to have a marbling rate of 6 or higher on a 12-point scale. It also has to have a meat quality rating of 12 or higher on a 5-point scale. The overall weight of the animal should not exceed 470 kg.

The reason for Kobe beef claims to be taken seriously, and to be skeptical of US restaurant claims of serving Kobe, is because of how rare Kobe beef actually is outside of Japan. To give some perspective, the Hyogo government maintains its Kobe beef stock with the semen of just 12 bulls that they keep in a special facility. And then, after slaughtering the cattle and grading the meat, only half of the Tajima cattle even make it to qualify as Kobe. This is how the taste, flavor, and texture of Kobe beef is maintained so consistently, and is thus so exceptional.

By the average rate that beef is consumed, the amount of Kobe beef exported to the US is roughly 77 Americans. With only 33 restaurants in the US serving Kobe beef, one should keep them in mind when going in search of the coveted beef. To ensure that it is proper Kobe beef, consult the list of 33 restaurants and make sure that you are going to one of them. A lot of them are based in the West, but there are some restaurants in Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York that serve genuine Kobe beef. Consult the official Kobe-Niku site every year to see if there are any updates to your national Kobe listings.

Bon Appetit

When it comes to Wagyu Beef vs Kobe Beef, you cannot go wrong with either selection. Both will provide you with a melt-in-your-mouth, delightful dining experience. It is important to be a discerning consumer when searching for that Wagyu experience. Remember to consult the official Kobe-Niku site when looking for restaurants that sell legitimate Kobe beef, and when searching for any other Wagyu, bear in mind the marbling differences that there can be in a crossbred Wagyu versus a Full-blood Wagyu.

Also, if you are looking for regional labeling on imported Wagyu, be aware of the regions of Japan that produce Wagyu so that you can compare it to the places that restaurants claim them to be from. And imported beef from Japan can only come in boneless cuts.

There is a distinct difference that even the hybrids have versus the Full-blood. Look for that juicy, melts-in-your-mouth succulence that would come with a 100% Full-blood Wagyu. But even the Wagyu-influenced beef is fantastic and is far healthier compared to the conventional beef competition. Either way, you will be in for an amazing treat that only Wagyu beef can bring you.

For more information, contact us today.