Wagyu, celebrated for its melt-in-your-mouth texture and heavy marbling, is the most expensive beef in the world, carrying a price tag of hundreds of dollars per pound. But Japanese Wagyu’s astronomical price point isn’t the only thing that’s controversial about it.
Here’s a #knowledgedart to consider: No one in the United States ate true Japanese Wagyu before 2012. An import ban on Japanese beef ensured that those $30 “Kobe sliders” and that $150 “Wagyu steak” you bought were plain old Angus or, at best, domestic Wagyu, the American-bred descendants of Japanese cattle.
In fact, the myths surrounding Wagyu production—i.e., cows getting pampered with massages while being fed beer and sake—are so pervasive that restaurants have leveraged the beef’s posh reputation for their own benefit, successfully scamming thousands of unwitting customers by passing off ordinary steak as the real thing.
Now that Japanese Wagyu is available—albeit in limited quantities—it’s time to parse out the b.s. and get to the bottom of what makes this product so prized by the food world. Here, we debunk some of the most pervasive myths that stand between you and real Wagyu, with help from a panel of experts:
Michael Mina, Michelin starred and James Beard Award-winning chef; founder of the Mina Group of restaurants. (@chefmichaelmina)
Gerald Chin, Executive chef at STRIPSTEAK Las Vegas, 2008 Rising Star Chef (@chefgeraldchin)
Andy Moran, Manager at Japan Premium Beef, a specialty butcher shop in New York City that sells both imported Japanese Wagyu and domestic Wagyu raised on its own farm in Oregon.
Myth: Kobe and Wagyu beef are the same thing.
The facts: In the U.S., the difference between the two is often obscured. Wagyu literally means “Japanese cow,” and it refers to four native breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. Kobe, on the other hand, is an appellation like Champagne or prosciutto di Parma. Beef labeled “Kobe” must come from Tajima-Gyu cattle that have been born, raised, and slaughtered in the Hyōgo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital. Kobe beef is subject to a rigorous grading policy that includes measures of fat-marbling ratio, gross weight of beef, and overall meat quality.
Chin says: “The answer is yes and no. All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Wagyu means Japanese beef. You can’t call something Kobe unless it’s certified from the region in Japan. If you call the other Wagyus Kobe, it’s pretty much like calling California sparkling wine Champagne.” (Photo: Flickr/Japanexperterna.se)
Myth: Cattle for Wagyu beef get massages, are fed beer, and listen to classical music.
The facts: There are strict standards for raising Wagyu, but they don’t include a mandate for boozed-up or blissed-out cows. Some farmers massage their cows because farmland is in short supply in Japan, meaning the cattle can’t roam as freely as they should. Other farmers may massage their cows’ muscles during wintertime, when they are prone to cramping from the cold. While it’s nice to believe in altruistic farmers, the fact is that tender cows lead to tender beef. And the diet of beer? It’s not standard, though some farmers may feed the cows beer to increase their appetites, and thus their levels of fat.
Chin says: “These are working cattle. Back in the old days, they used to go out in the field and work really hard. The weather was super cold, so the animals would go back to the pen, and their joints used to literally seize up, like arthritis. The farmers used to pound on the cows so that when they went back out into the field, their joints weren’t tight. That’s kind of where the massage myth came from.”
Moran says: “As far as the beer and massages go, I’ve heard numerous stories. The one that makes the most sense to me is that parts of Japan are very rocky. The cattle are given beer to keep them happy and stress-free. The massages are given to keep the animals from cramping. Now I can’t say if that’s fact or fiction, but drunk cows getting a massage walking around on mountains is a visual I’m fine with.”
Myth: You can’t purchase authentic Japanese Wagyu beef in this country.
The facts: You can, but only as of 2012. Before 2009, the slaughterhouses in Japan where Wagyu was processed had not been certified for export by the USDA. Between 2009 and 2012, there was a U.S. ban on the importation of Japanese beef to protect against Foot and Mouth Disease. Even with the ban lifted, the quantities of Japanese Wagyu beef being shipped into the U.S. today are still extremely small.
Mina says: “Because of the ban, we couldn’t get [Wagyu] at all [before 2009]. Then there were only about four cuts that we could get for a long time. But that seems to be loosening up as well, and Japanese Wagyu isn’t uncommon anymore.”
Moran: “When we opened in 2009, no one could bring in Wagyu, so we started our own farm. In 2012, the ban on the importation of Wagyu was lifted. Still, even more farms in the United States are offering full-blood Wagyu as well as crossbred Wagyu.” (Photo: Flickr/Tavallai)
Myth: Wagyu is too fatty.
The facts: Wagyu has a particularly rich mouth feel because of the marbling of the fat—not because it has an overall higher proportion of fat than American beef. Wagyu cattle are genetically predisposed to have high levels of unsaturated fats. The fat is evenly dispersed throughout the beef and melts at a low temperature, which gives the steak a buttery texture.
Mina says: “The problem is that people in the U.S. are used to eating too large a portion of steak. If you offered me four ounces of Wagyu over 16 ounces of Angus Ribeye, I’d choose the Wagyu. And I think that’s kind of the overall theory in Japan: super high-quality, and not in excess. It’s also about how you handle it, how you cook it. What you’ll find is that when it’s done tataki style—when it’s just seared, paper thin—the fattiness melts on the top of your mouth. I also like it prepared as shabu shabu; the meat is cooked a little closer to medium and some of the fat releases.” (Photo: Flickr/Cognoscenti)
Myth: Domestic Wagyu is the same thing.
The facts: American farmers imported the first Wagyu cattle from Japan in the 1970s. A few farms maintained pure bloodlines, while many have crossbred the Wagyu with American cattle. To be termed “Wagyu,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the cow be at least 50 percent Wagyu and remain in the feedlot for a minimum of 350 days.
Moran says: “When we opened, we decided to start our own farm where we crossbred American Black Angus and Japanese Black Wagyu. We brought the feeding specialists from Japan to set up this farm, and our cattle are raised exactly how they would be in Japan. We believe the main difference in our domestic Kobe-style beef, or Washugyu as we call it (Wa = Japan, shu = American, gyu = beef), is how the animals are raised and what they are raised on. We raise our cattle for 27-31 months, which is a bit longer than most U.S. cattle farms. We also start our cattle on rice stalks and dry rice for the first several months of the animal’s life to strengthen the stomach, which makes the animal able to take in more nutrients. There are considerable differences in marbling, texture, and flavor between A5 Wagyu and Washugyu, but both are excellent.”
Chin says: “Domestic Wagyu and Japanese Wagyu are completely different in terms of taste and texture, but we love domestic Wagyu. Is it the same? No, it’s not the same. There is a lot more meatiness to the American Wagyu. There is not as much fat marbled throughout the meat, but it’s pretty close. Taste-wise, it’s a little different because of the feed. But domestic Wagyu isn’t too shabby.” (Photo: Flickr/GanMed64)
The Myth: A5 Wagyu is the tastiest.
The facts: Wagyu is graded by yield and quality. “A” is the highest yield grade, or how much beef is obtained from the cattle; “5” is the highest quality grade, and means the beef has the best marbling, coloration, texture, and quality of fat.
Chin says: “A5 is the highest grade you can get. Wagyu is also graded on the Beef Model Score, which is rated from 3-12. So if you have A5 level 12, that’s a serious amount of fat in there.“
Mina says: “Tastiest? It depends on who’s eating it. Less than A5 can be just as good, just not as fatty.”
Moran says: “A5 Wagyu is extremely rich; it’s buttery and almost nutty in flavor, and it melts in your mouth. You can just press the meat on the roof of your mouth with your tongue and it melts. I recommend that people go with a smaller portion because it’s so rich. We carry A5 Wagyu from Miyazaki. Every five years in Japan, there are beef Olympics. Miyazaki Wagyu has won the past two competitions.” (Photo: Flickr/Kent Wang)
The Myth: Kobe-beef sliders are made from real Kobe.
Moran says: “The last time I checked, there are only around 3,400 cows in Kobe. So if you see anyone offering ‘Kobe sliders,’ unless there are around $100 a burger, I highly doubt the beef is actually from Kobe.“ (Photo: Flickr/G M)