Wagyu beef has clear parameters in Japan, where it originated. Since then, other countries have adopted the term for almost any heavily marbled beef with tenuous genetic ties to Japanese cattle.
The ubiquity of so-called American Wagyu, Australian Wagyu, Wagyu burgers (tip: skip), Kobe-style beef and the like might make one think Wagyu beef is common. But there’s a reason you see the beef portioned out in thin, delicate rectangles like fish on Japanese dinner tables and not giant slabs of meat.
Like caviar, foie gras and jamón ibérico de bellota, top-quality Japanese Wagyu is one of the world’s great culinary delicacies. And comparing Wagyu beef to “normal” beef is akin to comparing saffron to turmeric, or white truffles to chanterelles. It’s not so much a competition as a different product altogether.
Here, we break down how to distinguish authentic Japanese Wagyu beef from the other Wagyus out there, and how to enjoy Wagyu to make the most of the product.
What Is Wagyu Beef?
The phrase “Japanese Wagyu” is actually a redundant term, as Wagyu (和牛) can be broken up into the two words “wa” (和), meaning Japanese-like, and “gyu” (牛), meaning cattle. There are strict rules in Japan about what can be labeled “Wagyu” (more on that later), but other countries that claim to sell this high-quality product use the term “Wagyu,” even though the beef doesn’t meet the same standards.
In practice, it refers to four breeds; Japanese Black (黒毛和種), Japanese Brown (褐毛和種), Japanese Shorthorn (日本短角和種), Japanese Polled (無角和種) and any hybrids of these animals. Japanese Black cows are the most common.
These breeds were recognized and labeled as separate breeds in 1944, and since, Japanese regulations have governed their production and, eventually, export. Per the government organization Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center (JFOODO), Wagyu cattle are selectively bred over several generations, and parentage must be completely traceable to ensure genetic purity. To do this, the animals are tagged and monitored individually. Many farms have onsite veterinarians (or daily visits), feeding sometimes happens by hand, hormones are banned and meticulous paperwork is kept on every animal.
So, what’s so special about Wagyu? Studies have shown Wagyu to have much higher levels of monounsaturated fatty acids than non-Wagyu breeds. These high levels of unsaturated fat correspond to a lower fat-melting temperature (think vegetable oil and fatty fish) that liquifies at body temperature, which is why people say Wagyu “melts in the mouth.” Compare that to most U.S. beef, which has a melting point of about 104–108°F.
And the fat content makes the appearance of Wagyu unique. The beef is densely marbled with fat, evenly distributed throughout like an ornate spiderweb that gives the meat a pinkish cast. Sushi fans might see more resemblance to otoro (fatty tuna) than what we know as steak.
Additionally, the scent is particular to this type of beef. Rather than a beefy or gamey scent, a piece of Wagyu has a faint coconutty smell from the sweet fat.
Because there is no legal definition for Wagyu outside of Japan, almost all beef labeled “Wagyu” outside of the country is crossbred Wagyu and is sometimes of lesser quality.
Japanese Wagyu Beef Grading System
Just as very little American beef is graded Prime (most sources estimate between 3–4%), only a fraction of Japanese Wagyu is of the quality that justifies its reputation and commands top dollar. The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) measures yield (cutability or percentage of sellable meat by weight) in three scores of A, B, and C, and the degree of marbling on a 12-point scale.
They also analyze the quality of the meat based on beef marbling, color, brightness, firmness, texture, color, luster and quality of fat. These are given a combined numerical score of one (poor) to five (excellent), meaning the highest grade is A5. Lower grades are still Wagyu, but rarely anything under A5 is exported.
Between the strict standards of Wagyu beef production and the Japanese grading system, A5 Wagyu generally represents a better quality than most U.S. beef labeled Prime. In fact, there are A5 Japanese Wagyu with as much as five times the marbling of some Prime steaks. The scarcity of A5 meat—as well as the labor-intensive production—is why Japanese Wagyu beef is so expensive.
What Is American Wagyu?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) follows a different beef scoring system and gives its grades—Prime, Choice or Select—based on yield, age of the animal and the degree of fat marbling.
Japanese Wagyu was brought to the U.S. in 1976 when four Japanese Wagyu bulls were brought to be bred with domestic cattle. Most American Wagyu descends from these bulls. The first female Wagyu cows arrived in the U.S. in 1993, allowing for full-blood Wagyu progeny in the U.S. However, in 1997, the Japanese government declared Wagyu beef a “national treasure” and enacted an export ban on the live animals.
Outside of Japan, ranchers distinguish between “full-blood” and “purebred” Wagyu. Fullblood is 100% genetically Japanese Wagyu, while purebreds are cattle that have cross-bred with full-blood cattle over enough generations to achieve a minimum of 93.75% Japanese DNA. Both are quite rare and will be labeled as such in restaurants.
Today, American Wagyu beef is usually non-Wagyu cattle with Japanese Wagyu somewhere in its lineage (usually Angus, in the U.S.). While they can be incredibly delicious, without Japanese husbandry practices and their strict grading system, this beef is not a foolproof substitute for Japanese Wagyu.
What Is Australian Wagyu?
Australia, too, has a large quantity of Wagyu-descended cattle, most of which have been cross-bred with Holsteins. There, the inspection process for Wagyu is government regulated, unlike in the U.S. where any grading beyond Prime, Choice and Select is voluntary. So Australian Wagyu, especially full-blood or purebred, can be a terrific option if you can find it.
Is Japanese Wagyu Better than “Normal” Beef or Other Wagyu?
Suffice it to say that Japanese Wagyu is very unique, and beef-eaters owe it to themselves to try it. Whether you prefer the taste and texture of full-blood or crossbred Wagyu from other countries may be a matter of taste.
Different though it may be from Japanese Wagyu, don’t sleep on crossbred Wagyu. Some call it “the best of both worlds”—the fat marbling of Japanese Wagyu with the powerful beefy flavor of domestic breeds.
What Is Kobe Beef?
Kobe beef is simply one type of Wagyu beef that requires the animal to be 100% pure Tajima (a strain of Japanese Black Wagyu), raised and processed only in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. Only a few thousand heads of cattle qualify as Kobe beef each year, and it wasn’t exported until 2012. Kobe production, export and distribution are regulated and monitored by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, established in 1983.
Kobe beef is quite rare, and usually only a handful of U.S. restaurants have it at any given time (currently the Association has 55 recipient restaurants, though supply is sporadic to many). However, there are other place-designated beef options considered to be of comparable quality, such as Matsusaka, Yonezawa and Ōmi. In general, Kobe and Japanese Wagyu will be much more like each other than either of them will be to “Wagyu” from other countries.
How to Pair Wine With Wagyu Beef
“Pairing wine with Wagyu is interesting because the meat has such delicacy and finesse, but at the same time its density and structure of flavor requires powerful wines,” says Steve Ayon, wine director for Mexico’s Sonora Grill Group. The Group’s Prime Steak House in Mexico City and Holstein’s in Monterrey are among very few restaurants in North America to serve Japanese Wagyu, Australian Wagyu and Kobe beef all year (supply-chain issues notwithstanding).
He recommends wines that straddle elegance and power in the same way the meat does. “For example, Burgundies from Côte de Nuits, especially those from Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée or Morey-Saint-Denis at the Premier Cru or Grand Cru level, are favorites due to their remarkable complexity,” says Ayon. “For those looking for something different but just as complex, classic Barolos or even aged Brunello di Montalcino can be an attractive choice. Returning to France, Hermitage or Côte Rôtie are unique expressions of Syrah that, due to their tannic power and elegance, are especially good with the intensity of Kobe.”
Where to Buy Japanese Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef isn’t widely available in stores in the U.S., but you can mail order it from these vendors:
Additionally, many restaurants throughout the U.S. serve high-quality Wagyu. This is just a sampling, so ask at your favorite high-end steakhouse or Japanese restaurant about availability.