Japan produces some of the most outrageously marbled, incredibly decadent beef on the planet. And because of that, there are a lot of people outside of Japan who use the words "Wagyu" or "Kobe" or "American Kobe" to capitalize on that reputation in an attempt to charge higher prices.
We're going to break it down for you in this post.
In Japan, the word “Wagyu” (和牛) means “Japanese Cow.” There are four breeds under the Wagyu umbrella:
- Kuroge Washu (黒毛和種): Japanese Black
- Kassyoku Washu (褐色和種): Japanese Brown (also known as Akage Washu or Akaushi)
- Nihon Tankakushu (日本短角種 ): Japanese Shorthorn
- Mukaku Washu (無角和種): Japanese Polled
Where's my A5?!
Of the four, it's the Kuroge Washu, or “Japanese Black,” that deserves all the credit as far as we're concerned. That's the one that can reach the world-renowned, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of A5, a.k.a. Japan's highest-possible rating.
Japanese Kuroge Washu Cattle
Kuroge Washu is unique in the beef world, and in the entire animal kingdom, for its genetic predisposition to developing fine-grained, speckled fat marbling inside the meat itself. It looks like delicate lacework, but don't be fooled -- this isn't your grandma's beef (unless, of course, your grandma is a Japanese cattle farmer).
And it's not just us who's blown away by this breed. Kurege-washu's ability to marbleize fat internally is so unique and economically valuable that, on one fateful day in 1997, the Japanese government banished all export of its DNA and live specimens forever! Dun-dun-dun.
But it's OK! While we can't get the animals, thanks to our close relationships with Japanese farmers, we're still able to get our hands (nay, teeth!) on plenty of the prize stuff in meat form. Not that it ever lasts very long.
Into the Cow Files
According to research done in 2012 by the Japanese Wagyu Registry Association (社団法人全国和牛登録協会), it was found that 99.9% of all Kuroge Washu breeding mothers can trace their ancestry back to a single master bull named "Tajiri" (1939 - 1959).
Tajiri, a very special bull, indeed!
So what's Kobe Beef in Japan?
All "luxury beef brands" in Japan, and all A5 Wagyu comes from the Kuroge Washu breed of Wagyu cattle.
For beef to be labelled "Kobe Beef", it must be certified according to the following criteria:
- It must be of the Kuroge Washu breed, and specifically the Tajima strain
- The animal must be raised and slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture
- The carcass must be rated and achieve an A4 or A5 rating
"Kobe Beef" is a brand name in Japan. And it's the only brand to be well known outside of Japan.
In fact, in Japan, there are other "luxury beef brands" such as Matsusaka and Ohmi, and beef-producing regions outside of Hyogo Prefecture such as Kagoshima that are widely considered by beef connoisseurs in Japan to be superior to Kobe Beef.
The bottom line is: if you've got A5 Wagyu from Kuroge Washu cattle, you've got your hands on some of the rarest, most exquisite beef on the planet.