Wagyu beef is one of the most sought-after delicacies in the world. The meat is characterised by the presence of marbled fat, which imparts a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
The term ‘wagyu’ literally means Japanese beef and refers to four different types of purebred cattle. These livestock and their offspring have higher levels of intramuscular fat than cows from the US or Europe, resulting in richer and more flavourful meat. Factors such as the cattle’s origin, marbling grades, and the strict tariffs Japan places on its beef exports all contribute to the eye-watering prices associated with wagyu.
In this guide, we’ll delve into what you should look out for when purchasing or savouring this legendary meat.
The origin of Wagyu beef
Japan’s foray into beef consumption and cultivation is a relatively recent development. Wagyu cattle are historically draught animals prized for their physical endurance rather than meat yield. Beef consumption was banned in feudal Japan and only re-introduced in the Meiji period, when the Japanese government hoped to foster Western eating habits amongst its citizens.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the crossbreeding of domestic Japanese cattle with British and European cows. This gave rise to the four types of purebred wagyu we have today. They are Kuroge (Japanese Black), Akage (Japanese Brown), Nihon Tankaku (Japanese Shorthorn), and Mukaku (Japanese Polled). The latter two breeds are not cultivated outside of Japan — a reflection of the meat’s exclusivity.
The breeds and flavours of wagyu cattle
Each of the four breeds have distinctive flavours and derivative types, despite falling under the umbrella term of wagyu.
The Kuroge (Japanese Black) breed is considered the most popular variety and consists of roughly 90 percent of wagyu produced. The breed also consists of three major bloodlines: Tajima, Kedaka and Shimane. The prime example of kuroge beef is Kobe. The meat owes its richness to streaks of intramuscular fat running through it (marbling) and is renowned for its buttery texture. What makes this product so sought-after is its rarity. Only Tajima cattle bred, raised, and slaughtered in the Hyogo prefecture can be certified as Kobe.
Other premium variants from the Kuroge family, such as Omi, Matsuzaka, Miyazaki, and Saga, are bred in specific regions and only certified under equally strict conditions. Only meat from female virgin cows from the Mie region can be considered as Matsuzaka, whereas Omi beef can only originate from cattle cultivated in the Shiga prefecture.
Miyazaki beef hails from its eponymous region. It has been the winner of Japan’s ‘Wagyu Olympics’ three times in a row (2007, 2012, 2017) and is frequently celebrated as one of the best meats in the country. Saga beef comes from the northwest prefecture. Many believe the meat’s sweetness is a result of breeding cattle in a mild climate with access to crisp air and fresh water.
The remaining three breeds have a lot to offer and shouldn’t be ignored either. Akage (Japanese Brown) is a lean, flavourful cut that bears the signature softness of wagyu — perfect for the health-conscious who wish to indulge in the luxury. Akage calves are raised differently from other breeds, as the calves spend time with their mothers and suckle from them, whereas Kuroge calves are separated from their mothers at birth.
Nihon Tankaku (Japanese Shorthorn) make up one percent of all wagyu produced and has a lower fat content than other counterparts. Nihon Tankaku cattle primarily hail from the Kumamoto and Kochi prefecture, where they graze openly in fields. Mukaku (Japanese Polled) produces the leanest meat out of the four breeds. It boats high amounts of amino acids as well as a chewy texture. This cut is the most popular for simmered or stewed dishes and is usually paired with rice or sake.
The wagyu beef grading system
The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) oversees the grading of all Japanese wagyu. The Association grades the meat based on the colour of its fat and meat; rib eye shape and area; and its intramuscular fat percentage. The grading system categorises the beef from one to five based on its overall. The higher the amount of marbling present in the meat, the higher the grade will be to five. Within these grades of one to five, there are also beef marbling standard ratings ranging from one to twelve.
An alphabet grade ranging from A to C is also given to the meat for its yield. This refers to meat’s cutability, which is the proportion of meat obtained from the cattle’s body and an estimate of the amount of lean, edible meat. As a result, the most desirable variant is the Japanese A5 Wagyu. This prestigious cut is incredibly well-marbled, with streaks of white and cream-coloured fat running through it.
With such specific agriculture regulations, intricate grading requirements, and memorable flavours, it is no surprise that wagyu has earned such a cult following and reputation as one of the world’s most sought-after delicacies.