12 Facts You Should Know About Wagyu Beef

No longer simply a term whispered among enthusiastic foodies, Wagyu beef is now being celebrated in the North American mainstream for its flavorful and nutritious qualities. The genetic origins of the Japanese cattle breed can be traced back into prehistory, but modern Wagyu came about through cross-breeding with imported cattle from Europe, Great Britain, and Korea. This began during Japan's Meiji Restoration when the country began the process of industrialization through the late 19th century. This included a trend towards Westernization and the eating of beef, which the population at the time was prohibited from due to religious and practical reasons.

This was the beginning of the Wagyu story, though it took a few more decades before the beef exploded in North America. In the past few years, several ranches have opened up dealing with Wagyu, including Brant Lake Wagyu, which is situated in Alberta, Canada. Chief Operating Officer Michelle Ball has been involved in cattle since she was 20, and it was her father-in-law Jack Ball who got her involved in Wagyu.

"He kind of dabbled in it in the late '80s," she explains. "He went to Australia, saw the Wagyu cattle there, and thought our genetics could use some improvement in North America and Canada. So he managed to get some genetics into Canada and started breeding." In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Ball talked about a few facts and myths surrounding Wagyu.

Wagyu is fast becoming a popular breed

According to Ball, ever since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we've seen sales of Wagyu explode, not just from Japan, but also from Australia and the U.S. At first, overseas producers were apprehensive about how COVID-19 restrictions would affect their sales, but even with restaurant shutdowns, there were ways to adapt. "They shipped it over to (those) businesses that pivoted and went live to online platforms," says Ball. "So that exploded, obviously, after 2019. We've seen how many different online platforms like grocery stores, butcher shops, and distributors have started up."

Ball says that Wagyu was very much a specialty item before the COVID-19 pandemic, and while you can find references to the beef in the mid-2010s, it simply wasn't as available as it is today. For a very long time, most authentic Wagyu in Japan were kept in the country for the tourist crowds, which caused something of a problem when COVID-19 hit. During the first year of the pandemic, the highest grade of Wagyu was so plentiful in Japan due to lack of tourism, that politicians debated whether to give it for free to residents. Now, you can buy Wagyu online through various websites or even directly from places like Costco. That's a long way from when it was a very exclusive meat that you could only find in the toniest of restaurants or in Japan itself.

Wagyu and Kobe are two different terms

For some people, Wagyu beef and Kobe beef are interchangeable, but this is a false equivalency. As Ball points out, Wagyu is the breed, while Kobe is a brand name. If it's called Kobe, it needs to come from the prefecture in Japan called the Kobe region, "just like Champagne comes out of the Champagne region in France." To further the analogy, a Prosecco can have all of the qualities of Champagne, but because it comes from Italy, it has to be designated as such. Kobe is the registered trademark for that particular breed, and it's quite rare. The interchangeability of Kobe as another word for Wagyu is a common misconception that you'll find circulating the internet, and it's likely sunk in so far that it's not likely to change any time soon.

The reason why people often confuse the two is historical. Wagyu has long been affiliated with the prefecture of Kobe, where the first foreign settlement was established. By 1869, legend has it that beef from Kobe was considered by many to be of higher quality than other breeds by the European merchants who lived and worked there. As the first premium brand to be promoted internationally for its fine qualities, it's completely understandable that Kobe automatically comes to mind when discussing Wagyu. While we're on the topic, the term Wagyu itself refers to all Japanese beef cattle, with Wa meaning Japanese, while gyu means cow.

There are four different Wagyu breeds

Further to discussions about breeds and brands, there are officially four different Wagyu breeds. The Japanese Black, also known as Kuroge, is the most common. Hailing from the Miyazaki Prefecture, this breed is noted for its flavor and impressive marbling. Kobe is a strain of the Japanese Black. In the more frigid climes of Hokkaido, Aomori, Akita, and Iwate Prefecture you'll find Nihon Tankaku, aka Japanese Shorthorn, while the lean Japanese Brown (Akage, known also as Red Wagyu), can be found in Kumamoto Prefecture and Kochi Prefecture.

Last but certainly not least is the Japanese Polled, also known as Mukaku. This breed may be smaller in comparison, but they're still celebrated for their tasty and lean meat. Just as Kobe is a variant of Japanese Black, all of these breeds have their distinctive strains or brands. For instance, Matsusaka beef can also be grouped in with Japanese Black, but the conditions under which they are raised are different from other strains. These cows are treated so well that rumors have arisen about farmers giving them beer and massages to help them relax.

They were originally work animals

Before the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, it was extremely rare that anyone would consider eating a cow. That's because of a declaration by Emperor Tenmu in 675 C.E. forbidding people from eating dogs, horses, beef, chickens, and monkeys. Originally meant for the farming season, over time the edict became a law for the entire year. This wasn't just due to Buddhist principles that had come over from mainland China; in Japan, animals had more value as workers on farms, and cattle in particular were needed for their strength. With fish and wild game plentiful on the island, this wasn't a particularly difficult decree to follow for citizens.

While this was a general edict that doesn't mean that beef wasn't an occasional food source. There were instances of it being eaten amongst the upper classes, but it remained a no-no among common people. This all changed with the Meiji Restoration and the shocking example of the emperor eating beef. When the nation settled down they began to look at their cattle differently. The already exquisitely marbled Wagyu, which Westerners had already been eyeing speculatively, suddenly had a secondary economic possibility to it.

Wagyu beef is expensive

Of course it's expensive, and for several very good reasons. First of all, the breed is unique, and the genetic characteristics make it very valuable. Secondly, according to Ball, "it costs more to feed them, and you need to feed them much longer." Ball continues by noting that the Japanese traditionally feed their Wagyu cattle for 30 months, after which they process them. That takes them right up to 2,000 pounds in size. This is three times longer than commodity beef raised in feedlots in North America, where cattle are fed between 120 and 240 days.

So, what exactly is Wagyu being fed that makes for such an expensive cow? Wagyu are given three meals a day, and their breakfast, lunch, and supper are made up of high-energy ingredients, including hay, grain, and wheat. "So," Ball continues, "your input costs or feed costs are going to be three times the price." The next reason why it is more expensive is the quality grade. Wagyu sits at prime, which places it at the top of the list.

The cattle lineages are followed very carefully

When you have a billion-dollar industry that hinges on the authenticity of your product, you will be keeping track of your cattle. In Ball's case, that means that Brant Lake Wagyu only uses registered, papered Wagyu bulls for the program. "It's like a family tree," Ball says. "The dam and the sire are all 100% Wagyu. Sometimes they can get skewed by throwing some Angus in there, and that's what's happened in the world and North America."

What Ball is referring to here are farmers who are all dabbling in breeding, some of them hobbyists while others are searching for the perfect cross. Because of this, we've seen many different variations, including a Wagyu and Holstein cross, a Wagyu and Angus cross, and many more. "So, if you're not following the lineage or the genetics, it changes the quality of the meat slightly," she says. Following the genetics of the dam and the sire in that family tree and tracing it back to the original bulls that came out of Japan is quite important for premium and high-end producers like Snake River Farms in Idaho or Brant Lake Wagyu.

Wagyu are often crossed with Angus for better value

This is where it gets tricky, and also tangles with the fact that while Japanese-imported Wagyu is undeniably authentic, there is also American Wagyu. More than a few crossbreeds have developed through the years, but much attention has been given to the breeding of Wagyu and Angus, who were originally brought over from Scotland. The Wagyu and Angus strain, often nicknamed Wangus, has become quite popular over the years for both its taste and value. This breed is also beautifully marbled, though not as much as the Japanese Waygu, and that's the only characteristic it shares with breeds from the island country.

For one thing, it's much easier to find Wangus in a supermarket than Wagyu. It's also a great deal cheaper, though a good Wangus steak will still cost you more than most others in the butcher section. For many people, Wangus is an excellent option simply because it's not as rich as the fattier Wagyu; you can finish off an entire steak, and it's still melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Others find it suspicious, especially after Inside Edition filed a report on the New York restaurant Le Bernardin passing off Wangus as authentic Kobe.

The first Wagyu were introduced to America in 1976

Despite the reverence it was already held in by early foodies, Japanese Wagyu weren't imported into the United States until 1976 when Two Tottori Black Wagyu and two Kumamoto Red Wagyu bulls were imported to the U.S. by a researcher at Colorado University named Morris Whitney. The Reds were named Judo and Rueshaw, while the Blacks were identified as Mazda and Mt. Fuji. Unlike the rigorously isolated Japanese Wagyu, these bulls were crossbred with Hereford, Brangus, Holstein, and Angus cows .

That was just the start, though mystifyingly Wagyu didn't exactly turn into the new beef sensation. It was only in 1993, when three Wagyu cows and two Wagyu bulls made the long trip from Japan to Sioux Center, Iowa, and Adel, Iowa, that Wagyu began to creep into the American food landscape. The cows were named Okutani, Rikitani, and Suzutani, while the bulls were called Haruki 2 and Michifuku. It was those five that kicked off the Wagyu fanfare, as other companies jumped on the bandwagon and began importing their own.

Cooking a Wagyu steak is different

The higher fat content is what makes cooking Wagyu different. Ball, who was part of the culinary world before she took to ranching full-time, has a few tips. "You don't want to start your barbecue on high and go through one of those steaks on there because it's going to start a fire," she laughs. "It's like adding grease to a fire. So of course you're not going to want to cook it in that method."

Ball does say that using a cast iron pan or a skillet is a good way to prepare your steak. As she points out, in Japan, the steak is often sliced quite thin, and often cooked Yakiniku style with vegetables on a griddle over wood charcoal or an electric grill. "You should treat it differently because the fat content is much different than a lean piece of meat," she continued. "You can use a hot grill or a hot barbecue, but you'll have to watch it or else turn it right down. Getting that sear and cooking it at medium rare leaves that fat content and that flavor intact."

It has a distinct taste and texture

Once again, we can attribute the distinct taste and texture to the fat content. Ball says that Wagyu beef has a buttery texture and that the fat you see gleaming in it is very rich and monounsaturated. She points as an example to the intramuscular fat, which is the marbling that you can see in the muscle, as well as the fat that lines the outside. "The fat on the inside," she continues, "when you cook it, it melts into the meat (and what) you're left with (is) tender, palatable, and flavorful."

What the Wagyu are eating also contributes to the flavor. Ball notes that at her ranch in Alberta, they use barley to feed the animals because that's what is produced in the province. In the U.S., Wagyu might be fed corn or wheat, or any other types of grass, grains, vegetables, or legumes that happen to be grown in the state. For Ball, barley "leaves a bit of a sweeter flavor to the meat, and I think lots of people in the industry would agree with me on that. Sometimes you see corn-fed U.S. beef and it has more of a yellow hue to it. Grass-fed, you know, the fat is a little yellower. It has a different flavor profile. Every different (Wagyu) meat has a different flavor profile based on what you prefer."

Wagyu may be more nutritious

This is something that we all pay attention to these days, especially when it comes to red meat. While Wagyu is fattier than your cattle, it's a type of fat that you can rejoice in. Yes, Wagyu is high in monounsaturated fat, which your body makes use of for both energy and to support cell growth. It's the very same type of fat that you would find in salmon or avocados. Olive and rapeseed oil is also high in monounsaturated fat. By extension, the tallow made from Wagyu fat is of excellent quality, as well.

But as Ball cautions, "everything in moderation, of course." As the chief operating officer of Brant Lake Wagyu says, Wagyu is also very rich. So rich that you might not want to eat an entire steak. Graded at A5 you would feel sick if you ate your way through a 10-ounce steak. This is why you see Wagyu prepared and served in very small portions, usually between 2 to 4 ounces. Keep that steak to a reasonable size and load up your plate with some fresh vegetables like usual.

There's a Wagyu beef Olympics

When you're working with cattle that require so much attention and love, and watching to make sure that the lineage is kept pure, you're going to want to show off the results. Zenkoku Wagyu Nouryoku Kyoushinkai, also known as the Wagyu Cattle Olympics, does exactly that. The competition has been held every five years in Japan since 1966, bringing forth the best Wagyu that the island has to offer. There are two main categories: breed improvement, which takes into account such outward standards as size and proportions, and meat quality, where the fat quality and other properties of a carcass are duly inspected. Miyazaki has proven to be a dominating prefecture in this competition.

The last Wagyu Olympics took place in October of 2022 in Kagoshima. Ball points out that while they don't have quite the profile as the Japanese competitions, there are similar but smaller contests in the U.S. under the auspices of the American Wagyu Association like the Wagyu Show at the North American Livestock Exposition. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the winner of the Triple Crown Steak Challenge in Lubbock, Texas, was Iowa's Fedderson U.S.A. with a one hundred percent full-blood Wagyu, while the runner-up was Iowa's Twin Oaks, also boasting a full-blood Wagyu.