You may have you tasted it, you may have heard of it, you may even have passed on it at the steakhouse on account of its steep price, but what is Wagyu beef, and why does its funky name keep showing up at your supermarket or favorite barbecue joint? The internet is filled with opinions on the matter, and the hip chef selling you 50-dollar steaks may not be telling you the whole truth. Let’s take a closer look at the confusing terminology around the American beef industry’s hottest trend.
What is Wagyu?
Literally, “Wagyu” just means “Japanese cow,” “wag” for “Japanese” and “-yu” for “cow.” In the application we care about (delicious beef), the term refers to any of four common Japanese cattle breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown (called Red Wagyu stateside), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Only the Black and Brown varieties have ever been allowed to leave Japan for breeding purposes.
What’s so special about these Japanese breeds?
You probably wouldn’t have heard of Wagyu as a delicacy if it weren’t for a particular breed (Japanese Black) raised in a particular area of Japan (Hyogo prefecture) under particular conditions (cold, mountainous terrain), which for thousands of years worked as draft animals pulling weight through the mountains. Over generations, their tough line of work led to an extreme level of intramuscular fat, called marbling in the beef world, which lends itself to rich, succulent fatty flavor when cooked. In the 20th century, rules were developed around a specific method of raising and slaughtering these fatty cattle, creating a product known to the world as Kobe beef.
When did these cows arrive on the continent?
Competing national industries and health concerns have kept Japan and the United States in virtually separate cow markets for most of their histories, but in 1973 a Texan rancher purchased four Wagyu bulls, which he bred with his own Black Angus to produce an Americanized strain of the Japanese line (the names and pedigrees of every Wagyu cow ever shipped abroad can be found online). Until 1991, these four bulls were responsible for all Japanese blood in the American market. Reinforcements didn’t arrive until 1991, when less than a dozen more arrived on a Boeing 747.
Is Wagyu “American Kobe Beef”?
Here’s where the arguments and literal name-calling begin. Like Champagne or Bourbon, Kobe beef must be raised and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture along certain guidelines. In fact, no Kobe beef – none – was eaten in the United States until laws changed in 2012. Lax labeling laws in the states allow restaurateurs to falsely claim Kobe on the menu, or to reference “Kobe-style,” but true Kobe beef is extremely rare and exceptionally expensive. Wagyu, now a common term on American menus, is likewise a twisting of words. Since those first bulls arrived in 1973, American ranchers have kept the task of maintaining Japanese bloodlines with limited access to pure Wagyu bulls and cows. Purists intensely hold (believe me, Google it,) that “American Wagyu,” or “Wagyu-style” are only borderline appropriate. America’s Japanese-infused cattle line is an exciting and burgeoning industry all its own, with our cousins down sharing the same passion in Australia, but indeed separate industries from their Japanese inspiration.
Why does this matter to me?
If you’re interested enough to spend an extra dollar on meat you care about, you should know what you’re getting. American restaurants aren’t shy to market “Kobe sliders” with no obligation to produce meat from Japan or even in the American Wagyu line. Spend your money well – on cuts that allow you to see the beautiful intramuscular fat cells you’re paying for, and which allow those fat cells to melt in your mouth.
How can I get my hands on some of this magnificently delicious beef?
You can visit our site and order from Josh Eilers at Ranger Cattle, a veteran dedicated to maintaining pureblood Wagyu genetics on his ranch outside of Austin, Texas. The marbling is immediately apparent when compared with standard American breeds.
Do they really massage and feed beer to the Wagyu?
Some Japanese ranchers are rumored to use beer to get the cows a little hungrier and fatter, but it is by no means a commonly held practice.