Japanese Wagyu Beef – The World’s Best Kept Secret

Wagyu beef is undoubtedly the pinnacle of luxury dining around the world.  Gracing the menu of a select few authorized restaurants, Wagyu attracts fierce competition from top chefs, all eager to serve their most discerning customers. 

Wagyu beef presents the ultimate dining experience.

First things first: What is Wagyu? Where does it come from, and what’s so special about it?

Let A Five Meats take you on a journey into the mysterious world of Wagyu to find out more about this culinary wonder.  The history and heritage of Wagyu is truly astounding, as we are about to learn.

Wagyu cattle originate from Japan, which is where the name comes from: “wa” = meaning Japanese, and “gyu” meaning “cow” – literally translating as ‘Japanese Cow’. 

Wagyu cattle served on farms as heavy duty draft animals because of their stocky yet compact build, which meant they could operate in small spaces.  Not only that, but they have extraordinary endurance capabilities, drawing on bursts of energy from stored fats (more about that later), all the while retaining remarkable strength and power.

Wagyu beef has characteristics and unique standards that no other meat can hope to attain.  Japanese Wagyu is famous for its soft, succulent, juicy texture and delectable mouthfeel as the buttery, umami flavors swirl to enrich every bite.  The reasons for this are fascinating, and they all come down to the unique muscle and fat structure of this particular breed and the care of their handlers.

Wagyu fats have a particular name – ‘intramuscular fats’ – otherwise known as ‘IMF’.  They are laid down slowly and carefully over several years, enriching the meat fibers with a fine web of delicate fats.  Standard cattle tend to lay coarser fats around the muscle structure, making the flesh tougher and more fibrous than Wagyu. 

It’s not just the structure of Wagyu beef that is unique – the health properties are unprecedented compared to other meats.  Combined with the culinary experience also come significant health benefits – which again are thanks to those astonishing intramuscular fats.  Wagyu contains a surprising amount of monounsaturated fats, together with low quantities of saturated fat.

Monounsaturated fats can lower LDL cholesterol and support the increase of HDL cholesterol in the bloodstream.  Monounsaturated fats are also known as ‘heart-healthy fats’ due to the high HDL cholesterol levels, which actively take cholesterol off to the liver for safe processing.  LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is detrimental to cardiac health because it’s super lazy.  It just sits in the arteries, building up and causing severe health events like strokes and heart attacks.  That’s just for starters – any number of dangerous conditions that go along with high LDL cholesterols.

When it comes to monounsaturated fats, Wagyu beef is supreme, containing over 63 times (you read that right – 63) the amount contained in fish.  These benefits sound great, but how does Wagyu stack up when it comes to other nutrients (or otherwise)? Saturated fat, for instance? 

We’ve all heard that saturated fats are the enemy, yet Wagyu is famed for its high fat levels.   Well, this is where Wagyu comes to the fore again, as around 40% of saturated fat in Wagyu beef consists of stearic acid, which helps keep harmful cholesterol levels low.  It also contains CLA (or conjugated linoleic acid), which can help with weight loss and lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  CLA-rich foods can help boost health and decrease the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Wagyu contains vast amounts of CLA per gram, around 30% more than other cattle breeds.

The next of the bad guys on the list are salt and calories – we hear about low salt, low calorie foods being essential to maintain good health.  Wagyu picks up this challenge admirably, containing less salt than chicken, fish, turkey, pork, and venison.  It also has only five calories per 100g more than pork – often considered lean meat in its own right.

Related: Why Is Wagyu Beef Healthier Than Other Meats?

We now know more about how good Wagyu tastes and how good it is for our health.  Let’s look further into the rearing of Wagyu beef – held in awe by farmers worldwide and surrounded in mystery going back thousands of years. 

Wagyu cattle lead a life only most of us can dream of, safely nestled under the care of thousands of years of dedication.  Wagyu rearing is a calling, not an occupation, shrouded in secrecy passing from generation to generation.

Japanese Wagyu

Why and how is Japanese Wagyu different than others?  

Japan is, and will always be, the nurturing birthplace of true Wagyu.  Only cattle born, raised, reared, and processed in certain regions of Japan can even be called Japanese Wagyu. 

Japanese Wagyu beef comes from only four breeds of cattle:

  • Japanese Black
  • Japanese Polled
  • Japanese Shorthorn
  • Japanese Brown 

The most common species, making up around 90% of the Japanese Wagyu population, is the Japanese Black. 

Japanese Wagyu are born and stay with their mother for the first months of their life, suckling their mother’s milk before weaning.  Once weaned, the calves receive a specialized diet particular to each farm. The formula is kept highly secret (only entrusted on a ‘need to know’ basis within the safe harbor of the farm itself).   While the exact contents are an enigma, they generally have a basis in rice, hay, and wheat.   

Japanese Wagyu graze far longer than regular cattle – usually around three years or more. Compared to a standard grazing period of about eighteen months, the slow, extended grazing results in the fats being laid down slowly in the muscle fibers.  Clean and fresh water is always accessible to keep the cattle in top condition.  Another element under the careful scrutiny of any expert Wagyu farmer is stress – and we don’t mean their own.

We all know in today’s age the detrimental effects stress has on our bodies.  In cows, stress can cause health damage in similar ways to those suffered by humans.  These include impacts on the immune system and disease resistance, issues with digestion, interference with oxytocin release (the ‘happy hormone’), and reduced fertility.  None of these add up to healthy, happy – or tasty – cattle.  Stressed animals simply don’t rear well or taste good.

Every Wagyu farmer aims to eliminate absolutely all possible sources of stress to their prized animals.  In Japanese Wagyu, any issues with feed levels, digestion, and the immune system can result in precious fats get burned up, or their animals becoming sick.  If two members of a herd don’t mix well, they are separated immediately.  Every farmer knows their cattle, with some going so far as naming individual Wagyu under their care.

The most well known Wagyu beef comes from the Hyogo Province of Japan – it is, of course, Kobe.  As with all Wagyu beef, the regulations are stringent – only Kobe beef from the Tajima bloodline of Japanese Black can qualify.  Only a limited number of slaughterhouses in Hyogo province are allowed to process Kobe.  It must also meet a high quality marbling score and yield to be permitted to be called Kobe beef. 

To express the rarity in this example, only around 3,000 cattle pass this test each year.  Of those 3,000, approximately 90% get retained for the Japanese domestic market and are therefore not for export.  This scarcity is not just limited to Kobe – the Olive Wagyu from Shodoshima only releases a handful of carcasses each year.  With their unique olive supplemented diet and Shodoshima climate, they are not just limited – they are almost impossible to obtain.

In terms of the broader Japanese Wagyu export market, Japan lifted an export ban for a short period in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing a small number of animals to leave the country.  The majority of these specimens arrived in the United States. They became the basis for the US Wagyu herds over the following decades. Still, due to different consumer tastes and markets in the US, most American herds are crossbreeds, allowing for higher yield and bigger cuts to suit the US palate.

The US is not alone in rearing Wagyu: Australia enjoys the highest Wagyu headcount outside of Japan.  Australian herds are supported by crossbreeding programs to suit the demands of their markets, producing hardier animals better suited to the varied Australian climate.  Unlike Japanese Wagyu, the majority of Australian Wagyu get exported around the globe to Asia, Europe, and the US.

Related: The Differences Between Purebred and Fullblood Wagyu

Australian and American Wagyu herds are now extremely well established.  There are many renowned and successful breeding programs producing healthy stock ready for domestic and export markets.  The fact remains, however, that they will never carry the name – or the same unique properties - as ‘Japanese Wagyu beef.’. 

Japanese Wagyu is graded differently to Australian and American Wagyu.  The standards are stringent, are far stricture than anywhere else in the world.  After all, Japanese Wagyu has the highest honors and an unsurpassed reputation to uphold – only the very best ever pass the test. 

There are two measures which, combined, dictate the grade of a Wagyu animal after slaughter.  These are:

  • The yield of usable meat the animal produces ranges from A to C
    • A grade yield denotes at least 72% of the animal is deemed usable
    • B grade yield dictates between 69% and 72% of the animal is deemed available for use
    • C grade yield is anything that falls below 69% usability
  • The grade of the flesh itself (taken from a sample between the ribs) gets a score from 1 to 5, calculated using:
    • The Beef Marbling Score (BMS) – ranging from 1 (lowest) to 12 (highest)
    • The Beef Color Standard (BCS) – scores from 1 (ungraded) to 5 (highest)
    • The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) – score grades from 1-7 (ungraded) to 1-4 (highest)
    • Firmness – inspectors assign a grading anywhere from Inferior to Very Good
    • Texture – inspectors grade texture anywhere between Coarse to Very Fine 

For Wagyu to receive the highest grade ranking (A5), three separate inspectors must consider all standards listed below to be met in full.

  • The carcass must meet the A grade yield score (B or C are not acceptable)
  • The Beef Marbling Score (BMS) must fall between 8 and 12
  • A Beef Color Standard (BCS) score of between 3 and 5 is mandatory
  • The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) must be 1-4 (the highest score)
  • The firmness of the meat should be judged Very Good – any less does not qualify
  • The texture should be rated Very Fine – lower standards are unacceptable

The above grading requirements are over and above the need to meet bloodline, breed, handling, and weight standards (as any individual animal cannot weigh over 499.9kg at slaughter). 

Japanese Wagyu inspectors are specialists in their field, training for at least three years, and highly respected in the industry.

There is no doubt as to the authenticity and prestige held by Japanese Wagyu.  It can be imitated but never matched.  There is no question it is the finest meat anywhere in the world, and at A5 Meats we have worked with farmers around the globe to bring you only the best.

Check out our newest products: Wagyu Essential Pack, Wagyu Feast and Wagyu Sampler 

We are both excited and honored to be with you at the start of your lifelong passion for Wagyu beef.  So get in touch, and take a look at our fantastic hand selected meat packs, delivered fresh to your door. You can also call us, drop us a line the old fashioned way, or even send us an email – we love listening to our customers – get in touch today!