Kobe Beef – The Story of a Prized Delicacy
Japanese Wagyu beef is known as the ‘caviar’ or ‘Rolls Royce’ of the culinary world. Famed for its buttery, umami richness, and uniquely delicate, soft, juicy texture, it has gained a reputation to become the centerpiece at top restaurants worldwide.
It’s no surprise Wagyu beef has achieved extraordinary success, and Kobe beef is the jewel in the crown of this success.
A Five Meats are delighted to introduce you to Kobe beef and share in the mystery and intrigue surrounding this incredible delicacy. Read on to find out more, and allow us to be your guide.
The city of Kobe lies between the Rokko Mountain Range and Osaka Bay, in Japan. It enjoys succulent grazing meadows and rich mineral laden fresh water. A significant variation between day and night time temperatures, together with the unusual phenomenon of ‘night dew,’ makes Kobe remarkable.
Fields here tend to be smaller, meaning lighter framed cattle were required to farm the land effectively, giving rise to the Wagyu breed.
Wagyu (meaning ‘Japanese Cow’) were used as heavy draft animals for farming, with small frames yet significant strength and unsurpassed endurance capabilities. These qualities made them invaluable and perfectly suited to their surroundings. This endurance is thanks to the way Wagyu lay down fats – within their muscle fibers, rather than ‘around’ them. These delicately webbed fats give the flesh a pale, pearlescent appearance and soft, succulent texture not found in other meats.
The most famous type of Wagyu is, undoubtedly, Kobe beef.
There are four breeds of Wagyu – these are the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn. The Tajima bloodline is a descendant of the Japanese Black and the family to which Kobe beef belongs. By far, Japanese Black is the most popular of the four varieties, making up around 90% of all Wagyu beef produced in Japan.
Wagyu farmers are known for their care and dedication, with many giving their cattle individual names and faithfully protecting their herds’ heritage and secrets down through the generations. Wagyu feed is a carefully developed and balanced mix unique to each farm, based broadly around wheat, rice, grain, and succulent grazing, together with crisp, fresh drinking water at all times.
Kobe Wagyu, in particular, have a small, tight build and thin, resilient skin with soft hair and tight muscles. Their coats are shiny with deep, rich coloring.
Kobe Wagyu are treasured for their docile, gentle, and good natured temperament, making them a pleasure to farm and rear. Calves stay with the rearing farm until weaning, generally anywhere between seven and ten months. They then make their way to a farm where they can freely graze in pastures to maturity, staying an average of 32 months, but even as long as five years.
The Wagyu are the highest priority, absolutely and without question – after all, cortisol production breaks down precious fats - meaning stress gets eradicated as soon as it appears.
But it’s not enough for a Kobe Wagyu to be born in Kobe to be able to be ‘called’ Kobe beef (or Kobe meat or Kobe cattle, for that matter). There is so much more, with rules and restrictions around what qualifies as Kobe beef being among the world’s strictest food labeling regulations.
To officially qualify as Kobe beef, the meat must – without exception – meet all the following criteria:
- The animal must be a heifer (a female which has not calved) or bullock (steer or castrated bull)
- It must be of the Tajima bloodline, provable by DNA testing
- The animal must be born and farm fed in Hyogo Prefecture
- One of a limited number of slaughterhouses in Kobe, Sanda, Kakogawa, Nishinomiya, or Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture must process the animal
- It must pass stringent grading tests, scoring a Beef Marbling Score of at least 6, a Meat Quality Score of at least 4 or 5, and a yield grade of A or B (C is not acceptable)
- The carcass must weigh 499.9kg or less at slaughter (specifically, 270kg to 499.9kg for a cow; 300 – 499.9kg for a steer)
Grading of Wagyu beef is an art in itself, with inspections carried out by three separate and highly trained specialist inspectors, respected as experts in their field. There are two measures which, combined, dictate the grade of a Wagu animal after slaughter.
Related: Why Is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?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 states between 69% and 72% of the animal is available for use
- C grade yield is anything that falls below 69% usability – at this grade, the meat cannot be called ‘Kobe’
- The Beef Marbling Score (BMS) – ranges 1 (lowest) to 12 (highest)
- The Beef Color Standard (BCS) – scores assigned from 1 (ungraded) to 5 (highest)
- The Beef Fat Standard (BFS) – score grades from 1-7 (ungraded) to 1-4 (highest)
- Firmness – graded from Inferior to Very Good
- Texture – graded anywhere between Coarse to Very Fine
There is an avoidance of crossbreeding and mating outside of the Tajima bloodline in Japan wherever possible to preserve and keep the treasured bloodline pure.
This exclusivity serves to protect the integrity and quality of reputation so highly prized in the industry. The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association formed in 1983 to set labeling standards and hold Kobe beef’s registered trademark.
The official symbol of Kobe is a round flower surrounded by petals. This logo gets stamped onto certified Kobe beef carcasses and appears on all paperwork associated with Kobe beef. There is also an official list of all permitted restaurants selling certified, authentic Kobe Wagyu beef. There are fewer than 15 in the United States, with only around nine as recently as 2016.
There are strict restrictions, and limitations on the amount of Kobe allowed for export from Japan each year. Live exports are not permitted, with only cuts being allowed to leave the country.
Of the 5,557 Wagyu Kobe slaughtered in 2018, fewer than 700 were released for export. The total sum of Kobe exports over eleven months in 2018 was the equivalent of 17 heads of cattle – enough at the time to satisfy fewer than 80 Americans.
There are fewer than 300 certified Kobe Wagyu farms in Japan. Given the rarity of exports (not to mention the cost), it is not a shock to find other countries worldwide have been trying to develop a similar product for themselves.
As Wagyu beef’s popularity grew, the risk of contamination of the bloodline (and therefore the reputation) became more significant. With this in mind, the Japanese authorities declared Wagyu beef and national treasure. They prevented exports (except for a short period starting in the late 1970s). However, a small number of Fullblood Wagyu cattle had reached other shores outside of the brief lift of export bans.
The largest herds outside of Japan are in Australia, with a significant number also residing in the U.S. These herds generally consist of Crossbred and Purebred animals, descending from the original Japanese animals. But what is Crossbreeding, and what do the terms Purebred and Fullblood mean?
A Fullblood animal is a genuine certified 100% Wagyu specimen, traceable back to Japan through DNA testing, with parents reared and raised in Japan. In the case of Kobe, according to strict Wagyu Kobe regulations).
A Purebred is not pure Wagyu (also known as ‘Fullblood’) – and it never will be. But it does have at least 93.75% Wagyu genetics. It is possible to crossbreed from a mix of 50% Wagyu with 50% ‘other’ to 93.75% Wagyu in four generations.
See below for how this works.
F1 – First Generation Crossbreed
- 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull introduced to a different breed cow
- Resulting offspring have 50%+ Wagyu genetics
F2 – Second Generation Crossbreed
- F1 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring have 75%+ Wagyu genetics
F3 – Third Generation Crossbreed
- F2 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring have 87%+ Wagyu genetics
F4 ‘Purebred’ – Fourth Generation Crossbreed
- F3 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring are classed as ‘Purebred’ as they contain at least 93% or more Wagyu genetics
Some farms stick with a Crossbreed and don’t want to upbreed to Purebred. One reason for this is there are differences in taste around the world. For example, American consumers generally prefer thicker, ‘beefier’ flavored steaks than genuine Fullblood Wagyu offers.
In terms of characteristics and qualities, authentic Kobe Wagyu is famous for its delicate flavor and soft, smooth texture. The most popular ways of serving this exquisitely unique delicacy to bring out the meat’s best qualities include:
- Sukiyaki – A dish served in a Japanese ‘hot pot’ style. Thinly sliced Wagyu beef (perfectly suited to Kobe beef) cooked at the table in a shallow iron pot. Includes vegetables and spices, with ingredients dipped in whisked raw egg before being eaten.
- Steak – A slice of meat, usually grilled or pan fried. Thinly sliced and quickly heated, lightly crisping the edges without overcooking the meat. The steak is rested before serving, as Wagyu fat has a far lower melting temperature than regular beef. This resting allows reabsorption of the succulent, juicy fats into the meat fibers.
- Shabu Shabu – Another ‘hot pot’ dish, with very thinly sliced meat and vegetables, submerged briefly into hot water. The meat or vegetables are dipped into a sauce before eating, served with tofu and vegetables.
- Sashimi – Thinly sliced meat or fish, served raw, dipped in soy sauce, and eaten with chopsticks.
- Teppanyaki – A method of cooking using a griddle or plate. A popular viewing spectacle in restaurants, where diners watch the chefs preparing food at the hot plate.
A Five Meats have dedicated years to forming relationships with a handful of farms throughout Japan and worldwide. This commitment and passion means we are proud to bring our customers the finest hand selected cuts from the most exclusive herds. Including from time to time when it becomes available, the very best Kobe Wagyu!
Keep an eye on our website to stay up to date with the latest availability. Feel free to give us a call, drop us a line, or come and see us here in San Francisco – it makes our day to meet our customers near and far. Allow us to guide you on your journey to the culinary world of Wagyu. We are always happy to share our experience and love sharing our passion for Wagyu beef. Get in touch, and we can’t wait to meet you!