What is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu is a breed of cattle naturally predisposed to produce beef that is densely marbled. In fact, Wagyu beef surpasses USDA marbling standards for prime-grade beef. Often referred to as the "foie gras of beef," Wagyu has an exquisitely tender texture and incomparable, luxurious taste.
You may already be familiar with the famed Japanese Kobe beef--the most expensive beef in the world. Wagyu is the same breed stock that yields the famed Kobe beef of Japan.
Is Wagyu Beef the Same as Kobe Beef?
Yes and no. All Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.
To earn the appellation of Kobe beef, the cattle must be raised in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture and its production must conform to standards imposed within that region.
Beef production in Japan is, in some ways, similar to wine production in France. Just as the regions Paulliac, Medoc, and others produce different wines under specific appellations, the Japanese have several regions, or prefectures, where beef is produced. Kobe beef is produced in Hyogo Prefecture, while the beef from Mie Prefecture is called Matsuzaka and beef from Shiga Prefecture is Omi.
Each of these areas uses the legendary beer-massage practices associated with Kobe, but style and specifics vary from prefecture to prefecture.
Regardless of where in Japan the cattle are raised, the common element in all of these types of Japanese beef is the Wagyu breed of cattle.
Because of the scarcity and expense of open land and the high price of grain in Japan, Wagyu cattle have been raised successfully in Australia and the U.S. to meet the growing demand for this pricey delicacy.
All Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.
Measuring the Quality of Wagyu Beef
We're used to hearing about USDA Prime, Choice, and Select--the top three of seven USDA quality grades and the most known by consumers. USDA grading is based on the density of marbling between the 12th and 13th beef rib.
Wagyu beef's quality is determined differently: by a 12-point marbling score scale. Using the scale of Wagyu marbling scores, USDA prime would have an equivalent ranking of 5 to 6.
The most prized beef in Kobe, Japan, would rank the equivalent of a 12. The marbling is so dense that the lean muscle to marbling ratio can reach 9:1, or 90% fat to 10% meat. This Kobe is unbelievably rich--too rich for many palates. Some say it looks like a piece of meat that has been left in a snowstorm--fine strands of lean meat embedded in pure fat.
You Get What You Pay For
All Wagyu beef is not created equal. In Japan, Kobe beef sells at more than $300 per pound.
But now Wagyu is starting to be seen in grocery stores and casual-dining restaurants for $30 per pound. This mass-marketed variety of Wagyu will have a marbling score at the low end of the 12-point scale.
American Wagyu Beef from Lobel's of New York will score 9 points or higher. More expensive than our USDA Prime, our American Wagyu costs a bit more than $100 per pound (depending on the cut). In terms of quality, taste, and texture, Wagyu and Kobe beef are indistinguishable.
If what you're looking for is best quality Wagyu, you should expect to pay $100 or more per pound.
Wagyu for $30 per pound? It's just not the same.
The Balsamic Vinegar Example
A few years ago, balsamic vinegar was the next big thing.
Genuine Balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy, where it has been produced for more than 600 years. The finest Balsamics are aged for at least 25 years in a succession of smaller and smaller wooden barrels--juniper, oak, cherry, and others.
Along the way, its volume shrinks through evaporation, its flavors become more concentrated and complex. Production of this syrupy condimenti is tightly regulated by a consortium of producers and every bottle is individually stamped with a unique number.
At current price estimates, 25-year-old balsamic vinegar costs $200 or more for 3.4 fluid ounces. The rarest balsamics--aged 150 years or more--command upwards of $500 for a 3.4-fluid-ounce bottle.
Today, however, you can also buy a 16-ounce bottle of balsamic vinegar in just about any grocery store and pay less than $5.
As you can see, there's a big difference between the real stuff and the mass-marketed variety.
The same is true of Wagyu beef.
Expect to pay $100 to $150 per pound for the best quality Wagyu. If you see it for $29.95 per pound, remember, you get what you pay for.
Is it really Wagyu beef? Well, yes. Is it best quality Wagyu beef? Absolutely not.