Once a decadent treat found only in Japan, Wagyu beef is now available for culinary delight from New York to Hong Kong to Sidney. As we learned in our Wagyu Around The World post, it’s not just beef from Japan that’s available, but Wagyu beef that’s being raised domestically in other countries. In the U.S. Wagyu is an emerging industry that has begun to create quite a stir in both the epicurean and ranching worlds. Here’s how this Japanese treasure became an American delicacy.
In 1976, four Wagyu bulls were brought to the United States from Japan. There were two Japanese Red Bulls named Judo and Rueshaw and two Japanese Black bulls named Mazda and Mt. Fuji. These bulls were used for crossbreeding with female Angus cattle and other Continental breeds. In 1993, three Japanese Black females were imported, leading to the first Fullblood Wagyu to be bred in the United States.
Between 1994 and 1997, less than 200 Fullblood Wagyu were exported from Japan to the U.S. Most of these were Japanese Black, although there was a small number of Japanese Red as well. There were no Shorthorn Wagyu or Polled Wagyu involved in those exports. In 1997, Japan designated Wagyu as a national treasure and an export ban on Wagyu cattle was put in place. This led to the rarity of Wagyu outside of Japan that we experience today.
Wagyu in America Today
The American Wagyu Association estimates there are 30,000 Wagyu-influenced being raised domestically, with less than 5,000 of them being Fullblood. The vast majority, over 90%, are Japanese Black. This is because Japanese Black have the best predisposition and high marble content (for more on the different strains of Wagyu, see our post, You Know Wagyu, Now Let’s Talk Tajima). Wagyu ranches have been established in Texas, Iowa, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico (us!), just to name a few.
As the numbers show, the primary focus in the U.S. continues to be crossbreeding Wagyu cattle with Angus and other Continental cattle. This creates “Wagyu-Influenced” cattle, which must hold at least 50% Wagyu genetics to be deemed Wagyu.
Crossbreeding is popular because it has the potential to improve the quality of a standard herd, thus improving the grade of the beef. Wagyu-influenced cattle range from F1 (50% Wagyu) to Purebred (93.75%% Wagyu). Fullblood Wagyu are cattle with both parents traceable by DNA to their ancestors in Japan, with no evidence of cross breeding with any other breed of cattle. The higher the percentage of Wagyu genetics, the more prevalent the inherent qualities such as marbling will be. Our blog post, Wagyu Classifications in America delves deeper into this topic.
The American Wagyu Association was established in 1990 as a resource for Wagyu ranchers. The Association registers Wagyu cattle, provides educational information for those established and entering the industry, and promotes the industry within the U.S.
Wagyu Beef in America
Over the last several years, Wagyu beef has become increasingly popular in the U.S. It seems like every restaurant has a Wagyu or “American Kobe” burger featured on the menu. And while this has been great for Wagyu producers, it has also created quite a bit of confusion for U.S. consumers about what Wagyu actually is.
In its most basic definition, Wagyu beef is the meat from Wagyu cattle. This beef is known to be high in marbling, which creates a rich flavor, tenderness, and melt-in-your-mouth texture. Wagyu beef that’s from Fullblood Wagyu cattle generally has the highest propensity of these qualities while beef from F1 and other crossbred Wagyu tend to be higher in marbling than Angus or conventional cattle, but not as high as that from Fullblood.
As we detail in our What’s the Difference Between Wagyu and Kobe blog post, all Kobe is Wagyu but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Kobe is beef from Fullblood Japanese Black Wagyu cattle raised in the Hyogo Prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital city, under strict practices and which meets strict grading criteria.
Authentic Kobe in the United States is quite rare and costs hundreds of dollars per pound. So, when you see an “American Kobe” burger for $15 on the menu at your local burger joint, we can guarantee you’re not getting Kobe beef. And most likely, you’re not getting Fullblood Wagyu, but beef from an F1 Wagyu cow. This is not to say the beef used to make these products is not premium beef or that the companies selling them are trying to intentionally mislead customers. Many are trying to describe the product with a term more customers recognize (Kobe) rather than one most are unfamiliar with (Wagyu). This form of labeling is confusing, however, and many within the Wagyu world are working to create classifications for better transparency.
Domestically raised Fullblood Wagyu beef does cost a premium (although not as much as imported Japanese Wagyu). This is due to the craft and care it takes to raise the animals, rarity of the product, and high quality of the beef. Check out our Why is Wagyu So Expensive blog post for more details.
American Wagyu, whether crossbred or Fullblood, has proven to produce high quality beef that American consumers have been seeking. While only 3% of all Angus in the U.S. receives a Prime grade, 90% of Wagyu-influenced beef is scored Prime. Fullblood Wagyu can offer 2-5x the marbling as conventional Prime beef.
Fullblood Wagyu Strip Steaks from Lone Mountain Wagyu, 42% IMF
The Future of American Wagyu
As consumers become more savvy to the differences between domestic and imported Wagyu and classifications of Wagyu, we expect the future of this incredible meat to be bright. Ranchers around the country aren’t just embracing the breed of cattle, but many are investing in learning the special skill it takes to cultivate the marbling the breed is famed for. All it takes is one bite of luxuriously marbled, richly flavored Wagyu to understand why this beef is starting to take the U.S. by storm.