Wagyu beef is quietly taking the food scene by storm. The past several years have seen an increase in both fine-dining and casual restaurants offering everything from Wagyu burgers to imported Japanese cuts. However, this surge in offerings has come with some controversy and confusion. Due to generic use of the terms “Wagyu” and “Kobe”, many meat lovers and sophisticated diners alike are finding themselves unsure of what Wagyu actually means and what it is they are actually eating. This post attempts to clarify some of the questions most often raised by our customers.
Wagyu & Kobe
As we covered in our previous blog post What Is The Difference Between Wagyu and Kobe, Kobe beef is beef from Wagyu cattle that are born, raised, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture whose capital city is Kobe, and which meet strict breeding and raising guidelines.
Authentic Kobe and other imported Japanese Wagyu are very expensive, so one can be sure any “Kobe” or “Kobe-Style” or “American Kobe” Burger that costs $15 is not actual Kobe and likely some classification of American Wagyu. 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).
But with authentic Kobe being imported in scarce amounts (approximately 3,000 kg to the USA in 2015) to approved restaurants and priced between $20-$60 an ounce at US restaurants, it’s safe to assume most “Kobe” at an average, casual restaurant, and anything labeled “Kobe-Style” or “American Kobe” is actually some degree of American-raised Wagyu.
Now what about “Wagyu”? As we defined in What Is Wagyu Beef, Wagyu is a breed of cattle. In the same way that Angus cattle produce Angus beef, Wagyu cattle produce Wagyu beef. The big difference is that Wagyu beef is famed for its high marbling content and rich flavor.
When consumers find Wagyu beef in the States, most often, the Wagyu beef is from cattle that has some sort of Wagyu breeding in its genetic line (parents, grandparents, etc) but it can describe varying degrees of Wagyu purity. This is where a great deal of confusion comes to pass.
Crossbreeding - breeding Wagyu cattle with Angus or other conventional breeds - is a common practice in America and results in “Wagyu-Influenced” cattle and beef. Out of the estimated 30,000 Wagyu-Influenced cattle in the USA, 85% are crossbred. Ranchers do this to impart some of Wagyu’s characteristics, especially the higher marbling content, into their herds. With only about 3% of conventional beef in the USA grades prime, an incredible 90% of Wagyu-influenced beef in the country secures that Prime grade, it’s obvious why ranchers would want to bring the benefits of Wagyu into their herds.
Classifications of Wagyu in America
Crossbreeding has created four common classifications of Wagyu in America.
The higher the percentage Wagyu genetics, the more prevalent the Wagyu characteristics will be. Different classifications of Wagyu aren’t necessarily better than one another, but they are different and will offer unique experiences so it’s important to understand the difference.
F1 - 50% Crossbred Wagyu
This is the most common type of Wagyu in the US. F1s are the result of a Fullblood Wagyu and a conventional Cow (angus, for example).
Most often, F1s are Wagyu bred with Angus. Angus are a larger breed of cattle, so when crossbred with Wagyu, which are smaller but more intensely marbled, Ranchers get what might be considered “best of both worlds” - a larger animal that produces more beef with better marbling.
F2 - 75% Crossbred Wagyu & F-4 93.75% Purebred Waygu
F2s are the result of a Fullblood Waygu Bull breeding with an F1 Cow.
F4s (more often referred to as Purebred Wagyu) are the result of a Fullblood Wagyu Bull breeding with an F3 ( which is 87% Wagyu and not commonly occurring in the USA) Sire.
Due to the higher percentage of Wagyu genetics, F2s and Purebreds are likely to have more intense marbling and richer flavor than an F1, better showcasing the classic Wagyu traits.
100% Fullblood Wagyu
100% Fullblood Wagyu are the offspring of two 100% Fullblood Wagyu animals that have proven lineage to their Japanese genetics without any history of crossbreeding.
In order to be registered, 100% Fullblood Wagyu must be DNA-Certified. That means that one of the animal’s hairs or a blood sample is sent to a lab and genetically proven and certified to be of the authentic Wagyu lineage from Japan. Few ranches in the US raise 100% Fullblood Wagyu, with only a few thousand in the country. These cattle maintain the integrity of the pure genetics, resulting in a more authentic product.
Marbling levels, flavor profiles, and quality of beef aren’t only a byproduct of genetics. Raising practices significantly affect the outcome. Wagyu cattle require specialized feed and attentive care. Every Ranch is different but those that raise higher percentage and Fullblood Wagyu are more likely to follow practices specific to Wagyu that are proven to bring out the best in the breed. So not only are the genetics stronger, but the craft incorporated into raising them can exemplify the characteristics.
Japan has recently introduced regulation on the use of the term “Kobe” in efforts to eliminate the misuse of the term. While the American Wagyu Association (AWA) has the authority to label Wagyu beef in the USA, we are currently lacking a labeling system that differentiates between the classifications F1, F2, F3, Purebred, and 100% Fullblood. So “Wagyu” could mean anything from F1 to Fullblood. Australia faces similar labeling issues.
This leaves it up to consumers to do the research. Most Wagyu ranchers and many online retailers will specify the classification on their website. If the classification isn’t listed, email and ask! Reputable companies should be happy to share the information.
Servers and chefs at esteemed restaurants should be able to explain the classification of the Wagyu offerings listed on their menus.
If a brand claims to offer 100% Fullblood Wagyu and further information is desired, request the DNA-Certification which is required for Fullblood.
Example of 100% Fullblood Wagyu DNA Certification
As Wagyu beef becomes more popular in the United States, it will become more of an accessible product for people to experience. Having a solid understanding of the classifications of Wagyu available allows meat lovers and sophisticated diners to bring categorical expectations to the table. Similar to wine, cheese, and other epicurean specialties, realizing the difference offers the opportunity to taste and appreciate the nuances between classifications, purveyors, and regions.