Wagyu is known for its incredible flavor, extreme tenderness and exquisite marbling — but it can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting. We asked Crowd Cow, the #1 online marketplace for Japanese Wagyu, to highlight some key differences between true Japanese Wagyu and American Wagyu, and how the marbling of this incredible beef really stacks up side by side.
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What is Wagyu?
“Wagyu” literally means “Japanese cow” and is the name given to cattle breeds developed in Japan. There are four breeds of Japanese cattle that can be called Wagyu, but the Kuroge-washu breed, or Japanese Black, stands apart for its genetic predisposition to create finely grained marbling. The Kuroge-washu breed comprises 90% of cattle in Japan — and the different prefectures in which the cattle are raised determines the “brand” of wagyu. Kobe beef, for example, is Kuroge-washu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan.
Wagyu in America
Due to Japan’s historic export ban on cattle (which remains in effect, indefinitely, even as meat exports to the USA resumed in 2012), there just aren’t a lot of Kuroge-washu cattle in the United States. Because of this, breeding programs are carefully tracked and cattle are registered to confirm authenticity.
The differences between the types of Wagyu in America mostly comes down to genetics, but different regions, feeds, ranching practices also create variation in beef.
Fullblood Wagyu are 100% traceable to Japanese herds with no evidence of crossbreeding. These cattle are the offspring of a bull and cow whose forebears originate from Japan.
Purebred Wagyu contains more than 93.75% pure Japanese Wagyu genetics. These cattle result from a Fullblood bull and a crossbred cow.
Wagyu-Cross contains 50% or less Kuroge-washu genetics. In the U.S., this usually means beef from a Wagyu-Angus cross.
The closer to 100% Kuroge-washu, the more you’ll taste the sweet umami flavors associated with the breed. Provided that the animal has been raised calmly and with plenty to eat, the better you’ll see and experience its signature marbling.
From Japanese A5 to domestic-raised purebred and fullblood, you’ll recognize these unique flavors from the very first bite. In contrast, beef from crossbred Wagyu-Angus varieties never have that umami kick. Instead, that beef carries robust Angus flavors. Wagyu-Angus cross are “Angus, elevated” since that beef features elements from each breed but not that signature Wagyu flavor profile.
Beef grading is determined by the country where the wagyu is sourced. The Japanese use a system called BMS, or Beef Marbling Standard, to rate the degree of marbling of beef. The scale ranges from 0 to 12, with 12 being the highest grade achievable. To achieve “A5” status, Japanese Wagyu must have a BMS rating of 8 or higher.
Most premium beef in Japan would typically fall in the 4 to 7 range on the BMS scale. To put this in perspective, USDA Prime, the top designation of American beef, is the equivalent of a 4 or 5 on the Japanese BMS scale. Wagyu-Cross would be closer to a 5 and Fullblood and Purebred Wagyu would be close to 6-7.
It’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of what you see as “Wagyu” in the USA has an unspecified DNA percentage Wagyu — so quality can be hard to determine. When it comes to American-raised “Wagyu”, make sure you’re specifically getting Fullblood Wagyu, Purebred Wagyu or an “F1 Cross” 50% Wagyu beef. This will ensure your beef packs the incredible qualities Wagyu has to offer.