Japan’s Kobe Beef: What Makes It Special

Cows that drink beer, are massaged with rice wine and listen to classical music? For meat lovers, Kobe beef is considered the epitome of fine dining. And at a few hundred bucks a pop you’d want it to be.

So what exactly is Kobe beef?

Kobe beef comes from the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle found in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital and the meat’s namesake. Introduced as work animals in the rice cultivation industry during the 2nd Century, Tajima-gyu became isolated from other breeds in the small pockets of arable land within Japan’s mountainous landscape. Herd isolation and distinctive feeding techniques are said to have led to unique differences in taste and texture. Kobe beef is renowned for its superior flavor, tenderness and high amount of intramuscular fat, giving the meat a marbled appearance.

To retain maximum flavor, Kobe beef should not be cooked further than medium-rare. In fact, the fat in Kobe beef has a lower melting point than that of other beef so if cooked for too long at too high a heat, it simply melts away. And it is this feeling, of the meat melting in the mouth, that really makes Kobe beef an outstanding culinary experience. When compared with US meat ratings, Kobe beefs ranks at least two grades higher than Prime, in a special category the Japanese call “Platinum.”

Its prized value must also be credited to the mysterious rearing techniques said to aid the meat’s delectable flavor and texture. There are three major stories that crop up time and time again that have achieved somewhat of urban legend status. The first is that the cows are given beer to induce appetite. The second is that they are massaged daily, sometimes with sake (Japanese rice wine), as a proxy for exercise in the tight living quarters and to further accentuate the marbling that Kobe beef is so well known for. And the third is that classical music is played to them as a relaxation technique and at feeding time so they associate the music with eating and hence the music improves their appetite. While there is no hard evidence to suggest that any of these techniques improve flavor or texture, they certainly give the imagery of the cows living as kings, adding to the decadence of a Kobe beef meal.

To be classified as true Kobe beef, the Tajima-gyu cow:

Must be of pure Tajima-gyu lineage.

Must have been born and raised in Hyōgo Prefecture.

It must be a steer (castrated bull) or virgin cow.

It must have only been fed grains and grasses from within the Prefecture.

It must have been processed in approved slaughterhouses within the Prefecture.

It must have a fat marbling ratio (called BMS) of level 6 or above.

It must have a Meat Quality Score of A-4 or A-5 (the top grades).

The animal’s gross carcass weight must be 470kg or less.

Must be assigned a 10-digit ID number so that its authenticity can be traced back to the individual cow it came from.

With its reputation for excellence and consumers ready to open their wallets for a taste of it, it’s unsurprising that restaurants the world over have tried to cash in on the Kobe beef name. While there are strict laws in place on the usage of the term “Kobe beef” in Japan, such standards are largely unrecognized abroad meaning that restauranteurs can go to town with the name on their menus without any legal backlash.

The disappointing thing for diners is that when this label is used outside of Japan, it’s almost always not the genuine article. Many use the term “wagyu” as being synonymous with Kobe beef, when this is most certainly not the case. “Wagyu” simply means “Japanese cattle” and despite what some restaurants may claim on their menus, it is not a breed itself. Wagyu is classified into four breeds – Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Poll, and Japanese Shorthorn. Tajima-gyu cows from which Kobe beef comes from belong specifically to the Japanese Black breed. While all wagyu beef is considered high quality, only meat of Tajima-gyu cows that fulfills the strict lineage and quality criteria can be termed “Kobe beef.”

Let’s look at the United States as an example. If you think you have tried Kobe beef in the States prior to August 2012, think again. From 2010 to August 2012, the import of Japanese beef, Kobe or otherwise, to the United States was banned due to concerns over foot and mouth disease believed to have originated from livestock in Japan. Even prior to that, only boneless fresh Japanese beef could be imported and none of it was Kobe as slaughterhouses in Hyōgo Prefecture (a requirement of true Kobe beef) were not approved for export by the USDA. Hence any restaurant claiming to be serving Kobe beef in any form in the United States before August 2012 was being a bit creative with their menus.

While the USDA’s ban on Japanese beef importation was lifted on 27 August 2012, only very small quantities of Kobe beef have been distributed to select buyer(s). When you think that only around 3000 heads of Tajima-gyu cattle are certified as Kobe beef each year and that Kobe beef contributes to just 0.06% of beef consumption in Japan, and then only a very small fraction of that is exported to the US, the chances that the steak on your plate is genuine Kobe beef is slim.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate restauranteurs in the United States selling genuine Kobe beef nor that this is an issue exclusive to the United States, it most certainly is not. But the fact of the matter is that there is very little true Kobe beef in existence to begin with and there is a lot of money to be made off the Kobe beef brand. The unfortunate thing for US consumers is that the lifting of the ban only makes matters more confusing. Until last year, all of the “Kobe beef” on offer were guaranteed fakes. Now with the possibility that it is Kobe beef and with the near impossibility for the diner to be able to trace its authenticity, it’s even harder to know whether to part with your hard-earned cash.

My advice? Save your pennies and put them towards a trip to Japan to try the real thing.

And the beer, massages and music, I hear you ask? While I hate to put a dampener on a good story, it basically has to be put down to myth. It’s certainly plausible that some farmers have used such techniques (and perhaps that is where such legends derived), but it’s definitely not an industry-wide standard. In the words of Yoshinori Nakanishi, a Kobe cattle farmer who’s been in the business for nearly 40 years, “Neither I nor any beef farmer I know would ever dream of giving cows beer.” Guess they’ll just have to let the taste speak for itself. Luckily for them, one bite of the famed “melt-in-your-mouth” fare usually requires little convincing.

Kobe beef

Just a quick sear, shall we?

Kobe beef

Unlike any other steak we have tasted.

Kobe beef

Managed to get myself invited into another Japanese kitchen!

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Comments

  1. isaac says

    Hi Jessica,
    I would like to say that it is about time someone wrote such a well put together article on the correct definition of “kobe beef.” Thank you for your hard work. I live in Maine and cattle farming has been in the family for five generations and I’ve heard everything imaginable on the proper rearing methods of Kobe. It’s nice to finally know the truth.

    I only have the one question that has so far, not been asked: after slaughter, did you ever learn how the meat was treated? By this I mean that for us, we age the skun halves in a sterile environment at refrigerator temp for 2.5 days. This allows the bacteria in the meat to break down the flesh, causing a tenderizing effect. Anything at all like that? Or any other method?

    (Wow, that “one” question turned into a lot more)

    Thank you for your time,

    Isaac

    • says

      Hi Isaac,

      Thanks so much for your kind comment and congratulations on your long-running family business!

      That actually I do not know. I will put some feelers out and see if I can track down some reputable information. If I ever find out the answer, I’ll let you know!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to get in touch and comment. Appreciate it!

  2. says

    I like the line “epitome of fine dining.” I’ve never been to Japan before but really looking forward to go there in the future. I want to see how the native kobe beef would taste like. Is it different from Blue Butcher dish? Hmmmm

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Ariette. I’m sure you’ll love Japan! Are you referring to the Blue Butcher Restaurant? The one in Hong Kong? I can’t speak for your own tastes and I’ve never been to that restaurant, but, in my opinion, Kobe beef takes wagyu to a whole other level. :)

        • says

          Me too, Ariette! :) Their website does have some delicious looking images! Have been to HK a couple of times but never this restaurant, as I said. We mostly tend to stick to as much local cuisine as possible when we travel because we don’t always get to eat it and locals are the masters of their own cuisine. ;) Luckily for us, HK is blessed with amazing street and local food that’s also kind to our backpacking wallets. :) Prepared to pay for a special local experience though and I feel it’s different when you live and spend a long time in one place. Then you certainly want some variety from time to time! Are you from HK yourself?

  3. Sam says

    Jessica, I understand where you are coming from, Kobe beef was named because of its origins but as a number of posters have pointed out it is not strictly a Japan-only product anymore and hasn’t been for 30 years. If you think that only Japanese people can breed such cows then what does that say about Japanese people in Australia or American breeding the same species with the same food and conditioned the same way? Are French fries better in France/Belgium?

    Some people need to get with the times and view things with a non-elitist perspective. Lions originated in Africa but is a figurehead and identity of so many countries even though they never came from there.

    • says

      Hi Sam,

      I appreciate your comment but I don’t understand your reasoning.

      Of course, the rearing of Kobe beef has nothing to do with the nationality of the farmer. But whether the person is Japanese or Australian or any other nationality is besides the point. The point is, genuine Kobe beef can only come from Japan. You may think that rearing the same type of cow elsewhere produces the same end product. It seems that there is a big push by many in beef/restaurant industries outside of Japan to focus on just the breed of the cow, rather than looking at Kobe beef holistically as a result of a combination of factors, and labeling anyone who suggests that it needs to be anything more as elitist.

      It is not elitist to state what the requirements are for beef to genuinely be called Kobe beef. You may not believe that being reared on the local grasses and following the Japanese standards on marbling and Meat Quality Score and so on, makes any difference, but there are many that would disagree with you and would say it makes all the difference to the taste and texture.

      While certainly not impossible, maintaining a 100% Tajima-gyu lineage is not the easiest task either and while much of this “American Kobe beef” may come from the same breed, it’s, more often that not, not of a pure bloodline. So the overseas products don’t even necessarily check that box. But I’m not going to get into that argument.

      The main thing is Kobe beef is what it is because of a combination of factors. It is more than the rearing a related cow abroad. Believe me, I recently had a conversation in France with some people from Champagne and they could list a number of reasons why genuine Champagne tastes different to any sparkling wine around the world, based on the specific geographic location.

      Whether that makes you want to try the real deal or not, or whether you prefer the taste, price, whatever it may be of the substitutes is a personal preference.

      Kobe beef cannot be compared to French fries. French fries are thinly-cut potatoes fried in oil. There is nothing inherent in the recipe that requires location-specific ingredients. Kobe beef is all about where it comes from and being raised in specific conditions in a specific place. That place happens to be Hyōgo Prefecture.

  4. Chris says

    Great article Jessica.
    Are there any places you can think of that sell this beef in Alberta Canada! It doesn’t have to be genuine kobe but the same type of cattle would be good to try. I might not be in Japan for a while. :-)

    • says

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks very much for your comment/question.

      I’m not sure, but I can ask our readers if they know of any places. I’ll let you know if they come up with any suggestions. :)

  5. Birgita says

    I very much enjoyed the article as I am going to Japan on Sunday and am going try kobe beef.

    As I understand it, to be kobe beef that particular breed has to have been born raised fed and slaughtered in that prefecture to be considered kobe beef. That is the point that some seem to be missing, for you to have Kobe beef in another country it has to have fit those criteria and therefore could only be if the meat has been exported, not the cow (unless already dead)

    Anyway I absolutely can’t wait to try it next week

    • says

      Hi Birgita,

      Sorry for the belated reply! We haven’t had much access to Internet over the past couple of weeks.

      Did you try Kobe beef? What did you think?

      Safe travels and enjoy Japan! :)

  6. Chat aw says

    Hi Jessica
    I’m heading to Japan in a couple of weeks and having Kobe beef is on the list! I’m staying in Osaka for 2 days and am thinking of making a side trip to Kobe to get the real deal. Can you also email me a list of restos you recommend for Kobe beef either in Osaka or Kobe?

  7. says

    Awesome article, I enjoyed it very much. Read through the comments as well and I understand your distinction between Kobe beef and other types of wagyu outside of Japan. You were very clear. Not sure where the confusion was. I just wanted to applaud your patience and respect when dealing with those situations.

  8. jimmy says

    Great article jess..we are two chefs travelling asia on a food safari and arevtrying to book a tour of taijima cattle farm…and recommendations…and restaurants in Osaka area also would be great….cheers

    • says

      Hi Jimmy,

      Many thanks. I’m not sure where you can book a tour of a Tajima-gyu cattle farm and unfortunately don’t have any recommendations for restaurants in the Osaka area as we tried Kobe beef in Kobe itself. However, let me put a call out on our Twitter account to see if anyone following us does. We’ll let you know if anyone responds with suggestions.

      Cheers and good luck on your food safari. Sounds fantastic!

  9. Joseph K says

    Hi Jessica,

    I found the article extremely interesting and informative.
    This is not very different than the term “champagne” in the wine industry.
    In order to call a wine champagne, it has to be from the Champagne region of France. Period.
    Regardless of whether the same types of grapes are used or the same methodology, everything else is just sparkling wine.
    By no means does any wine connoisseur believe that the best sparkling wine is champagne. There are phenomenal sparkling wines from all over the world that I prefer for a fraction of the price.

    I think there is some wonderful beef produced all over the world. It certainly isn’t limited to a small region within Japan. However, out of respect for what that region has managed to accomplish, foreign producers should respect what Kobe means, and not ride the coat tails of the Kobe region.

    If you are a producer of fine beef stock, then market it for what it is, great beef, not Kobe beef.

    • says

      Hi Joseph,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I completely agree with you. Products should just be marketed for what they are and then consumers can decide for themselves what they want to spend their money on.

      The difference I guess with the champagne case is that the French have successfully patented it worldwide. In the case of Kobe beef, no regulations exist outside of Japan so the term can be used freely without any repercussions.

      This is not an issue for sales as there are so few heads of Kobe beef cattle produced per year so it’s not like sales are being taken away from the Japanese. Although, if lower quality beef is being marketed as Kobe beef then that may do something to its reputation worldwide. However, that too, is already quite well established.

      The issue here really lies with misleading the consumer. If you are going to spend money on Kobe beef because you want to try it, then you should be getting the real deal. Just as if I wanted to drop money on a bottle of champagne because I wanted to say I tried it once. And Kobe beef is one of those once or very few times in a lifetime kinds of foods for most people. It’s expensive and you basically have to go to Japan to try it at this stage (unless you can get your hands on the very little that has started to be exported). So it is really in terms of fairness to the consumer that the issue of labeling has arisen in recent times.

      When we do spend our hard-earned money on something expensive, we just want to get what we pay for. Then we can go back to drinking our sparkling wine and be happy about that too ;)

  10. Justin Peck says

    Jessica,
    I am not about to get involved in the discussion regarding the definition of Kobe/Wagyu beef but let me tell you that as a visitor from South Africa to Brisbane in Australia, I had the most wonderful 300 gram Wagyu rump at a lovely restaurant called the Grove in Ashgrove, Brisbane.

    South Africa breeds wonderful beef cattle and being a meat lover, I can assure that what I had at the Grove was very special!

    Regards,

    Justin Peck
    Benoni, Gauteng, South Africa

    • says

      Hi Justin,

      Sounds awesome! Great meals evoke some of the best memories, and travel brings about the opportunity to try wonderful new things like this.
      Do you have any recommendations for good eats in South Africa and/or for any must-do’s in general? We’ll be heading there next year and always love to hear advice from the locals!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  11. says

    There are few mistakes in this article, the first one is Tajima Bloodline wagyu are in the United States and Austraila also, the Japanese exported a bunch of them in the 90′s so Kobe Beef is not really a exclusive to Kapan item anymore, some people are having a hard time u see standing that, and also they only feed beer in the hottest summer mo tha to increase appetite. The massage is only done because they are kept in a stall most their life and not allowed to move very much because of the linited amount of pasture in japan so it is required to keep the animal healthy. I have tried Japanese and it is good, but for half the price I can buy American Kobe and it is not much different when you buy from a quality producer.

    • says

      Dear SB,

      It is true that some legitimate Tajima-gyu cattle have been exported outside of Japan, and that some foreign farmers may have in fact been able to maintain 100% lineage.

      However, just because the beef may come from the same breed, does not make it Kobe beef. To be classified as Kobe beef it must adhere to all the criteria including being born, raised and slaughtered in Hyōgo Prefecture. A Tajima-gyu cow in America may be sent to Japan and, if it spends half its life there, can be considered wagyu (Japanese cattle), but never Kobe beef.

      While some genuine Kobe beef is now being exported to the US, it still is quite exclusive to Japan given the small quantities that are leaving the country.

      “American Kobe” is one of those misnomers – there is really no such thing. To be deemed “Kobe beef” it is inherently Japanese.

      You may not agree that Kobe beef should have the exclusive status it does or may feel that you can get better value for money by buying wagyu beef locally in the US.

      This article does by no means state that anything other than Kobe beef is bad or that American farmers don’t produce top quality meats that they can be proud of. It rather defines Kobe beef and what makes it different (whether you think that is a big difference or not) for those who are hearing about it for the first time or are perhaps seeing it on menus and are wondering what makes it special.

      Regarding the beer and massage, as I mentioned in the article, some farmers may do this and it can be argued that the myths originated from actual practice. However, there is no evidence that this is practiced across the board and it certainly cannot be deduced to a requirement or method in the production of Kobe beef.

      Most Japanese farmers refute the beer theory although it is said to induce appetite. Massage is a common practice for animals kept in tight quarters for health reasons (not limited to Japan or even just to cows), but the real legend here stems from them being massaged with rice wine for better marbling and texture, which again most Japanese farmers refute as any kind of standard practice.

  12. Richard winters says

    Oh and one more thing, this is like saying the Japanese can raise angus beef if the wanted too, and the only good angus beef comes from one little part of the United States get real

    • says

      Hi Richard,

      While you may not agree with it, this is the official definition of Kobe beef, hence why cattle reared in the US cannot be labeled as such.

      The very specific requirements of genuine Kobe beef are what make it so highly sought after, again, whether this is something you agree with or not. This could be said for any number of products from specific regions around the world.

      Of course, top quality wagyu can be found in many places around the world and you may in fact personally find it to be comparable with or even superior to genuine Kobe beef. This is a matter of personal opinion.

      However, for those who wish to make that decision for themselves, there are few opportunities in the US (at least for now) to do so.

      • says

        In response to your reply about definitions, that is the definition in Japan, the biggest part of the definition is Tajima bloodline cattle, well there’s lots if registered Tajima bloodline wagyu outside Japan now days, and as far as your comment that there’s not many places to try it in America well that is wrong also, the American Wagyu Association now has over 400 members raising Wagyu in the Unitrd States I have purchased it many times online and there are many ranches that sell it. So it is not hard to find online, some people can’t just get over the fact that we do not Japan anymore to get quality Kobe or American Kobe or wagyu whatever you want to call it, it is a great breed and the Japanese did a fantastic job, if they wanted to keep it to themselves they should have not exported cattle to other countries, Japan re-imports lots a Wagyu from Austrilia (boat loads of it). So if wagyu from other countries can’t compare to theirs then why are the Japanese importing from other countries? Hmmm. And because it taste as good as what they raise? Otherwise why would they bother.

        • says

          Hi Richard,

          One of the criteria is that it is of pure Tajima-gyu lineage, but that is one of many criteria that defines Kobe beef.

          Yes, there are certainly Tajima-gyu bloodline cattle outside of Japan, but despite being the same breed, this doesn’t equal Kobe beef. Genuine Kobe beef requires the animal to have been born, raised and slaughtered in Hyōgo Prefecture, and to have only been fed grains and grasses from within Prefecture. Again, this may not be something you agree with, but this is what Kobe beef is.

          It’s certainly not hard to find wagyu beef outside of Japan – this is not the issue. Please understand that wagyu beef only means it is meat from Japanese cattle, it doesn’t mean it is Kobe beef. Even if the beef has come from a Tajima-gyu bloodline cow, it must meet all other criteria to be considered Kobe beef. Therefore opportunities are limited to try it outside of Japan.

          Please also understand that wagyu is a collective term referring to a number of Japanese breeds, not a breed in itself. The term “American Kobe” is really an incorrect usage of the term Kobe because to be called Kobe it must be Japanese. There are very strict regulations about this in Japan but unfortunately the lack of control over the name in other countries means that some, and I say some, not all, restaurants, producers and so on can use the name as they please which can be misleading to the consumer who thinks they are getting genuine Kobe beef for their money.

          Yes, the Japanese do re-import wagyu which they then sell and consume as wagyu. Only cattle that adheres to Kobe beef regulations can be sold as such.

          There is nothing wrong at all with the beef sourced or produced overseas. Japan has limited space and other nations are important in Japanese beef production.

          This article concerns itself with defining Kobe beef and how it is different to other kinds of beef, not in suggesting that anything other than Kobe beef cannot be of fantastic, equal or even superior quality. This is all a matter of personal taste and opinion.

          • says

            There are plenty if 100% fullblood Tajima wagyu in America, so don’t act like that’s impossible, and there are wagyu in Japan that are not 100% Tajima, have you ever raised cattle? Have you ever owned any wagyu cattle? If American wagyu ranchers want to call their beef American Kobe beef so what, you said your article doesn’t slander Wagyu in America but it sure implies it

  13. Richard winters says

    Looks like the author of this article has read to many Forbes articles! Yes Tajima wagyu are the highest marbling wagyu bloodlines around, however we have Tajima bloodline cattle in the USA and they are beign raised by many fine American Kobe beef ranchers, people need to realize Kobe beef is not exclusive to Japan anymore since they exported the breed to other countries for future re-importation back into Japan. Some people are just all hung up on the idea that no one but people from Kobe Japan can raise wagyu beef. Well I got news for them the exact same breed can and is raised in many other places of the world now and it is a fabulous product. We are very lucky to have these cattle in the United States so we can enjoy what Japan has enjoyed for long time. Whoever thinks Americans cannot raise the exact same cattle the Japanese do and not get a almost identical product is just plain stupid. There is no magic beans the Japanese have that make the same cow taste better in Japan just because it was raised there!

    • says

      Thanks, Stojan! I think the Japanese would die if you put Kobe beef into a casserole hahaha, but would certainly approve of the care and detail you put into your dishes. :)

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