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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.

But what is Kobe beef, where does Kobe beef come from and why is it so expensive?

Marbled raw kobe beef steaks sit on a wooden chopping board.
Marbled raw Kobe beef steaks.
Photo used with permission courtesy of @somewhere.in.jp

So, what is Kobe beef exactly?

Kobe beef, sometimes misspelled as Colby 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. It is often cited as being healthier than commercial beef because of its high concentration of monounsaturated fats and omega-3s.

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 and 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.

Wagyu vs Kobe

So, what is wagyu beef and what is the difference between wagyu and Kobe beef?

Wagyu simply means Japanese cow or cattle. It is a holistic term that is used to refer to any meat from Japanese cattle and, despite common misconception, wagyu is not a breed itself, nor does the term have any relation to quality. So when we talk about ‘wagyu meat' or ‘wagyu steak,' it simply means it came from a Japanese cow.

Wagyu cattle are 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.

Only meat of Tajima-gyu cows that fulfill strict lineage and quality criteria can be termed ‘Kobe beef.'

This means that all Kobe beef is wagyu beef, but only a very small proportion of wagyu beef is Kobe beef.

In fact, only around 3,000 heads of Tajima-gyu cattle are certified as Kobe beef each year. Kobe beef contributes to just 0.06% of beef consumption in Japan, and only a very small fraction of that is exported.

You can already begin to understand how rare real Kobe beef actually is.

A raw kobe beef steak sits on a wooden chopping board in the foreground while the hands of a chef can be seen preparing the hot plate for cooking in the background.
Preparing the hot plate.
Photo used with permission courtesy of @somewhere.in.jp

Wagyu beef grades and Kobe beef grades

As Kobe beef is a type of wagyu beef, Kobe beef is graded using the wagyu grade system. This system uses a combination of letters and numbers and is used to rate the quality of Japanese beef.

Wagyu is given a letter grade (A through C) for yield and a number grade (1 through 5) for quality.

Yield grade

Yield grade determines the ‘cutability' of the meat, meaning the proportion of meat that can be obtained from a certain part of the cow's carcass.

Grade A : Above standard
Grade B : Standard
Grade C : Below standard

Quality grade

Wagyu beef quality is determined by evaluating four different categories: the thin strips or flecks of fat known as marbling; the color and brightness of the beef; firmness and texture; and the color, luster and quality of the fat.

The beef is assigned a number grade from 1-5 for each of the categories.

5: Excellent
4: Good
3: Average
2: Below average
1: Poor

Within the marbling category, there is additional grading based on the Beef Marble Score (BMS). The BMS allows the distinct marbling of the beef to be graded to an even finer degree of accuracy, and is given a number grade of 1-12.

This shows just how important marbling, known as ‘sashi‘ in Japanese, is to the quality of wagyu and the overall melt-in-your mouth experience of high quality Japanese beef.

Grade BMS No.
5: Excellent 8 – 12
4: Good 5 – 7
3: Average 3 – 4
2: Below average 2
1: Poor 1

The best score that can be obtained is A5, and within that A5-12, the latter being extremely rare.

According to author of ‘Real Food, Fake Food' and food journalist Larry Olmstead, “USDA Prime, our highest marbling grade, equates to about 4 (on the BMS scale). Most domestic Wagyu or hybrids would score 6-9, while Kobe usually ranks 10 or higher.”

Quality scores are taken extremely seriously and are done by no less than three independent highly-trained assessors, whose scores are combined to establish a final score.

Japanese beef must grade at the same level across all quality criteria to be given that status. For example, beef that is assessed as A for yield and 5 across three of the four quality measurements, and 4 for one, can only be given a score of A4.

For wagyu beef to be classified as Kobe beef, it must have a yield and quality score of A4 or A5. But that's not all.

A kobe beef steak has been placed on a hot plate smeared in oil.
Cooking Kobe beef.
Photo used with permission courtesy of @somewhere.in.jp

What are the requirements for real Kobe beef?

To be classified as authentic Kobe beef, there are various boxes that must be checked.

Kobe beef cows

Remember that Kobe beef must come from a Tajima-gyu cow, belonging to the Japanese Black breed. Not only that, but it must be of pure-breed Tajima-gyu lineage, be a steer (castrated bull) or virgin cow, and have been born and raised in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

During its life, it must have been fed only grains and grasses from within the Prefecture, and upon its death, be processed in approved slaughterhouses in Hyōgo, and have a gross carcass weight of 470kg or less.

Kobe beef quality

Remember the yield and quality scores for wagyu we talked about above? Kobe beef must achieve the highest grades of A4 or A5. In addition, the Beef Marbling Score (BMS), must be 6 or above.

Grade BMS No.
5: Excellent 8 – 12
4: Good 5 – 7

This means that A4 wagyu with a BMS of 5 does not meet the criteria to be called Kobe beef.

Kobe beef authenticity

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

Only when all of these requirements are satisfied, can a piece of wagyu be called Kobe beef or Kobe steak. If you've ever asked yourself, why is Kobe beef so expensive? Then this is it.

A kobe beef steak is being cut into precise pieces on the hot plate with a knife and metal spatula.
A Kobe beef steak is being precisely cut on the hot plate.
Photo used with permission courtesy of @somewhere.in.jp

Kobe beef price and wagyu beef price

Kobe beef is rare and expensive, even in Japan.

Kobe beef price per pound in Japan (about 450 grams) is about $300, but you can pay around $500 for the best cuts of meat at finer establishments.

Given its scarcity and price tag, most Japanese have never tasted it, and those who have generally reserve it for a very special occasion.

In the US, you can expect to pay $50 per ounce (less than 30 grams). While wagyu can be half that.

Buyer beware – the big Kobe beef and wagyu scam

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 restaurateurs outside Japan are not bound by the same stringent guidelines, leaving them to get creative with their menu descriptions.

You've no doubt encountered menu items such as American Kobe beef, Kobe burgers and Kobe beef sliders.

The reality is almost all beef marketed as Kobe beef outside of Japan is not actually real Kobe beef.

American Kobe beef

American Kobe beef is an oxymoron.

Kobe beef must come from Tajima-gyu cattle that were born, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture and have only been fed from grains and grasses from within the Prefecture, and hence any beef produced in the United States, whether from Tajima-gyu cattle or not, cannot be Kobe. Plain and simple.

The usage of terms such as ‘American style Kobe beef' or ‘American Kobe style beef' seems to be a clever semantic variance being employed by a number of restaurants who want to leverage Kobe beef's reputation, while trying to mitigate any potential consumer-related backlash.

That said, there have already been several class action suits filed against restaurants in America who were allegedly selling fraudulent Kobe beef, and affected consumers are demanding their money back.

According to Attorney Kevin Shenkman, who served as class counsel for suits against a number of these restaurants and dining groups, explains:

“These businesses are passing off their beef as being Kobe beef when it is anything but Kobe beef and they’re charging premium prices to consumers who are paying those prices because they think that it is in fact Kobe beef and it’s not.”

Yet despite growing media attention, it seems to have made little difference to consumer awareness or spending in the US, where menu items like Kobe sliders have already taken a foothold in the new age of foodie-ism.

The term Kobe, and even wagyu, is used so liberally on menus in America that customers have almost come to expect these ‘premium' options from just about any neighborhood bistro, without considering glaring facts.

A knife and metal spatula sit on a hot plate prior to cooking kobe beef at a Japanese restaurant in Kobe.
Kobe beef restaurant in Kobe, Japan.
Photo used with permission courtesy of @somewhere.in.jp

Wagyu beef and Kobe beef in the US

From 2010 to August 2012, the import of any Japanese wagyu beef from Japan, 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 (from which only authentic Kobe beef can come from) were not approved for export by the USDA.

Therefore 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 are distributed to select buyers. Most Kobe beef remains in Japan for domestic consumption.

Even the term ‘wagyu' is very loosely applied in the United States. While pure-bred Japanese cattle do exist in the US, meat need only be 46.9% Japanese to be labelled wagyu.

Often wagyu in the United States is cross-bred with Angus cattle and may be more Angus beef than wagyu. However, even this very broad definition of wagyu only applies to farmers and abattoirs; it does not extend to restaurants.

So essentially restaurants can sell any beef as wagyu or Kobe beef, and many do.

Where to get real Kobe beef

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself as a consumer and to avoid being duped into paying for something that is not the real deal.

Check the price tag and skip the Kobe beef burgers

As journalist Larry Olmstead who has done significant research into Kobe beef fraud says, “High prices don’t guarantee that you are getting Kobe beef but low prices virtually guarantee that you’re not.”

Price is a good first indicator. As much as we'd all like to think we can get a premium Kobe steak or burger for an extra $10 at the local gastro pub, unless you're paying a couple of hundred bucks for it, it's not Kobe beef.

And no one in their right mind is going to grind up top-quality wagyu, much less prized Kobe beef, into a hamburger patty in the first place. There is essentially no such thing as ground Kobe beef.

The late great Anthony Bourdain described Kobe sliders as the worst dish in America. “What makes Kobe good is texture. You lose all of that immediately (in a Kobe slider).

“There’s no way that you could appreciate the things that make Kobe interesting and good and expensive in a little burger or a meatball drowned in sauce. I mean it’s silly.”

But even when the dish appears to be prepared in a logical manner and the price seems right, this doesn't guarantee that you're being served what you ordered. For that we need to dig a little deeper.

Ask your server

Any restaurant serving real Kobe beef should be able to tell you exactly where it came from, its precise grade, their distributor, and be able to produce the 10-digit authentication number.

Kobe beef is not easy to procure. If they don't know or hesitate, this is a sure sign that it is not authentic Kobe beef.

Check if the restaurant, retailer or wholesaler has actually imported Kobe beef with this easy online search trick

Kobe beef is highly coveted and regulated in Japan; they don't just send it anywhere without knowing exactly who it is going to and where it will end up. Fortunately for consumers, this information is available freely online.

In the United States, there are currently only 40 restaurants that have access to genuine Kobe beef.

You can find a list of overseas accredited restaurants and distributors here.

You can also search by the 10-digit authentication number to check that it is a legitimate number.

In addition, you can check when the beef was exported and the company it was imported by here.

If the information you are given by an establishment cannot be confirmed here, something is amiss.

The most expensive beef in the world

Given its price and reputation, you might think that Kobe beef is the most expensive beef in the world. But, in fact, it's not even the most expensive or most prized wagyu.

That accolade goes to Matsusaka beef, which domestically in Japan is generally considered to be the best Japanese beef due to its higher on average fat content, a key indicator of quality wagyu. While Kobe beef must have a BMS of 6+, Matsusaka must be 10-12.

The most expensive beef in the world though is reportedly from a farm in Northeastern France where a butcher who runs his own abattoir creates aged steaks from his Blonde Aquitaine stock through a process of hibernation. Through the process, in which cold air is blown at 75 km per hour onto the meat in a -45 degree Fahrenheit environment, the beef may be kept for an indeterminate amount of time without loss of quality.

A 2000 vintage cote de boeuf (rib steak) costs around $3,200.

Conclusion

All this information may sound confusing, but at the end of the day, it's quite simple. Do your research and avoid cheap (and expensive) imitations.

Go directly to the source and select an accredited Kobe beef restaurant, retailer or wholesaler in your country from the list or save your pennies for a trip to Japan for the guaranteed real deal.

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.

Have you tried Kobe beef? Would you like to? Let us know in the comments!

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Saturday 19th of June 2021

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