Updated: February 19, 2020
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All About Wagyu (Japanese Beef) + Ranking Explained (A5? A4?)

We're here to answer your wagyu-related questions! Wagyu literally means 'Japanese beef.' Of wagyu cows, almost 95% are of the black-haired (黒毛 'kuroge') breed, of which there are many sub-breeds including all the most famous types of wagyu (Kobe, Matsuzaka, etc.)

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What is so Special About Wagyu Beef?

Wagyu beef is so special because of its fat. Unlike most other breeds of cows that form fat separately from the red meat, wagyu cows form fat in small flecks or streaks throughout the red meat, creating a marbling pattern. Why is this good? Texture. Because the red meat is broken up by streaks of fat, it becomes incredibly tender and soft. In addition, the fat in wagyu melts at a much lower temperature than the fat in normal beef, meaning that the meat literally melts in your mouth. Because of this, wagyu, and particularly rare kinds of wagyu such as Kobe beef, are some of the most expensive and prized meats in the world.
A wagyu steak
A standard beef steak (note how the fat is concentrated, instead of spread throughout the red meat)

What do Wagyu Cows Eat?

Wagyu cows are fed varying diets depending on the fattening farm where they are raised. Farmers all have different strategies for developing cows with optimal meat quality, but the feed generally consists of various grains and plants including wheat, soy, rice, etc.

Are Wagyu Cows Massaged?

Some wagyu are purportedly massaged in order to make the meat more tender. This is apparently true in some cases but isn't necessarily standard practice across the board. Different breeds of Wagyu cows are raised across the country by different farmers under different conditions, so it's impossible to make generalizations about wagyu.

Why is Wagyu Beef so Expensive?

Wagyu is so expensive because of its relative scarcity compared with other kinds of beef. Wagyu beef only comes from Japan and is highly regulated by the government to ensure that a high standard of quality - and therefore value - is maintained. Additionally, the fattening period for wagyu cows is typically much longer than that of cows raised in other countries, lasting as long as 2 years, which adds additional cost.
Beautifully marbled cubes of wagyu

Is Kobe or Wagyu Beef Better?

Kobe beef is actually just one type of 'wagyu' (和(wa) = Japanese, 牛(gyu) = beef). The question "is Kobe or wagyu beef better?" then, is kind of like asking "is merlot or red wine better?"

Granted, Kobe beef is some of the rarest and most highly-prized varieties of wagyu, and commonly fetches some of the highest price tags for beef in the world. This is due to the strict standards for what is qualified as "Kobe Beef." Kobe Beef comes from only about 3,000 certified cows per year which come from a specific lineage and are raised in Hyogo prefecture (where the city of Kobe is located) under specified circumstances.

What is 'A5' Wagyu?

Just like the beef in other countries, Japanese beef (wagyu) is given a rank to indicate its quality.
The letter (A, B, or C) refers to the yield, or amount of usable meat that can be taken from the cow. A is above normal, B is a normal amount, and C is below normal.
The number next to the letter refers to the quality of the meat based on 4 different criteria: the texture, the color of the red meat, the quality and color of the fat, and the marbling of the fat (called 'sashi' in Japanese). This number can be between 1 and 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. Thus A5 is the highest rank that wagyu can attain.
Premium A5 wagyu
Actually, there's an additional rating that is added to the standard 'letter-Number' rating system called the 'Beef Marbling Standard' or BMS. The BMS further rates the quality of the sashi (marbling of the fat) on a scale of 1 (poor) to 12 (excellent). Although this number isn't typically mentioned at most restaurants, some of the finest wagyu restaurants will present a certificate with the beef that shows the heritage of the cow and the rank awarded for its meat (+ a nose print from the animal!). The very highest possible rank for wagyu, therefore, is A5-12.
Source: http://www.jmga.or.jp/standard/beef/
Examples of the BMS rank

In Closing

Hopefully, your wagyu-related questions have all been answered! If you've never tried premium wagyu, we highly recommend you change that! It's a whole different ball game compared with normal beef. Check our other articles featuring wagyu if you're hungry for more information:
I live in west Tokyo and spend most of my time thinking about food or going bouldering.

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