We often hear the terms “Kobe” and “Wagyu” thrown around almost interchangeably when it comes to fine meats, but, in fact, they are two different things. Of course, there is good reason to be confused at first, because every Kobe steak IS a Wagyu steak, but every Wagyu is not a Kobe steak.
Here’s how it works: Kobe is basically a variety of Wagyu, which loosely translated means “Japanese cattle.” (“Wa-” means Japanese or Japanese-style, while “-gyu” means cattle or cows.)
So any and cattle that are bred in Japan (or Japanese style) is called “Wagyu.” Kobe beef, however, refers to a very specific type of Japanese – or Wagyu – beef called Tajima-Gyu. In fact, this Kobe beef is all raised in the prefecture of Hyogo (Hyogo is the capital city of Kobe).
One easy way to think of it is with the similarity to champagne. Champagne is only champagne if it’s from the region in France of the same name. If not, then the very same product can only be called sparkling wine.
The same holds true for Kobe beef – it has to come from Hyogo for it to be true Kobe.
About Wagyu beef:
The cattle industry in Japan started in the 1800s when a few different breeds of cattle were first imported from Europe.
To cultivate the healthiest cattle and finest tasking meats, breeders fed them special blends of grasses, rice straw, corn, barley, soybean, and wheat bran. In some instances, they would even feed these cattle beer or sake! There are even rumors that dedicated breeders would hand massage their cattle to make sure their muscles didn’t cramp in confinement.
Whether that’s true or not, we do know that four of those original breeds became so prevalent and popular that they still are the featured strains in Japan today, and are considered the only true strains of Wagyu.
- Japanese Black: First raised as work cattle, it’s now known for its perfect marbling
- Japanese Brown: These cattle are known for a lighter taste since they’re raised more lean and healthy.
- Japanese Shorthorn: This cattle is lean as well, but also high in inosinic and glutamic acid, giving it a unique flavor.
- Japanese Polled: Also lean, but Japanese Polled has a rich, gamey texture and taste.
Interestingly, about 90% of all Wagyu beef is actually a strain of Japanese Black cattle.
How about Kobe beef?
Kobe beef takes the already high-quality Wagyu beef and makes it even better. Worldwide, Kobe beef has a reputation as the best marbling a steak could have, resulting in the creamiest, richest, and best-tasting steaks anywhere.
To be called a true Kobe steak, not only does the beef need to be from Hyogo but it must adhere to these seven criteria when slaughtered:
- Virgin cow or bullock steer
- Not only raised but born in Hyogo Prefecture
- Fed on a farm there
- Its meat needs to be processed there
- Marbling rating (BMS) of 6 or higher (12 point scale)
- Meat quality rating of 4 or higher on a 5 point scale
- Total weight can not exceed 470 kg
Due to these strict standards, only about 3,000 head of cattle make the grade as authentic Kobe each year! It’s no wonder why Kobe is the most expensive beef in the world, often selling for $200 or more for a single steak!
Now you know the difference between Kobe and Wagyu, and can really look for the best quality meat when grilling and shopping for a steak.