Wagyu beef is one of today’s most celebrated culinary luxuries, as synonymous with elegance as lobster or caviar. But what exactly is wagyu, where does it come from and how does it compare to other types of beef? This guide will take you through the answer to those questions and more.
What Is Wagyu?
Wagyu is a type of beef famous for its marbling, tenderness and flavor. While the specifics can vary by location, Japan produced the first wagyu beef, and Japanese wagyu remains the gold standard.
Japanese wagyu must come from one of four native cattle breeds:
- Kuroge Washu, or Japanese Black
- Akage Washu, or Japanese Brown
- Mukaku Washu, or Japanese Polled
- Nihon Tankaku Washu, or Japanese Shorthorn
Thanks to a genetic predisposition and deliberately developed diets, these breeds integrate more of their fat inside their muscle. This marbling produces uniquely flavorful and tender meat.
American Wagyu vs. Japanese Wagyu
While Japanese wagyu remains top shelf, the cattle — and therefore the beef they produce — have spread to different countries. The cattle are then crossbred with the country’s local breeds to help them adapt to new environmental conditions.
Wagyu first came to the United States in 1975. Today’s American Wagyu cattle are crosses of Japanese breeds and Angus or other high-quality local breeds. While Japanese farmers grain-feed their cattle, American farmers often choose grass-feeding instead.
American wagyu does maintain some of the intense marbling of its Japanese predecessor. However, crossbreeding replaces the umami flavor with a milder, more traditional beefy taste, making it palatable in larger quantities. It also lowers the price, making American wagyu more accessible.
Since the USDA grading scale doesn’t include a category that adequately describes higher levels of marbling, even American wagyu beef uses the Japanese BMS.
Australian Wagyu vs. Japanese Wagyu
The first wagyu made it to Australia in 1990 as genetic samples, and the first pureblood Japanese cattle arrived to boost the breeding program in 1997. Like American wagyu, Australian Wagyu cattle are crossbreeds, though Australian farmers typically prefer Holstein cows over Angus. While you may find Australian wagyu from farms that feed their herds a combination of grass and grain, grass-fed Australian wagyu is the most common.
How Does Japanese Wagyu Compare to Other Types of Beef?
To compare wagyu and other types of beef, you must understand how to make an appropriate comparison. While it may seem natural to compare wagyu vs. ribeye or wagyu vs. filet mignon, this comparison is misleading. Since wagyu is a type of beef, you can find wagyu striploin steaks, ribeyes and filets mignons just as you could for any other kind.
Wagyu Beef vs. Regular Beef
Rather than comparing wagyu to specific cuts, we can compare wagyu beef to regular beef based on its:
- Marbling: Thanks to the cattle’s genetics and diet, wagyu beef has higher levels of marbling than other types of beef.
- Tenderness: The fat in wagyu beef melts below body temperature, at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Since its intense marbling means the fat is evenly distributed throughout the meat, a bite of wagyu will literally melt in your mouth.
- Flavor: Besides increasing its tenderness, wagyu beef’s marbling gives it a unique umami flavor you won’t find in other types of beef.
- Healthiness: Wagyu beef has a higher ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fats than regular beef, and its saturated fat is less likely to raise cholesterol levels.
If you’re interested in trying the original wagyu, it’s also essential to note that while some types of beef may be available bone-in, imported Japanese wagyu is always boneless.
Wagyu vs. Prime
Understanding the American and Japanese grading systems is essential to comparing these two types of beef.
The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) Beef Carcass Grading Standard gives a quality grade from 1 to 5. This grade measures marbling as well as texture, color and fat quality. JMGA’s Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) lets them assign beef a grade between 1 and 12. Wagyu beef averages a score of 4-6, though a piece of A5 meat is guaranteed a score of 8 or higher.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading scale bases its quality grades on the meat’s flavor, tenderness, juiciness and marbling. From lowest to highest, the USDA’s five grades for beef are:
Within the Prime grade, beef can fall into one of three degrees of marbling — “slightly abundant,” “moderately abundant” or “abundant.” While these standards are somewhat vague, we can compare the two using the Japanese BMS, where a USDA Prime grade would earn a score of 4-5.
With Prime cuts only reaching wagyu’s average scores, it’s no surprise that those looking for extensive marbling choose wagyu every time.
Wagyu vs. Angus
While Wagyu cattle only made it to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, the Angus breed arrived from Scotland about a century earlier in the 1870s. Since their arrival, Angus has become one of the U.S.’s most popular cattle breeds. While they’re a common crossbreed for American Wagyu cattle, Angus cattle have also earned their own reputation for producing superior beef.
Angus beef is typically juicy, tender and flavorful, with exceptional marbling. As a U.S. breed, beef from Angus cattle uses the USDA grading scale, often receiving a Choice or Prime grade. Beef that belongs to the Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) brand must fulfill additional requirements, including modest or better marbling and a medium to fine marbling texture.
Wagyu vs. Kobe
You may see claims that Kobe-style beef is simply another name for wagyu. However, the truth is that Kobe beef is a particular variety of wagyu — in other words, Kobe beef is wagyu, but wagyu is not necessarily Kobe.
- Breed: Kobe beef comes exclusively from Kuroge Washu — Japanese Black — cows.
- Bloodline: In addition to the breed limitation, the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association must certify that the cows belong to the Tajima-gyu bloodline.
- Location: The cow must also spend its whole life from birth to slaughter in Japan’s Hyōgo prefecture, which includes the city of Kobe.
These requirements mean that only a slim percentage of Wagyu cattle are capable of producing Kobe beef. While Japan does export a portion to the U.S., its rarity contributes to its status as one of the most expensive types of beef.
Shop A5 Japanese Wagyu From Imperia Caviar
Indulge in the luxurious experience of Japanese wagyu with Imperia Caviar. Our beef comes from small farms in Kagoshima, Japan, where farmers raise cows to produce meat of the highest quality. From luscious ribeyes to versatile and tender striploin steaks, our A5 wagyu steaks are intensely marbled and brimming with a rich umami flavor. You can order our steaks on their own or indulge in a decadent bundle of wagyu ribeyes and Royal Ossetra caviar.
We want to be your go-to source for authentic Japanese wagyu. We package your order with insulated packaging and a FreshTag temperature monitor, assuring you that your steaks remained properly chilled during shipping. Browse our collection of wagyu steaks to choose your next culinary adventure.