The Real Beef on Kobe Beef

Grant ChenDecember 1st, 2008
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Unless you've been living a sheltered culinary life, you've undoubtedly heard of kobe beef. But what you may have heard is often shrouded in a fantastical story-telling that is part of the myth and exoticness of this rare meat. In my own food adventures, I've heard that kobe beef can only be grown in Japan because of the specialized climate, the cows are massaged in sake by attractive milk maids, they drink beer during the summer and even rumors that the Japanese mafia controls the entire kobe beef market.

In order to differentiate between the facts and lies, let's get down with a basic introduction to kobe beef. For starters, the name kobe is derived from Kobe, the capital city of the Hyogo prefecture in Japan. It is in this prefecture where a specific breed of Wagyu cattle, called Tajima, have been raised and selectively bred for over 2,000 years. Ironically, Wagyu cattle are not native to Japan and Japanese culture did not start including beef until about a century ago.

Though the term kobe beef and Wagyu beef are often used interchangeably, it surprises most to learn that true kobe beef isn't actually exported out of Japan. While there are four various types of Wagyu cattle, the Japanese government strickly regulates the term "Kobe beef" to Wagyu beef born and slaughtered from the Hyogo prefecture. Unfortunately, the term is often misused, leading to much confusion among consumers between true kobe beef and Wagyu beef.

What distinguishes kobe beef is the meat's extensive marbling, tenderness and taste. While American beef is rated on the USDA scale of Select, Choice and Prime, kobe beef is not rated on the USDA scale because it would require it's own category. As such, kobe beef is rated by the Japan Meat Grading Association from a scale of A1 to A5, with A5 being the highest grade of meat. To get an idea of the richness, kobe beef fat will actually begin dissolving at 77F degrees, which means the meat will literally melt in your mouth. This is why most preparation styles call for a quick sear, usually in the form of sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. In fact, if prepared as steak, kobe beef cannot be cooked more than medium rare, as it would otherwise liquefy.

As if that wasn't enough reason to order up a plate, kobe beef has far less saturated fats than typical American Angus, while having high levels of oleic acid - the good fatty acid found in olive and canola oils that reduce bad cholesterol. In addition, strict guidelines dictate that kobe labeled beef also be free of hormones and antibiotics.

True Kobe Beef vs Kobe Styled Beef

Emerging in popularity over the last few decades has been a trend called "kobe-styled beef" or American kobe beef, though the latter is sometimes inaccurate as Australia is the second largest producer of kobe styled beef. This umbrella term generally refers to Angus cattle that has been cross-bred with Wagyu stock. The Japanese government and cattle ranchers have taken issue with this labeling because it enjoys the benefit of the kobe beef brand while not being authentic kobe beef.

Some American and Australian ranchers make the claim that comparable kobe style beef can be produced simply by cross-breeding with Wagyu cattle and following long feed schedules, while dismissing sake rubs and free beer as cultural fluff. Certain ranchers even market American style kobe as the preferred option, due to its lesser fat content and meatier taste.

While kobe beef purists may swear to eating only Japanese imported Waygu, even that distinction has been muddled, as Japanese ranchers commonly outsource the raising of Tajima cattle to save on costs; bringing them back before slaughtering to conform with labeling guidelines. This has caused consternation with some Japanese ranchers, due to the unfair competition and bending of standards.

In the last few years however, Japan has put restrictions on the import of American beef, due to fears about BSE - commonly known as mad cow disease - in American cattle stock. The result has been a complete halt on the import of American kobe beef, as the restricted ban only allows the importing of cows under 20 months, while the American Angus-Waygu breed are slaughtered in the 26 to 32 month range.

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Articles in Series
  1. The Real Beef on Kobe Beef
  2. Wagyu and Kobe Beef in Seattle
A slab of  Wagyu beef, commonly referred to as kobe beef
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