Wagyu Beef Grades and Global Overview
The past several years have seen an increase in both fine-dining and casual restaurants offering everything from USA Wagyu burgers to imported Kobe Japanese cuts. However, this surge in offerings has come with some controversy and confusion.
Due to generic use of the terms “Wagyu” and “Kobe”, many meat lovers and sophisticated diners alike are finding themselves unsure of what Wagyu actually means and what it is they are actually eating.
Wagyu & Kobe : Whats the Difference ?
Kobe beef is beef from Wagyu cattle that are born, raised, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture whose capital city is Kobe, and which meet strict breeding and raising guidelines.
Authentic Kobe and other imported Japanese Wagyu are very expensive around $80 to $100 /lb, so one can be sure any “Kobe” or “Kobe-Style” or “American Kobe” Burger that costs $15 is not actual Kobe
Authentic Kobe being imported in scarce amounts (approximately 3,000 kg to the USA in 2015) to approved restaurants if you see “Kobe” at an average, casual restaurant, and anything labeled “Kobe” it is actually some degree of American-raised Wagyu, NOT Authentic KOBE.
Crossbreeding : Classifications of Wagyu
Wagyu is a breed of cattle. In the same way that Angus cattle produce Angus beef, Wagyu cattle produce Wagyu beef. The big difference is that Wagyu beef is famed for its high marbling content and rich flavor.
When consumers find Wagyu beef in the United States, most often, the Wagyu beef is from cattle that has some sort of Wagyu breeding in its genetic line (parents, grandparents, etc) but it can describe varying degrees of Wagyu purity.
Crossbreeding - breeding Wagyu cattle with Angus or other conventional breeds - is a common practice around the world and results in “Wagyu-Influenced” cattle and beef. Ranchers do this to impart some of Wagyu’s characteristics, especially the higher marbling content, into their herds.
Classifications of Wagyu in USA
Crossbreeding has created four common classifications of Wagyu in USA
The higher the percentage Wagyu genetics, the more prevalent the Wagyu characteristics will be. Different classifications of Wagyu aren’t necessarily better than one another, but they are different and will offer unique experiences so it’s important to understand the difference.
F1 - 50% Crossbred Wagyu
This is the most common type of Wagyu in the US. F1s are the result of a Fullblood Wagyu and a conventional Cow (angus, for example).
Most often, F1s are Wagyu bred with Angus. Angus are a larger breed of cattle, so when crossbred with Wagyu, which are smaller but more intensely marbled, Ranchers get what might be considered “best of both worlds” - a larger animal that produces more beef with better marbling.
F2 - 75% Crossbred Wagyu & F-4 93.75% Purebred Waygu
F2s are the result of a Fullblood Waygu Bull breeding with an F1 Cow.
F4s (more often referred to as Purebred Wagyu) are the result of a Fullblood Wagyu Bull breeding with an F3 ( which is 87% Wagyu and not commonly occurring in the USA) Sire.
Due to the higher percentage of Wagyu genetics, F2s and Purebreds are likely to have more intense marbling and richer flavor than an F1, better showcasing the classic Wagyu traits.
100% Fullblood Wagyu
100% Fullblood Wagyu are the offspring of two 100% Fullblood Wagyu animals that have proven lineage to their Japanese genetics without any history of crossbreeding.
In order to be registered, 100% Fullblood Wagyu must be DNA-Certified. That means that one of the animal’s hairs or a blood sample is sent to a lab and genetically proven and certified to be of the authentic Wagyu lineage from Japan. Few ranches in the US raise 100% Fullblood Wagyu, with only a few thousand in the country. These cattle maintain the integrity of the pure genetics, resulting in a more authentic product.
Marbling levels, flavor profiles, and quality of beef aren’t only a byproduct of genetics. Raising practices significantly affect the outcome. Wagyu cattle require specialized feed and attentive care. Every Ranch is different but those that raise higher percentage and Fullblood Wagyu are more likely to follow practices specific to Wagyu that are proven to bring out the best in the breed. So not only are the genetics stronger, but the craft incorporated into raising them can exemplify the characteristics.
Japan has recently introduced regulation on the use of the term “Kobe” in efforts to eliminate the misuse of the term. While the American Wagyu Association (AWA) has the authority to label Wagyu beef in the USA, but are currently lacking a labeling system that differentiates between the classifications F1, F2, F3, Purebred, and 100% Fullblood. So “Wagyu” could mean anything from F1 to Fullblood.
Servers and chefs at esteemed restaurants should carefully note and explain the classification of the Wagyu offerings listed on their menus.
If a brand claims to offer 100% Fullblood Wagyu and further information is desired, request the DNA-Certification which is required for Fullblood.
Example of 100% Fullblood Wagyu DNA Certification
As Wagyu beef becomes more popular in the United States, meat lovers and sophisticated diners to bring categorical expectations to the table. Similar to wine, cheese, and other epicurean specialties, realizing the difference offers the opportunity to taste and appreciate the nuances between classifications, purveyors, and regions. An afforadable alternative to Japanese Wagyu is Australian Wagyu becuase they created fullblood gene pools in the early 90s.