Different Types of Wagyu Beef

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wagyu beef served with sauce
Wagyu beef to cook on a stone by WordRidden licensed under CC BY 2.0

Wagyu beef is renowned for its exceptional quality, marbling, and tenderness, making it a sought-after type of beef enjoyed in homes and restaurants around the world. Originating from Japan, Wagyu beef has gained exponential popularity globally, with other countries creating similar types of beef from Wagyu cattle. 

In this guide, we explore the fascinating world of Wagyu beef, covering its origins, breeds, grading system, popular cuts, and the differences between American and Japanese Wagyu.

What Is Wagyu?

Wagyu beef is often thought of as a type of beef. In reality, it is, but it’s also much more. The term Wagyu roughly translates to Japanese cow. However, raising Wagyu cattle is a process that’s become intertwined in Japanese culture, giving it much more prominence than just being a type of beef.

In Japan, Wagyu cattle is fed specific food, raised using meticulous processes, and in precise conditions to create the world-renowned Wagyu beef. Wagyu is considered to be among the most tender, flavorful, and well-marbled beef in the world. It’s also not very common to find, because true Japanese Wagyu comes from a specific breed of cattle originating from Japan.

Where Did Wagyu Beef Originate?

Wagyu beef originated in Japan and is still produced in Japan today. This type of beef originally began breeding centuries ago in mountainous areas of the country, with only specific cattle being chosen to continue on the lineage. Today’s Japanese Wagyu beef cattle are bred in a few regions of Japan, with each region producing different types of Wagyu beef that look and taste a bit differently one from another. 

Wagyu Beef Breeds

Wagyu beef has more than just one version. Because Wagyu cattle have been raised in different areas of Japan, multiple versions of Wagyu beef have been created. Although numerous beef might be labeled as Wagyu, there are only four types recognized in Japan:

  • Japanese Black: Japanese Black Wagyu is the most common type imported by the United States. This breed is known for its large size and muscular body. Technically, there are multiple strains of Japanese Black Wagyu cattle, including Tajima and Tottori.
  • Japanese Brown: This Wagyu breed is also a somewhat common export to the United States, although it’s typically referred to as red Wagyu outside of Japan. When Wagyu cattle first made its way to other countries, it wasn’t uncommon for breeders to cross Japanese Brown with Japanese Black cattle.
  • Japanese Shorthorn: This breed is not exported nor bred outside of Japan. It tends to be on the leaner side compared to Japanese Black and Brown cattle, typically because of its grazing behaviors rather than consuming grain-based meals.
  • Japanese Polled: The Japanese Polled is also only bred in Japan and not exported. Originally a cross-breed of the Japanese Black, it offers some of the most intense flavors you’ll get from Wagyu beef.

How is Wagyu Beef Graded?

Grading is an important part of the overall Wagyu beef industry. The grading system characterizes Wagyu beef by its color, marbling, fat, texture, and other features, giving it a letter-number grade to help consumers compare different cuts of Wagyu beef. The Japanese Meat Grading Association is in charge of grading Wagyu beef in Japan.

The overall grade of Wagyu beef is designated by letter A, B, or C and a number 1-5. A is reserved for full-blooded Wagyu cattle only, and numbers 4 and 5 are regarded as the highest-quality Wagyu. 

The number Wagyu receives is based on a quality score that considers each feature, like color and marbling. The quality score ranges from 1-12. A quality score of 3 or 4 would yield an A3 Wagyu, while a score of 8-12 yields an A5 Wagyu, the highest score in the grading system. 

The letter A, B, or C represents something a little different: yield. Wagyu beef with an A grade will yield more beef than Wagyu with a B grade. Graders use an estimated calculation to give this grade based on the amount of meat that specific rib sections yield.

Wagyu beef can be cut into various types of steak you’d normally choose at a restaurant or cook at home. That’s because, like other types of cattle, non-Wagyu cattle has all the usual parts of a cow, including the rump, sirloin, tenderloin, and other areas from which popular steak cuts derive.

Of course, some cuts are more popular than others, especially when it comes to prestigious Wagyu beef. Here are a few favorites:

Wagyu Ribeye

Known for its excellent marbling and tender meat, ribeye is one of the most popular cuts of steak, Wagyu or not. Ribeye comes from the rib section of the cow, which isn’t overly muscular. The result is a tender texture that’s easy to bite into and chew. Wagyu ribeye is also exceptionally flavorful, especially when cooked with the bone still attached. 

Wagyu Filet Mignon

If you’ve ever eaten a filet mignon, you probably know exactly why this cut of steak strands out. Its tell-tale round, thick shape is part of it, but its super-tender bite is the number-one reason people love this cut. Although it’s mild in flavor, Wagyu-style filet mignon is delicate and texturally appealing, making it perfect for an upscale dining experience.

Wagyu Sirloin

Wagyu sirloin comes from the upper portion of meat near the rump of a cow. This area produces flavorful meat with a good balance of chew and tenderness. One of the best cuts to order at a steakhouse, Wagyu sirloin works extremely well as a grilled steak.

Wagyu Strip Steak

Similar to sirloin, Wagyu strip steak brings together delicious flavor with a pleasant texture. It has a bit more fat content than sirloin, making it a good cut to use for slower cooking methods like reverse searing or oven roasting, which help to render fat down over time. 

American Wagyu vs. Japanese Wagyu

When looking for Wagyu in America, you’ll see beef marked as American Wagyu. This indicates high-quality beef, but there are a few distinctions that are important to know.

Japanese Wagyu is traditional Wagyu beef that’s been raised, fed, and cared for in Japan. Meanwhile, American Wagyu is made with cattle bred with Japanese Wagyu cattle. Therefore, American Wagyu is not 100% Japanese Wagyu beef. For beef to qualify as Japanese Wagyu, it must be raised using authentic Wagyu methods used in Japan, including feeding high-quality food and allowing plenty of space for cattle to roam and graze. Japanese Wagyu cattle typically have longer feeding periods, too, lasting about 200 or more days longer than American Wagyu. 

Additionally, American Wagyu is graded differently than Japanese Wagyu. While most beef in America is graded according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading system, Japanese Wagyu uses the grading system standardized by the Japanese Meat Grading Association. Most American Wagyu would fit the bill for Prime due to their rich color and marbling. Therefore, some American Wagyu sellers grade their beef based on the Japanese Wagyu system to help customers compare their choices.

Get a Taste of Wagyu for Dinner

To sum up, American Wagyu derives from authentic Japanese Wagyu, but beef can only be Japanese Wagyu if it’s born, raised, and cared for in Japan. Still, American Wagyu is rooted in Japanese culture and can produce some of the best beef your money can buy.

We sell real American Wagyu beef at Chicago Steak Company that you can order online and have shipped to your home in just a few days. Check out our selection of American Wagyu, including sirloin, filet mignon, gourmet steak burgers, and ribeye.