Uncovering the Origins: The Animal Source of Genuine Wagyu Beef

Wagyu beef conjures images of intensely marbled, beautifully tender, and flavorful steaks that command eye-watering prices. But what exactly is the animal source of this exclusive delicacy? Let’s explore the history and genetics that define authentic Wagyu beef.

The Meaning of Wagyu

The word “Wagyu” translates from Japanese as follows:

  • “Wa” means Japanese

  • “Gyu” means cattle or cow

So Wagyu simply refers to Japanese cattle breeds. Only a select few breeds produced in Japan can earn the acclaimed Wagyu label.

The Wagyu Breeds of Japan

There are four breeds of cattle considered to be Wagyu that originate from Japan:

  • Japanese Black – The most common Wagyu exported worldwide. Provides highly marbled beef.

  • Japanese Brown – Raised in Kumamoto and Kochi. Less marbling than Black but very flavorful.

  • Japanese Polled – Descended from Aberdeen Angus with high meat quality. Very small population.

  • Japanese Shorthorn – Developed in Tohoku from Shorthorn cattle. Lean beef with mild flavor.

The History of Wagyu Cattle in Japan

Wagyu cattle emerged in Japan thousands of years ago as work animals utilized for agriculture and farming. They were bred to have significant endurance and hardiness.

Over time, farmers began to notice these native cattle developed heavier marbling in their meat, likely as an adaptation to store energy. The discovery of the remarkably tender and flavorful beef these Wagyu provided would change Japanese cuisine forever.

Starting in 1868 after the Meiji restoration, Japanese farmers started crossing their native cattle with imported breeds like Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle. This was done to introduce Western beef qualities into the Wagyu.

These breed infusions continued until 1910 when the bloodlines were closed to outside genetics. The unique regional breeding isolation and genetic selection in Japan led to distinct strains of Wagyu emerging, like the famed Tajima-gyu (now called Kuroge) of the Hyogo Prefecture.

Rigorous progeny testing and highly regulated production systems ensure only the finest Wagyu genetics remain. Today, Wagyu is revered as a national treasure of Japan.

The Introduction of Wagyu Cattle to the USA

Wagyu made their way to the United States starting in the 1970s when Japanese exports began. The superior meat quality was quickly recognized by chefs and demand grew. Many more imports of Wagyu genetics followed over the next few decades.

But in the 1990s, Japan banned Wagyu exports to protect this national treasure. Only genetics already in the U.S. could be further developed. This small original gene pool is the foundation for all American Wagyu today.

Crossbreeding with breeds like Angus is also now common in the U.S. to increase marbling. But the genetics ensuring ideal meat texture and flavor remain uniquely Wagyu.

Why Wagyu Beef is So Prized

So what makes Wagyu beef stand apart from all other types? Their signature heavy marbling provides incredible flavor and tenderness while remaining lower in saturated fat than other breeds.

The ample thin ribbons of intramuscular fat melt at lower temperatures than thick chunks. This gives an almost buttery, velvety texture. No other cattle breed can achieve this level of marbling.

The marbling also contains high levels of oleic acid, the same healthy fat found in olive oil, along with antioxidants like vitamin E. This boosts favorable fatty acid profiles from a nutritional standpoint.

In short, the unparalleled taste, texture, and health qualities of genuine Wagyu beef can be attributed directly to the amazing cattle breeds developed in Japan. No other animal provides beef with such an exquisite eating experience.

So now when you see the term Wagyu, you know it refers specifically to these select Japanese breeds renowned for their beautifully marbled beef. No other cattle deserve the acclaimed Wagyu name.

Day in the Life of a Japanese Wagyu Beef Farmer


Why is Wagyu so expensive?

Wagyu beef production is tightly regulated and mandated to select the best genetic choices, according to the American Wagyu Association. The cows themselves may sell for up to $30,000, Business Insider reports, and only meat that scores from A3 to A5 can be sold. The process of raising Wagyu cows is also meticulous.

How do cows become Wagyu?

To be eligible for a wagyu designation in Japan, a purebred cow must be genetically tied to one of the following four Japanese born breeds: Akage Washu (Japanese Brown), Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black), Mukaku Washu (Japanese Polled), or Nihon Tankaku Washu (Japanese Shorthorn).

Are Wagyu cows or bulls?

The purebred Wagyu was developed as a result of the breeding of Fullblood Wagyu bulls with the base cow such as Angus. From this initial mating, called a first cross, the heifer is retained and mated back to a Fullblood or Purebred bull.

What breed of cow is Wagyu beef?

Wagyu refers to any of the four specific breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. Japanese Black and Brown cattle are available in the United States and are crossbred with American cattle to produce American Wagyu beef.

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