The ancestors of Wagyu cows came to Japan from Korea in the 2nd century AD. From this time on, cows were selected for their stamina. Intramuscular fat, which is also known as marbling, provides cows with the energy they need to sustain work. Wagyu were bread to be hard working cattle, and never thought of as meat. Because Wagyu store fat in their muscles they have less energy to devote to milk production. Therefore Wagyu have always been dependent on humans to care for their calves.
Between 1635 and 1853 Japan experienced a period of isolationism, during which, the consumption of any four legged animal was forbidden. Soon after this period, the Japanese people developed an appetite for their highly marbled Wagyu. In 1864 European cows were introduced to the island to cross-breed with Wagyu and feed the growing demand for beef. Fortunately, some farms chose to maintain pure bread heards of Wagyu.
Breeds of Wagyu include Tajima, Shimane, Kumamoto, Tottori, Hida, and many others. These breeds are usually named after the towns or regions where they have evolved through selective breeding. Pure Bread Wagyu refers to any combination of these original breeds.
Japan has several regional beef brands such as Kobe, Mishima, Matsusaka, Omi, and Sanda which are all registered trademarks. These brands establish production standards. Kobe Beef is the most famous brand because the port of Kobe was the first to open in 1869 after isolationism. Therefore, the city of Kobe was the first place foreign travelers tasted Wagyu. Kobe Beef requires that the cow be Tajima breed, born in Hyoho Prefecture, and raised to 30 months. Contrary to popular believe, feeding cows beer or massaging them with sake is not required for Kobe Beef and is very uncommon. Cows destine to be Kobe Beef are fed soybean, corn, barley, wheat bran, and can never be fed grass. Japan does not have enough land to grow feed grains; therefore most of the feed used on Japanese farms is imported from Australia or the United States.
Japan, Australia, and the United States each have their own grading system for beef. In Japan the meat is first categorized into three grades, A,B, and C, based on ratio of meat to the total weight of the carcass. “A” usually means the cow was pure bread Wagyu. “B” is usually a Wagyu crossed with a European cow. “C” is a European cow such as a Holstein, or Jersey. The meat is then ranked on the BMS marbling standard from 1-12 where a 1 has no marbling and a 12 has extreme marbling. In Japan beef may be sold with an exact marbling score or grouped. For example Wagyu labeled A5 has a marbling score of 8-12, A4 is 5-7, A3 is 3-4, and so on.
In the United States the USDA grades include prime, choice, and select. USDA Prime is what you will find at most high end steak houses and is the equivalent to a Japanese (BMS) marbling score of 4-5. USDA Choice is a BMS 2-4 score and can be found at mid-level steak houses. USDA Select is a 1-2 and is the beef generally found in grocery stores.
Australia’s scale stops at 9 and anything above 9 is called a 9+. Otherwise it is the same as the Japanese scale.
Although the grading scales are based solely on marbling other factors affect the quality of the beef. It is important to note that fat creates the sensation of juiciness but plays a minor role in beef’s overall flavor. Flavor is related to nutritional value and is most influenced by feed given to the cows. In Japan they desire mild but very juicy meat. Therefore they feed almost exclusively grain. In Australia and the United States cows are generally raised on pasture and finished on grain. At the time of this writing Australia is producing both pure bread Wagyu as well as Wagyu crossed with Angus. In the United States only Wagyu crossed with Angus is being produced, but pure bread Wagyu beef is imported to the U.S.A. from Australia. Beef from both the United States and Australia will generally be described as tasting beefier than Japanese product. There are farms in New Zealand raising on pasture Wagyu crossed with Angus. These cows produce what could be considered the wild or natural flavor of beef.
When ordering Wagyu at a restaurant, ask questions. If the Wagyu beef was produced domestically, you know that it was crossed with Angus. A Wagyu cross will never have more than a BMS 8 marbling score and normally will grade in the 4-5 range. If the restaurant is serving pure bread Wagyu it is likely to have approximately a BMS 7 score. If they are serving something even more high end they may be able to tell you the exact score or use a term such as A5 or 9+. The best steak houses will keep at least one certificate available showing that their Wagyu is pure bread. The more informed you are, the easier it will be to remember what you like.