The Cow Behind the Cuts: Japanese Wagyu Cattle Breeds
These days, nearly everyone has at least heard of Japanese Wagyu Beef—but have you ever wondered about its history, how it started, and where it comes from? Much like its rich, distinct flavor, Japanese Wagyu has a history that even some of the greatest steak aficionados don’t know about. And of course, it all starts with the cow behind the cuts.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about Japanese Wagyu cattle breeds.
Overview of Different Types of Japanese Wagyu Cattle
The term “wagyu” actually translates to “cow” in Japanese, which makes perfect sense because like other types of beef, it comes from cattle. Although Wagyu cattle were originally draft animals used in agriculture, cross-breeding for beef began in 1868 after the Meiji restoration that year—primarily due to their high percentage of intramuscular fat (IMF), or marbling, which is responsible for the delicious flavor and melting texture.
See, not just any old cattle breed can produce the flavor, marbling, and tenderness of Japanese Wagyu. Everything from the cattle breed and its diet and living conditions play a significant role in the quality of the meat produced. Specifically, there are four types of breeds: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled:
Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu)
Japanese Black is the most common Wagyu cattle breed, accounting for about 90% of all fattened cattle in Japan. It comes from a wide range of areas throughout Japan, while the other three are produced in specific regions. Japanese Black was established by cross-breeding Japanese native cattle and several European breeds, including Brown Swiss, Devon, and Ayrshire cattle.
Japanese Brown (Akage Washu)
Japanese Brown, which originated in the Kumamoto and Kochi prefectures, was established by cross-breeding Korean-originated cattle with the Swiss Simmental breed. In the U.S., Japanese Brown Wagyu is often referred to as “Red Wagyu” due to the cattle’s reddish brown color.
Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankakushu Washu)
Japanese Shorthorn comes from the Iwate and Hokkaido prefectures of Japan, and much like the Japanese Brown, is also red in color. Although Japanese Shorthorn is still high-quality meat, it has less marbling than Japanese Black cattle and is therefore sold at a lower price point.
Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu)
Japanese Polled originated in the Yamaguchi prefecture of Japan. This cattle breed, which is black without horns, is said to be endangered as of 2007. Because of its endangered status, Japanese Polled Wagyu is not often found in the U.S. or anywhere else outside of Japan.
In the Meiji era, many foreign breeds were introduced to Japan and crossbred with the native cattle under the direction of the government. However, over time, a cross between Japanese native cattle and western breeds has been established. Now, even if you cross-breed the four different native breeds with each other, you can still get Wagyu out of it.
Modern Japanese Wagyu: Wagyu Beef in Recent Years
Modern Japanese Wagyu is assessed, graded, and certified to ensure it meets the utmost quality and safety standards. Grading systems are in place for the overall quality of Japanese Wagyu, as well as marbling, fat, color, and yield. In order to achieve the minimum quality grade for Wagyu in Japan (BMS 3), meat must be at least 21% marbled fat (IMF).
Japanese Wagyu cattle are consistently fed high-quality grains and provided with wide, open spaces to roam freely. Then, the livestock parent verification and registry process allows the cattle to be registered with the breed association so there are no doubts about the quality of the beef.
With all that being said, in the U.S., it can be difficult to find authentic, top-quality Japanese Wagyu. (After all, you can’t just buy true Japanese Wagyu at any old supermarket!) Even finding Japanese Wagyu Beef online for delivery can be challenging—especially because of concerns regarding the quality, authenticity, and freshness of the product.
That’s where WAGYUMAN comes in: WAGYUMAN is your exclusive source for premium Japanese Wagyu Beef, offering a wide variety of steak cuts, whole cuts, and more. Shop our best-selling cuts today to experience Japanese Wagyu like you’ve never had it before.