What’s Legit, What Isn’t and How to Know the Difference
Richly marbled and creamy. Tender yet bold and beefy. World-class, top of the line, the ultimate in steak, and on and on. These description aren’t hyperbole, either. Kobe beef has more tenderness and marbling, a more refined flavor, and more overall quality than most other varieties of beef according to grading criteria — but not all beef labeled Kobe is the stuff of legend.
Cases of Kobe chicanery abound. Both casual-themed restaurants like Cheesecake Factory (and the $13.95 “Kobe” Glamburgers®) and high-end establishments alike (McCormick & Schmick’s settled a class action lawsuit over misleading menu claims) have had Kobe beef authenticity issues. Even famed three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin had its share of Kobe controversy.
Mislabeling, mild deception and outright fraud pervade the Kobe beef market in the States. Moreover, unfortunately, due diligence falls on the buyer. As a general rule, if something seems “off” — Kobe burgers for under $15 at Cheesecake Factory, for example — it’s worth extra scrutiny. Start by knowing how to identify true Kobe beef. Then, know how it differs from Wagyu, an almost-as-expensive variety commonly sold under the Kobe moniker.
You can most easily determine the authenticity of Kobe beef in restaurants and butcher shops — simply ask to see the certificate of authenticity and bronze statuette from the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. The association requires all restaurants (of which there are only nine in the U.S.) and butcher shops that sell Kobe beef to display them prominently for customers to view or present upon request.
Determining authenticity online, on the other hand, is a lot harder; you really just can’t tell without seeing the certification and statuette (and beef) in situ. Unless you know a trustworthy industry insider with access to real Kobe beef, buying Kobe sight-unseen is risky. However, you can safely buy Wagyu beef, the cow classification Kobe belongs to, online far more easily.
Kobe and Wagyu — What’s the Difference?
All Kobe beef is Wagyu beef, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Wagyu translates as “Japanese cow,” and, when in market form, typically refers to the following four breeds:
- Akage Washu (Japanese Brown)
- Koroge Washu (Japanese Black)
- Mukaku Washu (Japanese Polled)
- Nihon Tankakushu (Japanese Shorthorn)
Of these, only beef from the Japanese Black and Japanese Brown strains are available for export.
Kobe beef comes from Tajima-breed Japanese Black cattle born and raised in Kobe, Japan, according to centuries-old traditions and rules set forth by the Kobe Beef Distribution & Promotion Council. Wagyu beef comes from all other breeds of Japanese Black and Japanese Brown cows brought to market without the scrutiny of the Kobe Beef Distribution & Promotion Council.
Similar to Kobe, Wagyu gets graded against a diverse metric of quality factors that include ossification (age), color, luster and marbling. When buying Wagyu online or in the United States, visit an American Wagyu Association-approved retailer.
- Japanese Brown cattle are also referred to as Red Wagyu or Akaushi.