The Secrets of the World-Renowned Wagyu! An Introduction to the Top 10 Beef Brands in Japan
Wagyu beef, which is gathering attention from all over the globe and is now becoming one of the most exquisite dishes that Japan boasts to the world. This article will showcase little known wagyu secrets and introduce 10 of the most popular wagyu varieties throughout Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
What is Wagyu?
First of all, what is the definition of "wagyu"? Another word similar to wagyu (lit. Japanese beef) is kokusan-gyu"(lit. domestic beef); these two may seem similar when it comes to Japan, but they are actually different. Regarding kokusan-gyu, a calf born overseas but raised in Japan for a certain period will still be called kokusan-gyu if it meets the standard conditions of the region it is raised in. However, the term wagyu can only refer to cattle bred and raised following Japan's norms, implemented since the Meiji period (1868-1912). Currently there are only 4 breeds of cow that are officially recognized as Wagyu in Japan, and among them Kuroge Wagyu (Japanese Black) makes up 90% of Japan's wagyu production.
1. Shiraoi Beef (Hokkaido)
Shiraoi beef refers to cattle raised in the city of Shiraoi in Hokkaido. Shiraoi was initially deemed unfit for dry field farming because of its climate, but it was then observed that the production of Kuroge Wagyu was prospering in Shimane Prefecture's mountainous region, an area with a similar climate, so the production was started in Shiraoi, giving birth to Shiraoi beef. Shiraoi beef is the first Kuroge Wagyu beef produced in Hokkaido, with an history of 60 years, and it currently amounts to approximately 1,400 head of cattle per year. Shiraoi beef is characterized by its tenderness and its smooth yet rich flavor.
2. Yonezawa Beef (Yamagata)
Yonezawa is considered one of the three highest quality wagyu brands. To be called Yonezawa beef there are various conditions to be satisfied. For example, the cattle must be born in one of the 3 cities and 5 towns of the Okitama region in Yamagata, and it must be raised in one of these locations by a breeder authorized by the Yonezawa Breed Brand Promotion Council. Only the animals that meet all the requirements are recognized as Yonezawa beef. The fine-grained marbling of the meat melts as soon as it enters the mouth, and its delicious taste lingers on the tongue.
3. Hayama Beef (Kanagawa)
Hayama Beef won the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award for best wagyu 5 years in a row and is a well renowned brand of wagyu from Kanagawa. The number of shipments is low, at around 160 heads of cattle per year, and since it is usually shipped to Kanagawa or Tokyo, it is probably difficult to be able to taste Hayama beef in the countryside. Hayama cattle is fed with a peculiar feed made with heated and fermented mixture of rice and okara (soybean pulp), lending the meat extra sweetness and tenderness.
4. Omi Beef (Shiga)
Omi beef has a long history even among all varieties of wagyu, allegedly dating back to more than 400 years ago. It has a high percentage of fat marbling and it's characterized by its mellow aroma, tender flesh, and delicious melting taste. The yearly shipment quantity is abundant at around 5,000 head of cattle. This shows that Omi beef is a very popular variety of Japanese wagyu.
5. Hida Beef (Gifu)
Raised in the rich nature of the Gifu Prefecture, some of the requirements for its meat to be approved as Hida beef include over 14 months or more of permanence of the cattle in the Gifu Prefecture, and a high meat quality of rank A3 and above. Meat that does not get categorized in any of those ranks is called Hida Wagyu, while meat that meets most of the requirement is granted the label of Hida-gyu (Hida Beef). Hida beef has a fine-grained marbling and is known for its melt-in-your-mouth texture.
6. Matsusaka Beef (Mie)
Known as another of the three highest quality varieties of Wagyu, Matsusaka beef is very popular in Japan as well as overseas. It seems that farmers use peculiar ways of raising Matsusaka cows, like giving them beer to improve blood circulation, or massaging them to even out their subcutaneous fat. Each animal has its own room to give it the most comfortable environment. Matsusaka beef is tender and since the fat melts quickly, it is said to be easy for the stomach.
7. Kobe Beef (Hyogo)
Kobe beef is loved in Japan and overseas since long time ago as one of Kobe's high quality foods. It is so famous that even the former President of the United States Barack Obama requested to eat Kobe beef when he visited Japan. Only the meat taken from Tajima cows bred in the Hyogo Prefecture that meets a set of fixed requirements can be called Kobe beef. In addition, there are many other strict selection rules for this brand, such as the degree of marbling must be over a fixed value, and also the fineness of the texture and the firmness go through a strict check. Kobe beef's main characteristic is its naturally sweet and smooth lean meat.
8. Saga Beef (Saga)
Saga beef is one of the highest class varieties of the Nation. The main characteristics of beef from animals raised in Saga's mild climate, with pure water and clean air, are the tender lean meat and the fragrant fat content. The quality requirements for Saga beef are the second most strict. To be called Saga-gyu the meat has to be categorized either A5 or A4 meat quality, and have a BMS (measurement that expresses the level of marbling) over 7. Meat that does not meet the requirements is categorized as Saga Wagyu.
9. Miyazaki Beef (Miyazaki)
With a history of 30 years, Miyazaki beef has won the Prime Minister Award in the Wagyu Olympics three times in a row, an event that takes place once every 5 years, and is a very valued variety of Wagyu. The peculiarities of Miyazaki beef are its melting consistency, smooth texture and mellow but not insistent richness.
10. Ishigaki Beef (Okinawa)
Ishigaki beef was served as a main dish in the banquet of the 26th G8 (Okinawa Summit), where the heads of every country in attendance highly praised its intense flavor and superior quality. Its popularity is growing, as shown by the fact that between 30 and 40 Ishigaki cows get sold via auction every month. Ishigaki beef is loved not only by the locals but also by tourists.
Japanese Wagyu is raised with great care by its manufacturers, has to meet many strict requirements, and is loved by many people. Its delicious taste is something that everyone should try!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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