America is a nation of beef eaters. From massive burgers oozing fat over our fingers to thick ribeye steaks lying heavy on the plate to meatballs to hotdogs to Bolognese sausages to beef stir fries, we eat beef in all its flavorful, near infinite variations. Entire restaurant chains are dedicated to beef, from Ruth Chris to Morton’s Steakhouse, to the best restaurants in NYC such as Del Frisco’s or Peter Luger’s. Cowboys are an iconic American image, as is the independent rancher watching his herds out West, eyes always on the horizon. Beef is an American pastime, lover affair and obsession. However, nothing we have comes close to the fanaticism that the Japanese approach their Kobe beef with. What is Kobe beef, why is it so expensive, and is it worth the price?
Kobe beef comes from the mountainous Kobe region of Japan, where cattle were raised in isolated pockets for centuries, resulting in distinct breeds that developed their own unique flavor. Official Kobe beef comes from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, and are controlled by incredibly strict regulations in terms of their production, slaughter and sale if they are to qualify for the title. There are specific slaughterhouses to which they are sent, they must have a marbling ratio of level 6 or higher, and a Meat Quality Score of A or B.
What makes Kobe beef so famous (or infamous) is the incredible price at which it’s sold. Prices can range to up to more than $100/lb, and is justified by the incredible scarcity of the meat. Only some three or four hundred cattle are available on the market every year, and each of those have been pampered and specially treated so as to enhance the fat marbling of their flesh. This treatment famously consists of forcing the cows to drink beer and to have their muscles massaged daily by scores of workers who knead, prod, and palp their haunches, backs and sides for extended periods of time.
Due to the terrific demand in the US for Kobe beef, the Japanese have begun to export their cattle to the USA for them to be raised there. Since for the cattle to be considered official Kobe beef they must be of the correct stock, raised according to strict principles and slaughtered in Japan, it has become economically feasible for them to be raised in the American Midwest, shipped to Japan to be killed, and then sent back to America for consumption.
Given how expensive the meat is, a new market has appeared for Wagyu cattle that are raised and slaughtered in America, treated exactly the same way as the official Kobe cattle but sold for a substantially lower price. Both steaks are high in fat content and low in meat flavor, so that portions are usually quite small. Is it worth paying the absurdly high sum for the official Kobe Beef? No. If you are intent on procuring Wagyu meat, than the American raised beef will taste almost exactly the same, and be nearly a tenth of the price.