Many direct marketers like to have a distinctive edge, something that sets their products apart from the rest. In the home-raised beef realm, distinctiveness can take many forms. As pointed out in How to Direct Market Your Beef by Jan Holder, direct marketers can stand out by selling beef that is anything from gourmet grassfed to lean and healthy to premium Black Angus to just good old-fashioned flavorful.
Every once in a while, an adventurous agripreneur looking for a really unique image asks a question about Kobe beef, a distinctive and rather controversial food hailing from Japan. And then some of us just want to know how a piece of meat could possibly be so expensive.
So what is Kobe beef—and what is it not?
Real Kobe Beef
The starting point for authentic Kobe beef is genetics. Kobe, pronounced Ko-bay, is a large city on the southern part of the main island of Japan. The region surrounding the city is home to a broad category of cattle known as Wagyu (which literally means “Japanese beef animal”). Wagyu breeds are genetically predisposed to some unique meat characteristics. For one thing, they have far more fat marbled throughout their meat than Americans are used to seeing. For another thing, their meat has a relatively high ratio of unsaturated to saturated fat. The specific breed of Wagyu used to produce authentic Kobe beef is the Tajima.
Not all Tajima cattle are candidates for becoming Kobe beef, however. They must be born and raised in the vicinity of Kobe to be eligible for Kobe status. Only steers and virgin heifers are accepted. They also must be processed at one of a handful of slaughterhouses to be true Kobe animals.
Farmers take great pains with their cattle to make them suitable for Kobe beef. Contrary to popular belief, most of the cattle do not consume alcoholic beverages for appetite enhancement, but enjoy a combination of grain, grass, and fodder, all grown in the Kobe area without chemicals (exact rations vary and are typically regarded as trade secrets). No antibiotics or growth hormones are allowed. The cattle receive frequent health examinations. Unlike the average American beef steer, slaughtered at around 18 months of age, Kobe cattle are fed for long periods of time, being butchered as late as 32 months of age.
At the time of slaughter, the beef is carefully inspected for proper quality and marbling. The end result is startlingly fatty, but unbelievably tender, partly due to the unique low melting temperature of the fat. Kobe beef is renowned for juiciness and excellent flavor. However, because so few cattle can qualify, supplies are limited and prices are steep.
Real Kobe beef is typically eaten as sukiyaki or steak. It must be seared quickly and cooked only to medium rare because the unusual properties of the fat would cause the meat to melt if overcooked. It is eaten in small quantities because it is so rich.
American Kobe-Style Beef
Ranchers in the United States have replicated Kobe beef in a meatier form more palatable to most Americans. Most cattle used for this purpose are of crossbred Wagyu/Angus lineage. This blend of breeds still has an unusually high level of unsaturated fat, but offers a heavier, meatier Angus-type carcass. A small percentage of producers use purebred Wagyu.
The diet of the average animal destined to become American Kobe-style beef consists of various proportions of grass, grain, and fodder, similar to the rations fed to Japanese cattle; a few ranchers take pride in raising 100% grassfed Wagyu, however. Antibiotics and hormones are typically foregone, but that is up to the discretion of the individual producer. Like their Japanese counterparts, nearly all American-raised Wagyu cattle are fed longer and slaughtered later than average beef steers.
While the quality of Kobe-style beef is not standardized and regulated to the degree that real Japanese Kobe beef is, American producers take pride in creating a top-notch piece of beef. Most of the cattle grade Prime—the highest USDA designation—although many feel they could easily reach higher grades if there were any.
American Kobe-style beef is very different than true Kobe beef. While well marbled, it contains more meat and less fat, giving it an appearance, texture, and taste closer to a Prime Angus steak. It is not as rich as real Kobe, which means that a person can comfortably eat more at one sitting. It costs less, too, although still well within the gourmet price range.
A Tough Sell
Kobe beef has become controversial because of the way that American Kobe-style beef is often marketed. Simply put, it is not always easy to determine whether or not you are buying real Kobe beef. Authentic Kobe beef can only come from one place—Japan. However, in the United States, anyone who orders a Kobe steak at a restaurant may very well end up with an American Kobe-style steak. Many feel that the practice of selling Kobe-style beef as Kobe beef is misleading.
Because of the geographic distinction involved, direct marketers in the United States can in reality only produce Kobe-style beef. The question is, can they sell it? Riding on the Kobe image and being a gourmet product in its own right, American Kobe-style beef commands a hefty price. Upscale restaurants would be the most likely buyer for this product. An affluent customer base, something that not everyone has access to, is necessary to sustain a Kobe-style beef business.