Just hearing the words “Kobe beef” evokes feelings of awe and prestige. Ironically, for more than a thousand years prior to 1868, Buddhism prohibited consumption of any four-legged animal in Japan. In 1868, the Meiji period began, and the Japanese wished to become more “modern”. They emulated Western culture, changing their fashion, government, even their diet. However, beef was neither popular nor easily accessible until 1955. So how did it become so popular, not only in Japan but also worldwide?
Cattle were brought to Japan in the 2nd century as work animals. Starting in the late 18th century, the Japanese began interbreeding native Japanese cattle with many European breeds. Cattle from the Kobe area became known as the “Kobe beef” cattle in 1943. In 1983, the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association was formed in order to define and promote the Kobe beef trademark.
Today, Kobe beef are generally recognized as cuts of beef from wagyu cattle, literally “Japanese cow”, raised in Hyogo Prefecture. The Kobe beef can be from any of the four breeds of wagyu cattle- Akaushi (Japanese Red), Kuroushi (Japanese Black), Japanese Polled, or Japanese Shorthorn- but is generally from the Tajima strain of the Japanese Black. However, to qualify to carry the Kobe beef trademark, the beef has to meet conditions set by the Kobe Beef Association.
The cattle must be born, raised, and processed in the slaughterhouses in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan. The cattle also must be a steer or a virgin cow in order to purify the beef. The gross weight of beef from one animal cannot exceed 470 kg, and the beef has to earn a meat quality score of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. These stringent conditions means there are only about 3,000 of these animals per year. To heighten its rarity, Kobe beef wasn’t even exported until February 2012. These conditions also uphold Kobe beef’s reputation for flavor and intense marbling.
To meet these standards, farmers invest a lot of time into raising only few cattle. There are several methods that farmers use to fatten meat. However, generally, the cattle are hand fed high-energy rations and prohibited from regular exercise to produce high quality, extremely marbled beef. They are also fed beer to stimulate their appetite when they are on the high-energy diet. The cattle are also massaged to evenly distribute the fat. The result is the cherry red meat thoroughly marbled with white fat characteristic of Kobe beef.
It has a very buttery texture that is completely different from American beef. These cuts of beef can cost about $150 and up per pound, a testament to the prestige of Kobe beef.
Even though the Japanese have only recently started to eat beef, they have managed to raise the status of beef to new levels. Legends of Kobe beef have spread throughout the world, telling of the beer fed to the cattle and its melt-in-your-mouth texture. The exclusivity and quality of Kobe beef have rendered it a popular, expensive delicacy.