Indigenous to Japan, the Wagyu breed is best known for its ability to produce tender, beautifully marbled beef. Interestingly, the Wagyu breed was not intended to become the best meat-quality breed in the world. That happened quite by accident.
An ancient breed, Wagyu cattle were selectively bred for centuries to strictly be work animals, able to work long days and live long, productive work lives.
Remarkably, this cultivation led to key adaptations in the beef quality and nutrition.
One is the unique ability of Wagyu cattle to store energy in a quickly accessible form, as fat within the muscle tissue. This is the reason behind Wagyu beef’s exceptional marbling.
The other adaptation is that much of that energy is in the form of mono-unsaturated fats, which has a lower melting point, enabling their joints and muscles to be flexible and loose throughout the long days. In fact, the Wagyu of today contains half the level of saturated fat and twice the level of mono-unsaturated fat, compared to other breeds, as well as higher levels of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
Despite being bred for centuries in this way, it wasn’t until the last 70 years that Wagyu cattle was considered as ‘beef’ animals. It was then that the amazing characteristics were fully realized and today, Wagyu is behind the most luxurious beef brands in the world.
Indigenous to Japan, today’s Wagyu breed is best known for its ability to produce tender, healthy, beautifully marbled beef. But interestingly, the Wagyu breed was not intended to become the best meat-quality breed in the world. That happened quite by accident.
Around the year 100, Wagyu cattle were brought over from China and Korea to Japan and for the vast majority of its history, the Wagyu breed was strictly a work animal. It worked in the rice fields, the mines, and the forestry industries. It was never a food animal. In fact, until 1860 when Emperor Meiji eased the restriction, Japanese did not eat the meat of any four legged animal, as a part of their Shinto beliefs.
Generation upon generation, the keepers of the Wagyu breed selectively bred for cattle that could work long days and live a long, productive work life.
One adaptation that resulted from selective breeding pressure was the ability of Wagyu cattle to store energy in a form that they could quickly access. This energy was stored as fat within the muscle tissue. In other words, Wagyu developed the ability to produce thoroughly marbled beef, which is the source of the beef’s remarkable flavor and texture.
Selective breeding also led to Wagyu fat having a composition much different from other breeds, with a lower melting point, making it much more liquid at body temperature. This liquid fat kept the Wagyu cattle’s muscles and joints better lubricated, leading to a much longer working life. Today in ‘beef terms’, this means Wagyu fat contains less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat than other beef, making it a lighter, sweeter, and healthier fat.
After World War II, Japanese soldiers had developed a taste for beef abroad. Combined with the mechanization of the 1960’s where tractors took the jobs of Wagyu cattle, for the first time, a market was created for Wagyu cattle as ‘beef’ animals. It was then that the amazing characteristics of the Wagyu breed were fully realized. Today, Wagyu is the breed behind the most luxurious beef brands in the world, such as Kobe Beef, Matsuzaka Beef, Omi Beef, … and Mishima Reserve.