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Ohta-san’s farm - feeding produces champions. Photos: Alfie Goodrich
Ohta-san’s farm - feeding produces champions. Photos: Alfie Goodrich

Food & Drink

The secrets behind Kobe beef

Few varieties of meat command the mystique of Japanese Kobe beef. Legend has it that the cows drink beer and are massaged with sake. Today you can find this pricey delicacy on the menu at discerning restaurants around the world. But what is Kobe beef, and does it live up to the hype?

Kobe has long set the quality standard for beef in Japan and worldwide. Different producers have their own approaches, but all agree that the keys to quality are climate, feed, and genetics.

The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association grades and approves Kobe beef. For it to qualify as Kobe, the animals must be 100% pure descendants of Japanese Black cattle from Tajima, a mountainous region in the north of Hyogo prefecture. They must also have been born, raised, and slaughtered in the prefecture.

Kobe cattle farmers fall into two categories. There are breeders, who develop cattle bloodlines to produce the best calves, which they rear until around nine months old. And there are feeders, who take over the raising of the young cattle and care for them until they reach maturity, at 30–32 months. Some farmers are both breeders and feeders, and a handful also operate Kobe beef restaurants and retail outlets.

Four factors for quality control

Shinya Ueda is a breeder/feeder who has been farming Kobe cattle for 19 years. Two years ago, he won the Distinction Award at the annual Kyorei Kai cattle show.

“Ever since I was nine years old I wanted to raise cows,” Ueda says. “My father was a farmer in this area and kept a number of cattle. I started as a breeder 19 years ago, with 30 cows, and seven years ago I expanded to feeding.”

It’s a tough business, he says.

‘All producers are agreed that the keys to quality are climate, feed, and genetics’

“Not every calf survives birth, and it breaks my heart every time we lose one. Feeding is a different challenge. It’s not just a question of feeding the cows so they get fat. We have to manage the process carefully, so the meat develops the right balance of muscle and fat.”

Only when farmers get this balance right can the beef be called “Kobe beef”. The Japan Meat Grading Association assesses quality according to four factors: marbling; color and brightness; firmness and texture; color, fat luster and quality.

The fat is a crucial factor. The marbled fat, called shimofuri, dissolves at low temperatures, giving that melt-in-the-mouth sensation. The fat level is ranked according to a Beef Marbling Score (BMS).

“A BMS of 6 or above is necessary for qualification as Kobe beef,” Ueda says. “The scale goes up to 12, but I like my cows to be around 9. The amount of fat affects flavor and texture. Ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste.”

Breeding and feeding at Ueda-san’s farm. Photo: Alfie Goodrich

Every farmer has a secret recipe

A few kilometers up the road is the farm of another prize-winning farmer, Katsunori Ohta. He and his brother Tetsuya won the Kobe Beef Association’s Distinction Award in 2011 and 2012. They raise cattle, and also serve it in three restaurants and a retail store.

The Ohta farm is a big operation. The brothers have 700 regular Wagyu cattle in addition to the 500 that will become Kobe beef.

“We started around 25 years ago with 100 cows,” he says. “The key to raising top-quality Kobe beef is balance and proportion. Pedigree is important, but it is the feeding that produces champion cattle. Every farmer has his own ‘secret’ recipe, but we feed our cattle a blend of rice straw, soybean, maize, barley, and other cereals.”

The big taste test

And so to the big questions. What’s Kobe beef like, and is it worth the premium price?

‘Melt-in-your-mouth delicious’

To make an assessment, Scandinavian Traveler brought back some prime cuts from Ueda’s farm store in the town of Toyooka. We were sent away with a single instruction: “Don’t overcook it!”

We didn’t. We seared the business-card-sized slices over high heat for less than a minute on each side and seasoned them with salt and pepper. The taste? Delicious. Really delicious. Melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Worth it? No question!


Text: Roberto De Vido

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