What Is Kurobuta Pork?

With grocery stores posting some of the highest prices in decades, it may sting to pay more than an average amount of money for pork. But Kurobuta isn't your average pork, and it doesn't come from an ordinary animal. It's considered a specialty pork product and comes from a heritage breed of pigs, which the Livestock Conservancy defines as registered purebred swine or the offspring of such. The breed is interchangeably called Kurobuta and Berkshire, based on location and language. But it's the same pig, which shares a common history.

The Berkshire breed is at least 300 years old, native to Berkshire County in England where the pigs were once reportedly kept by the royal family in the pasture lands of Windsor Castle. In the mid-19th century, some of the exclusive animals were gifted to the Emperor of Japan, where they now bear the name Kurobuta, the Japanese word for "black pigs." It's easy to identify these hefty animals by their deep black coats, white legs, and sporadic white body spots. 

But color is by no means the only thing differentiating Kurobutas from other swine species. It's the flavor, tenderness, and juicy composition that makes them special — all cultivated and influenced by genetics as well as breeding, feeding, and care practices.

Kurobuta is the Wagyu of pork

Exclusive types of beef such as Wagyu and Kobe get more attention in the United States, but the same standards apply to Kurobuta, or Berkshire, pork. It doesn't mean the meat comes from Japan or England; A growing number of heritage swine producers in America carry on the purebred line that first arrived in 1823, touted as superior animals bearing high-quality meat. 

Defining characteristics of Kurobuta pork include a high amount of marbling that produces fat with lower melting points, resulting in a succulent buttery taste with tinges of sweetness. The marbling also helps the meat cook faster and more evenly at higher heat. A natural smooth texture and tenderness in the pork come from short muscle fibers, while a relatively high pH balance facilitates a firmness that helps retain fluids, resulting in juicy flavors. 

These things are no accident, since most heritage pork producers, especially those raising Kurobuta pigs, adhere to practices uncommon in the overall industry. Those same practices partially explain the high prices that consumers pay for noticeably higher quality.

Production practices influence price and quality

Many Kurobuta pig breeders are small or medium-sized family farmers dedicated to more time-consuming and/or costly practices. These can include natural growth unaided by hormone or steroid injections, as well as healthy diets incorporating vitamins and rolled oats, corn, soybean meal, and other clean animal-feed mixtures. 

Many growers provide stress-free environments with hands-on care and free-range habitats rather than gestation stalls, which makes for healthier pigs and healthier pork on dinner tables. But all these factors can require more labor, more growing time, and higher feed costs, resulting in smaller herds and less profit. These costs inevitably pass to end-consumers willing to pay for healthier high-quality pork that's likely free from additives and antibiotic residues. 

Whether you're going for baby back ribs, pork tenderloins, pork loin roasts, or porterhouse pork chops, heritage cuts have plenty of advantages. You'll find them at some supermarket meat counters, specialty meat vendors, and online suppliers.