The Differences Between Purebred and Fullblood Wagyu
Wagyu beef is famous as the ultimate culinary luxury. Delectable, unique, with characteristics that don’t exist in other meats, Wagyu has enjoyed soaring popularity over recent years.
The flipside of this massive surge in interest is that pure Wagyu is very hard to come by, resulting in crossbreeding programs to support wider availability of quality Wagyu.
At A-Five Meats, we are experts in Wagyu, having traveled the globe to bring you the world’s best cuts. Let’s look a little closer into how crossbreeding works, and what terms like ‘Purebred’ and ‘Fullblood’ actually mean, and how they’re different from each other. We’ll also talk more about why crossbreeding is used, and how it impacts the meat itself.
Let’s start from the beginning, with a potted history of Wagyu heritage.
Wagyu comes from Japan, where the name translates as “Japanese Cow” (“wa” = meaning Japanese, and “gyu” meaning “cow”). The original task for Wagyu cattle was as a heavy duty work animal in the rice paddies, due to their muscular build and capacity for lengthy periods of strength endurance. Over the generations, they became increasingly prized for their unique eating qualities.
The taste of Wagyu is unique and is unlike any other meat in the world. It has a rich, umami, buttery flavor and melts in the mouth, with unsurpassed juiciness in every bite. So what makes it different? It’s all thanks to uniquely marbled fats, which are what make Wayu so special. The fats are laid down slowly over at least three years’ grazing, developing evenly throughout the muscle fibers themselves, rather than forming a ‘layer’ around the muscle like in standard cattle.
These intramuscular fats (otherwise known as IMF) came in handy in days gone by when Wagyu cattle carried out heavy hauling. They had a quick and easily accessible supply of calories ready and waiting in their system to give them the boost they needed as soon as they needed it. The extra energy helped them to outperform other animals for the same tasks. It also means they taste unbelievably good!
The marbled fats slowly melt and are absorbed into the meat fibers during cooking, producing the unique taste and aroma that makes Wagyu famous. The flesh is incredibly rich – almost creamy - with a pale pink pearlescent appearance caused by the high fat content. Wagyu meat is among the healthiest in the world. It is high in monounsaturated fats (around 63 times those contained in fish), helping promote a healthy lifestyle and keep dangerous HDL cholesterol low.
Genuine Japanese Wagyu are incredibly rare. Exports are severely limited to off the bone meat only. Each cut is fully traceable back to the Japanese farm it came from, and up through the bloodline by way of DNA testing. Only the highest quality makes the grade, with three separate inspections classifying each carcass before export. Even then, only a fraction of Wagyu meat gets released for overseas markets.
Only around 10% of all Kobe beef gets exported, with the remainder retained for the Japanese domestic market. The first Wagyu were imported into the U.S. in 1975, consisting of just four animals – two red and two black. These herds have formed the basis of the U.S. breeding program over the years. To this day, only around two hundred heads of cattle have been imported into the U.S. from Japan, resulting in a population of mainly crossbred animals.
Australia also received a small number of animals through the 1970s and 1980s, with Australia having the largest breed association outside of Japan. Australian herds are the closest to Japanese Wagyu observed outside of Japan itself. Australian herds are generally a mix of crossbreeds and Purebred animals.
The scarcity of Wagyu meat, and Wagyu livestock, combined with the phenomenal increase in popularity, meant farms and producers around the world wanted to find a better way to be able to offer Wagyu to their customers. Climates differ globally, as do consumer tastes and trends, so a solution was desperately needed. This solution arrived in the form of crossbreeding.
Crossbreeding is a technique whereby a pure Wagyu sire and alternative breed cow are mated, producing ‘crossbred’ offspring. The reason for this are many and varied – breeders take into account several factors. These can range from the size and structure of the animal to coloring, firmness of the flesh, hardiness, and maternal characteristics. Careful breeding can also produce an animal that enjoys the best of both breeds – for example, the marbling qualities of Wagyu, together with a hardy Angus character.
Two frequently used terms in Wagyu breeding are ‘Fullblood’ and ‘Purebred’. So what does it mean? In a nutshell, a Fullblood animal is a genuine certified 100% Wagyu specimen. Each animal is fully traceable back to 100% Wagyu parents born and reared in Japan, supported by DNA genetic testing to prove authenticity. A Purebred, on the other hand, is an animal that is not pure Wagyu, but which does have at least 93.75% Wagyu genetics.
It is, therefore, possible to crossbreed from a first generation mix of 50% Wagyu with 50% ‘other’ to 93.75% Wagyu in four generations (referred to as generations F1 to F4).
See below for more about how this works – note female offspring are used for the onward breeding through the generations, with the sires being Wagyu Fullblood bulls.
F1 – First Generation Crossbreed
- 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull introduced to a different breed cow
- Resulting offspring have 50%+ Wagyu genetics
F2 – Second Generation Crossbreed
- F1 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring have 75%+ Wagyu genetics
F3 – Third Generation Crossbreed
- F2 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring have 87%+ Wagyu genetics
F4 ‘Purebred’ – Fourth Generation Crossbreed
- F3 cow introduced to 100% Fullblood Wagyu bull
- Resulting offspring are classed as ‘Purebred’ as they contain at least 93% or more Wagyu genetics
A Purebred animal never becomes a ‘true’ Fullblood. It will, however, have many of the distinctive characteristics brought by Wagyu genetics, such as the marbling of the meat increasing with each breeding. The flesh also becomes more tender as the Wagyu DNA becomes more prevalent through the generations. They will, however, never attain the full sweet, buttery tenderness of a Fullblood.
The other significant difference between Fullblood and Purebred Wagyu is the price. Often referred to as ‘F4’ (due to the scale we talked about earlier, it means it’s a fourth generation crossbreed), the difference is small but essential. Genuine Fullblood Wagyu will set you back at least $20/oz, with Kobe beef generally at least $30/oz. Purebreds are not technically full Wagyu, so rarely carry the same price tag.
Aside from being a more viable and accessible option, upbreeding can bring many advantages. For example, in Australia, Fullblood Wagyu bulls are often mated with Holstein cows. Holstein are generally a more disease resistant animal and are relatively slow to mature. They also tend toward marbled flesh (although not to the same degree as Wagyu). These traits perfectly compliment Wagyu, retaining the more recognizable features of Wagyu beef that consumers love.
Another example is the crossbreeding of the Angus cow with a Wagyu bull. Angus cows are renowned for their easy breeding and maternal instincts, producing large offspring with greater feed efficiency. That means more cash at the market and commanding an extra premium for the Wagyu characteristics, with a lower feed bill. Sometimes referred to as ‘Wangus,’ these animals are more common in U.S. markets.
Crossbreeding is not easy – it requires significant input and care over many years to produce a Purebred animal, which will never attain that magical Fullblood status. There are no guarantees as to which characteristic will pass from one generation to the next. While there is an increase in Wagyu genetics through each breeding, it does not prevent undesirable traits from other breeds. It’s still entirely possible for undetected issues to pass down through the line.
A single case of illness or injury can put an end to that particular bloodline, meaning the farmer then has to start all over again. Not straightforward in an age where Fullblood Wagyu bulls are tough to find, and getting more challenging with every year that passes without Fullblood Japanese exports being available.
It’s clear that there are pros and cons to crossbreeding, but let’s find out a little more about the characteristics of Fullblood Wagyu. What are the things breeders look for in the most sought after Wagyu livestock?
Fullblood Wagyu have a short, rich, shiny coat of black or red and deep in color. Their horns tend to be a pale greyish color at the base, curving gently forward then moving into a dark black at the tips. Wagyu are incredibly fertile, maturing early and calving without problems due to calves generally having a lower birth weight than conventional cattle. They also have a wonderfully gentle temperament, responding well to the highly specialized rearing methods used for Wagyu cattle.
Around 90% of Japanese Wagyu are black, with the prominent black coated breeds being Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Brown (otherwise known as Akaushi), Japanese Polled, and Japanese Black. The Japanese Black has given rise to the Tajima bloodline, including Kobe – the most famous of Wagyu breeds.
In terms of consumer tastes worldwide – aside from cost and availability – crossbreeding of animals provide a subtle difference in characteristics. These serve well to strike a balance between the ‘full blown’ Wagyu experience and more regionally refined experiences. Australian crossbred and Purebred Wagyu have a slightly different texture to Japanese Wagyu due to the different grazing environment and grasses but retain a rich buttery flavor.
Related: Where Can I Buy Wagyu Beef?
American Wagyu herds tend to consist of animals crossbred with Angus cattle and therefore produce a larger carcass. Larger cuts better suit the U.S. consumer taste profile, with thicker and larger steaks widely preferred by American diners. Marbling also tends to be stronger, brought by Angus genetics.
Angus crossbred animals do not, however, have the delicate intricacy or softness in the fats enjoyed by Fullblood Wagyu. These characteristics bring a different texture and mouthfeel compared to Japanese Wagyu. It does not melt in the mouth in quite the same way, or have the same delicate texture.
It’s easy to see how and why Wagyu beef has enjoyed soaring popularity, and why farmers are now turning toward crossbreeding up to Purebred herds. The mystery, ancient heritage, and exquisite qualities of the Japanese Wagyu will, however, always remain the pinnacle from which Purebreds will forever differ.
A-Five Meats are proud to purvey the finest Wagyu beef. Hand selected cuts are carefully selected and prepared, then shipped to you chilled. They arrive fresh, directly delivered to your door, ready to be enjoyed.
We love to hear about our customers’ experiences and are ready to answer any questions. We are here every step of the way on your Wagyu journey – click on our website, drop us a mail or give us a call. It would be an honor to present our finest selections personally to you.