Take one bite of a Cosmic Crisp – dramatically dark, richly flavored and explosively crisp and juicy – and it’s easy to see why it is already being hailed as the most promising and important apple of the future.
Americans have been falling hard for new apples. Of the top 10 sellers in the 2014 crop, the only three to post sales gains were recently developed, premium-priced varieties: Ambrosia, Honeycrisp and Jazz, according to Nielsen data. While sales of Red Delicious, a traditional variety, slumped 15 percent from the previous year, and McIntoshes 9 percent, Ambrosia (whose website calls it “Food of the Gods”) scored a 47 percent leap.
But fruit breeders around the world have been busy creating an array of even newer varieties – with flashy names like SweeTango, Juici, Opal and SnapDragon – that could knock Honeycrisp and its generation of fruit from their lucrative perch atop a national apple industry that reaps about $3 billion for farmers each year.
Several, including Cosmic Crisp, are under development in central Washington, which produces almost two-thirds of the apples grown in the United States.
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Anyone can taste that Cosmic Crisp is special, but it takes a professional like Kate Evans, the apple breeder at Washington State University, to analyze why. Sampling seedling fruits here on a sunny afternoon in her research orchard, rimmed by towering cliffs and the Columbia River, she said her program primarily judges apples by three measures: texture, storability, and balance of acid and sugar.
Evans is a connoisseur of crunch. For each potential new variety, she evaluates firmness, perceived with the force of the first bite; crispness, detected as teeth shear an apple’s flesh and it cracks; and juiciness, revealed when the flesh is chewed and its cells rupture.
Asked to name her favorite apple varieties, she shook her head wearily. “After tasting seedlings two or three days a week, running fruit through the lab and doing full sensory analysis, I really don’t eat apples for pleasure,” she confessed.
She and others who breed apples for large growers are well aware that many consumers are fed up with mass-marketed fruit chosen mainly for looks and shelf life. Their current quest is to restore the flavor and eating quality, despite the compromises required by large-scale production.
Honeycrisp, introduced in 1991 by the University of Minnesota, set the standard for crispness, juiciness and upscale pricing. But for all its popularity, the apple is soft, quickly dissolving in the mouth. Its flavor is inconsistent and fades in long storage, and it is maddeningly difficult to grow.
Cosmic Crisp, a cross of Honeycrisp and Enterprise, is firmer but not too hard to bite, and much easier for farmers and packers to manage. Firmness is crucial because it helps apples keep longer, and supermarkets demand year-round availability.
Even more important for extended eating quality is acidity. It is low in the three leading Washington varieties – Red Delicious, Gala and Fuji – and drops in storage, leaving apples tasting flat. By contrast, Cosmic Crisp, which is high in both sugar and acidity, not only tastes great off the tree, but also retains a balanced flavor and crispness all year, even after weeks in a warm kitchen. That may not sound romantic, but it’s a game changer.
Cosmic Crisp, of course, is a commercial variety, with qualities far different from those of older varieties known as heirlooms. For example, it is only mildly aromatic compared with the best-flavored heirloom apples, which offer an added dimension of intensity and complexity akin to that of fine wines.
Evans, 49, grew up in England savoring highly aromatic Cox’s Orange Pippins, and loves that style of apple, but worries that it has to be harvested at optimal ripeness to fully develop its fragrance. “If you market something as highly aromatic and don’t deliver, you’re not going to get any repeat purchasers, are you?” she said.
Developing a new variety, from the initial cross to the store display, is a protracted and painstaking process. Evans uses the traditional method of applying pollen of one parent tree to the flowers of another, then planting the seeds of the resulting fruit, waiting five years for seedlings to bear, and evaluating tens of thousands of candidates for each eventual variety.
She does not practice genetic engineering but does use recently developed DNA tests to select genes linked to crisp texture, acidity and fructose to help her choose parents for new crosses and discard unpromising seedlings.
Cosmic Crisp was hybridized in 1997 by Bruce Barritt, Evans’ predecessor, but the fruit won’t be available until 2019. So many growers wanted to plant it that the university had to hold a drawing to allocate trees, and some 1.5 million – enough to stock more than 1,000 acres – have been ordered. (It is now available only to Washington growers.)
Growers are rushing to plant other new varieties, derived from Honeycrisp, that are easier to produce, ripen earlier and store longer in good condition. (Suitability for cooking, however, is not a primary goal for most breeders.)
The University of Minnesota has introduced two varieties that ripen in early August, a month before Honeycrisp, and have somewhat zestier flavor: SweeTango, introduced in 2008 and now widely available, and MN55, which will be given a more lyrical name and will be sold in 2017. Juici, which will also appear that year, has the crispness of Honeycrisp and the firmness of Braeburn, with an appealing balance of sweetness and tartness.
Many breeders around the world have been trying for years to develop apples with sweet red flesh, pigmented, like red apple skin, with antioxidant-rich chemicals called anthocyanins. Such varieties would be novel and attractive, the breeders hope, and could be touted for their reputed health benefits.
Red-fleshed apples originated in Central Asia and were first noted by Western scientists at the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens in London in 1830. But most, reflecting their crabapple ancestry, are too tart and astringent to be commercially viable. Big growers need something that tastes good and ships, not just a novelty, yet until now such a variety has proved as elusive as the Sasquatch.
Bill Howell, a plant pathologist in Prosser, about a two-hour drive south of Rock Island and Wenatchee, the epicenter of Washington’s apple industry, has produced several hybrids of Honeycrisp and older, red-fleshed varieties that are – cue the trumpets – sweet and crunchy, with a distinctive cherry-berry flavor.
At his relatively warm location, the flesh develops with unattractive mottling, but in cooler Washington growing areas, it is a gorgeous deep pink. Chelan Fresh, a company based north of Wenatchee, is planting substantial acreage. Test marketing should begin in 2017, said Mac Riggan, the company’s marketing director.
Most elite new varieties are offered by breeders to a limited number of large licensees under a “managed variety” business model, developed over the last two decades, which restricts plantings and sets quality standards. Small growers lose access to trees of potentially valuable varieties, and consumers may pay more than for a variety that all can plant, but the licensed growers are rewarded for their investment (typically about $40,000 an acre) and quality remains higher. As with most new apples these days, the fruit is sold under marketing names that are trademarked.
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Some of the best new varieties now available come from northern and central Europe, where consumers traditionally prefer full-flavored apples. One of the most talked-about newcomers is Opal, bred in the Czech Republic, a bright yellow incarnation of Golden Delicious (one of its parents) but more complex and aromatic, firm and long-storing. The exclusive grower in the United States, Broetje Orchards, has planted 500 acres and markets Opal from November to May.
Round, mostly red Junami, bred in Switzerland from the Elstar variety, is juicy and pleasingly aromatic, with a good balance of sweet and sharp. It is available from the Rainier Fruit Co. in December and January.
Kanzi, an attractive red-and-yellow cross of Gala and Braeburn from Belgium, is firm, crisp and juicy. It is tart right off the tree, but it mellows and develops in flavor in storage, so the grower, Columbia Fruit Packers, sells it from January to March.
Marketers promote their varieties like specialty coffees or craft beers, seeking to distinguish their offerings among the 30 to 40 contenders clamoring for shelf space, using promotions, social media, colorful displays and resealable bags. A few, like Rubens and Sonya, have failed so far to gain traction, but some will surely succeed.
Barritt, who created Cosmic Crisp, predicts that it could eventually account for as much as a quarter of Washington’s apple production as standards like Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious fade.
To some, those may be fighting words, but in the late 1980s, when Red and Golden Delicious made up 90 percent of Washington’s harvest, farmers booed Barritt off the stage when he called the state’s apple industry a dinosaur for growing obsolete varieties. Time and the marketplace have proved him right.