An apple renaissance

Are we in the midst of an apple renaissance?

Every time I go to the fruit market, it seems, there are new types of apples that I hadn’t heard of just a few years ago: Pink Lady, Cripp’s Pink, Cameo, Ambrosia and more.

And then there’s the Honeycrisp, the current darling of apple lovers, usually 50 cents to $1.50 more per pound than less exalted varieties.

Honeycrisp was one of the first of a new breed of apple called “club apples” – varieties that are controlled in such a way that only a select “club” of farmers, who pay for the pleasure, can grow them.

Some new apples start by happy accident: a mutation in the orchard that is then reproduced by grafting.

Other new types come about when growers intentionally cross two or more existing varieties in order to create an apple with the best characteristics of its parent fruit.

Sons of Honeycrisp

Honeycrisp was created by cross-pollination at the University of Minnesota in 1991. It is crisp and juicy but the flavor is inconsistent and it doesn’t do well in long storage. It is also difficult to grow.

So even though customers are now snapping it up at premium prices, growers are already  hard at work looking for its successor.

One may be Cosmic Crisp, developed in 1997 at Washington State University.

So many growers were interested in it that the university held a lottery for Washington growers to see who would get the privilege.

SweeTango, also derived from Honeycrisp, was introduced in 2008; it ripens a month earlier than Honeycrisp and is said to have a zestier flavor. Two more Honeycrisp descendants, Juici and one currently named MN55 (a more appealing name is being discussed) will be available in 2017.

“Club” varieties

The “club varieties” are offered by the breeders to a limited number of growers, and the name is trademarked. No one who isn’t in the “club” is allowed to grow these apples.

The patents don’t last forever; Honeycrisp’s patent has expired.

Of course other breeders and growers can come up with something very similar – they’ll just have to give it a different name, one that may be less familiar to the buying public and may be much more difficult to market.

Tim Byrne, president of the Next Big Thing cooperative that is handling the SweeTango, says the club model has several advantages. The coop can control the quality of the fruit by managing the growing, harvesting, packaging and marketing.

They also control quantity, producing enough to satisfy customers but not so much that they drive down prices.

As various types of apples compete for shelf space, the marketing muscle of the managed brands will give them an advantage.

Another coop, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, is selling another child of Honeycrisp, the EverCrisp. But their club is less exclusive than Next Big Thing, and anyone can join. If you want to grow Ever Crisp, you just have to join the club and pay your dues.

Here’s a nice recipe for Apple Pie Muffins that was posted by Jan Brown on the Allrecipes website.

The Red Delicious Apple: What went wrong?

When I was young we had only a few variety of apples to choose from at our local markets. There were McIntosh, which I didn’t like because they were soft to the bite, the great big Romes that were good for baking, and, occasionally, Jonathan, Winesap, Northern Spy and Ida Red.

And then there were the Red Delicious and Yellow Delicious, which were ubtquitous, especially the reds. Both were delightfully crunchy and sweet.

Michigan Red Delicious  are still similar to those of my childhood, but somewhere along the line, the Washington Red Delicious, the most common apple in America, went off the rails.

Originally a roundish, mostly golden fruit blushed with red, it became a huge, dark red, almost oblong monstrosity with bitter skin and mushy flesh. Bleah!

The rise of the Red Declicious

In an article in Atlantic from September, 2014, Sarah Yager gives an interesting history of the rise and ongoing fall of the Red Delicious apple, which has dominated apple production in the U.S. for more than 70 years.

Its history starts in 1893, when Stark Brothers’ Nursery in Missouri held a contest to find a replacement for the Ben Davis apple, then the most widely planted variety in the country.

Jesse Hiatt, an Iowa farmer, submitted a new variety of apple that had grown from a mutant seedling in his orchard. He called it the Hawkeye. Clarence Stark, president of the company sponsoring the contest, reportedly took a bite and said, “My, that’s delicious!”

Stark Brothers secured rights to the Hawkeye and changed its name to Stark Delicious. (When the Golden Delicious came out in 1914, the earlier variety was rebranded the Red Delicious.)

Clarence Stark spent a small fortune promoting the new apple, which quickly became a favorite of growers and apple lovers.

In 1923, a chance genetic mutation resulted in apples that reddened earlier and had a deeper, more uniform color. The Gettysburg Times called it “the marvel apple of the age.” Growers began to seek out and cultivate similar mutations.

Shoppers loved the uniform deep red color and sweet taste. Unfortunately, the growers began to prefer apple genes that produced beauty over those that produced good taste. They developed Red Delicious varieties tolerant to being stored in warehouses for up to 12 months. Red Delicious skins grew tough and bitter and the fruit became extra-sugary and mushy.

Washington apparently has the ideal environment for growing the redder and more oblong apples  (which may explain why Michigan Red Delicious apples are still smaller, lighter in color—and tastier).

By the 1980s, Red Delicious accounted for up to 75 percent of Washington State’s apples, where the market was controlled by a few big nurseries.

The fall of the Red Delicious

People bought them, but they didn’t like them. How many thousands of pounds of them were discarded after one bite? The Red Delicious became “the largest compost-maker in the country,” said Timothy Buford, author of Apples of North America.

In the 1990s, new varieties of apples originally developed for overseas markets–such as Gala and Fuji–started becoming popular in America, leaving the Washington growers with a surplus of Red Delicious.

Since then, Red Delicious production has declined by more than 40 percent. By 2003, Red Delicious accounted for only 37 percent of the Washington crop. While it’s still the most common U.S. apple, a greater percentage of the harvest is being shipped abroad. The biggest markets for Red Delicious now are in Southeast Asia.

Despite its decline, many Washington growers think there will always be a market for Red Delicious. Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired orchardist in Pittsboro, N.C., disagrees, feeling the Red Delicious is “an apple that has done its duty and is on its way out”–like so many heirloom varieties that preceded it.

Coming soon: What’s the story with all these new apples?

Red Delicious apples are not usually good for cooking, but they work well in the recipe below, especially if you can get the smaller, pinker Red Delicious, not the giant, thick-skinned type. This recipe isn’t that hard to make but it has a real “wow” factor! The recipe comes from the Detroit Free Press, which also has a video showing how to make the dish.