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Honeycrisp was just the beginning: inside the quest to create the perfect apple

The Honeycrisp apple, explained.

Honeycrisp apples
Soraluk Chonvanich (via Shutterstock)
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The idea that a red apple is a delicious apple is one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated against Americans. The apples we’re supposed to eat to keep doctors away, the apples we’re supposed to give to teachers to show our appreciation, the apples we compare to oranges — all of them are a deep, predictable red, and none of them are delicious.

The apple variety known as Red Delicious has, according to the US Department of Agriculture, dominated the apple industry since at least 1980. It’s been the most widely produced variety in the United States for nearly 40 years.

The name is a total fabrication, a lie that’s woven its way into the tapestry of American culture. At best, biting into a Red Delicious is like biting into a firm cantaloupe that has only a serviceable sweetness. At worst, it’s like biting into an old baseball mitt, with shudder-inducing softness compounded by a flavor that tastes like it was muzzled between two cotton balls. Because they are common and cheap, Red Delicious apples are often served in hospitals and cafeterias across this great nation.

Fuck the Red Delicious.

Thankfully, there’s hope. In the past several years, a new apple has emerged, one that all other apples should be judged against. This apple exemplifies American exceptionalism; it is a feat of science as well as of grit and determination.

The Honeycrisp apple is as good as the Red Delicious is bad.

Its story is also a harbinger of apple greatness still to come.

The Honeycrisp apple’s greatness, explained

The Honeycrisp is a millennial apple born in the 1990s, after years of careful planning. It’s also considered the first “brand name” apple — the University of Minnesota had a patent on it, earning royalties from trees sold to growers.

Honeycrisps, as if in defiance, aren’t shaped like Red Delicious. They’re smaller, rounder, and lack the gaudy, bulbous top that set Red Delicious apples apart. Honeycrisps also never achieve the deep crimson lipstick-like hue of the Red Delicious. Their skin is more demure, usually a gradient spanning the first two bands of the rainbow and underscored by a singe of green.

It took 30 years for UMN scientists to develop the Honeycrisp, through a painstaking breeding process and lots of trial and error. Consumers first got their hands on it in 1992, but the buzz and media attention didn’t really take off until 2007. (Food trends like artisanal, organic, and local foods certainly helped.)

According to the US Apple Association, the Honeycrisp is the fifth most popular apple on the market today, ranking behind the Gala, the aforementioned Red Abhorrence, Fujis, and Granny Smiths.

Honeycrisp apple sales are on the rise.
US Apple Association

As is the case with most other apples, Honeycrisps are best in the fall — peak Honeycrisp season is now, running from mid-September until right around Thanksgiving. And you should be able to find them at most grocery stores — they’re grown in orchards throughout the country.

What sets the Honeycrisp apart from other apples is its combination of flavor and texture. Biting into a Honeycrisp evokes a feeling similar to the first minute of your weekend. It’s like listening to Dusty Springfield for the first time. It crunches in a way that people who were raised on Red Delicious apples didn’t know (or believe) that apples could crunch.

The texture of a Honeycrisp is no accident: Its cells have been bred to be bigger than cells in other apples, making the fruit feel juicier and crunchier than its competitors. These cells explode as your teeth tear into them. Then there’s its distinct flavor — a clean, clarified sweetness that’s almost frosty.

Honeycrisp apples are neither elusive nor rare — you don’t need to arm yourself with a canary and a lantern and find that one mysterious druid at the farmers market who sells them. But you will pay more; Honeycrisps are more expensive than nearly all other common varieties currently on the market. In September, when I checked my local grocery store in New York City, they were approximately $3 more per pound than Red Delicious, which clocked in at 99 cents per pound.

If you’re wondering how to pick the perfect Honeycrisp, experts say to look for the “undercolor” of the apple’s skin — the greenish blush that peeks through the red — and choose one that is ever so slightly shifting to a light yellow. And always store them in the fridge to keep them crispy and fresh.

What makes the Honeycrisp apple so good

When you talk to apple people — the people who create, market, and produce apples like the Honeycrisp — the phrase they tend to repeat is “eating experience.” It’s the snap of biting into an apple, followed by the wave of sweetness as the flesh breaks apart in your mouth. Ultimately, an apple is judged on its combination of texture and flavor.

For consumers and breeders, Honeycrisp has become the standard-bearer on both of these fronts. It’s the most successful of the apple varieties developed at UMN’s Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES), a horticultural research center that breeds new apples.

Dr. James Luby, a professor at UMN, says consistency has been a key factor in the Honeycrisp’s success, and a huge reason why other apple breeders want to emulate it.

Prior to 2008, the university had a patent on the apple, which earned the school, its investors, and a research fund at the university $1.30 on every tree sold. The patent brought in more than $6 million. It also was a way to control the supply and quality of the apple, as growers needed authorization from the university to plant the tree.

Even with the patent and authorization, Honeycrisp trees are a challenge to grow. They’re susceptible to heat, powdery mildew, and black rot. According to Growing Produce, a website geared toward American fruit growers, the tree is “finicky,” with brittle wood, and needs to be thinned carefully.

UMN’s patent expired in 2008, capping its Honeycrisp revenue stream and allowing anyone to plant the apple. That’s why you may hear anecdotes about subpar rogue Honeycrisps. In 2016, Wired suggested the apple’s eventual decline is inevitable.

“Anybody can use that brand, anybody can grow one, and try to sell it,” Luby said. “When they're in short supply, buyers don't always have the luxury of being choosy.”

Honeycrisps, Luby said, made a name for themselves based on their texture, a desirable crunch that’s crisp and firm but not too hard. Not only was their texture superior, it was also consistent from apple to apple — which other varieties can fail to achieve.

“A lot of the things that breeders are looking for when they're coming up with new varieties is making sure that when a consumer eats this apple, it's going to taste the same every single time,” says Cristy Warnock, the operations manager at PVM, a marketing firm working with apple breeders at Washington State University. “A bad eating experience would be something that you have with, like, a Red Delicious, where it's mushy or it's inconsistent.”

Honeycrisps’ consistent crispness isn’t a function of freshness but rather of marvelous breeding. Its parent apples are somewhat of a mystery, but that amalgam gave the Honeycrisp its signature crunch. Red Delicious, in contrast, was bred, marketed, and sold for the color of its skin, while its interior was overlooked. The process certainly made the skins redder, but it also made them tougher, and the insides became spongy.

Breeders have learned their lesson.

“We kind of always say that the appearance of the apple kind of gets the first date,” Luby said. “But unless the eating quality is really good, there won't be very many repeat dates.”

It’s possible to breed apples more flavorful than Honeycrisp

Some SweeTango apple porn.
Courtesy of SweeTango

The Honeycrisp’s consistent crunch is its strong point, but Luby says breeders are working on apples that have the potential to outshine it.

They’re focusing mostly on flavor, which is driven by an apple’s sugar levels, acid levels (which determine tartness), and aromatic compounds.

“Now, the Honeycrisp has a good flavor, but there are certainly apples that are richer in flavor,” Luby said. “I think probably SweeTango represents one of the best flavors when you get a fully ripened one. But there are some other flavors that I think we can get in that would be interesting, some more fruity kinds of things. We've got one that's got kind of a cherry flavor, for example.”

After speaking to Luby, I went to Fairway market in New York City and grabbed a few SweeTangos and Zestars, two newer creations from Luby and the MAES team. The SweeTango — a cross between a Honeycrisp and a Zestar — boasted a honeyish, almost maple-like depth. The Zestars were more tart than the Honeycrisp.

Once I’d sampled several varieties of apples, I started to feel like I was shedding my human skin and becoming a pretentious wine snob, but with apples.

And there are still so many more new designer apples I haven’t tried, including a handful of varieties that are still in the pipeline. For example, UMN has created the Rave, a cross between a Honeycrisp and an unreleased variety called the MonArk, that’s due out in 2017. What it’ll taste like when it hits the market is still a little bit of a mystery.

There’s also the Cosmic Crisp, an apple created by Washington State University. It isn’t slated to hit the market until 2019 or 2020, yet buzz has been swirling around it since the beginning of this decade.

Breeders routinely experiment with different combinations, and people like Luby believe they can build more complex apple flavors — say, with a hint of brown sugar or cherry — while still maintaining consistent texture and brisk sweetness.

Creating a new apple takes at least 15 years

Cosmic Crisp apples, which are not yet on the market.
Courtesy Cosmic Crisps

In the United States, the Big Three of apple breeding are UMN, Cornell University, and Washington State University. They are where new apples come from, and their breeders are constantly experimenting by crossing different kinds of apples.

It’s not exactly a speedy process.

From the concept phase to getting an apple into a consumer’s hand, creating a new apple variety takes 15 to 17 years. The in-between stages involve everything from pollinating apple trees by hand to researching the regions where the new variety of apple might thrive to conducting an extensive naming process once you have a winning combination of texture and flavor.

At UMN, Luby says that when testing a new variety, they plant 5,000 seedlings. “Probably 25 of them are good enough to send to the second stage of testing,” he says. “[The viable trees account for] about one-half of 1 percent.”

The time, investment, and level of commitment required to develop a new apple are why Washington State’s forthcoming Cosmic Crisp is so highly anticipated. Cosmic Crisps are the offspring of the Honeycrisp and another variety called the Enterprise (a spicier, sturdy apple). According to this promotional video, the Cosmic Crisp is large, juicy, crisp, sweet, and, most importantly, consistently crisp with every single bite:

As part of her work with Washington State, PVM operations manager Warnock is one of the lucky few to have tasted the Cosmic Crisp. She describes it like so:

It's very juicy. It's got a balance of sweet and tart flavors. Whenever we've done some consumer taste testing, over and over and over again, the consumers say the same thing about the flavor is one of the standout parts of it, the texture is awesome, the juiciness is awesome. It also, naturally, doesn't turn brown right away, so you can, it's great in food service kind of things. You can cut it up and put it in a salad, or have slices.

And UMN’s Luby says apples will only get better from here.

“I think we put the pressure on ourselves, actually,” he said. “The better the new apples are, it raises that bar that you've got to pass. Since Honeycrisp has come on the market, I think a lot of growers say, ‘Okay, is it as good as Honeycrisp?’ It's pretty typical of anything in product improvement, I guess, is it as good or better or different than the last or what's currently available. “

If apple breeders were content with sitting on their laurels, we wouldn’t have much more than Red Delicious. Thankfully, they want to keep creating wondrous things. They want to bring joy into people’s lives. That’s dedication. That’s love. That’s determination. And look me in the eye and tell me that’s not goddamn American.

There will eventually be a better apple than the Honeycrisp

When breeders talk about the current crop of newer and upcoming apples — SweeTangos, Zestars, Raves, Cosmic Crisps, Envies — there are small nuances that make each one special. Some look better than others. Some don’t brown once they’re sliced. Some are crunchier. Some taste warmer or sweeter than others.

What these apples have in common is that they’re known as “club apples,” meaning that each variety is patented and trademarked. All growers must buy into a club — the Big Three (usually with the help of a management company) license these patented and trademarked apples to specific groups of growers. Being part of that club allows the growers to reap the benefits of marketing and promotion.

The club also manages and makes sure the apples are being grown to a certain standard. Paying to grow these apples is very expensive (at least $2,000 per acre in some cases), a self-selection process of sorts that gives a grower incentive to produce high-quality fruit. The club is also discerning, only letting a select number of growers grow certain apples — according to NPR, a group of only 45 apple growers were allowed to produce the SweeTango when it came to market in 2009.

The result is, ideally, a better product and a more consistent quality, since every step of the licensing and growing process is intensive and regimented and everyone is invested in the apple’s success. It essentially tries to eliminate a scenario where someone bites into a bad apple.

Red Delicious sales are in decline.
US Apple Association

Over the past 10 years, the Red Delicious apple’s stranglehold on American consumers has loosened. Growers are focusing more on varieties that taste better, like the Pink Lady and Honeycrisp, and cutting back on Red Awfulness.

Club apples, which put a premium on the consumer experience, seem like the future.

But this model is not without drawbacks.

For one thing, it’s very expensive. Growers, unless they are willing to pay, won’t be able to grow the most popular club apples. These clubs also control the quantity of apples produced, so as not to saturate the market and drive prices down.

“The problem sometimes with [club apples] is that it keeps production fairly low, and limited, because only so many people are allowed to grow it,” Warnock said.

Essentially, the owners of various brand-name club apples have control over those apples’ availability. They also help foster demand by drumming up marketing for the apple.

Marketing campaigns for specific apples are still a new phenomenon. The Honeycrisp’s popularity is largely due to word of mouth. That’s why, according to Warnock, it took a while for the apple to gain a foothold. And it has sort of continued on that path — currently, the Honeycrisp doesn’t really belong to anyone (though its patent is still in effect in some countries overseas) so there’s no real central Honeycrisp marketing firm putting out advertising and getting the apple into markets.

The people behind the various club apples — investors, universities, breeders, marketing firms — believe they can capture the same intensity the Honeycrisp has wrought, but also improve on it by using the club apple business model to get people amped for specific apples. The buzz around the Cosmic Crisp is evidence that they may be onto something.

The Honeycrisp’s success is what spawned the club apple model. Had UMN trademarked the apple instead of just patenting it, it would still have some control over it and benefited from its popularity.

I’m hesitant to say the Honeycrisp’s appeal is waning. If anything, growers are responding to its popularity and producing more of it. But its success has proven that the market for delicious apples is a lucrative one.

Club apples, unless something drastically changes or someone creates the perfect apple, will probably never match the enormous scale of production achieved by the Red Delicious, which, according to the US Apple Association, accounted for 21 percent of the apples produced in 2015. But that’s not really the goal of apple breeders like Luby, who simply want to create a better apple, regardless of what “better” means — sweeter, more complex, crispier, more appealing, more resistant to oxidation.

“[Next], we'll be figuring out which parents we want to cross with one another,” he told me, as UMN prepares to start a new apple development cycle. “I just can’t say anything right now about the next ones coming.”

In 17 or so years, we’ll get to see them for ourselves.

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