The Apple That Changed Everything
On the 20th anniversary of the Honeycrisp apple, a look back at how it beat the odds and changed the apples we eat.
“You had the red ones and you had the yellow ones. Oh, sometimes you had the green ones.” For Dennis Courtier of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minnesota, that summed up apples in their entirety just a few decades ago. And those red, yellow and sometimes green apples left quite a bit to be desired. The apples that showed up in grocery stores and sack lunches around the United States were usually mealy and flavorless. In the opinion of this writer at least, the name Red Delicious is one of history’s greatest examples of false advertising. But two things kept those mealy apples flying off the trees: They were cheap and easy to grow. It wasn’t that better tasting apples didn’t exist, according to Courtier the better apples were just much more labor intensive, which in turn made them much more expensive. And, he says, it was an almost insurmountable task to make grocers believe that anyone would pay more than the bottom-of-the-barrel prices pulled in by the common varieties of the time.
But one apple changed all that and turned all the assumptions made by farmers, grocers and consumers about apples upside down: Honeycrisp. And this fall the apple that changed the apple industry is celebrating its 20th birthday. For as ubiquitous as the Honeycrisp apple is today, growing on some 15 million trees, it’s really only been available a couple of decades.
Before we get to how Honeycrisp changed the sorts of apples we eat, we should begin with its unlikely rise. The apple started its life simply as Minnesota MN 1711 at the horticultural sciences department at the University of Minnesota. The fact that the apple even had a number was significant. The horticulture department at Minnesota has been breeding and experimenting with apples for 108 years, and according to the department’s senior research fellow David Bedford, only one half of one percent of the thousands of apple varieties tested get far enough in the process to be assigned a number. The other 99.5 percent are simply removed. Bedford was on hand to test the fruit from tree 1711, and actually saved it—someone else in the department had slated it for removal. “I didn’t know enough about it to say it was the best thing since sliced bread,” he says, “but [I tasted it and thought] this isn’t normal. This is better than normal.”
But even for an apple that’s better than normal the process to reaching the masses is a slow one. Bedford’s department patented the Honeycrisp apple in 1991, but it would be years before it would become widely available to the public. That happened thanks to farmers like Courtier. “We bet the farm on it,” he says, “literally and figuratively.” Other farmers flirted with the new apple—a few trees here and there—but Courtier decided to go all in, gambling that consumers would be willing to pay a hefty premium for an apple that tasted better than the mealy fruit they had grown accustomed to. And it certainly wasn’t a bet that paid off right away. “It took years before it worked,” Courtier says. The problem with Honeycrisp as both Courtier and Bedford point out, is that the things that make it taste so good also make it incredibly challenging to grow, ship and sell. The skin, for example: “It’s got a tender skin,” says Bedford, “which tastes good, but damages so easily.” The skin is so thin, the apples can be ruined by bumping up against other apples in the crate or poked by apple stems. “They bruise when you look at them,” adds Courtier. They also have to be stored at 50 degrees for a week, compared to other varieties that can stand up to colder temperatures right away. Characteristics like these mean more work and more money invested by anyone who wants to grow them.
But despite the challenges growing and harvesting, Courtier pounded the grocery store aisles, giving away samples of the new apple until enough people had the epiphany both he and Bedford had. And eventually they did. The most recent stats rank Honeycrisp as the fifth most popular apple variety in the U.S., beating out old standbys like Mcintosh and Golden Delicious (although still behind indusrial heavyweight Red Delicious). But more importantly for anyone who eats apples are the repercussions Honeycrisp set off. “It redefinied what texture needs to be in apples,” says Bedford. Newer varieties like Sweetango or his latest project called Rave, mimic the dense, crisp bite of Honeycrisp and he doubts that any variety will ever succeed at this point without it. Honeycrisp also “created the idea of a superpremium apple,” according to Courtier. And once it became clear that people were willing to pay more for something that tasted good, the doors were opened experimentation that would have been immediately dismissed in earlier years.