Oregon's heat wave has made the hard-to-find fruit even scarcer this year.

By Maria C. Hunt
July 22, 2021
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In my hazy memories of sweltering summers past in Chicago, I recall buying homemade Italian ices from a sliding window somewhere on the near North Side. Mounded into a white Styrofoam cup, the watermelon, lemon, and strawberry ices each had their particular mouth-watering appeal. But my favorite was the Cabernet-colored black raspberry, always the first flavor to sell out.

If you've never seen a black raspberry, you're not alone. The black raspberry is like the narwhal of the berry world: they do exist; they're just quite rare. You've experienced a hint of black raspberry flavor if you've ever sipped the French liqueur, Chambord.

Black raspberries
Credit: Christin Lola / Getty Images

"It's got a flavor all its own," says Don Sturm, a third-generation berry farmer in Corbett, Oregon, about 30 minutes from Portland. Trying to describe the flavor of a black raspberry is almost like trying to grab a handful of smoke. If the red raspberry's bright flavors are like Mariah Carey, black raspberry is more like Lou Rawls. But devotees say their complex, spicy, deep berry flavor makes black raspberries worth seeking out.

Some say it's a woodsy berry flavor because of all the seeds. "It's tart and rich, kind of like açai," says Bob Graeter, chief of quality assurance and co-owner of Graeters Ice Cream. The Cincinnati company, which started making French pot ice cream by hand in 1850, added black raspberry to the menu in the late 1970s.

Graeter says they cook the berries into a jam, fold that into ice cream, and then drizzle in melted chocolate by hand. Chef Bobby Flay is a fan, and so is TV newsman Al Roker. "It's our most popular flavor and also the most expensive to make," says Graeter. "It's purple and everybody likes purple. It's the color of royalty." 

Black raspberries owe some of their obscurity to the fact that they're often confused with other dark berries. "People don't know what they are or how different they are from blackberries," says Zach Roombos of Miko's Italian Ice in Chicago. They make black raspberry ice when they can source the fruit from Michigan.

But beyond color similarities, black raspberries aren't like blackberries at all. A black raspberry has a hollow center and an inky-black, slightly translucent hue accented by the white bloom often found on blueberries and red raspberries. The name black raspberry includes berries in three different varieties. According to the Oregon Blackberry and Raspberry Commission, the most common cultivar is the Munger black raspberry, first introduced in 1890.

That was around when Louis Sherry, a Vermont native with a Parisian affect, started selling his decorative tins of chocolate bonbons out of what's now the Hermes store in New York City. He chose the most exquisite fillings available, including Piedmont hazelnuts, Sicilian pistachios, and black raspberries. Today, Audrey and Tim Tippin, who revived the brand, source black raspberries from the Pacific Northwest for their dark Belgian chocolate heart-shaped truffle.

While black raspberries grow in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Oregon's Willamette Valley is the center of commercial black raspberry production. But even in their spiritual home, black raspberries are just an asterisk on the berry production pie chart. The red raspberry crop is usually 50 million pounds a year, but black raspberries, also known as blackcaps, yield just 3 million pounds, says Sturm. Even in a perfect year, the black raspberry season is short, just about three weeks.

"They are the most difficult berry there is to grow for sure," says Sturm, who also grows blueberries, strawberries, and 13 kinds of blackberries at his farm. Delicate black raspberries prefer acidic soil, succumb easily to plant diseases, and mildew if there's a scant sprinkling of rain.

Five years ago, a bumper crop saw the price fall below the cost of production, so some farmers stopped growing them, Graeter says. In 2020, rainfall damaged the crop while the fruit was flowering, so the price went up again. Graeter says the size of the black raspberry crop has been dwindling as older farmers retire, and others pull out the finicky berries in favor of more profitable crops like hazelnuts or blueberries.

But black raspberries are rock stars when it comes to antioxidants and the purple plant pigments called anthocyanins. Their juice is so intensely pigmented that the USDA once used it to stamp the grade on steaks. The berries are being studied for their ability to fight cancer, so they're worth the bother to both Sturm and his son, who also grows them nearby.

The 2021 seasonal yield will be smaller than expected because of unprecedented three-digit temperatures that hit the Portland region in late June as the berries were about to be harvested. The dried-up berries are stuck on the bushes, so they can't be harvested mechanically. And picking them by hand isn't profitable. "There will be a significant loss, but we don't know what that percentage of loss will be until we get further through this season," says Darcy Kochis, the Oregon Blackberry and Raspberry Commission spokeswoman.

So when the Sturm offers to sell me the last flat of fresh black raspberries, I say yes, though I have no idea what I'll do with 16 pints of perishable berries. Or how they'll fare on the 11-hour drive back to Oakland, California. I just know I can't pass up the opportunity to play with these rare little gems in my kitchen, and revel in the flavors of black raspberry sorbet, fruit leather, shrub and cobbler for myself.