What's your favorite kind of apple? Decades ago, your answer would likely have been Red Delicious, the uniform, deeply crimson orb that enjoyed a long reign as America's best-loved apple before all its flavor was bred out in favor of genetically selecting for its bright red color. These days, though, apple-eaters in the US are looking for crisper, juicier, rounder and more beautiful fruits, preferably those with ridiculous monikers such as Zestar!®, SweeTango®, and SnapDragon®.
You might notice that those three apple varieties have something in common—apart from their names, which sound like they were invented during happy hour at a corporate yoga retreat. It's the little "registered trademark" symbol that adorns each apple's title, indicating that the names are proprietary and that not just any orchardist can plant the fruits. These are "club" apples, fruits that are crossbred to perfection by apple geneticists and then distributed to only a select group of apple growers—for a price. Growers pay the apple developers for the privilege of growing the fruit, and reap the benefits of marketing a fancy-sounding apple that consumers are often willing to pay more for. All but unknown until about a decade ago, club apples have exploded in popularity, and fruit developers across the country are looking to cash in by developing more and more of them, learning from the lucrative example of the once-rarified, and now commonplace, Honeycrisp.
Dr. Jim Luby is a fruit breeder at the University of Minnesota, whose apple breeding program developed the Honeycrisp in the late 1980s. At that time, small, family-run Midwest orchards were struggling to stay afloat, facing stiff competition both from Washington state-grown apples and cheap imported fruit from faraway countries such as China. In an effort to revitalize the local apple industry, Luby and his colleagues at the University encouraged growers to diversify their offerings with some of the new apples in development at the university.
"When I first started this job in the early 1980s, one of the first things I did is I went around to apple growers and asked them what they wanted in new varieties of apple," Luby recalled. "Many of them said they didn't need any new varieties."
But the growers that took a chance by planting a few acres with the university's newly-developed Honeycrisp—a hybrid of Macoun and Honeygold apples—and eventually saw big rewards. Honeycrisps hit the commercial market in 1991, and though it took it took a few years before the apples became widely available, when shoppers were able to find them they took to them with gusto, forking over around $2.50 per pound where most other commercially available apples retailed for less than a dollar per pound. Consumers loved the Honeycrisp's "explosively crisp" texture, and their purchases helped revitalize Midwest apple orchards.
Honeycrisps were the first club apple: The fruit was patented by the University, and growers had to pay the university a licensing fee of about a dollar per tree in order to grow it. But the apple was merely patented, not trademarked, and when the Honeycrisp patent expired in 2008, its developer stopped reaping the rewards. It's a mistake the university, as well as America's two other big apple developers—Cornell and the University of Washington—are making sure not to repeat.
Cornell offers the aforementioned SnapDragon as well as the RubyFrost; the University of Minnesota, in addition to the Zestar! and the SweeTango, serves up the SnowSweet and the FrostBite. On top of being patented, these apple varieties are also trademarked. Although trademarks don't necessarily last forever—they must be renewed every ten years—they're typically much more long-lasting than patents. That means that the cash flow from fruit growers to the fruit's developers is much more sustained. Apple developers are fully aware of that fact, and are constantly looking to develop new club apples.
"We're always working on new apples," Luby said. "We've always got about 100 or so selections that are under evaluation. Most of them won't make the grade because we'll find some fatal flaw."
Luby calls the process of breeding the apples a "dating and mating service": he and his colleagues will choose two apples varieties that they think complement each other—the strengths of one canceling out the weaknesses of the other—then use hand-pollination on the two trees to create a (hopefully) delicious offspring. But he points out that not every experiment will be successful.
"It might be one or two out of those 100 that excite an interest in growers and consumers. We're always working on new things, and every year we're making about 5,000 new seedlings. Every year we throw most of those away, but we continue to test half of one percent of them. Hopefully some of those will turn out. We'll see."
As more club apples are developed, they'll begin to crowd supermarket shelves currently occupied by the "open" apple varieties that any orchardist can grow without having to pay anyone—apples such as Empire, McIntosh and Fuji. Shoppers' reaction to the Honeycrisp indicates that they'll go for these new apples, too, but not all apple enthusiasts are as excited about the newfangled hybrids.
"I have cautiously eaten many of the club varieties and I find them good, but I don't find them better," said Tom Burford, an apple educator, author of Apples of America, and a man inclined to meditate on his favorite fruit. "The consumer is targeted to believe that because they are high-priced, they are better."
Burford, ever the apple advocate, is happy to see any kinds of industry changes that benefit America's apple growers. But as a historian, the diversity that results from the resurrection of heirloom apple varieties that have gone by the wayside interests him much more than a newly-developed Jazz®, or, god forbid, a Grapple. He gets particularly excited when he talks about how the revitalization of domestic cideries has repopularized apples that were first planted in America's infancy—apples such as the Newtown Pippin, the Harrison, and the Yates.
"The market for cider has really triggered small- and mid-sized growers to replant and expand orchards," Burford said. "For the first time, they have something that promises that they can expand and regenerate the apple culture. I think the future of tree fruits is better than it's been for many, many decades."