With Honeycrisp's patent expiring, U of M looks for new apple

The popular breed has been called one the 25 innovations that changed the world

A bit less than half of the orchard's trees will produce fruit each fall, so Bedford and an assistant—often a French graduate student, Bedford says, due to their culture's interest in food and their more experienced palates—cycle through the orchard about every week to 10 days to sample each apple at its peak ripeness. While taste tests show that people in North America and Europe tend to prefer tarter apples, and those in Asia and the equatorial regions like sweeter ones, Bedford says he's seeking an intense yet balanced sweet-tart flavor.

If a new hybrid is among the 15 or so Bedford selects for advanced study, it's marked with a blue ribbon, and four new trees are cloned for further study. Collecting data on the trees can take more than a decade, as Bedford and his staff monitor the trees for resistance to harsh weather, pests, and disease. To be viable for release, the trees must bear fruit of consistent size and flavor each year, and their fruit must ripen concurrently. The apples must also possess characteristics desired by retailers and consumers: the ability to store for weeks without turning mushy, and high marks from Bedford's 20-volunteer taste panel, which conducts blind tests to rate the new varieties.

Hybrid #1711 was a "blue ribbon" selection cloned a few years before Bedford arrived at the university in 1979. When Bedford started his annual evaluation, the four clones had been previously marked for discard but hadn't yet been removed due to the staff transition. Checking the orchard's records, he learned that the original tree had been badly winter-killed and cut down; typical practice would be to assume the variety was not hearty and, therefore, to discard the clones as well.

But Bedford noted that the previous winter had been particularly harsh—"1 in 50" conditions—and that the tree had been planted in one of the worst low and wet growing sites. Perhaps the deck had been stacked against #1711? "What's the harm in four trees?" Bedford thought, and removed the discard order.

A few years later, when the clones began bearing fruit, Bedford was shocked by the apples' crispness and juiciness, which reminded him of an Asian pear. "The thing I remember was that the texture was so unusual, I wasn't sure if it was good or bad," he says. The researchers keep records in faded, cloth-covered binders, and on the page where "discard" had once been penciled next to #1711, Bedford's original tasting notes read "outstanding texture, could have promise."

Number 1711 would go on to be named Honeycrisp, with Bedford and horticulture professor James Luby sharing credit for its development. Not only does Honeycrisp have unusually large cells, which means the fruit is juicy, but the "glue," in layperson's terms, that holds the cell walls together is very strong. Bedford compares the apple's cells to stacked cardboard boxes. If the glue bonding the boxes is weak, a bite would cause the boxes to slide apart from each other and you'd just taste the cellulose in the cell walls. If the glue is strong, a bite would break through the cell wall and you'd taste juice.

This trait is what makes Honeycrisp typically able to command at least a 20 percent premium over other varieties (which helps offset the cost of growing the somewhat finicky trees). But Bedford says one of the biggest challenges with Honeycrisp has been protecting its integrity. Though the university holds the patent, the trees are out of its control by the time they reach growers. If a grower plants his trees in an inappropriate climate or picks their fruit too early, it can damage the variety's brand. To better protect its agricultural products, the university is exploring management strategies for future apple varieties in which it could exert some control on the production of the fruit and give the developers better oversight of the fruit's quality, supply, and marketing strategies.

THE NUMBER OF commercially available apples has multiplied in the years since Bedford was a kid, when, ironically he says, apples were his least favorite fruit. For decades, Red Delicious has been the dominant commercially produced apple, and though its influence is declining, it still controls about a 25 percent share of the apple market. Bedford recalls finding the mealy, thick-skinned, flavorless breed in his lunchbox and lamenting, "'Why couldn't it be anything else?' You couldn't even trade them," he says. "Red Delicious turned a whole generation off to apples." James Luby calls Red Delicious "the worst example of what an apple should be," and Bedford presents the poor-tasting but pretty-looking fruit as a metaphor for contemporary American culture's valuation of style over substance.

While only a small range of apple flavors are commercially viable, genetically, apples are amazingly diverse. "I'll occasionally get an apple that will have a chocolate flavor. A lot taste like clove," Bedford says. "We've found apples that taste like licorice and cherries. We've got apples with a texture like watermelon. But it's hard to find all those characteristics in a marketable package." Luby hopes consumers will embrace the apple's capacity for variety, as they have with other foods. "Who'd want to drink one wine all the time?" he asks.

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