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

The university has released 27 apple varieties in its history, which makes the odds of a tree reaching commercial markets about 1 in 10,000. Bedford likens his job to sifting through dirt to find diamonds, and he is fond of gambling analogies. "We have to buy a lot of lottery tickets," he says more than once. Among the U's recent winners is Zestar, which was introduced in 1999 and has just come to market in the past few years. It doesn't have the crunch of Honeycrisp, but it ripens sooner and has beaten Honeycrisp in taste tests, Bedford says. Snow Sweet, a 2006 release, is a low-acid apple with a stark white flesh that should start showing up at farmers' markets in a few years. Last year's release, Frostbite, whose name was chosen through a public naming contest ("Luti-crisp," "Last Tango in Embarrass," and "Garrison Peelor" were among the contenders), is actually a grandparent of Honeycrisp. Bedford doesn't expect the small, homely fruit to find more than a niche market, but he says it has the most interesting flavor of any release to date, with hints of raw sugar cane, pineapple, and molasses.

Honeycrisp's popularity has given a big boost to Minnesota's apple growers and the horticulture department. Bedford calls it a "lifesaver." According to the university's office of technology commercialization, Honeycrisp has generated $6.3 million for the institution, placing it among the school's top five most lucrative inventions. (The U receives $1.35 a tree and splits royalty income in thirds, with one portion going to the inventors, another to the college and department where the faculty work, and the third into a general research fund.) While Honeycrisp's overseas patents remain in effect for a few more years, and Zestar and SnowSweet produce some revenue, Bedford expects a significant reduction of apple income after Honeycrisp's U.S. patent expires in November.

The horticulture department's financial viability is critical, Bedford says, because the decades-long breeding process is so resource-intensive that private apple growers cannot afford the risk involved in research and development. And patent money helps the program stay self-sufficient without having to rely on unpredictable public funding. Bedford sees his apple-breeding work as part of a larger mission for worldwide health, and he hopes that increasing the popularity of this low-calorie, filling snack—which is also high in fiber and antioxidants—could help curb the obesity epidemic. "If you were going to start from scratch and create a food that would be good for you, easy to eat, kids would eat it...the apple would basically be the perfect food," he says.

After tasting Bedford's latest discovery, which he calls "the best thing I've seen since Honeycrisp," I'm inclined to think he's right. This still-secret variety is the child of the U's two best cultivars, combining the flavor of Zestar and the texture of Honeycrisp. Typically there is at least a five-year lag between the time the U releases trees to nurseries and when growers' trees bear fruit, and in this case the U has refrained from publicizing the variety until fruit becomes available next fall. In fact, its name is still being kept under wraps, but I promise you that it's brassy enough that you'll know it when you see it at farmers' markets and upscale supermarkets.

Bedford handed me a freckled, blush-red apple and told me I would be one of just a few dozen people to sample the new cultivar. Tentatively, I took a bite. The skin was ultra-thin and super-taut. The resulting crunch sounded like a board-breaking karate chop. My mouth filled with juice, as if the bite had been accompanied by a chaser of cider, and the flavor was sweet-tart on steroids—nature's version of Sour Patch Kids. It tasted like a million bucks, and I sincerely hoped it'd be worth at least that much. 

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