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

Glen Stubbe

Glen Stubbe

For two months every fall, David Bedford spends his days chewing things up and spitting them out. As the University of Minnesota's chief apple breeder, Bedford is tasked with finding the genetic gems among the nearly 20,000 trees in the horticulture department's orchards through a process that involves tasting about 500 or 600 apples a day.

On a sunny September afternoon, Bedford and his assistant are evaluating new cultivars in a plot off Highway 5 in Chaska. After determining that the tree under consideration is healthy and laden with ripe-looking fruit, Bedford plucks an apple, rubs it on his shirt, and takes a bite. He chews a few times, assessing its flavor and texture, and then spits out the pulp. 'There's a lot of spitting,' he remarks. Finally, Bedford pulls out a knife, slices the apple through its center, and sprays one half with iodine. A small area near the apple's core darkens due to the presence of starch, indicating that the apple is ripe.

'This one was astringent,' Bedford says, frowning. While tannins' pucker may be acceptable in wine, an unpleasantly drying, chalky sensation isn't desirable in apples. After tasting and spraying several more apples from the tree, Bedford passes judgment: 'Yep, this one has inherent flavor problems.'

In nearly every case, the fruit's flavor and texture are deemed either poor or simply not compelling, and the tree is sprayed with fluorescent orange paint: marked for discard. Of the 5,000-plus trees Bedford assesses each season, he selects about 15 to advance to the next round. The selection process, he says, feels like 'skiing ahead of an avalanche,' and he knows he must be merciless so as not to be overwhelmed by trees. ''It's not so bad' is not good enough,' he says. 'I'm looking for a 'wow!' If I have to think about it too much, it probably isn't going to make it.'

Bedford has the look of an academic outdoorsman—lanky frame, salt-and-pepper mustache, jeans, work boots, sun hat—and walks the rows with a relaxed demeanor despite the invisible weight on his shoulders. With the horticulture department's most lucrative patentexpiring this fall, the pressure is on for Bedford and his team to create the next Honeycrisp.

The Honeycrisp apple is, of course, the 100-year-old fruit-breeding program's most notable development: a crisp—'explosively crisp,' its developers like to say—juicy, sweet-tart variety considered so exceptional that The New York Times dubbed it the 'iPod' of apples, and the Association of University Technology Managers named it one of '25 Innovations That Changed the World,' alongside Google and the V-chip.

In Minnesota, roughly 40 million Honeycrisp are produced each year, making it the state’s most popular apple. And its influence is spreading. More than five million trees have been planted worldwide, as far away as South Africa and New Zealand. Anecdotally, some attribute the recent increase in apple consumption to Honeycrisp's 1991 debut. And like many of the world's greatest inventions, Honeycrisp was almost lost to history.

THE APPLE-BREEDING PROCESS begins each spring, when Bedford and his team decide which dozen or so crosses they will make that year. Although the apple is the country's second most popular fresh fruit, only three apple-breeding programs remain in the United States (the other two are at Cornell and Washington State). Minnesota's program was started to develop breeds that could withstand the Midwest's cold winters, and it has gone on to produce about three-quarters of the apple varieties grown in the state.

The genetic process for breeding apples works like it does in humans: You can choose parents with certain characteristics, but you can't control how the genetic material goes together. Sometimes the children are better than the parents, and sometimes they're worse. Sometimes the results are altogether unexpected, like the Honeycrisp, which Bedford describes as 'a whole bunch of surprises.' More than two decades after its discovery, he still seems in awe of the breed's genetic superiority: 'It's one in a million,' he says. 'The Einstein of apples.'

As soon as the trees begin to bud, Bedford and his team cover several branch tips on the female parents with wax paper bags to prevent natural pollination. When the flowers bloom, Bedford dabs the male parent's pollen from a petri dish onto the protected blossoms and rebags them to ensure that the crosses stay pure. The resulting apple will be the same variety as the female parent—but its seeds will create the hybrid plant. Like human siblings, each seed is unique—one may bear apples that are fire-engine red and taste like sugar water, while another's fruit may be magenta-colored and mealy-textured—even though they share the same parents. In nearly 30 years, Bedford notes, he has never missed the brief pollinating window due to illness, a fact that seems to give credence to the old 'apple a day' adage.

In the fall, researchers collect some 3,000 seeds from those new hybrids and germinate them in greenhouses over the winter. Typically, these seedlings would take 10 to 12 years to reach maturity, but the researchers speed the process by grafting seedling buds onto dwarf rootstock (the stump of a small tree with an established root system), so trees will begin bearing fruit in four to six years.

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.

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.