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October, 2011

Apple Wars

By Dennis Linden

By October, supermarkets have replaced all those late summer fruit displays with an array of dazzling, colorful new-crop apples.
Apples (Variety)
By October, supermarkets have replaced all those late summer fruit displays with an array of dazzling, colorful new-crop apples. While there are some 7,500 varieties grown around the globe, until the 1980s, apples came in three colors in this country: green, golden yellow and lots of red. In fact, the characteristics of the Red Delicious were so ingrained in the psyche of U.S. consumers as being THE PERFECT apple, the Gala was first introduced here as the “Ugly Apple” by its New Zealand producers in an ad campaign. It was a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover approach to dealing with the fruit’s mottled coloring compared to the Red Delicious. Breeders even developed Gala varieties that were almost solid red to overcome this redder-is-better mentality in the U.S. marketplace.

For a time in apple history, the Gala needed to look like the Red Delicious, just shaped a little differently, because (a) it was what consumers had been conditioned to expect and (b) the commercial industry had developed a technology to measure the amount and density of the color red, and only red, in apple skin during the sorting and grading process. All fruit was “judged” on the sorting table in the context of the Red Delicious criteria. The redder a piece of fruit, the higher the grade; the higher the grade, the higher the wholesale sales price. It took the apple industry several seasons to acknowledge that different grading standards had to be established for multicolored varietals.

This paradigm shift, that apples could be a different color than red, was certainly championed by the growers and marketers of this new variety. However, the real agent for change came from the commercial success of the Gala itself. When the consumer discovered how tasty an apple could be, the appearance factor became somewhat secondary. The Red Delicious industry of the Pacific Northwest, which had spent years breeding for best-in-color rather than natural sugar content (taste), could not compete. It became an undeniable marketing fact that, while consumers may be attracted to buy with their eyes the first time, they only return to buy again based on a positive taste experience. The Gala simply tasted better than the Red Delicious. Once the Red Delicious stranglehold on the market had been broken, other varieties began to gain a market share. In the early 1980s the Red Delicious was 75% of the Pacific Northwest’s apple production; today it is closer to 30%. Apples have acquired taste profiles and now come in a rainbow of skin colorings. At one point in this writer’s produce career, I roamed the apple warehouses in Washington State on behalf of a well-known national retailer. I would gather samples of various apple varieties by day, bring them to room temperature back at my office in the evenings, then taste-test and write up reports that sounded more like descriptions of fine wines rather than apples: “Flavor starts with a full-bodied sweetness that is softened by a clean, slightly tart, aftertaste”. Everything but the vintage date!

Today, there are big monetary rewards for breeding the next Gala-like success in the marketplace. Many university agricultural research departments devote large portions of their fiscal budgets searching for the right mix of characteristics in flavor, coloring and storage life. The hope is that a variety will catch on with the consumer and reap royalties for the lucky institution that has a patent on the new root stock. Probably the most commercially successful example is the University of Minnesota’s development of the Honeycrisp, which has slowly built a brand name and garnished increased real estate in retail apple display since its introduction in 1991. Until the U.S. patent ran out in 2008 the University had received over $8 million in royalties.

The success of the Honeycrisp has spurred other breeder’s to not only patent a promising new variety, but attempt to limit distribution by controlling the amount of producers grow it, thus keeping the price up. This is the current situation with the Ambrosia, a chance seedling discovered in Canada. The grower who found and developed the variety sold the rights to its root stock, name and production to a large Canadian plant company that has closely controlled new plantings. While the plan has worked as far as keeping the price up by limiting production, it has also restricted the Ambrosia’s exposure to a wider audience. This is a marketing conundrum that has yet to play out as far as the long-term sustainability of the variety.

In spite of the odds, a fresh produce trade publication recently announced the class of 2011 newest apple varieties that have graduated from the experimental orchards and will be test marketed in targeted retail outlets around the country this season. The names are always singularly descriptive, without regard to spelling rules, in the hopes of becoming the next “Cher” of name recognition in the fruit world: Divine, HoneySpice, Kanzi, Rubens, SweetTango and Winecrisp. Wonderful monikers to be sure, however it will be those repeat purchases that will decide the fate of these fruits. Maybe I will do a follow up article in a year from now to see if any made it!