An apple to lure even the fallen: Honeycrisp

The Honeycrisp apple, so I read, took the apple world by storm in the past couple years. And it turns out there’s science behind its appeal.

A University of Minnesota hybrid that’s a little touchy to grow, Honeycrisp was introduced in 1991 but spread slowly at first (the trees take a few years to bear, for one thing). All it takes, though, is one taste of a Honeycrisp. People love them so much they will pay $1 a pound more for them; thus more growers are planting them, and the Honeycrisp is spreading. A Minnesota grower says:

Whenever we give sample slices of Honeycrisp at the orchard, new converts are won over. No matter if one customer prefers tart apples and another customer prefers sweet apples, we find that 80% of them prefer Honeycrisp. We just give them one slice, and Honeycrisp is their new favorite. I don’t know of another sweet apple (Honeycrisp must definitely be classified as sweet) that attracts the tart folks like Honeycrisp does.

I can testify to the phenomenon. I’m a lifelong carnivore who prefers veggies to be seen and not heard, and rarely does fruit darken my door unless it is parked inside a pie. Even so, I have a weakness for apples n’ cheddar, and the first time I had a Honeycrisp, I said something quite rude out loud. I LOVE them. I’ve even talked a total stranger into buying them for his kid at the grocery.

Honeycrisp (left) leaves even sweet apples like Ambrosia (right) in the shade.

Honeycrisp apples got me to eat apples regularly. (That whump! was my college roommate, a nutritionist, hitting the floor.)

Are they different?  Turns out, yes.  Cells in the Honeycrisp are apparently twice as large as in other varieties, and the pectin holds the cells together more tightly than in other apples. This could explain its crisp texture, juicy burst and long shelf life. The great flavor is probably due to its hybrid parents, but those specifics are lost: Researchers found one parent was the Keepsake apple but can’t identify the other.

So far Honeycrisp apples are not available all year — they start to ripen in September and stay good till April or even June– and even if they do become widely enough grown for year-round stocking, surely they wouldn’t be as jaw-droppingly tasty in the off-season. So I’m already trying to line up alternatives for when my supply dries up. But I think I’m in trouble.

Ambrosia is a similar-looking (yellow with a red blush) apple — not as big, but nice and sweet. It’s not the same, of course, and its season is shorter anyway — October-January. But it’ll do if the Honeycrisps are sold out.

Growers are hoping the new SweeTango variety will make people even loopier — a Honeycrisp cross, it’s supposed to have the same crispness and even more flavor, and should be available nationwide in 2011 or 2012. But tighter controls on its production and distribution mean that it will likely be available for short times. That’s basically intended to ensure the quality (and prices) stay high, of course. Yucky mealy mass-produced fruits have already turned too many people off apples.

The patent on Honeycrisps expired in 2008, and since even Texas grocery stores are now hawking them, they are obviously on the path to world domination.  Keep the quality as high as you can, though, will you, dear growers?  This is a truly amazing creation.

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