Arboretum News

Cosmic Shifts in the Apple Industry

A Honeycrisp off-spring gets out-of-this-world attention.

Photo (above) is a Honeycrisp apple; photo by Dave Hanson.

If you haven’t already heard the buzz about Cosmic Crisp Apples, you will. The newest apple from Washington is set to hit produce sections across the country in December, and it’ll have a 10-million-dollar marketing plan to support it. “Everything about this is unprecedented from an economic stand point,” says David Bedford, a University of Minnesota fruit breeder who helped develop the Honeycrisp.

Cosmic Crisp apple
Cosmic Crisp apples on trees; photo courtesy of Proprietary Variety Management.

The Cosmic Crisp was developed by Washington State University’s fruit breeding program, and it’s a cross between the Enterprise and Honeycrisp, a University of Minnesota introduction, which was the biggest seller nationwide in 2018.

It took about 20 years of development before Cosmic Crisp was introduced to market, which is fairly fast in the world of new apple introductions. It took about 30 years to introduce Honeycrisp. “Only 1 in 10,000 of our seedlings makes it to the end,” Bedford says of the University of Minnesota program.

While new introductions typically grow slowly, growers were excited to invest in Cosmic Crisp—they’ve already planted more than 10 million trees, which means there will be a lot of Cosmic Crisp apples hitting store shelves in the next few years. “Growers in that state have a lot riding on this,” Bedford says. “When the variety was released a lot of growers jumped on it. No one wanted to miss out.”

For context, when the Honeycrisp was listed for the first time in 1991, growers planted about 10,000 trees. It took about 15 years for growers to plant 10 million trees.

Since the Honeycrisp was introduced, fruit breeding programs have also changed the way they introduce fruit, exploring different models, like licensing, to maintain the quality of a new introduction.

The quality of the fruit rides on more than its genes: Growing conditions, picking times and storage conditions also make a big difference when it comes to the final product. So fruit breeders are finding different ways to make sure that growers and others in the supply chain follow best practices to maintain brand standards.

The Honeycrisp name is not trademarked, and anyone can grow a Honeycrisp tree. Newer University of Minnesota releases, like SweeTango® and First Kiss®/Rave®, are managed much differently. “The brand suffers without quality control,” Bedford says. “If I’m in the grocery store and I see a sub-par Honeycrisp, I can’t do anything. If that was a SweeTango apple, I know who to call. It’s better for the brand and better for the consumer.”

Cosmic Crisp apple tree
Cosmic Crisp tree; photo courtesy of Proprietary Variety Management.

Cosmic Crisp is patented and owned by Washington State University. Cosmic Crisp trees are exclusive to Washington State growers for at least 10 years. Growers, packers and marketers all need to be licensed to handle Cosmic Crisp apples.

But even more importantly: What does the Cosmic Crisp taste like? “It’s a pretty good apple,” Bedford says. “It does have some of the juiciness and crispness of a Honeycrisp but with a denser texture.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Cosmic Crisp apples become an overnight sensation to make demand for the already large supply. “In the end, the consumer has the last vote,” Bedford says.

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