In November, the stores were running low on Minnesota Honeycrisp and started replenishing the shelves with Honeycrisp shipped from Washington. For a while, my local grocery store had Minnesota and Washington Honeycrisp in the same bin. At the time, a friend complained to me about some apples he had recently bought. "I don't even think they are Honeycrisp," he told me, "the store must be selling red Delicious."
Even before he brought me an apple, I told him that they were Honeycrisp, but they were raised in a low elevation area of Washington.
I always get a little defensive when people use Delicious as the ultimate example of a bad tasting apple. Some of the best apples I have ever eaten were Washington Delicious. Twenty years, ago, I worked with about thirty apple orchards along the Washington-Oregon border. Some orchards were planted in the true desert near the Columbia River, while others were high in the foothills of nearby mountains. While testing the quality of the different apples, I quickly noticed that red Delicious and Golden Delicious grown in the desert were large and soft, while those grown in the mountains were smaller, crisper and had better overall flavor. When buying apples for myself or as gifts, I often bought Delicious grown near the mountains.
Certain varieties, like Granny Smith and Fuji, taste great when raised in areas with hot, dry summers. Other varieties taste better when grown in areas with cooler summers, like the foothills of the mountains. For cool season varieties like Delicious and Golden Delicious, elevation influences firmness, sugar content and the sugar acid balance. Granny Smith from the desert are firm and have a mouth-puckering supply of acid. The sugar/acid balance of cool season varieties can be adversely affected by climate.
Honeycrisp was developed in Minnesota and became very popular because it stays crisp long, has a high sugar content, and a moderate acid content. Honeycrisp has a little more acid than Delicious or Fuji, but less than Granny Smith. The sugar/acid balance of Honeycrisp is critical, because a Honeycrisp with no acid tastes just like a bland red Delicious.
My friend gave me one of his apples. It was a Honeycrisp, with the characteristic round shape and red/yellow color pattern, but the apple tasted as bad as Delicious apples that had been stored for a year and were being sold for $0.75 a pound. The apple was soft. I measured its sugar content at 11 % (11°Brix). The Honeycrisp I have measured in Minnesota usually have a sugar content greater than 15%. The acid content was low, making an apple with a dismal sugar content taste even blander.
Studying the influence of climate on apple quality was easy along the Washington-Oregon border, because nearly all the variability was due to elevation. High elevations have cooler nights. Where nights are cool, fruit is smaller and firmer. When we compare fruit quality of apples grown in Washington with those grown in Minnesota, there are a host of factors that could influence flavor: soil, daytime temperatures, humidity, sunlight intensity as well as nighttime temperatures.
With so many factors influencing the quality of apples, we cannot say for sure why Honeycrisp grown in Minnesota taste better than those grown in other climates. I can, however, go to a grocery store where Minnesota and Washington Honeycrisp are displayed together and pick out the Minnesota apples. The color pattern is slightly different on the Minnesota apples. When buying fruit for my family, I am very picky. I have no problem paying good money for good fruit, but I would not pay $0.75 a pound for the Honeycrisp my friend gave me.
Wine makers and wine consumers have known for centuries that wine tastes different depending on where the grapes were grown. Apple quality also appears to vary depending on where the apples were grown, and apples are grown over a much broader range of climates and soils than grapes. Apple consumers should also start becoming as particular about where their fruit was grown as the wine drinkers.
Thaddeus McCamant has been a Specialty Crops Management Instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls Minnesota, and has fifteen years of experience in the fruit industry.