David Bedford bites into 500 apples a day in peak season, so he knows a thing or two about taste and texture. And when the first out-of-state Honeycrisps started rolling into Minnesota grocery stores 15 years ago, he noticed a problem.
Bedford and Jim Luby at the University of Minnesota bred Honeycrisps for an “explosively crisp” texture that helped make them a big seller. But the out-of-state Honeycrisps, sometimes grown in over-warm climates or stored too long, didn’t make the grade. “I can think of some where it was a spongy crisp,” Bedford said.
He and the U could do nothing about it. “We didn’t really control the name,” Bedford said. “You just had to stand back and hope the poor fruit didn’t ruin the market.”
Lesson learned. As the U prepared to release its newest apple, called the First Kiss and presented for the first time at the Minnesota State Fair last month, it obtained a trademark that will reserve the name for Minnesota-grown apples. The same variety grown elsewhere will go by the name Rave, and out-of-state growers will be closely monitored.
Breeding a crisper, tastier apple is a long game at the U’s Apple House, home to a rotating cast of 30,000 trees, all grown on dwarf roots in the hills south of Lake Minnetonka. The Honeycrisp was in the works for decades before its 1991 release.
The first tree for the U’s next big successful apple variety, the SweeTango, was planted in 1988, with apples selected for further testing in 1999 and released to the public in 2006.
And the original First Kiss tree, now a knotty matriarch in the middle of a row of younger upstarts, was planted 21 years ago.
For Bedford, a trim 67-year-old with a weathered brown face and steel-gray mustache, and his crew, the work is painstaking. They generate about 5,000 hybrid trees each year in a greenhouse. The best ones get a chance in the orchard, where their buds are grafted onto root stock in late July.
A visit there is a lesson in the miracle of plant genetics and grafting. Plant the seeds from a First Kiss apple and you’ll get something akin to a First Kiss tree several years later, but the fruit is never identical. Like a human child, the apple will be genetically distinct from its parents.
“Not a single one of them will be a First Kiss, even if we have a million seeds, and no two of them will be alike, either,” Bedford said.
The hybrids Bedford grows are mostly not as good as their genetic parents, but a few — roughly 1 in 10,000 — are much better, thanks to the randomness of nature.
“We use those seeds in the beginning to generate all these lottery tickets, I call them,” Bedford said.
After about six years, the trees start to bear fruit, and the real work begins, as Bedford and his colleagues work their way through the orchard, looking, picking, tasting, cutting and testing for the winning lottery ticket. About 3,000 trees that make it into the orchard are discarded every year.
One afternoon last week, Bedford stood next to such a tree, hung with clusters of an unnamed, unnumbered variety of apple that will never make it to a store or commercial orchard. He picked a bright red one, sliced into it and handed out wedges. The apple was crisp, juicy, and richly tart — better than most apples ever sold at a supermarket. But it wasn’t good enough for Bedford.
“It’s higher acid than I would like. That falls in the category that we’d say, ‘not so bad,’ ” he said, gently spitting out the flesh. “You throw it away. What we’re looking for is that one in 10,000 that’s a wow.”
A handful of trees — about 10 every year — are “wow” enough to be tied with a blue ribbon and replicated four times in a more selective orchard closer to Apple House by grafting their buds onto root stock there. About 120 different types of apple tree are growing there, and Bedford keeps careful notes on those apples, grading them over the years on a scale of one to nine each season, focusing on flavor and texture, and keeping boxes of them in cold storage to see how well they hold up over time.
Even those trees are culled every year. A quartet of apple trees there was marked with orange paint last week. “Those are ones I threw away this morning,” Bedford said.
Bedford’s relentless pursuit of apple perfection makes him particularly sensitive to subpar fruit that carries the name of one of the breeds he’s developed. The Honeycrisp was a smashing commercial success, and generated royalties for the university until the patent expired in 2008. But Bedford had no recourse when he thought a grower was falling down on the job.
When the SweeTango was released, the university used a managed licensing system that allows Bedford to call growers and demand they do better. The next step in the U’s fruit marketing evolution is the dual naming rights for the First Kiss.
“We’ve put 20 to 30 years into these things, and we want them to get out and serve the public, but we have to manage them,” Bedford said. “That’s been done in the world of commerce for many years. It’s just that it’s a newer concept in agriculture.”
The First Kiss is already grown under the Rave name in Washington, where around 60,000 bushels are being picked this year.
The apple is more tart than a Honeycrisp, but it retains the parent apple’s “explosive crispness” and was crossed with an unreleased variety from Arkansas, known simply as AA-44, to make it more tolerant to hot weather and earlier to ripen. That makes the apple available for growers to sell a month earlier than most other apples in Minnesota.
The apple is being tested at 20 sites in Europe and getting good reviews. It was a sensation at the State Fair, selling out in 48 hours at $3 an apple.
“When we saw that ripen about a week before the State Fair, we knew it was going to be a hit,” said J.P. Jacobson, the grower at Pine Tree Apple Orchard outside of White Bear Lake, one of the original test sites for the apple.
Jacobson said there were “frenzy-like conditions” at his booth at the State Fair. “We had 400 people in line,” he said.
The First Kiss is the first national apple variety released by the university since the SweeTango, and only the second since the Honeycrisp. Jacobson said he thinks it will catch on quickly because of social media, and could wipe out cultivation of other apple varieties. It’s good for baking pies, and should make good cider, he said.
“Based on how demand went this year, I ordered more trees,” Jacobson said.
Most apple orchards in Minnesota are geared toward visitors, and not the wholesale market. For those, the First Kiss’s early maturity may be an obstacle to growing it.
“It’s a good apple. There’s nothing wrong with the apple itself,” said Ross Nelson of Nelson Apple Farm near Webster, and the president of the Minnesota Apple Growers. “We will not be putting it in our orchard and the reason is it matures around the first of August and we don’t have any other apples maturing at that time.”
Economically it doesn’t make sense for Nelson to staff the orchard for one variety for a month. Besides, he said, “People don’t want to come out to the orchards in early August.”
Nelson also said the two-name convention has been confusing to consumers in the case of another apple — the SugarBee, a grower-developed descendant of the Honeycrisp that’s known as the B51 in Minnesota but the SugarBee elsewhere.
“I think in the long run it will be fine,” Nelson said.
Bedford said he is pleased with the plan to reserve the First Kiss name for Minnesota.
“I still can’t fault the concept that we did it under, based on what we learned from Honeycrisp,” he said.
The driving motivation behind all his work is partly commercial — the Honeycrisp has been a boon to the U’s horticulture department and “we’ve got to keep inventing new ones,” Bedford said. But he also said he believes a better apple has social benefits.
“What’s the point of all this? More food? Don’t we have enough food?” Bedford said. “If we were just making different forms of Twinkies, I’d have more trouble answering that question. But to have something that can compete with junk food that’s good for you, that’s different.
“We have this category of food that’s good for you, but so is kale and broccoli. People aren’t so excited to eat those things. We fall in that weird intersection of something that’s good for you and something that people are excited to eat. There are not too many crossover things like that, and that’s what good apples can be.”