Apples' Golden Age
By: Helen Labun
I didn’t know an apple could be revolutionary just by being green. Yet in the 1980s, when Granny Smiths began to claim their slice of the supermarket produce aisle, they broke up the duopoly of red and yellow (mostly red) and proved that consumers could accept different-looking apples. Bi-color Braeburns arrived in the 1990s, followed by Fuji and Gala. Suddenly, mainstream consumers had a new picture of what an apple could look like.
Rowan Jacobsen recapped this apple revolution for me when we discussed his new book Apples of Uncommon Character. Rowan, a Calais resident, is the writer to turn to if you’re looking for spot-on flavor descriptions delivered within the context of big ideas about food. This latest book, his seventh, uses 123 apples to sketch a portrait of what he sees as America’s second Golden Age of apples.
I pointed out that getting 1980s Americans to eat apples with green skin didn’t sound much like a portent of a Golden Age.
“It’s the potential,” Rowan said. “It’s a cascading effect of getting to diversity.”
Diversity defined the first Golden Age of apples in the 1700s and 1800s, when backyard orchardists grew myriad apples, thousands of varieties. Each variety offered particular desirable traits—some apples ripened early, others stored well, while others made excellent hard cider. In the 20th century, this landscape of apples went the way of many previously diverse crops. People relied more and more on supermarkets for their apples. Commercial production began to concentrate in the best growing locations (namely, eastern Washington). Large producers in turn concentrated their varieties, narrowing down to apples well suited to the highest yields, distant transportation, long shelf lives, and a certain “look—red, unblemished, symmetrical—what became our idealized vision of an “apple.”
Most apples failed to make the cut, apples like Vermont’s own Bethel apple, a mediocre-tasting fruit whose only winning attribute is serious cold hardiness. That the Bethel apple also offered a chance to express Vermont pride didn’t prove compelling in eastern Washington. So the Bethel, like its 19th century brethren, became an old-fashioned, increasingly rare find, “ waiting for the grid to go down and its fortunes to rise again,” according to the apple book.
Rounding the bend now in the 21st century, apples’ prospects for regaining diversity are rosier than other crops that suffered a similar collapse. Apples—unlike, say, heirloom tomatoes—can grow without human intervention. We can neglect them for generations and still find those abandoned trees growing untended, still producing fruit. Plus, apples grown from seed don’t keep their parents’ traits. When left to their own devices, they start their own experiments in diversity. The new fruit usually tastes lousy, but they’re different, and occasionally you’ll stumble on a winner like Granny Smith, which began in an Australian compost heap in the mid-1800s. Of course, we also have new varieties from more traditional breeding programs, like the ones at Cornell or the University of Minnesota, programs that, after the Granny Smith/Braeburn revolution, had reason to believe unfamiliar apples could make it in the national market. A second Golden Age might be possible.
Vermont has a head start on heirloom-based apple diversity given its many long-existing apple trees. “Places like Appalachia and Vermont never quite lost interest in those old varieties,” Rowan notes.
Dwight Miller Orchards in Dummerston, for example, has operated continuously in the Miller family since the 1760s. They cultivate trees from the Civil War period. They started their McIntoshes with grafts taken directly from the very first McIntosh tree. “We have about 70 varieties of apples,” Reed Miller reports. “But heirlooms aren’t what we do, we do organic…those [heirloom] apples are just a part of our history.”
Alongside businesses growing heirloom apples because they’ve always grown those trees, we also have new businesses with a new take on the heirlooms’ potential. One promising market is hard cider, with local makers interested in more traditional styles—dry, usually still, with a flavor one might describe as “bracing.” Creating traditional ciders requires apples with a certain balance of acid and tannins. Back in the 1800s, when hard cider was a staple beverage, plenty of orchardists cultivated trees that provided that balance. Although not all of these varieties work for modern commercial cider makers, who need to think about things like price and volume, some do. Terry Bradshaw, director of UVM’s Horticultural and Research Center, notes the 1700s era Esopus Spitzenburg is a common choice.
Cider makers also turn to heirloom apples to add distinctive flavor to their ciders. Again, the eating or “dessert” apples that came to dominate 20th-century production often don’t fit the bill. “Imagine dessert apples if you took all the sweet away,” Terry explains, “Many of them would not have a pleasant flavor.” But heirloom apples, like Kingston Black, have great flavor if you take the sweet away.
The search for unique cider flavor has led some producers to prospecting in not only heirloom trees but the accidental offspring of those trees as well. Shacksbury Cider’s Lost Apple Project, for example, recently sent the cider equivalent of talent scouts out to the roadsides and field edges of Addison County in search of apples for their 1840 cider. Where earlier generations of growers had abandoned cider trees, the Lost Apple folks found a whole new wave of potential cider apples waiting to be discovered. Sunrise Orchards is now working with Shacksbury to propagate the most promising cider apples from their Lost Apple collection. The fruit should be ready for harvesting in 2017.
While cider makers experiment with new cider flavors, others are experimenting with new dessert apples. Here’s Terry Bradshaw’s rule of thumb for new apple varieties grown from seed: One in a hundred tastes good to eat, one in a thousand is worth continuing to cultivate, and one in ten thousand is a real knockout apple. Knockout apples have exceptional taste and yield, and they’re easy to grow. Honeycrisp, developed by the University of Minnesota, is an example of an apple with these qualities. Apples of Uncommon Character succinctly summarizes this apple’s defining attribute: “Growers can’t plant [Honeycrisp] fast enough; they sometimes refer to it as Moneycrisp.”
While Granny Smith and Braeburns succeeded simply by finding a place on the grocery shelf, Honeycrisp not only found a place, it demanded customers pay a premium over other apples to get them. And customers paid. Robert Kirigin at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, which stocks a wide range of apple varieties, reports that Honeycrisp sales went up 1,400 percent from 2005 to 2013. The available supply of Honeycrisp started out very small, accounting for some of the magnitude of that increase, but for comparison the sales of “heirloom”-labeled apples rose only 7 percent during the same period. Vermonters might wax poetic over heirloom apples, but we’re buying the Honeycrisp.
Nothing is more modern than Honeycrisp, plus apples like SweeTango and Jazz, which followed in its footsteps. However, they do have something in common with their heirloom ancestors: They’re bred because they excel at a certain thing. Just as the Bethel apple excelled at cold hardiness, these apples excel at being dessert apples. They aren’t the prettiest apples, they make terrible cider (“tastes like perfume” Reed Miller reports), but each bite bursts in your mouth with a sweetness that can be irresistible.
We can safely say that today’s apple possibilities have piqued customers’ interest. Unfortunately, this interest could reach celebrity tabloid proportions and apple diversity still wouldn’t come close to touching apples’ first Golden Age. Commercial growers can only invest in so many varieties—and that number is nowhere near the estimated 14,000 that once grew in backyards across North America. We need a multitude of hobbyists—growers who can experiment and who will nurture an oddball apple simply because they have an affinity for it.
Todd Parlo of Walden Heights Nursery, in Walden, sees a resurgence in these backyard growers. His small nursery contains one of the most diverse inventories in the region, maybe even the nation. And Todd has a long list of things to love in an apple tree. There’s the fruit itself; Todd describes some that taste just like a cherry lollipop, others that are peppery, others that taste like anise or grapes. Looking beyond the fruit, apple trees have beautiful flowers and can be trellised into garden archways. You can burn the pruned branches for heat or cooking. You can climb in the trees or swing in them. Plus, experimenting with new varieties is fun. By that measure Todd is having a great deal of fun—he’s up to 500 apple varieties at his nursery, from “tried and true” heirlooms to newcomers in the trial stages.
Todd recommends that any backyard orchard begin with standard trees that are easy to grow, but his customers usually don’t stop there. “People want weird apples and heirloom apples because they have a story,” he says happily.“ And it’s important to our culture to have these stories.”
You’ll find many of those stories collected in Apples of Uncommon Character. As you piece together its apple portraits—everything from the famous fruit that Isaac Newton saw fall (Flower of Kent) to apples whose “parchmentlike” skin contain flesh that’s “exploding with lychee and lime” (Reine des Renette)—it’s hard to believe we were once on the verge of letting these apples slip into extinction. With history, beauty, possibility, surprise, legacies, and unexpected discoveries, apples’ stories may very well lure us back to another Golden Age.