What is the Most Popular Apple in the U.S.?
The Honeycrisp apple is the most popular apple in the United States, according to new 2021 data from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
The association estimated the 2021 apple crop produced over 119.97 million 40-pound boxes with Honeycrisp apples comprising 12.54% of the state’s harvest. Sales of Honeycrisp apples grew by 8% over the previous period.
Maybe we're a little biased since we've been growing them for so many years (our own Bill Clark planted his first organic Honeycrisp orchard in 1991), but we think the Honeycrisp is a pretty special apple, too. In fact, it's also our number one selling apple at Chelan Beauty.
There is just something extra special about it. Once you have one, no other apple compares. The flavor. The crunch. And, it turns out, the history of the Honeycrisp apple is second to none.
What Makes the Honeycrisp Apple So Special?
Perhaps the Honeycrisp is so well-loved because it's so well-balanced. Ask anyone to name their favorite apple and they'll tell you they like it for one of two reasons: it's sweetness or it's tartness. The great thing about the Honeycrisp is it offers a sweet-tart bite that mingles to form a flavor all its own. Equally as appetizing as its flavor, is its texture. Thanks to a genetic variation, Honeycrisp cells are about twice the size of other apple varieties, resulting in its explosive crunch.
The University of Minnesota's Fruit Breeding Program began developing the apple in the 1960's as part of their cold-hardy apple tree breeding program. They were attempting to create an apple that could withstand colder climates. Researchers spent nearly three decades (three decades!) trying to perfect the cross-breeding process, which, while painstaking, isn't uncommon.
Apple breeders regularly spend decades evaluating tens of thousands of trees that never end up making it to market. Only one in 10,000 apple varieties will make the cut. For each new variety tested, it takes about 20 to 30 years to develop before it’s released to nurseries, and then another 10 years before it’s in full production
Interestingly, though, the success of Honeycrisp almost never was. Notoriously hard to grow due in part to its delicate skin, the Honeycrisp tree was slated to be axed all together. Famed university apple breeder David Bedford, though, decided to give it one last chance to produce. It did, and the rest is history.
Originally named MN 1711, it was renamed not through marketing and research teams, but by two apple breeders sitting around their office who knew of a converted farmhouse in Victoria, MN with the same name. It stuck, and the apple was officially released in 1991 to apple growers. It finally hit the grocery store shelves in 1997 to rave reviews and immediate commercial success.
According to breeders records, the Honeycrisp was thought to be the offspring of the Macoun and Honeygold. However, in 2004/2005, DNA evidence suggested otherwise. It turns out, one parent was actually the Keepsake apple, native to Minnesota, while the other remained unidentified. The final dots were not connected until 2017 by a graduate student at the University of Minnesota named Nick Howard using further DNA testing. His research confirmed Honeycrisp is the child of the Keepsake variety and an unreleased University of Minnesota selection, MN1627. While MN1627 is no longer available, Howard was able to trace the apple to its grandparents, Duchess of Oldenburg and Golden Delicious.
Much like a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred, apple genealogy is scrupulously researched and scrutinized when deciding which cultivars to pair and breed for commercial success. The fact that an accidental pairing of two random varieties could create such a gem of an apple is a complete anomaly in the field of apple breeding, where science reigns supreme, and researchers leave nothing to chance and luck.
Perhaps the Honeycrisp was simply meant to be.
Honeycrisp and Beyond
The Honeycrisp apple has led to many other new varieties such as the delicious SweetTango, a cross between a Zestar and a Honeycrisp, as its success spurred even more breeding in-roads. Bedford himself credited Honeycrisp with “saving the apple industry”. In 2019, the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee released yet another Honeycrisp love child, the Cosmic Crisp, which is a cross between an Enterprise and a Honeycrisp, to massive commercial appeal.
Honeycrisp is still a difficult apple to grow. Many farmers say it is THE hardest apple to grow. It’s finicky, does not tolerate heat well (although it loves cold winters), bruises easily and is tough to store. It takes just the right attention to detail, and just the right farmer know-how, to get it just right.
Our resident farmer, Bill Clark, is a bit famous in our area for his craftsmanship at farming Honeycrisp. One of the first organic Honeycrisp growers, nobody knows the apple like Bill (his daughters call him the "King of Honeycrisp") and you can taste that in every Honeycrisp we sell. Bill planted his orchard in just the right place, a cool canyon on our high elevation farm (but not too high) in Lake Chelan, Washington, the perfect place for Honeycrisp to thrive. As a result, his apples are particularly coveted in the area.
As for the apple’s future? As long as people continue to love it, farmers like Bill will continue to grow it, despite its many challenges.
But just like the journey to discover Honeycrisp's identity, knowing the journey of the apples you buy is important, too. Simply, apples taste better when they're grown from farmers who know what they're doing. At Chelan Beauty, we take great pride in what we grow, and how we grow it. Organic. Sustainably. And with love.