Why you love Honeycrisp apples, hate Red Delicious

Zlati Meyer

Ask any American to name their favorite kind of apple and the answer is likely to come quickly and with capital letters. Maybe Granny Smith or Fuji. Perhaps a hipper Pink Lady or even a  SnapDragon.

Pose the same question about, say, bananas and you might get a, "Um, yellow?" in response.

Apple varieties are well branded. Shoppers are willing to pay more for them.

The lunchbox staple, as all-American as the pie that bears its name, is more than a simple fruit. It's a marketing marvel, the result of a decades-long campaign to transform preferences with the goal of making money grow on trees.

Today, with various shades of red, green and yellow and different sizes and tastes that run from sugary sweet to puckery tart, apples have become the most heavily branded produce on Earth.

The turning point for apple branding was the debut of the Honeycrisp, which turns 20 years old this year. The variety created by the University of Minnesota's acclaimed apple breeding program proved that the 99-cents-per-pound that most supermarkets didn't exceed could be lifted and that the days of pricing as high as $3.99 a pound had arrived. Now, hipster apples, such as the Sekai-ichi, sell for as much as $21 per pound.

"It’s not just that they charge more. It also encourages the sale of apples," said Bob Killian, CEO of the Chicago-based firm Killian Branding.

By giving each type of apple its own identity — or "story," in branding jargon —  consumers come to associate certain varieties with particular moods or foods, experts said. Crispy Long Island Duck with Gingered Gala Apple and Red Cabbage is one of the menu choices at The Modern, a two-Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant. Panera Bread offers its Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken. As apple options continue to expand, so does the likelihood shoppers will buy more of them.

"You buy a Volvo over a Mustang. In the produce aisle, there are still many items that are unbranded, and you're much more likely to make purchases from the items that are branded," Killian said,

Apples garner three times more display space than other produce, according to Killian. "The more of the varieties I know something about and perhaps have good feelings about, the more likely I am to purchase them and the less likely I am to buy pears and peaches."

Growers of other fruit have tried to emulate apples' marketing success, with mixed results.

Years ago, strawberry growers tried unsuccessfully to create different varieties; they all tasted more or less alike, said Greg Johnson, editor of The Packer, a trade publication for the North American fresh produce industry. Now, potato farmers are borrowing apples' playbook by assigning memorable names to the simple spud, like Yukon Gold, Red Bliss and Adirondack Blue.

The U.S. is apple crazy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent data found. Americans consume, on average, 28 pounds of them annually — fresh, canned, dried, frozen and juiced — making it the nation's most popular fruit.

Apple production in the U.S. was 11.3 billion pounds in last year, up from 9.1 billion pounds in 2007, according to the USDA.

That translated into close to $3.5 billion worth of apples in 2016, according to the U.S. Apple Association, a Falls Church, Va.-based trade group. The U.S. is the world´s second-biggest producer of apples with 32 states growing the 100-plus varieties readily available in stores. Only China produces more.

"Grocers realized, 'This is silly for us to limit the choices,' " said David Bedford, the University of Minnesota's apple breeder. "A grocer doesn't say, 'I'm going to have one brand of cookies, because I like that one.' If there's room to sell other products, the market will force them to do it ... When you get something that hot, if you don’t have it in your store, you're in trouble."

Apple displays at supermarkets have morphed into islands in the produce section that feature as many as a dozen varieties. That's out of an estimated 7,000 types of apples that exist on the planet, including heritage varieties and ones deemed not pretty enough for retail, such as the Knobbed Russet.

Knobbed Russet sports a toad-like but edible skin covered with warts and welts. This heavily russeted apple has a firm and dense, shiny, golden flesh. Its flavor has been described as strong and earthy, rich and sugary. It is harvested in October, and it keeps well in storage. Also known as Knobby Russet, it was first grown in Sussex, England in 1819.

Photo by  Bar Lois Weeks

Until the 1970s, pickings were slim. While Golden Delicious offered a color contrast and Granny Smith brought tartness to the table, the iconic Red Delicious was the star, heavily promoted by Washington state growers, according to Virginia-based apple historian Tom Burford. Then wholesalers began looking for tastier varieties, finding them overseas in Japan, home to the Fuji, and New Zealand, which had the Braeburn and Gala.

"The three imported varieties broke Red Delicious's back," Burford said. "Once they were in the market, it once again generated consumer demand. Consumers would go into the supermarket and say, 'I've eaten the X, but what else do you have?' That was the first time in 175 years there was (a choice)." 

The opportunity for brand recognition inspired American breeders. There had been a few upstarts over the years such as the Cortland, named for the New York county by researchers at what today is Cornell University. But the demand for more upscale apples called for big-time developments. The first American entry into the spotlight was the Honeycrisp.

But some of these cleverly named apples cost orchard owners more to produce. They're harder to grow and those without thick skin, which Americans dislike, have less protection against damage.

Dennis Courtier, owner of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minn., was one of the first Honeycrisp growers in the U.S..

"The first few years with Honeycrisp, it was a tough sell, because ... we had to charge more for them. That was something retailers were not very receptive to," he said. "Now, we have a lot of customers that sell more dollars worth of Honeycrisp ... than half-gallons of skim milk or two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola."