Debut of New Apple Variety Called Cosmic Crisp Hits Markets

The Cosmic Crisp's launch this season teaches a lot about the research and development, as well as the marketing, behind the success of produce today.
Ariella  Brown

Stores in the United States always carry apples, but the apples appearing in the produce section now should be from the latest crop, and they just may include a new apple variety called the Cosmic Crisp apple.

"The most remarkable tasting fruit of its time!" declares the ad for Cosmic Crisp apples. Indeed, it is very much a product of its time.

Some historical perspective on the apple

This is an apple with some history and what its developers hope to have a spectacular future. As the Seattle Business Magazine report on the approach of the new apple debut noted:

“The first crossbreed that led to the Cosmic Crisp apple was made in 1997. It's hitting shelves this year, so we count 22 years of testing before launch.”

It also invoked some other apple history. Apparently, the apple market is a very competitive one.

“For 50 years, Red Delicious was the most-grown apple in the U.S. That came to an end last harvest season, when Gala took over the throne. Some in the industry consider Red Delicious ‘obsolete.’” 

It sounds a bit strange to refer to a variety of fruit as “obsolete,” but when you realize that none of these varieties are simple, natural products but deliberately designed and bred to achieve certain qualities, it makes sense that you would see changes over time as tastes change. 

We’re now living in a very different world from that of 50 years ago, and it is not such a great wonder that the ideal apple for today would be distinct from that of the past. And, if you can pardon the pun, people feel the time is ripe for a change. 

The Cosmic Crisp debut is hailed as nothing less than “‘the largest launch of a single produce item in American history,’” according to some. Some, who have not registered any sense of irony whatsoever, have compared it to another kind of Apple product.

“‘It’s gotta be like the new iPhone,’”

That's what Scott McDougall observed in his interview with Brooke Jarvis for the California Sunday Magazine.  McDougall has invested substantial sums in acquiring the patented trees for this first harvest of Cosmic Crisp that is slated for market this year. 

What’s up with the name?

Interestingly, the name Cosmic Crisp was not assigned by the organization that holds the patent on it but by consumers, which is yet another innovation associated with the variety. Kathryn Grandy, the marketing director for Proprietary Variety Management, the company overseeing the national launch of the Cosmic Crisp was quoted in California Sunday Magazine saying:

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 “It’s the first apple that’s ever been named by consumers.” 

However, the Cosmic Crisp is not just an apple with a cutesy alliterative name but one with a very official biological identity and a patent of WA 38, which is owned by Washington State University. Anyone, which includes McDougall, who plants the WA 38 trees is obligated to pay royalties for each one, as well as for each box of apples sold.

The variety is a result of a fusion of two apples already on the market in an attempt to capture the best qualities of each. It was made by crossbreeding the Honeycrisp for its texture and juiciness, and the Enterprise, which has the desirable qualities of ripening late and being easy to store over extended periods of time.

Research and experimentation to yield the ultimate apple

Arriving at that particular happy combination took a great deal of research and experimentation, as the California Sunday Magazine reports. The man who came up with variety is named Bruce Barrit. You can see him featured in the video below:

Barritt found this particular variety out “of perhaps a hundred trees that he had selected for further study from an annual cohort of some 10,000 crossbreeds, each and every one of them genetically unique.”

It’s not like the right apple just fell and struck him on the head, to offer enlightenment of the kind that was said to reveal the operation of gravity to Issac Newton (fact-check, true, according to the New Scientist).   

“‘There’s no eureka moment.’” Barrit told Jarvis. “‘It’s from all that variability that we look for the needle in the haystack,’” he said.

The Cosmic Crisp is subjected to taste test in the video below:

Assessing the attributes of an apple

What exactly are the qualities that distinguish the needles from stalks of hay with respect to apples? Barritt explained to Jarvis that there are five essential qualities: two relate to its taste and three to its texture. 

The flavor is the product of the apple’s combination of sugar and acidity, and some prefer something sweeter, while others like more tart. But there is a general consensus about texture he said: “‘Everyone likes crisp, everyone likes juicy, and nobody likes soft.’” 

I would beg to differ on the last point, not because I like a soft apple but because I have heard a relative of mine say she preferred the wrinkled apples, which would have already lost their crispness because she thought they were sweeter. However, she is not of the current generation, which this particular variety of apple is meant to appeal to.

Millions of trees 

While money does not grow on trees in general, it may just work out that way for Washington State University with trees that make them millions of dollars. As the apple variety proved to be such a hit, the university partnered with nurseries to turn out as many apple saplings as it could. 

While it had considered starting with a fairly modest albeit respectable 300,000 trees, the grower demand was for over 100 times that. They wanted 4 million, according to the California Sunday Magazine

So they worked out a lottery system to decide how to allocate that number of trees they had available. But within just three years, they arrived at 13 million, and an investment of over 500 million dollars as growers bet heavily on the success of this apple.

In the video below, Washington State University’s Stefano Musacchi shares pruning tips and system ideas at a commercial Cosmic Crisp block. Growers who invest so much into the trees do want to be sure they will reap the fruits of their labors.

 They expect that within five years it will outstrip other popular varieties like Pink Lady and its own ancestor, the Honeycrisp.

Premium apples with distinctive names

The Honeycrisp and Pink Lady themselves are not your standard garden-variety apples but premium brands that have the fancy names to go with their higher prices and more exclusive cachet. California Sunday Magazine runs through a number of these varieties, ranging from the fairly recent addition of the jazz apple to Rave, SnapDragon, Ludacrisp, Frostbite, KIKU, Pazazz, Juici, and Envy.

“They occupy a world of trademarks and proprietary varieties, heavily branded products whose market scarcity and intellectual property are carefully controlled by management companies and growers clubs and international consortiums, and which often have to be licensed at significant costs.”

In this way, apples become something like licensed characters that bring in royalty fees to the copyright owner for each item that uses their likeness.  So the new apple is really a product of its time.

Today the winning apple has to do more than offer a good taste and crunch experience, or even durability to get to market and reach the consumer even out of season. It also has to have the right kind of image associated with it. This is why that which we call just a plain apple may taste as sweet but won’t be able to command the $2.50  plus a pound that growers would like to see.

We are now in the era in which technology as epitomized by popular brands truly are shaping how our expectations and perception of what should fall under the category of natural products, as in literal apples. So we are in the world in which the comparison of tech is not that of apples to oranges but Apple to apples. 

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