Like a Honeycrisp

University scientists have created a new apple that tastes similar to the Honeycrisp but has an earlier growing season.

by Christopher Aadland

Apple lovers usually have to wait until fall to bite into the crispest and juiciest selections of the fruit.

But now, a new apple created by University of Minnesota researchers promises to greet those people with a renowned taste similar to the school’s famous Honeycrisp a month earlier in the season.

The team started working on the apple — temporarily named the MN55 — in the late 1990s, but it’s just now in its beginning stages of being marketed on a larger scale. Researchers and growers say they’re excited to start growing and distributing the apple on a wider scale with hopes it will take over the early-season apple market.

The researchers and growers say the apple possesses qualities similar to the Honeycrisp apple — the University’s flagship apple creation. It’s a cross between the Honeycrisp, for its texture and flavor, and the MonArk, an apple known for its early ripening date, said Jim Luby, apple researcher and director of the University’s fruit crops breeding project.

Luby and University apple breeder David Bedford, along with other researchers, made the cross in 1997 after they saw an opportunity to take advantage of the lack of apples similar to the Honeycrisp, he said, which reached the market in the early 1990s.

“We recognized that [the Honeycrisp] was a really good eating apple,” he said. “Our thought was, ‘Can we get some of those good qualities of Honeycrisp into an apple that ripens even earlier in the season?’”

Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Washington-based Stemilt Growers, which is licensed to market the new apple nationally, said he expects to begin shipping MN55 to grocers across the country in the next few years.

Although Stemilt holds the license to market the apple, Luby said Minnesota growers and orchards are able to grow and sell it now.

Pepperl said the flavor, juiciness and appearance of the high-quality “Honeycrisp-esque” apple will be a more appetizing choice for consumers and suppliers than the ones that hit stores’ produce sections early in the season.

“You’re going to want to eat apples after eating this thing,” he said. “Grocery chains will buy them from us if consumers are going to love it.”

MN55 shouldn’t run into much competition with other early-season apples, Pepperl said, because the ones that are currently offered are typically soft and spoil early.

“[MN55] will store for four months or so pretty easily,” Luby said. “We’ve even kept some for seven months.”

Despite the anticipated popularity, Luby said the apples fall off trees prematurely, among other potential issues.

While MN55 won’t be widely available for a few years, local growers and orchards, like Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, Minn., have worked with the University to test the new tree.

Pine Tree Apple Orchard currently has about 25 trees on its properties, and it has plans to add another 2,000 in the next couple of years, said orchard manager JP Jacobson, who is also the vice president of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association.

He said he doesn’t plan to sell the apples until 2018 to allow the trees to grow until they become profitable.

Jacobson said he believes the University has a “hit a home run” with MN55 by breaking the mold of the late-summer apple, adding that it will be a financial boost for those who sell it.

Jacobson said he expects the new apple to double the number of trips to the orchard by customers who typically come out for Honeycrisp season in late September.

But before the new product takes over the early-season market, the University and Stemilt need to give it a unique name — which may be the hardest part of the process.

“You want to have something emotional that’s easy to spell and has a good ring to it,” Pepperl said. “That’s really the key.”