One thing I’ve learned about the business of produce is that every season is different — success is often a byproduct of learning from the past but remaining nimble about the future. Nowhere is this truer than with apples. Over the last twenty years the apple industry has undergone a huge transformation — the flavor, the look of the apple (and orchard), variety, and growing method have all changed significantly. This change has not come easy. Unlike row crop growers, apple producers have to take a much broader outlook as changes in variety and growing method often take many years to bear fruit. For example, if a lettuce variety does not produce a desired result a grower can change the seed 90 days later. For an apple producer the decision is multi-generational and the productive life of an orchard is measured in decades — the growers children will literally live with the decisions the parents make.
Growing up in Texas, my apple variety choices were limited, organically grown choices almost non-existent. I remember only organically grown Red Delicious with any consistency and only for a few months out of the year. I also remember fruit that was cosmetically attractive but starchy and essentially flavorless. These days we see a dizzying array of varieties grown all over the world, and here in the U.S .we are seeing an explosion of available product from the Pacific Northwest (by far the largest source of domestic production) as well as seasonally in virtually all parts of the country.
Short trees, long year
These days most apple trees are grown on dwarf rootstock — this limits the height of the tree (for easier harvesting) and also permits more trees to be planted on a smaller land area. Depending on the area, the domestic harvest season can start as early as August and finishes (depending on weather) in early November. Depending on variety, a large amount of the harvested fruit is placed in either regular cold (short term) or controlled atmosphere (longer term) storage so it can be sold later in the year. Controlled Atmosphere (or CA) storage involves placing the fruit in an airtight room where most of the oxygen is removed and replaced with Co2 in order to slow the ripening process. Most varieties can be kept in this way well into the new year where most will be sold before the start of summer (and the Southern hemisphere apple harvest season). From there New Zealand and South America take over, supplying the U.S. with new crop apples throughout the summer.
Like most tree fruits, there are early and late varieties of apples that are better at different times of the season. There are also varieties that need some time in storage for their flavor to improve. Here is a guide of the more common varieties:
Early varieties: Gala, Macintosh types, Golden varieties, Honeycrisp
The most successful early apple variety is the Gala – it is a great flavored versatile apple. If you buy precut apples, chances are it’s a Gala. The Gala also stores very well and has been successfully grown all over the world so it is a variety you now see almost year round.
Following Galas on the harvest timetable are a steady stream of golden varieties — starting with the early ginger gold and continuing with the golden supreme and eventually followed by the more commonly recognized golden delicious. The Jonagold (a cross between an antique variety Jonathan and golden delicious apple) is one of the prized early apples of the season.
Another early class of apple best eaten close to harvest time is the Macintosh. This white fleshed, uniquely flavored, highly aromatic apple has variations depending on where you are in the U.S. Among these are the Macoun, Empire, Fortune, and Cortland.
The latest star of the early apple varieties is the Honeycrisp — a cross between the Macoun and Honeygold varieties. This apple has exploded in popularity and is widely regarded as the best early eating variety.
Mid-season varieties: Fuji and Braeburn
As we move further into the fall later varieties start to come off the trees – among these are the Braeburn and what is widely viewed as the best commercial variety, the Fuji. Like many late harvest varieties, the Fuji has a dense, yellow flesh and is intensely sweet and flavorful. The Fuji apple tree is a prolific producer and the apple holds its culinary quality well in storage.
Golden Harbor Orchards
Gordon and Leigh Pobst are Fuji apple producers and offer a special, organic apple from their orchards, a unique variety of Fuji found nowhere else in the United State. The Pobsts grow and pack their fruit with the care and attention to detail only found on small-scale farms. The flavor is superb.
One of the last apple varieties to come off the tree is the Pink Lady (or Cripps Pink). This variety is unusual because it is one of a few varieties that have better eating quality after several weeks in storage rather than right off of the tree. While it is available as early as October, it is really a better apple in January.
These are but a few of the hundreds of varieties produced all over the United States. The flavor and diversity of any given region is well represented in this simple fruit. Take a chance on a new variety over the next few weeks — now is the time to enjoy the new crop season.