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Washington growers bet on new apple

Consumers are about to get a new choice in the produce section — the Cosmic Crisp apple.

Melissa Hemken

May 3, 2019

4 Min Read
row of Cosmic Crisp apple trees
BURSTING ON THE SCENE: The state of Washington has a new apple coming to market for 2019, the Cosmic Crisp apple. The first cases head to market in December. Courtesy of Washington State University

It took 18 years of research, testing and cultivation to bring the new Cosmic Crisp apple to market.

This year, the Cosmic Crisp will finally reach grocery stores — and in a big way. Since 2017, Washington state growers planted more than 11 million Cosmic Crisp apple trees on nearly 8,000 acres. These numbers blow past previous apple launches.

“The amount of trees is unprecedented,” says Albert Tsui, business development specialist at Washington State University’s College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resources Sciences. “Growers are planting new orchards, ripping out other varietals to plant Cosmic, and top-working [grafting limbs of Cosmic in] old orchards of Red Delicious.”

Developed by Washington State University, the Cosmic Crisp is exclusive to Washington state growers until at least 2027. This will boost the state’s apple industry, as well as control the fruit quality of Cosmic Crisp as it is introduced to consumers.

“Cosmic was tested in various orchards across the state,” Tsui explains. “We know what fruit quality to expect from our growing climate. Other states have different environmental pressures and growing conditions that may impact the Cosmic. For instance, the Honeycrisp grows really well in Minnesota, but is a difficult apple to grow in Washington state. The Cosmic was grown, researched and tested here. It is more easily produced here than the Honeycrisp.”

Cosmic launch

In January 2019, WSU regents approved a percentage of Cosmic Crisp tree and fruit sale royalties for investment in a marketing and consumer campaign for the apple. At a dollar for each tree sold, Cosmic Crisp now has a $10 million launch budget. This funded Proprietary Variety Management, a market of new fruit, to lead the launch.

The commercialization company established statewide quality standards. PVM also developed an app to guide warehouse quality controllers to select Cosmic Crisp apples uniform in shape, size and color. It now trains growers, packers and shippers on the best practices to handle, store and ship the new apple.

The Cosmic Crisp apples set for harvest this fall are from apple trees planted in 2017. An estimated 186,000 40-pound boxes will hit the market in December, with another 200,000 in January 2020.

“The Cosmic is a fruit that needs to rest after harvest for the best flavor and starch level,” explains Kathryn Grandy, PVM director of marketing and operations. “Packers and marketers are extremely cautious, because they want top-quality Cosmic. The apple will be harvested at two and a half on the starch scale — and then not ship until it’s at five.”

The apple market

The Cosmic Crisp apple is the third official, and second commercial, release of a new apple varietal by WSU. The first commercial release was for the WA 2 apple, under the market name of Sunrise Magic. “We took our lumps from that release,” Tsui recalls. “We didn’t assign a trademark to the variety, beyond its designation of WA 2, before we released it. A laissez-faire approach to a brand name raised eyebrows within the apple industry and caused confusion. Because of this, we carefully selected the Cosmic Crisp name while the apple was tested.”

WSU is now attempting to relaunch Sunrise Magic, because researchers believe it has a niche. The Sunrise Magic apple is similar to Cosmic Crisp: It’s dense, juicy, compact and anti-browning. Tsui admits, however, that it won’t reach the production numbers of Cosmic Crisp.

There are almost 40 varietals of apples currently on the commercial market. Only a certain number of apple brands can exist on retail shelves because of space constraints. “It’s highly competitive,” says Grandy. “There is great anticipation for Cosmic Crisp by growers, retail and consumers. I think Cosmic will do very well.”

Apple for growers, packers and consumers

Tests show that consumers like the Cosmic Crisp apple’s sweetness, juicy tang and the crunch you expect when eating an apple. Growers are excited by its 12-month storage capability, as well as the fruit and trees’ resistance to disease and pests. The Cosmic Crisp is a cross between the Honeycrisp, from the University of Minnesota; and the Enterprise, developed by PRI, the disease-resistant apple breeding program of Purdue University, Rutgers University and the University of Illinois.

The Honeycrisp is a consumer favorite but is difficult to grow in Washington, and loses its sugar and starch content in storage quickly. “We wanted to create a better apple for our growers,” says Tsui. “The Enterprise’s good storage quality combined with Honeycrisp flavor brings the best qualities of both to the Cosmic Crisp.”

A look at top apple varieties

There are 2,500 known apple varieties grown in the United States. The top 10 apple varieties sold are Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Cripps Pink, Braeburn and Jazz. Washington state grows 58% of apples in the U.S., producing 125 million 40-pound boxes of apples annually. Most of these are Red Delicious (34% of the crop). The second-highest produced variety is Gala, at 19%; and Honeycrisp is in a 3%, three-way tie with Cripps Pink and Braeburn. WSU's research and testing, and growers’ enthusiasm for the Cosmic Crisp, will likely raise it to the state of Washington’s No. 1 apple.

Hemken writes from Lander, Wyo.


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