In a dark concrete storage unit near Wenatchee, an apple sits in a box, among 40 pounds of its brethren, waiting. The air is temperature controlled but, more crucially, has lowered oxygen levels that prevent ripening. This is more than just another piece of fruit; it’s a baseball-size revolutionary creation embargoed until a specific release date, like a Marvel movie or a new iPhone. This is the Cosmic Crisp.
Both quintessentially and legally a Washington product, the Cosmic Crisp has been in the works since horticulturist Bruce Barritt bred two varieties at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center 22 years ago. On December 1 it finally hits supermarkets. How big a deal is a brand-new apple, really? You might be surprised.
During development, it was known as variety WA 38. A cross between the Honeycrisp and Enterprise cultivars, the fruit’s high in both acid and sugar. That means the Cosmic is sweet and tart, good for pies and for munching raw. Satisfying taste buds is just one concern for Washington’s apple industry, which produces more than 5.12 billion pounds of fruit annually. For apples to be available year-round, beyond the fall harvest, they must store well, and the Cosmic Crisp does so like a champ; that high acid staves off browning.
“It’s enormously crunchy, it bakes well, it has a beautiful shape and color,” says Kathryn Grandy. As director of marketing for Proprietary Variety Management, Grandy’s job is to promote the Cosmic Crisp. The apple is what’s known as a managed or proprietary variety—patents control who can grow and sell it (Granny Smith or Red Delicious, for example, are open to anyone). The lenticels, or pores, on WA 38 shimmered like stars in a night sky, which led PVM to name it the Cosmic Crisp.
Professor Kate Evans took over Barritt’s position after he retired in 2008; when WA 38 trees matured enough for her to ID its fruit as a winner, the university decided to make it available to all Washington growers. In 2014, state orchard owners—some massive, some tiny—could enter a drawing for 600,000 available trees. By the next year, there were enough for all takers. When the apple hits the market in December, “we’re going to instant volume,” says Grandy. The 10 million boxes on sale by 2023 will be more than, say, the Pink Lady sells now.
Evans has never heard of a tree fruit getting this kind of blockbuster release and hopes consumers realize that it’s no GMO. “That’s usually the first thing people say with a new apple,” she says. “But it’s from traditional breeding technology that we have been using as humans for several hundred years.”
The way we create these varieties may not have changed much since the days of Johnny Appleseed, but everything else sure has. Washington apples, a signature state crop since the early eighteenth century, account for 95 percent of U.S. apple exports today. White settlers discovered ideal growing conditions—soil enriched by the lava of our volcanic past, persistent sunshine east of the Cascades (but with the winter chill needed for bud formation). Eastern Washington’s low humidity means sidestepping the fungal pathogens that plague East Coast growers.
The Red Delicious dominated the state’s crop in the twentieth century, comprising three quarters of Washington’s output by the 1980s. But customers eventually tired of a fruit that tended to be mushy and bland, and a late ’90s surplus led to a Clinton-era industry bailout.
Americans began to embrace names like Honeycrisp, Fuji, Braeburn. This year Gala is projected to supplant Red Delicious as the top variety produced in Washington. “It is not sustainable anymore to produce the commodity types of apples,” says R. Karina Gallardo, WSU associate professor of agricultural economics. In other words, apples are no longer interchangeable; customers want a brand name with cachet. “That’s the only way the industry can survive,” she says.
But Washington growers also have to deal with the little issue of retaliatory tariffs. A 2018 study shows the trade war with China will cost the state’s industry $40 million dollars per year (cherry growers are taking a $100-million hit). Though Mexico and Canada are the top export destinations, “apples were in the earliest steps to establish themselves in the Chinese market, and it was very promising,” says Gallardo. Plus, stricter border crackdowns could affect the labor force that harvests locally, and the rising costs of H-2A worker visas won’t help.
The Cosmic Crisp comes along at a time when the state’s apple industry could use an injection of good news. Plant patents last 20 years in the U.S., so no one else is likely to touch the variety until close to midcentury. Local fruit stands may hawk a few WA 38 specimens early, but December 1 is shaping up to be the biggest day in Washington apple history. Cosmic Crisp is here to take over planet Earth.