Industry Chronicles

The Honeycrisp Apple Phenomenon

Few fruit varieties have seen such phenomenal success as this Minnesota-bred apple category star, which has redefined crisp. Tracing its origins, development, and eventual ascent to fame — this is the story of the history and meticulous cultivation behind its creation.

by Steve Maxwell | Illustration by Italo Ahumada Morasky

Enter a supermarket today and a consumer can expect to see shelves of glossy, bagged apples promising premium eating experiences that rarely disappoint. But it’s sometimes difficult to remember that such an offering is still a relatively recent development. Just a few short decades ago, hard, bland apples were the norm, but that all changed with the appearance of a new variety called Honeycrisp from an unlikely location.

Described by the New York Apple Association as “honey sweet — with a touch of tart — and amazingly crisp,” the apple that arguably revolutionized the industry began life not in Washington State, or even Michigan, but in the trial orchards of the University of Minnesota — a state infamous for its tough, cold winters.

For an apple that has quickly become an indisputable consumer favorite and inspired a host of other crisp, juicy varieties, the beginnings of Honeycrisp were inauspicious. First developed in the 1960s among a host of other apples as part of the University’s breeding program, Honeycrisp passed unnoticed for the best part of a decade until it was chanced upon in 1982 by a recently recruited young apple breeder called David Bedford.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, Bedford would go on to become a central figure — alongside colleague Jim Luby — in the development of the variety and its eventual release and success.

The Minnesota Challenge

With a degree in horticulture, joining the University of Minnesota was Bedford’s first job after graduate school and fitted well with a lifelong fascination with fruit. “I had a long interest in horticulture, but fruit breeding was an especially intriguing area — you’re almost playing God when you have a chance to make new creations from scratch, so I was always fascinated,” he recalls.

The Minnesota program had been running since 1907 and focused on a means of getting around the state’s extremely cold climate in winter. “Apples have been growing around the world for thousands of years, but when you try to grow them in Minnesota, the winters really weed them out in a hurry,” explains Bedford.

Jim Luby (L) and David Bedford from the University of Minnesota

Even today, common varieties such as Fuji, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala or Braeburn would not survive Minnesota’s winters, he says. “They’re fine in the summer, but you can’t grow apple trees as annual plants, so our program was begun originally to solve that problem. Could we grow good apples in Minnesota or would we be destined to only grow crab apples?”

By 1982, Bedford says a lot of work had already been done by previous University of Minnesota breeders to develop germplasm that would grow at -30°F to -40°F (-34°C to -40°C). However, the goal had become to develop an apple that would not only survive but would have noticeably better eating qualities than those that had come before.

“In apple breeding, it’s often a 30-year cycle between the time a hybridization is made and a new variety is released — we’ve been able to reduce that time to approximately 20 years now, but it’s still a career-long commitment for most breeders,” he explains. “When we’re making breeding decisions, there are approximately 20 different characteristics that we are considering, but at some point, we have to decide which ones are the most important.” Around the time Bedford became involved in the program, he recalls that they began to place more emphasis on texture and flavor characteristics. 

The Perfect Cross

Bedford’s eureka moment happened during his undergraduate years when a fellow student brought in a bushel of fresh apples from Michigan. “That changed my horticultural life,” he recalls. “As a young man who grew up eating Red Delicious apples, I was thrilled to realize that apples could be more than a tough skin and mealy texture. I used to think that apples were good for you, like kale and broccoli, but they weren’t very exciting to eat.”

It was this moment that would lead, years later, to a second eureka moment following the University of Minnesota team’s decision to focus on texture and flavor. “As apple breeders, we don’t have absolute genetic control. It’s a bit like being a human parent. In our hybridizations, we combine the genetics of two apple varieties with the intention that the offspring will inherit some of the best characteristics of both parents. We mix the genes with the hope that we will produce the right combination, and fortunately, we did get the right combination with Honeycrisp.”

However, all of this is not to understate the challenge breeders face. Even with today’s technological advances, including the use of DNA markers, Bedford emphasizes that the success rate is low. “Only about one of every 10,000 new trees that are developed through our hybridizations is good enough to be released as a new variety, so even with all of our knowledge, commercial success is still a bit of a longshot,” he admits.

The process, Bedford continues, is about “finding those diamonds in the rough” among the thousands of trees in their research orchards. “We have goals for each cross that we make which we may or may not achieve, but sometimes we find an even better combination of characteristics than we expected, and that’s what Honeycrisp was. It exceeded its parents and our expectations.” 

Slow Momentum

The original cross that resulted in Honeycrisp was made in 1960 and was just one of many crosses that Bedford’s predecessors made every year — a practice that has continued to the present day. “We often make 50-100 crosses each year by choosing parents with good characteristics and hybridizing them with each other,” he says.

Honeycrisp was one of 30 or so crosses that were made in 1960, and first impressions were far from overwhelming. “The parental combination didn’t look particularly exciting on paper,” says Bedford. “It was just an average cross and it produced one of several thousand trees that were generated that year.”

When Bedford himself, fresh out of grad school, first tried Honeycrisp, he admits his first reaction was bemusement. “I remember the first day I bit into it, and I was taken aback because it was so different,” he recalls. “When you come across something that’s outside your frame of reference, for a minute you are not sure if it’s good or bad. I’d like to think it didn’t take me too long to figure out it was good, but my first response was, ‘What is this?’”

In fact, Bedford admits the only similar fruit texture he had previously tried was in Asian Pears. “That was the closest thing in my mind – I loved the crisp juiciness of Asian Pears, so I had an inkling that this was good,” he continues.

Some 9 years later in 1991, Honeycrisp was finally released and patented by the University of Minnesota, before being licensed to nurseries who in turn offered the trees to growers. “We were pretty convinced this was a good apple, but we had no idea if the rest of the world would agree,” recalls Bedford.

Fast-forward close to a decade later and Honeycrisp started being planted by growers in the Midwest. Initially, a handful of producers in Minnesota planted it, but more significant was Michigan — the second-largest apple-producing state in the United States behind Washington. “Some Michigan growers began to plant it, but the process works very slowly,” says Bedford. “A grower might plant 100 trees or so in the beginning, but it takes two to four years before those trees begin to bear enough fruit so that the grower can decide if they like the variety well enough to plant more trees, so the process moves slowly .”

Over the years, as Honeycrisp’s unique qualities became apparent, 100 tree plantings became 1,000 and then 10,000 tree plantings, but by that time more than 10 years had passed since the variety was commercially released. “It often takes at least 10-15 years for a new variety to become commercially successful, and that was the case for Honeycrisp,” says Bedford. 

New York followed Michigan in planting the variety, but the last region to begin planting was, curiously, Washington State, which is responsible for approximately 60% of U.S. apple production each year. “It’s important to have Washington on board if a variety is going to be a commercial success. Eventually, enough fruit made it into the marketplace from those early plantings that consumers became aware of it and asked for more. At that point, Washington growers began to plant it in larger quantities and Honeycrisp became a well-recognized variety in the market” says Bedford. 

Whereas nowadays, new varieties entering the market can expect to have a considerable amount of marketing muscle behind them, this was very much not the case for Honeycrisp. Instead, it was a grassroots effort, which took the variety from the University of Minnesota’s trial orchards to global success. “Because Honeycrisp’s introduction was a grassroots effort, it took much longer for it to become a commercial success,” says Bedford. 

Taking a Chance

Another key figure in the early history of Honeycrisp was Dennis Courtier, the then-owner of Minnesota-based Pepin Heights Orchards. “We were commercial growers, packers and shippers, and we always were looking for great new varieties,” he says. “We tested varieties from all over the world, but the most successful ones we found in our own backyard, which is more than a lovely coincidence.”

Being based far from the apple production centers of Washington State and Michigan, Courtier says he was also acutely aware that his company wouldn’t survive if it concentrated on being a low-cost producer. 

“We were in the middle of the country, we certainly weren’t one of the major apple-producing states, so we knew the economies of scale weren’t there for us to be low-cost,” admits Courtier. “We saw ourselves more as snack food producers rather than just apple growers, so it was a matter of finding varieties that a 10-year-old kid would choose to eat over a candy bar.”

Courtier first heard about Honeycrisp before it was even given a name on a visit to the research orchard at the University of Minnesota. “The first one I ate did not impress me as much on that initial encounter as it did later,” he notes. 

However, after further testing, it became clear to Courtier that Honeycrisp was a truly differentiated apple. “There’s something about it — the cell structure, the juiciness – that was unlike any other apple varieties, even other very good varieties,” he recalls.

Pepin Heights reached what Courtier describes as a “bet the farm” moment with Honeycrisp. “We did that before understanding all the complexities and difficulties of introducing a new variety, but ultimately it worked out,” he says.

Growing Gains

One of the challenges with Honeycrisp is it is not the easiest variety to grow. “We have approximately 20 different traits that we’re trying to improve in apple breeding, and we can’t improve all of them equally well,” admits Bedford. “I’ve been in this job for 45 years, and I’ve never seen an apple that was perfect in all of those characteristics. Although Honeycrisp was proving more difficult to produce, the consumer demand was strong enough that growers continued to plant it.

In fact, he reveals that many growers weren’t interested in producing Honeycrisp initially because of the difficulties the variety posed. However the trend changed when it became evident consumers were willing to pay a premium for the apple and growers realized that they would be compensated for their extra efforts.,” says Bedford

One such challenge is Honeycrisp’s stem, which often forms a sharp point after picking. The problem comes when multiple apples piled on top of each other end up with puncture holes from the neighboring stems. “It’s almost like a small spike at the top of each apple and with other apples that have thick skins it wouldn’t matter as much, but part of Honeycrisp’s appeal, in addition to its crisp texture, is its thin skin.”

The solution growers adopted was using a pair of clippers during harvesting to trim the top of each stem, which — although effective — adds additional labor costs, according to Bedford. “When they realized the solution, growers were willing to use it but were worried about the cost — fortunately, the public said, ‘We’ll pay for it, keep those Honeycrisp coming,’” he adds.

While Honeycrisp broke new ground in terms of taste, Bedford says it also established a new norm in pricing and the justification for higher pricing in apples. “Honeycrisp has been an interesting economic case study because it requires more effort. The grower has to be paid more and, in this case, the consumer was willing to pay it,” he says.

Bedford’s experiences with Honeycrisp in many ways echo those of Courtier, who himself was much closer to the commercial effort to promote the apple.

“We had real confidence that the variety, when done to its best, really delivers an eating experience unlike anything else commercially available,” he says. “But there were two sets of problems: Honeycrisp is a very fussy and particular variety to grow, and then there were the post-harvest problems of handling the variety. This was not an overnight success with retailers at all.”

Courtier says given the problems of producing Honeycrisp, his company simply needed to get more money for it but was faced with having to prove to retailers what they already sensed deep down — that shoppers would be willing to pay for a fantastic eating experience. “What we had to do was show retailers that while the gross margin wasn’t as high, the inventory turns were three or four times as high,” he recalls.

“The fact is that a lot of the Red Delicious sold at the time were never actually eaten. They were put in a fruit bowl on the table and sat there until they rotted because they tasted like nothing. Why would anybody eat such a thing? But when consumers were presented with something they really wanted, they couldn’t get enough.”

After receiving early support from a St. Louis retailer called Dierbergs and another in Texas called Central Markets  — in addition to “wonderful” local retailers like Lunds & Byerlys and Kowalski’s Markets — Honeycrisp finally began to reach consumers, although Pepin Heights still spent a lot of time and money on product demos. “It’s really very simple — if you have a superior product, get it in people’s mouths, and then you have a footing from which to build,” says Courtier. “I would say from roll-out to the point where we had the demand and we didn’t have to explain it anymore, was probably three years.” 

Redefining Crisp

At the beginning of Bedford’s apple breeding career, he recalls that the words “firm, crisp, hard” were used interchangeably to denote a good piece of fruit as compared to a soft, mealy apple. “When we discovered Honeycrisp, we realized that we had to redefine the term, ‘crisp,’” he says. “It really was no longer the same as firm, hard and dense.”

Although Bedford acknowledges there are still good quality, firm apples available, they cannot be compared with what he describes as “the new crisp.” “Honeycrisp became our definition of crisp and that included its juicy characteristic too,” he says. “When you bite into a Honeycrisp there’s a series of small explosions in your mouth as the cells are ruptured and the juice gushes out. For me, once I had a Honeycrisp there was no going back.”

Today, using Honeycrisp as a parent, Bedford says the University of Minnesota’s program has developed to the point that if test selections don’t produce apples with that Honeycrisp texture, they are immediately discarded. “The Honeycrisp texture has reset the bar for us, and for consumers too. If new varieties don’t have that Honeycrisp texture, they would have to bring something special to the game — because it’s hard to go back once you’ve experienced that difference”

Production of Honeycrisp in the U.S. over the last couple of decades has skyrocketed. By 2008, the U.S. Apple Association (USApple) was tracking it as the No. 12 variety. Today, it is No. 1 in terms of total U.S. holdings. Honeycrisp’s volume by this metric during the 2023-24 season, according to the USAppleTracker report published in November 2023, was 30.2 million bushels, edging out Gala on 29.2 million. Honeycrisp’s holdings this past season were also significantly up on both the 2022-23 season and the five-year average — 18.6 million and 20 million bushels, respectively. And while production of the variety continues on a clear upward trajectory, Gala and Red Delicious have been on the decline.

With Honeycrisp as the baseline, the program is now focusing on varieties that will provide different flavors or color differences, and ripen earlier or later. In fact, Bedford notes that many of the new apple varieties coming onto the market now in the United States are Honeycrisp progeny. 

The U.S. patent for Honeycrisp expired in 2008, although patent protection in some countries continues until as late as 2031. “Now that Honeycrisp is off-patent, it’s being used by many other breeders,” he says. The world has discovered that texture, and breeders are not going to be left behind.” Some of the most popular varieties that Honeycrisp can count as its offspring are Cosmic Crisp, Snap Dragon and SweeTango.

For Bedford, Honeycrisp brought a new definition of what crisp means. “Even now, Honeycrisp is the measure that new varieties have to compare themselves against,” he notes. “The rising tide means consumers are getting better apples than ever.”

Indeed, the unprecedented success of the Honeycrisp apple not only redefined industry standards but also proved skeptics wrong. Reflecting on this remarkable journey, Jim Bair, the president of USApple, captures the essence of its impact with a personal anecdote: “Literally the first thing I learned in the apple industry was from an old-timer who told me, ‘We old guys said Honeycrisp would never be successful because we thought nobody would pay more than 99 cents for a pound of apples. But we were wrong — for a great eating experience people will pay three times that. It changed everything.”