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Published September 03, 2009, 08:45 AM

Apple growers to release successor to Honeycrisp

LAKE CITY, Minn. (AP) — Tim Byrne picked an apple from the spindly tree, sliced it and popped a chunk into his mouth. He couldn't have been more pleased as he chomped and got a juicy blast of sweet-tart flavor.

LAKE CITY, Minn. (AP) — Tim Byrne picked an apple from the spindly tree, sliced it and popped a chunk into his mouth. He couldn't have been more pleased as he chomped and got a juicy blast of sweet-tart flavor.

"This is what's got us excited," Byrne said as he shared samples from a perfectly ripe SweeTango apple, which he and other growers are about to introduce as the successor to the incredibly successful Honeycrisp.

Honeycrisp was a phenomenon in the apple industry because its taste and texture were so good it sold for about $1 more per pound than other varieties. Those investing in SweeTango are banking on it commanding the same premium price, and they've formed a cooperative to grow and sell it nationwide.

SweeTango will start showing up in some Minnesota farmers markets Labor Day weekend and arrive in selected grocery stores around the Twin Cities, Seattle and Rochester, N.Y., a few days later. If all goes according to plan, the apple should be available nationwide in 2011 or 2012, said Byrne, who's president of the cooperative and vice president of sales and marketing for Pepin Heights Orchards in southeastern Minnesota.

SweeTango and Honeycrisp were developed at the University of Minnesota. The new apple has Honeycrisp's crispness and juice but kicks up the flavor and adds an intriguing note of fall spice. It was made by crossing Honeycrisp with Zestar!, another University of Minnesota variety.

"It inherited Honeycrisp's texture, and that's a rare commodity, and it actually has more flavor than Honeycrisp," said David Bedford, the university apple breeder who helped develop Honeycrisp and SweeTango.

Another asset is SweeTango is ready in early September. "Woefully few" premium apples come out then, when produce managers are eager for something new to start the fall season, Byrne said.

The university earned more than $8 million from Honeycrisp, mostly from a $1 per tree royalty paid by licensed nurseries before the patent expired in November.

The school will earn a similar royalty on the SweeTango patent. But it also licensed the SweeTango trademark to Byrne and a group of growers who audaciously named their cooperative the Next Big Thing, in the hope that SweeTango will prove as lucrative as Honeycrisp. The co-op will pay the school 4.5 percent of the apple's net wholesale sales in perpetuity.

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