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.
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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.
Bedford said he expects the university to earn as much on the deal as it did from Honeycrisp, with the money supporting more research. But Byrne said he expects the school to do even better.
The arrangement creates a "managed variety," a relatively new concept for U.S. growers but more common abroad. The Jazz apple from New Zealand and Pink Lady from Australia are managed varieties sold in the U.S. Honeycrisp is a managed variety in Europe.
The deal gives Next Big Thing control over who can grow SweeTango and where, and how the apple is marketed and shipped. The co-op has about 72 growers in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Washington, Wisconsin, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
Any Minnesota grower can get licensed through Pepin Heights to grow and sell SweeTango at their farms, farmers markets or to local grocers. Byrne said 87 have signed up. They pay the $1 per tree royalty, but not the 4.5 percent of sales.
Growers outside Minnesota must join the co-op to get SweeTango. The trees likely won't be available to the general public until the patent expires in 2028, Byrne said.
Other major horticultural schools are developing managed varieties, too, including the apple programs at Cornell University and Washington State University. But only the top new varieties are likely to attract enough interest to merit becoming managed, said Bedford, who expects most to be released to everyone as before.
An important advantage of managed varieties is they allow growers to enforce high quality standards, Byrne said. An emerging problem with Honeycrisp, which debuted in 1991, is that anyone can grow it, so it's now planted at some sites that are too warm and the quality can suffer, he said.
And Byrne said quality is the key to getting Americans, particularly children, to eat more apples. Many kids have been turned off by the low-quality apples they often get at school, he said.
"We're fighting for that share of stomach," Byrne said, "and we firmly believe that we have to be able to provide a great eating experience so that when a kid is given a choice between a really good apple and something else snacky, that the apple will be the one they choose."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)