Taste-testing the Cosmic Crisp, Washington state’s star-studded ‘apple of the future’

GeekWire’s James Thorne chomps on a Cosmic Crisp apple. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The most hotly anticipated apple of the year has arrived. It’s not a iPhone, iWatch, iMac or iAnything. It is an actual fruit.

Say hello to the Cosmic Crisp, a splashy new entrant into the world of tree fruits. The apple has already won over growers across Washington State, who have planted nearly 12 million trees in a bold bet that consumers will like it as much as they do.

“It’s unprecedented. There’s never been an apple that’s been planted at scale so quickly,” said Kate Evans, a professor of horticulture at Washington State University and head of the breeding program that birthed the Cosmic Crisp.

Next month, 18 million pounds of Cosmic Crisp apples are slated to tumble into grocery store bins across the U.S. But at a farmer’s market in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, your intrepid reporter spotted the star-studded apples fresh from the orchard.

My editor thought it was a scam. These so-called Cosmic Crisps could be a ruse by inscrutable farmers to take advantage of gullible shoppers like me. But after fact-checking the apples with Proprietary Variety Management (PVM) — the agency responsible for marketing the new varietal — we were able to confirm that these were the real deal.

So is the Cosmic Crisp, as the name implies, out-of-this-world? Is it stellar?

Apple of my eye

Before biting into a Cosmic Crisp, the first thing you notice is the deep ruby skin that’s dotted with light specks. The star-like spots are called lenticels, small pores that allow gas to travel through the skin. That galactic effect helped the apple, officially known as WA 38, pass the first of many tests on the road to commercialization.

“Fundamentally, we all kind of buy with our eyes,” said Evans.

The deep red color is also symbolic. Cosmic Crisp could deal the final death blow to the Red Delicious, the apple that everyone loves to hate. Red Delicious made up more than two-thirds of Washington State’s apple production in the late ’80s, but its popularity has since cratered. One reason farmers like the Cosmic Crisp is that it harvests at the same time as Red Delicious, which makes it an easy substitute.

Cosmic Crisp apple in November. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

There are other attributes that matter just as much as taste. WA 38 can stay fresh in storage for a year and is slow to brown. The apple is meant to capture the best of its parents: the flavor of a Honeycrisp and the durability and disease resistance of an Enterprise.

Apples are sexual beings, literally, which means that any two apple varietals can give rise to an endless array of potential offspring. So when a winning combination like Cosmic Crisp is discovered, it is cloned endlessly through a process called grafting, in which branches of the desired tree are Frankenstein-ed onto the stumps of healthy rootstocks.

Biting in

Before my brain registered the taste of a Cosmic Crisp, I heard it. The apple makes a cartoonish snap crunch when you take a bite. The high crunch and firmness of the flesh are deceptive since the overall impression is light rather than dense, and there is very little softness or grittiness.

There was a bit of taste variation between apples — some were tart, while others balanced that sourness with high levels of sweetness. One of my GeekWire colleagues who served as a taste-tester said it tasted like a plum. Growers are hoping the taste will remind consumers of a Honeycrisp, a varietal that commands a high price but is finicky to grow and store.

When we tested the new Cosmic Crisp against a few other varieties — Honeycrisp, Fuji and Sugarbee — the Cosmic Crisp failed to deliver a wow factor. Another of my colleagues, who is admittedly not an apple fan, offered a damning assessment, saying, “It tastes like a Red Delicious.”

But there’s a major caveat: For some of our taste tests, the Cosmic Crisp samples had been sitting on my desk for several days before we did the comparison, and the other apples came straight from the store. The Cosmic Crisp had lost much of its signature texture from earlier in the week.

Cosmic Crisp has a $10 million marketing budget, and although that may seem modest by advertising standards, it’s huge by apple standards. Modern apple marketing has taken a decidedly bombastic turn in recent years with names like Ludacrisp, SnapDragon, Envy and Pazazz. The Cosmic Crisp is being sold under the taglines “imagine the possibilities” and “the apple of big dreams.”

But I couldn’t help but think that the space-age branding missed the point of WA 38. This is not an alien fruit that has come to astonish our senses and opens our minds. It is down to earth, like an apple from a childhood memory that you had somehow forgotten until now.

Cosmic Crisp is a crowd-pleaser that has all the qualities that people say they want in an apple — sweet, tart, refreshing. I couldn’t help but think that I had eaten this apple before, even though I knew that was impossible. It’s a kind of proto-apple that is familiar at first sight.

For me, the apple passed the only test that matters. When I looked at the ruby-red fruit sitting on my desk, I wanted to eat it. And after I took a bite, I wanted more.

The road ahead

WA 38 was first created in 1997 under the guidance of Bruce Barritt, who ran WSU’s program before Evans took over in 2008. Traditional cross-breeding is a game of both numbers and luck since trees can take five years to bear fruit.

Increasingly, technology is accelerating that process.

“Now we’re more routinely able to use some DNA-informed breeding techniques,” Evans said. DNA helps breeders pick the most promising combinations of parents and to screen out seedlings that are least likely to be successful. Researchers have also identified genetic markers that are tied to traits like texture and acidity.

Technology is also helping on the opposite end of the apple production pipeline. The first commercial robotic apple pickers are debuting in Washington State this fall. Farmers hope the new pickers can supplement the ever-shrinking agricultural labor market.

If successful, Cosmic Crisp could be a cash windfall for WSU. The university earns $0.65 on every tree sold as well as royalties on fruit that sells for more than $20 per box. So far, WSU has taken in around $7 million and re-invested $1.5 million into the breeding program, which gets half of the royalties after expenses.

“It is one of the bigger moneymakers” in terms of earnings from intellectual property, said Albert Tsui, a business development specialist at WSU. “We are very excited about that.”

In addition to the marketing budget, WSU has already spent $1 million in legal fees defending that intellectual property. The university was engaged in a legal conflict with Phytelligence, an agriculture technology startup that shut down in September after losing the dispute.

Usually, the production of new varietals will start out small and gradually build. That’s not the case with Cosmic Crisp, which starting in 2017 was available to all Washington State growers, who collectively produce about 60 percent of the U.S. crop.

The worst-case scenario is that Cosmic Crisp fails to strike a chord with consumers. That’s what happened to WSU’s only other commercial creation, the WA 2, which was originally launched without a name and later rebranded to Sunrise Magic.

“We’re a little anxious just to make sure that [Cosmic Crisp] does what we think it will do,” said Evans.