By Cindy Hollenbeck

This is a story about how one amazing apple sweetened the bunch, and how a bunch of individuals created one amazing apple. Researchers, tree fruit growers, and industry partners from Washington state collaborated to develop and promote the Cosmic Crisp® WA 38 cv.—an apple that will have a “cosmic” effect on the world. The Cosmic Crisp® demonstrates how the science of breeding and the art of imagination can come together to make a new star apple.

bowl of cosmic crisp apples
Meet the Cosmic Crisp, the apple that’s changing Washington’s apple industry.

Twenty-plus years after horticulturist Bruce Barritt took pollen from the Honeycrisp and placed it on the stigma of the Enterprise to produce seed, boxes of the WA 38 hybrid apple will arrive in grocery stores nationwide this December. Notably, waiting for test trees to mature and produce fruit takes such a long time that the 22 years that passed while the Cosmic Crisp® WA 38 moved from cross to launch was considered quick.

It all started in 1981, the year Lady Diana married Prince Charles, Raiders of the Lost Ark played in theatres, and John DeLorean released his DMC-12, the iconic Back to the Future car. Barritt was studying Washington orchards at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. “There were huge trees planted far apart that almost exclusively grew Red and Golden Delicious,” he said. “Apples that came to represent what an apple was supposed to be.”

The Red Delicious, however, seemed to have exhausted its day in the sun. Barritt warned industry partners about depending too much on a single star apple and recommended developing new varieties. He also proposed starting an apple-breeding program at WSU. Initially, growers and industry partners resisted. Undeterred, Barritt continued to lobby for funding from WSU and the Washington state apple industry. He also sought the backing of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC), which had funded many other research projects.

Barritt drafted his proposal, and finally, industry funding came in to help lay the foundation for the WSU apple-breeding program. Next, Barritt had to convince WSU to change his position so he could begin the apple-breeding program.

In 1997, he made the Enterprise-Honeycrisp cross that resulted in the WA 38. A year later, seeds were germinated and raised in a greenhouse. In spring, the seedling was transferred to the nursery where it grew until September 1999. The tree, with its siblings, was planted at WSU’s Columbia View Orchard where it produced its first fruit for evaluation. Voilà – the rest is history!

By 2017, nurseries started with 300,000 WA 38 trees. Growers requested 4 million, which led to a drawing system for allocating the first available. Within three years, the industry had planted over 11.5 million trees and invested over half a billion dollars in the effort.

Today, the WSU apple-breeding program is still the youngest one at a U.S. public university, and one of only three in existence. Moreover, the WA 38 variety, sold under the Cosmic Crisp® trademark, is one of the first apples bred in Washington state. As a bonus, it is not genetically modified. Cosmic Crisp® apples are grown in central Washington where the climate offers the best apple-growing region in the world.

“This apple,” Barritt said, “was developed to make consumers happy.” According to Barritt, picking a winning apple involves the slow accumulation of data. “The experience of an apple is five things,” he said. “Two are about flavor, including sugar and acid content, and the different preferences people have—such as those who like sweet and those who like tangy. However, everyone likes crisp and juicy, and nobody likes soft.”

So what makes the Cosmic Crisp® so special? The apple has a high-sugar content and even higher acidity, which means it should taste as good when picked as it does after traveling a thousand miles to a retailer. In controlled-atmosphere storage, its crunch lasts into the next harvest. Storing the fruit is integral to the process, and allied industry partners have helped support this.

When it’s on the tree, the WA 38 ripens more uniformly than many other apple varieties. The WA 38 browns slowly. And because it can stay fresh for a year in storage, there is less food waste—another bonus. Cosmic Crisp® may be sold year-round rather than in one burst at the beginning of the season. Stores expect to have apples all year long, which keeps the labor force employed—still another bonus. Cosmic Crisp® is the Beyoncé of apples.

In 2008, When Barritt retired, breeder Kate Evans took over. (Currently, she’s the interim director of the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center.) She recognizes how the collaborative effort brought the WA 38 to, ahem, fruition. “Most pieces of fruit,” Evans said, “don’t have a story like this.”

Grower partners let the researchers use their orchards rent-free. “Without the help of the growers,” Evans said, “we would be unable to conduct this research.” Growers helped researchers with the land, provided necessary infrastructure, even irrigated and sprayed for them. The apple-breeding program used packing houses to perform a test run to see how the Cosmic Crisp® held up on a packing line. “When we receive a donation of any type that involves grower cooperation,” Evans said. “We need to recognize that.”

The WA 38 tree is exclusively available for Washington growers in the US for the next 10 years. WSU owns the patent for the WA 38. And, while only 450,000 40-pound boxes of Cosmic Crisp® apples will be available for sale this year, by 2020, that number will increase to over 2 million. To put that into context, Washington state produces 140–160 million boxes of all types of apples per year. Washington grows 60% of the apples sold nationwide, and every year, the Washington tree fruit industry makes more than $6 billion in economic impact on the state. How do you like them apples?

WSU and Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), the company managing the commercialization of the Cosmic Crisp® WA 38, are funding the promotion of this star apple. The WSU Board of Regents approved $10.1 million over four years to support the consumer marketing campaign. Additionally, royalty revenue received from licensing WSU’s intellectual property rights will be used to cover expenses.

Kathryn Grandy, marketing director for PVM, said that the Cosmic Crisp® is the first apple named by consumers, a process that involved meetings with focus groups from Pullman, Yakima, and Seattle. The WA 38 earned its space-influenced name from the white pinpricks dotting its skin, which creates the image of stars against red sky. The apple’s taglines, Imagine the Possibilities and The Apple of Big Dreams, play well with the celestial imagery. Further solidifying the collaboration among WSU, growers, and industry, packers have agreed to omit their logos from boxes to emphasize the preeminence of the Cosmic Crisp® brand.

Keep in mind, this is just the beginning. Every fall, Evans makes weekly visits to the experimental orchard. She walks through the latest rows of fruit-laden trees to find the next star apple. One of her graduate students calls this “a power-walking mission to make it through 10,000 possible varieties.” Only the most eye-catching apples are chosen and tasted. Evans hopes that whichever one she brings out next looks nothing like the Cosmic Crisp®—after all, there is only one Beyoncé.