Viewscapes

Bruce Barritt and the Cosmic Crisp® apple

September 21, 2021 Washington State Magazine Season 1 Episode 10
Viewscapes
Bruce Barritt and the Cosmic Crisp® apple
Show Notes Transcript

Cosmic Crisp® just might be the perfect apple. 

Crisp, firm, juicy, sweet, slow to brown, and all around pleasing in appearance, it’s good for eating fresh as well as for cooking, in both sweet and savory dishes.

Since its commercial release at the end of 2019, the inherently festive, crimson-colored apple, flecked with tiny golden lenticels and dubbed “The Apple of Big Dreams,” has received positive attention around the world. 

But it was bred at Washington State University specifically for Washington’s climate and growers. 

Bruce Barritt oversaw the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee and developed the now-famous apple, a cross between Honeycrisp and Enterprise apples.

In this episode, he talks about how Cosmic Crisp came to be, its attributes, and its potential.

Learn more about Cosmic Crisp

Find Cosmic Crisp recipes

Read about the WA 2 apple (Sunrise Magic). 

Support the show

Bruce Barritt:
All the characteristics that we wanted this apple were to make consumers happy. That is it has to be crisp, juicy and firm. And it has to be that way out of storage up to 12 months later.

Larry Clark:  
That's Washington State University retired apple breeder Bruce Barritt. He was instrumental in developing the delicious Cosmic Crisp and Sunrise Magic apples. Welcome to Viewscapes, stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. It's apple season! Magazine associate editor Adriana Janovich talked with Barritt about Cosmic Crisp, what makes good apples and his apple breeding career.

Bruce Barritt: 
I'm Bruce Barritt and I'm a retired WSU faculty member from the Department of Horticulture. My work was at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, almost 20 to 20 odd years, I was working on apple's first, apple orchard systems, developing better ways of growing apples. And then finally for the last 14 years, on developing new varieties for the Washington industry.

Adriana Janovich:  
And you developed both of WSU apples to go to market. And I'd like to talk about each one separately. What are their qualities? How are they different? Are there any similarities between the two apples? 

Bruce Barritt:  
The first one is called WA 2. And it has the trademark name of Sunrise Magic. It is a late apple. It's a salmon colored pink apple, very firm, stores forever, is quite sweet. The second one, of course, is WA 38, the big one which is trademarked now as Cosmic Crisp, it will become a much bigger apple than WA 2. WA 2 is a good apple. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. But so much money has been spent on on Cosmic Crisp, but the industry just doesn't have a lot of money to spend on another variety. Sunrise magic will be planted. But it'll never be as big as Cosmic Crisp.

Adriana Janovich:  
Is it really unusual to be able to bring two apples to market during the course of a career or a lifetime? It seems like it is an unusual feat, like a big feat.

Bruce Barritt:  
Well, not necessarily. A breeding program starts out and desire is to introduce a new variety, but you've always got new material going into the breeding program. So the chances are that in a few years, maybe another good one will come along. So this was the case WA 2 came along first and then WA 38. And they both met the criteria that we thought was important for the industry. So, no, it's not that unusual. Most breeders, if they have a long career, will introduce many varieties. I have a relatively short career as a breeder. And so there are two at this point, because Cosmic Crisp will be the big one by far.

Adriana Janovich:
And what were some of those criteria, what were you looking for, in a good apple?

Bruce Barritt:
This is the key motto of the program:  put the consumer first, which means all the characteristics that we wanted in this apple were to make consumers happy. That is, it has to be crisp, juicy and firm. And it has to be that way out of storage up to 12 months later. Most varieties will not be firm after a few months, six months, maybe more. Even in cold storage, they lose their firmness, and they lose their flavor. Our goal was to have this firmness and flavor retained for up to 12 months in cold storage. And that's the major advantage of Cosmic Crisp, and it's needed in Washington state because we have a huge industry. We cannot market all apples in the fall, or even up until Christmas. It takes us a whole year to market all the apples. And so we had to have a variety that came out of cold storage almost any month of the year. And with a very good eating experience. And the eating experience is based on both flavor, that is sugar and acid, or on texture. And texture is three things: it's firm, it's crisp, and it's juicy. And if you ask a consumer most of the time, they'll end up telling you that texture trumps flavor. It doesn't seem right. But it does. No one likes a soft apple. No one likes a chewy apple. And no one likes a dry apple. And so that was the goal from the beginning. And I think with Cosmic Crisp, we're pretty darn close.

Adriana Janovich:
I think so I just tried some of last year's harvest that have been on cold storage for almost a year now and they still had the snap. And they were still juicy. They were still crisp. They were still firm. They weren't soft at all. And that and that had been almost a year since they have been harvested.

Bruce Barritt:  
That's unique, not just your experience. The fact that the Cosmic Crisp is that way, is unique among varieties. There just are no varieties that I know of that can last the whole year and still be sweet. But they usually lose the acidity. And the acidity is what gives an apple flavor character, and they lose their firmness. But Cosmic Crisp does not. And that's its major claim to fame.

Adriana Janovich:
It's a miracle apple. Well, you talk a little bit about the breeding process and what goes into developing a new variety. And just the amount of time it takes from cross to commercialization?

Bruce Barritt: 
Yeah, the biggest question I get is, why does it take so long? Why did it take basically 22 years, from the time we made the hybridization of two varieties, until the consumer got to eat it? That's a long time. And that's a long time for a couple of reasons. One is biology. An apple, if you plant an apple seed, and grow it into a tree, it won't have any fruit for seven to 10 years. It's just slow. The second is propagation. To propagate a tree takes three years, basically. And so between a combination of very non precocity, doesn't take so long to fruit, and propagation that just takes years and years. And also, we have to test this new seedling, basically, we have to test it and retest it and retest it, to be sure it has all the characteristics we want. And that does just takes time. I think I should go back one step though. And say that every apple varieties that's ever been developed came from a seed, and an apple, there are roughly 10 seeds. If you planted those 10 seeds, they would produce 10 trees, and in about seven to 10 years you'd see the fruit. And every tree would be different. Just like if you had a dozen kids, they would all be different: short, tall, redhead, blond, different personalities, they'd be all different. And every apple tree that comes from a seed is different. And our job was to grow 10s of 1000s of seed into trees that had fruit, look at those and come up with those that we thought consumers would like. So it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. But it takes a long time to do it. So now your question was, how do we do it? We hybridize existing varieties, in this case, Honeycrisp and Enterprise. Each one of these varieties had something we liked. Our Honeycrisp was crisp and juicy. Enterprise would store quite well was a pretty rugged apple, it had good acidity. So we hybridized the two and selected, as I say, for ones that would store really, really well and come out of storage with all those those five wonderful traits of sweet tart, crisp, juicy.

Adriana Janovich:  
At what point in that process did you know you had a real winner?

Bruce Barritt: 
Well, there's no eureka moment. It's a very slow collection of data year after year after year. You eat the apple, you taste it every year, you get samples from different places in Central Washington, harvested at different times. And you rate them for all these true characteristics. And we'd record it all and at the end of the season, we looked at all the data and said, Ah, this one's firm. This one's Christmas with juicy. And you do that year after year. Starting with the original mother tree, the first tree and then going through second trial, third trial and so on until about 12 years later, you've said oh, this one's got all the good stuff. This is one way like.

Adriana Janovich: 
And then you retire. What has it been like to be part of the the hype in the media coverage with Cosmic Crisp, with the overall success of the apple? Have you been getting a lot of calls from people like me wanting to talk about Cosmic Crisp. It's made headlines from from LA to New York.

Bruce Barritt:
Yeah, that's pretty unusual. Apples don't usually get famous. At least not right away. I mean, Honeycrisp is famous now as an apple, but it took 25 years. It's rewarding. It's certainly rewarding that years I spent doing it as produce something that consumers really like.It's rewarding for the industry, because here's something that they can grow that consumers really like. So in all respects, that's a good deal. But propensity is just a bonus. The fact that all the TV channels, all the major newspapers in North America have covered also in the UK. There's magazines in Germany that are written five-page articles on it. So it's really become important and that of course help the industry could help sell the apple. It helps WSU with its reputation. So it's good all the way around. We get to see the all the articles that are published every week, it's clear that not everyone likes the same thing. Some people like tart apples, some people like sweet apples. Well, in this case, you know, there are people who will review it in a podcast or on YouTube or whatever, and some will find it wanting. And that's okay because not everyone likes the same thing. But the vast majority of people want sweet and want tart. And you know, firm, crisp and juicy. And it's just a good apple, we've been getting terrific reviews. And that's good for the industry, good for WSU.

Adriana Janovich: 
And it looks good too. I mean, it has that deep kind of crimson ruby red skin and then the lenticels would kind of look like Starburst. It's kind of a it's very attractive apple. And it kind of reminds me of the whimsical apples in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox movie. It's such a pleasing to the eye. I mean, it looks like something out of, oh, it almost looks like too good to be true of an apple, it almost looks like I mean, Fantastic Mr. Fox is in the animation. And it almost looks like, just like too perfect.

Bruce Barritt: 
It's interesting because most apples look good on the outside, or else they don't get introduced. And bad growers used to get paid for how to red the apple was. But this apple is good on from appearance point of view on the outside, but also on the inside. Because this apple does not go brown quickly, it's very, very slow to go brown. So that's an extra bonus. It's just as good on the inside as it is on the outside. Most other varieties, many other varieties, they will go brown rather quickly. 

Adriana Janovich:  
With that long storage capacity, they're kind of perfect apples for a pandemic because they can store long in your refrigerator.

Bruce Barritt:
Yes, apples should always be put in the crisper section of a refrigerator. You shouldn't leave them out on the counter. Unless you want a beautiful bowl of apples. But generally speaking, they keep very, very well in a refrigerator. These apples keep extremely well. I've kept it in the refrigerator for many months. I retired in 2008. The breeding program didn't end then. As a matter of fact, it took almost 10 years after that to get the variety commercialized. When I retired, Kate Evans joined WSU as the apple breeder. And we work together on all aspects of commercialization, to make sure that it got patented, trademarked. It got all the things, the legal issues that are needed, intellectual property, and so on. So that it went smoothly, but it still took almost a decade. From the time we knew it was going to be a good variety until it got into the hands of consumers. Kate Evans has been a big part of that. The thing is that these these things take so long. I mean, it was my baby and I wanted to be sure that that it got into the hands of consumers.

Adriana Janovich: 
Which apple do you like better, the Cosmic Crisp or Sunrise Magic? What are your favorite eating apples?

Bruce Barritt: 
Well, in public, I never compare apple varieties. I think that's up to the individual. Those two apples are are both very good. Neither of them ever go soft, which is which is my biggest concern. Soft apples are no good. No one likes soft. Sunrise Magic is more sweet and less tart. So people don't like too much tartness. So they'll probably like Sunrise Magic better. But the people who would like a little character in their apples, little acidity, they'll probably like Cosmic Crisp the best. I eat apples every day, I try to find the best ones in the stores that are not soft, because most apples go soft after a while. The whole point of doing this was not to have these apples go soft. I'm encouraged that most of the professionals who have worked with the apple find it to be quite desirable and that it doesn't go mushy. It stays reasonably firm, but not hard. Some people like Granny Smith to make a pie. Well those pieces never go soft, but Cosmic Crisp, sort of mellows a little bit but it doesn't go mushy. And it has enough acidity that you probably don't need to put any lemon juice in your pie.

Adriana Janovich:
Yeah, and it holds its shape. I've used it with apples, onions and pork and it's really good. That way too, or even with chicken, it's good in a savory dish, as well as, you know, a cake or pie and, or galette, a sweet dish. It's versatile like that. And you can use it both ways. And it holds its shape and, and it stands up to the, to the meat, the protein or the cake or the pie.

Bruce Barritt:  
You know, we put the consumer first in our, you know, objectives, but primarily that was the fresh market, because that's where most of the apples go from Washington State. The fact that does reasonably well or actually does very well, in process product is a real bonus as well. It's a bonus, like the fact that doesn't go brown quickly. The fact that it does really well in desserts is a real bonus as well.

Adriana Janovich:  
What are your hopes for Kate Evans and the breeding program now? Do you still work as a consultant?

Bruce Barritt: 
Well, certainly I keep in touch. But when I left, I felt that Kate needed to do her own thing. And so she will certainly have promising selections come along, that will get all the full testing just like Cosmic Crisp did. And I have no doubt that there will be very good varieties coming from the program down the road.

Adriana Janovich: 
It's just so surprising to me, given that Washington is known for its apples and where we grow so much of the world's fresh market of apples, that these two apples from WSU are our first apples developed in Washington state. I couldn't believe that. I just figured that we had developed our own apples before. It's history making what you did.

Bruce Barritt:  
The story is in 1981, when I started at Wenatchee, at the WSU research center, I had to come up with a job. I was hired as a horticulturist, but no one told me what to do. But it was for the apple industry. So I looked and there were two issues. One, they're growing great big trees. They're inefficient. There's no light in the trees, the fruit quality is not very good. Yields are low. They need to come up with more efficient orchards. That was one thing. And I said, well, I can do that I can help them do that. The second thing was they were growing Red Delicious. And Golden Delicious. But the two of them were over 90% of the market. And they seemed to be growing more and more of them and consumers were liking them less than less. And so I said, Okay, the second thing we need to do is we need to come up with new varieties. But I knew the industry wasn't ready. I asked growers, why are you still planting Red Delicious? And the answer was, we grow a better Red Delicious than anybody else. Well, that was true. But the fact was, it wasn't a very good Red Delicious in the first place. Red Delicious wasn't very good apple in the first place. So why grow more and more? So I knew that the industry wasn't ready, I began, about 1988-1989, I began to try to convince WSU that we should have a breeding program. And eventually they came around and the dean at the time was Dean Zuiches. And he was also the director of research for that. And he believed, Yes, we need to be doing that. But budgets were terrible. There was no way of hiring a plant breeder to do such a work. And he said, Yes, we could do it, but you got to have money. And so then I went to the industry, and I said, Okay, we need to need to do this. And it took six years of lobbying to convince them that we should do it. And in 1994, they finally said, Okay, we'll give you some money for that. So that's how it started. It took like, 13 years, but when I first had the idea, before we got the industry andddd the university to agree to do it, then 14 years later, I retired. But 22 years later, we had the variety in the mouths of consumers.

Adriana Janovich:
Was that a long road for one apple or two apples?

Bruce Barritt: 
Yeah, it's a slow process. Yeah, it's, it's interesting that this apple is going to become an international sensation as well. Even though we grow 70% of the apples in the US, and we will have a leg up on everyone else for 10 years as an advantage because the industry, the industry actually, you know, contributed, they paid money, but they tax themselves for research. And so they they paid for the development of the idea. Partially I mean, not all by any means, but partially. And so they've been given a 10 year advantage over anyone else in North America. But it's being licensed though abroad, for example. It's being grown commercially. Now in northern Italy. It will be marketed in Europe, but there'll be no competition because we don't market in Europe. So and that's going to happen all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, everywhere in the world that where the apple grows well, we'll be growing Cosmic Crisp at some point. But that's again, that's rewarding, and it's good for WSU's reputation as well.

Adriana Janovich: 
What a huge legacy.

Bruce Barritt:
Well, the legacy is interesting and complicated. The legacy is achieved in a number of ways. First of all, the industry gets to be successful with the product. Consumers get to eat something they really like. That's a practical legacy. But there's also a financial legacy. And that's through royalties, every Cosmic Crisp tree, and Sunrise Magic tree as well, every one of those trees, there's a royalty charged, and that money goes, goes into a royalty fund that comes to WSU. And also when a box of apples is sold, there's a royalty charged on that. And that royalty also, a portion of it comes to WSU. So the royalty there is that money and it'll be very substantial. In the millions and millions of dollars. That money comes to WSU and can be used to support the apple breeding program. In fact, the industry supported the breeding program until the royalty started coming in. And then now it's become a huge responsibility. But the program can be advanced, it can be improved, it can it can hire more people, it can have better labs for doing evaluations, better storage for evaluating fruit. It can do all these things, grow more seedlings, everything can be enhanced by having this royalty money, including training more graduate students, for example. So there are many, many aspects to the legacy, which I'm very, very pleased about because I'm pleased that we can now afford to have a really good, a world class, perhaps the best in the world, program right here in Washington state.

Adriana Janovich: 
It is paving the way for more research and other apples and just the future oof the program.

Bruce Barritt:  
Hopefully, it'll be the world class tree fruit genetics and breeding program right here in Washington state. So it will be, I think, in time based on the amount of royalty money that comes in.

Adriana Janovich:  
And then just for fun, what else have you been doing in your retirement?

Bruce Barritt:
I've been watching Cosmic Crisp grow. Yeah, that's my primary interest, of course has been to make sure that it gets commercialized and so on. But you know, I don't go to work every day. I can do other things. I play golf, and I travel, a lot of grandchildren all over the world. So you know, I'm busy.

Adriana Janovich:  
Thank you for joining me today.

Bruce Barritt: 
You're welcome.

Larry Clark:
Thank you for listening to be escapes. Music is by Greg Yasinitsky. You can read more about Cosmic Crisp and Sunrise Magic apples, and many other WSU stories at magazine wsu.edu