With the Cosmic Crisp, apple breeder Bruce Barritt puts fruit snobs first

The Cosmic Crisp Mother Tree. Photo courtesy of cosmiccrisp.com

By Christian Thorsberg
Medill Reports

“Did you hear it?” The Zoom call eclipses into an all-crimson canvas and resounds a noisy crescendo — something akin to striking thunder, or an ice cube splintering. “Yes? You heard a crack?” Bruce Barritt asks, backing away from his screen and spitting a mouthful of white, juicy flesh off-camera. “What an experiment!” he says. “I’ll do it again.”

The 78-year-old, sinking his teeth into an object he calls his “child,” is showing off decades of his work: a crimson apple, its skin speckled with white dots resembling the cosmos, freshly removed from Barritt’s kitchen freezer after a 10-month stay — around the average time an apple is stored before hitting grocery shelves. Another crack. Barritt wipes his mouth with a bony hand, juices still dribbling down his chin, and recedes again from his close-up. “So, that’s crispness,” he says.

Crisp, firm, juicy, sweet, tart: They’re the “big five” characteristics the now-retired fruit breeder spent 40 years attempting to pack into a single, baseball-sized, 100-calorie apple. The trademarked, Washington-bred “Cosmic Crisp” that Barritt shows now achieves this feat and more. “It’s a Tesla amongst old Chevrolets,” he said. 

From breeding and growing to marketing and selling, the American apple industry is valued at $20 billion. It’s bolstered by household names like Red Delicious (which made its commercial debut in 1874), Gala (1965) and Fuji (1962), and a wave of emerging stars: Honeycrisp (1991), Snapdragon (2013) and more. 

But the market is preparing for a new top variety, said Jim Bair, president and CEO of USApple, the regulating body of the United States’ apple industry. The Cosmic Crisp’s “fabulous taste,” long storage life and popularity in Washington orchards — where two-thirds of America’s apples are grown — means “it will be one of the next big apples” for years to come, Bair said. 

The Cosmic Crisp story began decades ago in Kelowna, British Columbia, where Barritt was born and lives today. Both his father and grandfather were gardeners, and Barritt grew up with “two green thumbs,” he said, but didn’t know how to use them until a college internship in the nearby Okanagan Valley. He saw the growth and production of new apple and cherry varieties, and was inspired to pursue apple research.

In 1969, Barritt graduated from Cornell University with a Ph.D. in pomology, the science of fruit growing and breeding. For over a decade, he worked at Washington State University, conducting general research on all fruit. Then in 1985, he moved three hours west to the university’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, where research opportunities revealed the stagnant state of America’s apples.

“They told me to do ‘horticultural research to help the industry,’” Barritt said. “Well, OK, that’s pretty broad. So I started by spending a year visiting every orchard I could. Dozens and dozens.”

Barritt might as well have visited only one. Each orchard looked the same to him. One of the few commercial apples grown in America, the Red Delicious had a monopoly on tree branches and grocery shelves. It was a safe investment for everyone, growers told Barritt. Consumers didn’t know any other apple, and growers didn’t want to spend money and time — $70,000 per acre, decades waiting for saplings to fully mature — investing in another variety. 

Barritt sympathized with these concerns, but didn’t agree with putting growers before consumers, particularly with an “inefficient” Red Delicious. “I don’t criticize other apple varieties,” said Barritt, who critiques the Red Delicious’ “soft, chewy, not juicy” shortcomings. He then repeated the crucial question he asked in Wenatchee in 1988: “Why can’t we have a nuanced attitude about apples, the way we do coffee, marijuana or wine?” 

What Steve Jobs is to Apple, Bruce Barritt is to apples. “Steve Jobs never did consumer research,” Barritt said. “He said consumers have no idea what a smartphone is, or what we can put into one.”

Barritt disappeared from the Zoom call for a moment, then returned with a letter marked “April 4, 1994,” sent from the Washington Tree Fruit Commission. He keeps the original copy near his desk at home. “I spent six years lobbying the apple industry for something better,” he said. “For an apple consumers really want.” Barritt laughed as he looked over the letter, then read aloud its contents — a curt approval for him to begin breeding on a new variety of apple, along with a $60,000 grant. “It would seem to be quite begrudging, a backdoor way of saying, ‘I guess you can do it,’” Barritt said. “But the vote was five to two, and we were off.”

In 1997, the breeding process began with the cross-pollination of the Honeycrisp and Enterprise, chosen because they exhibited characteristics Barritt wanted his variety to enhance and perfect. But “biology is slow,” and the project’s early years were mainly spent waiting for Wenatchee orchards to grow. “At the start I was 51 years old,” Barritt said. “That’s old! Especially for a research project like this.” 

But as apples at last began growing and offspring were cross-pollinated, the fun — or, really, the not so fun — began: Barritt walking up and down rows of trees, conducting thousands of taste tests, spitting out thousands of bad apples. 

“Initially, they just taste revolting,” said Kate Evans, a fruit breeder who joined Barrit’s lab in 2008 and now oversees the Cosmic Crisp apple. “Maybe it has a nutritional disorder or little black spots. Maybe the fruit’s just downright ugly. They might be soft, mealy, bitter. In our selection process, these are all fatal flaws.”

At last, in 2007, one bite changed everything. Barritt came upon “the mother tree,” the 38th generation sapling that had grown the apple with all “big five” characteristics and bore the Cosmic Crisp as it is known today. Its seeds were saved, and after 12 additional years of testing, large-scale growing and marketing, the Cosmic Crisp continues to emerge as the apple industry’s boon: 13 million trees have been planted in the last three years, a sign that growers trust and anticipate its long-term economic prosperity. An unprecedented $500 million has been invested in the brand, and orchards in Chile, Australia, New Zealand and the Italian Alps are preparing to make the Cosmic Crisp the center of the apple universe. 

“The goal as a breeder is to have more people validate your evaluation,” Evans said. “It is a pretty big moment.”

Apple pickers are also praising the Cosmic Crisp, Bair said, which is a crucial and underappreciated element of commercial success. Many apples, including the Honeycrisp, are fragile on the stem, making them difficult to pick. Two hands and extra care are needed, which takes more time. With the Cosmic Crisp, pickers can use one hand without fear of bruising the apple. This allows for greater yields in less time, which translates to a less expensive apple: good news for avid fruit eaters as the Cosmic Crisp expands its grocery store-rollout in 2022 and 2023, moving east across the United States. The Washington-bred apple is expected to cost $3.50, on average, per pound.

Barritt rotates his Cosmic Crisp, exposing its two bite-shaped chunks and a sixth characteristic: The interior is still ivory white, with no hint of browning despite sitting out in his room temperature office for 60-plus minutes. Barritt smiles and smooths out his approval letter, tucking it back safely into its drawer. “I see myself in this apple,” he says. “Grit, perseverance.” He takes one more bite and says through mouthfuls: “It’s just a damn good apple.”

Christian Thorsberg is a science and environmental graduate student at Medill.