In the good old days (late 60’s and 70’s) the Red Delicious apple was considered the peak of perfection in an apple variety. We couldn’t wait for them to come out in the fall at the grocery store and get our share.  They were crisp, crunchy and extremely juicy dripping all over your face as you dug into one and the sweet flavor with a hint of tart was a perfect sugar to sub-acid balance.  Rarely did we stop at eating just one.  But something changed along the way and over the years.

 Many of our customers have said they did not want to grow Red Delicious as a tree variety, describing it as mealy, mushy, and bland with a bitter skin.  This certainly isn’t the Red Delicious of my childhood.  What has happened to it?  After receiving a growers catalog this week I think I know what has caused the decline in the Red Delicious. This catalog is an offering of trees to commercial apple orchardists. The bulk of the commercial trees are sold to growers from about 6 nurseries nationwide.  These companies do not sell direct to the consumer and cater to orchards planting hundreds to even thousands of trees at a time.  These growers sell their product wholesale to the shipper/packer.  He then grades, stores and packages them to be distributed to produce wholesalers and the large grocery chains. 

 Of the 10 kinds offered as “Premier Apple Varieties” there was a distinct pattern.  Of these 10 kinds, 9 were ”improved” sports of the original variety. 8 were promoted as an improvement in color over the standard, 1 was a much faster to ripen Fuji type (fujis require a long season) and 1, Honeycrisp was described as the original. The regular section of their catalog contained another 37 varieties of which 23 were “improved” from the original type, usually focusing on better color, deeper color, earlier color and some on shape.  A few stressed higher productivity due to spur type tree or earlier ripening. Out of these 33 ‘improved’ varieties not a single one promoted better taste, texture or nutrition.

 I think we need only to look at the “Apple Supply Chain” to see why this is.  The Grower is trying to satisfy his customer, the Distributor. The Distributor is trying to satisfy his customer, the Grocery Chain Store.  The grocery store is trying to satisfy his customer the Consumer.  The end consumer (us) may want flavor but he can’t tell that at the store when purchasing.  Naturally he goes for full red color (thinking it to be riper than an apple with striping), a high gloss and firm to the touch with a dense weight.   The grocery store wants an apple that is consistent, both in size and appearance and availability along with a good shelf life (minimal bruising from handling by customers and longer storage in the store).  Taste doesn’t really enter into this formula.

 The grower wants an apple that will have full color as soon as possible since he is picking it at an unripened stage. The more of his crop that is fully colored the less passes or harvests he will have to do in that orchard and therefore less picking costs (read higher profit).  The redder the apple with deeper color the higher the grade (Washington Extra Fancy) and therefore the better price for his apples. The packer/shipper wants a denser apple since he is buying by volume (boxload) but selling by weight, often 10 lb bags. An unripened apple is harder and therefore bruises less and ships better with less losses (read higher profit).  The packer needs an apple than can be stored in a no oxygen environment for up to a year and then immediately ripened with the addition of ethylene gas, so it must already be colored.

 Improvements of a specific type often come at the expense of something else.  Since flavor or taste never enters the equation above the so-called improvement of better color may have come at the loss of flavor quality.  The bottom line here is the apple being sold today as Red Delicious is not the same apple as we bought in the good old days. A Google search shows 42 patented sports or mutations of Red Delicious.  No doubt these are what is now being sold through the stores as our old favorite.

 It seems that probably the only way to bring back that original flavor to your table is to grow your own and ensure that you are growing an original Red Delicious and not one of the newer “improved” varieties. As a side note, this same catalog offered 4 “improved” varieties of Fuji and 3 “improved” varieties of Gala.  I am convinced we can expect those apples to also deteriorate in quality at the supermarkets in the years to come and are probably already seeing this now.

 After writing this article I was researching the history of the Red Delicious and found this article in the Washington Post.  It basically summarizes that the hypothesis I proposed above is indeed fact.

 Why the Red Delicious No Longer Is

Decades of Makeovers Alter Apple to Its Core