Much as Bruce Barritt likes apples, the task he faces is daunting. Dr. Barritt is Washington State University’s apple breeder, and one day each week in the fall, he tastes 70 or more new apple selections in his search for a promising new variety.
At harvest, he and his assistants, Bonnie Konishi and Marc Dilley, walk the breeding program’s test plots looking for good candidates. From the 15,000 or so selections being grown, they’ll usually pick fruit from 500 to 700 to take a closer look at.
Those apples are evaluated immediately and again after two months in regular storage. Though they’re tested objectively for soluble solids, starch, acidity, and firmness, taste testing is a critical part of the evaluation. Barritt and his staff bite them, chew them, and spit them out before rating them on appearance, eating quality, and overall appeal.
Though he doesn’t eat the apples, Barritt tries to taste half the apples before lunch and half after. “Otherwise, your taste buds don’t work,” he said. “It’s really your sensors in your mouth that get tired.”
Konishi has a different strategy. She tastes them in batches, taking breaks to drink water and refresh her palate.
Barritt and his assistants then decide which to drop from the program and which to keep in the test orchard to evaluate again next year. Keepers must be crisp and juicy, but beyond that, there are few criteria. Not all consumers have the same preferences in terms of flavor, and attractiveness can come in a lot of different forms.
“There are retailers who want something different,” said Barritt, picking up an apple with almost as much russet as a Bosc pear. “If they could call it Rustica and have a sign saying, ‘explosively crisp,’ they can override the appearance.”
But a bite tells him it’s going to be rejected on eating quality anyway.
If an apple seems promising, it goes into the second stage of testing. New trees are propagated from the mother tree for testing in three commercial orchards in different parts of Washington State to see how the cultivar performs in different climates and conditions.