Apples sit in a basket for customers at the Machias Marketplace March 3, 2016. Credit: Johanna Billings

In orchards, fields and roadsides all over Maine, you can find as many as 3,000 different kinds of apple varieties growing. If you expand your apple search to the rest of the United States, that number shoots up to nearly 20,000.

So why is it that grocery stores aisles tend to offer just a handful of apple varieties for sale throughout the year, including the ubiquitous Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and McIntosh varieties? The answer to that has to do with the modern consumer economy, a deadly cold snap that happened more than 80 years ago and a lucky mutation, according to Maine apple experts. They believe that the fact that the Red Delicious has just dropped from its 50-year perch as the nation’s most popular and most polarizing apple shows that changing consumer tastes are leading to a shake-up in orchards in Maine and beyond.

“In the 1990s, consumers became more discriminating,” Renae Moran, a fruit tree specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said Wednesday. “We’re just starting to see the impact on the top 10 varieties. It takes a long time for an apple to be knocked off its top spot.”

Changing times, changing tastes

The Gala apple is now officially the country’s top apple. More than 52 million boxes of the juicy, sweet eating apple are slated to be produced this year by American growers, a 5.8 percent increase over last year, the U.S. Apple Association said in a statement released Thursday. Meanwhile, the Red Delicious — an apple some dissatisfied eaters describe as mealy or akin to cardboard — has declined 11 percent from last year, with 51.7 million boxes to be produced this fall. A box weighs 42 pounds. Now the second most popular apple, the beleaguered Red Delicious resides just ahead of the Granny Smith and Fuji varieties, which are in third and fourth places, respectively.

In Maine and New England, though, the Red Delicious was never the most popular apple, Moran said. That honor went to the McIntosh, or “Mac,” which shot to regional prominence after it survived the winter of 1934-1935 when many other apples did not.

“It become cold very suddenly in December, before trees had a chance to harden off and a lot of trees died,” she said. “The McIntosh survived, and that’s when growers started planting it.”

Even today, Mac is still the most popular apple in Maine, but she expects that within the next 10 or 20 years, it will be overtaken by the Honeycrisp and other varieties. Maine growers have been planting a lot of Honeycrisp trees, which grow better in New England than they do in some other regions and which consumers love. Change can be hard, but in this case it’s a clear improvement on the apple scene she recalls from her childhood.

“When I was a child there were just two varieties: Red Delicious and Golden Delicious,” Moran said. “Now, at any given time, there are maybe 10 types of apples to choose from.”

Beyond the grocery store aisles

Maine apple historian and expert John Bunker of Super Chilly Farm in Palermo said the shake-up at the top of the American apple cart is good news for consumers.

“I’d say that on balance, even though what’s available to the local grocery store customer feels locally inadequate or uninteresting, it’s certainly a lot better now than it was five or 10 years ago,” he said this week. “The consumers I’ve talked to who don’t know much about apples are excited about having five or six apples to try instead of two or three. We have a long way to go, and this is just a start. But it’s a great start.”

The apple cultivars that have made it to national prominence have done so for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with their taste, according to Bunker.

“If you did a blind tasting among chefs and gave them a bunch of apples, none of the winners would be anything anybody has ever heard of,” he said. “They’d be these rare or heirloom apples that are phenomenal tasting, but they don’t have the qualities that are essential to the modern marketplace.”

Chief among those qualities is whether the apple trees will bear prolifically every year. The vast majority of apple trees do not, he said, which means that 99.9 percent of apples out there have been eliminated from the marketplace for that reason alone. Another important quality to American shoppers is how the apples look, which is one reason why the Red Delicious has been the most popular apple for so many years. That variety started nearly 100 years ago as a wild seedling that came up in a field in Iowa that bore striped, toothsome apples, and was initially dubbed the Hawkeye, Bunker said. After a few years, it was bought and popularized by a nursery in Missouri, which changed its name to Delicious.

“The original apple was very well-named,” Bunker said. “It’s a good apple, and a lot of growers really like it.”

Mutations and sports

Grower Bob Sewall of Sewall Organic Orchard in Lincolnville planted some Red Delicious trees when he first started his orchard nearly 40 years ago.

“I figured I needed something that people knew when I first planted,” he said. “They have good flavor and tough skin. They store well and they do taste good, but the tree is the least vigorous of any tree I have in the orchard.”

Sewall, who makes sought-after apple cider vinegar from the apples he grows on his property, knows his apples. One of the problems with commercially sold Red Delicious might be the way they are stored, he said, with a refrigeration process that makes them mealy.

“I don’t absolutely hate them, but I really don’t like growing them, and I don’t like the store-bought ones,” he said. “The parentage is good. I just think a lot of the problem with them is that they became so commercial.”

Something did happen to the Delicious that ultimately rendered it much less so. Because apples are shipped to markets that are far from the orchards, growers have to pick fruit before it’s ripe, so it doesn’t start to rot too soon.

“In America, we sell our products by visuals, rather than whether they taste any good,” Bunker said. “You want apples that turn their wonderful, magical color before they’re ripe.”

Somewhere along the way, somebody discovered a new mutation, or sport, in the Delicious orchards: an apple that was solid red before it was ripe. Growers changed the name to Red Delicious, and shipped it merrily to consumers all over the country. Over generations, growers kept selecting for traits that would make the apples shinier, redder and more perfect looking. But they neglected to select for taste, Bunker said.

“The Red Delicious we know now that looks like the poison apple the witch gave Snow White is the sport of the sport of the sport,” he said. “But each time they did that, they sacrificed a little of the flavor, and ultimately doomed it because they ended up with something a lot of people think tastes like cardboard.”

Beyond the Delicious

So the Gala, which many widely consider juicier and sweeter than the Red Delicious, must be a good development in the apple world, right? To Bunker, the answer is complicated. Right now, most people want their eating — or dessert — apples to be crisp and juicy, a little sweet, and a little tart. A small number of varieties do bear annually and produce this kind of apple, he said, explaining that growers have used those as a starting point.

“From those apples we began to select these different varieties that began to compete with Red Delicious,” he said. “Now, all these apples like Jazz and Sweet Tango, they’re all rehashes of the same genetic material. The gene pool is actually not increasing, it’s decreasing.”

Still, what he believes is the best thing to come out of shaking up the apple hierarchy is the fact that people are now demanding apples with more flavor than the Red Delicious.

“It’s a good thing, but we shouldn’t be complacent and say that now we’re supporting diversity because we’re eating Gala instead of Red Delicious,” he said. “What I would personally encourage Mainers to do is to go to the local orchards and don’t ask for Gala, Red Delicious or Honeycrisp. Say to them: what do you have that I might have never tried?”

Almost all Maine apple growers have some varieties that many people don’t know, he said, adding that it’s a great time of year to experiment by asking for something a little odd or different. Moran said that her current favorites are the SnowSweet and the Crimson Crisp, neither of which are available in supermarket aisles, but can be found at farm stands and orchards around Maine.

“I think that anyone anywhere in Maine would be surprised by what they’ll find and probably happily surprised,” Bunker said. “When that happens, it encourages the growers to say, ‘OK, let’s try something new. Let’s try growing some varieties that people haven’t heard of but do actually taste pretty good.”

Times are changing.

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