The retooling of the apple—from humble mainstay to luxury good—is a relatively recent thing in the United States, but its history goes back to the colonial era when apple trees, brought here by settlers, provided a bounty of products including apple butter, hard cider and fruit pies.
The University of Minnesota struck gold when it released the Honeycrisp apple cultivar in 1991. A true, ripe Honeycrisp tastes like an apple with the volume turned up: Both honey-sweet and bracingly tart, it conveys its full flavor in extra-juicy bites. Its larger-than-typical cells allow for the delivery of more moisture than most apple varieties.
And while the Honeycrisp is the U's most well-known creation, others (including the Zestar! and SweeTango) have also been developed. These locally grown apples have made their presence felt across the United States, and, in recent years, Canada and New Zealand. Here in Minnesota, you can taste them straight from the tree (or close to it).
Pick Your Own Peck at Minnesota Apples Orchards
Dozens of open-to-the-public orchards dot the landscape around the state, and Minnesotans and visitors alike will have no shortage of good picking come early September through late October.
Before you head out, know that your orchard of choice will probably fall somewhere on a spectrum between the austere (pick your apples and get out) and the theme park (apple trees in the parking lot, with the emphasis on fairground rides and extensive apple-related merchandise).
Apple Jack Orchards in Delano provides a lovely mix of both ends of the spectrum. You can pick apples (if you're looking for Honeycrisp, it's predicted to come ripe in mid- to late September). Or you can hang out at the cafe and bakery, browse the market and gift shop, go on wagon, pony, or cow train rides, fire an apple cannon, and a good deal more.
Local apples have found their way onto menus around the state, particularly in autumn, where they appear in salads (often with locally made blue cheese from companies like the Caves of Faribault), with pork (another thing Minnesota produces a great deal of) or, perhaps best of all, in tarts and pies.
And there is, of course, no lack of local pie places that highlight apples in a way guaranteed to create a happy memory. A newer arrival is Sara's Tipsy Pies of Stillwater, featuring the Chestnut Hill apple pie, which uses local apples baked in Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill Ale glaze. Find her pies in the Food Building at the Minnesota State Fair.
Where to Sip Local Apple Ciders
Artisan cider is experience a real surge in popularity across the U.S. Minneapolis-born Crispin Cider has become a national player, and the craft cider movement is beginning to feel like craft beer circa 1980—small, exciting, clubby, comfortable, and holding great promise. Most commercial hard ciders are sugary sweet and one-note, but artisanal ciders take care to let the flavor of the fruit come through.
If you're in Minneapolis, don't miss the ciders of Sociable Cider Werks. Located in the hip Northeast neighborhood, Sociable features regular visits from a rotating stable of food trucks and an industrial-chic taproom. Its taps boast a variety of Midwestern apple-derived ciders that veer sharply toward the crisp, clean, cool and refreshing end of the beverage—no sugar bombs here.
At Sweetland Orchard in Webster, visitors can taste a variety of hard ciders, including unique offerings like cherry rhubarb and two varieties made with heirloom apples. Outside of September and October, the ciders can be found at a handful of restaurants and bars in the Twin Cities.
Even beer benefits from the local crop: Schell's brewery recently collaborated with Sociable Cider Werks on a limited-edition brew called Burnout Smoked Apple, featuring a blend of Honeycrisp and Haralson juices.
James Norton is the author of Lake Superior Flavors (University of Minnesota Press), a guide to eating and drinking on the Lake Superior Circle Tour. He is currently the food editor at The Growler magazine.
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