Minnesota Apples Are Ripe for the Picking, Eating & Drinking

By James Norton

applesMost people can appreciate the flavor and texture of a ripe apple, but few are capable of improving upon it. The University of Minnesota managed to achieve such a feat in 1991, when it released the Honeycrisp apple cultivar.

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 of M'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.

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. ("As American as apple pie" may not be comprehensive, but it's not wrong, either.)

Enjoying the Apple in Its Element

apple orchard signDozens 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—depending, of course, on the weather.

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 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.

A More Civilized Apple

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.

Sara's Tipsy Pies at Minnesota State Fair
Sara's Tipsy Pies / Courtesy the Minnesota State Fair

Farm-to-table spots are a good place to start if you're looking for apples on your plate. Options include Wise Acre Eatery in Minneapolis and Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar in Duluth.

And there is, of course, no lack of local pie places that highlight apples in a way guaranteed to create a happy memory. A new 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.

An Apple in Your Glass

Artisan cider is beginning to 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.

Sociable Cider Werks brewery taproomIf you're in Minneapolis, don't miss the ciders of Sociable Cider Werks (pictured). Located in the hip Northeast neighborhood, Sociable features regular Thursday-Saturday 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 collaborated this year with Sociable Cider Werks on a limited-edition brew called Burnout Smoked Apple, featuring a blend of Honeycrisp and Haralson juices.