Monday, October 3, 2011

Mcintosh vs. Honeycrisp Smackdown

Left to right: McIntosh, Honeycrisp. Click photo for close-up.
On the left, "the Mac," McIntosh, an Ontario foundling, for decades the preeminent apple of the Northeast, successor to Baldwin, sire (and mother) of many varieties, vinous, sweet, and tart.

And looming large at right, from the breeding program of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, surging in popularity, the younger, bigger, and much much sweeter Honeycrisp.

Of all my pairings, this head-to-head must be my most antagonistic. Not only is upstart Honeycrisp stealing market share from the venerable Mac, but the Province of Nova Scotia has deployed the big guy as a pomicidal weapon, paying farmers to rip out McIntosh trees and plant Honeycrisp.

This is a real grudge match.

McIntosh is a medium-to-large apple with a streaky red blush that has a hint of purple. It's round and a little ribbed. Many small light lenticels decorate the skin.

Honeycrisp is huge, a cheerful red just the orange side of a fire truck. Small distinct light lenticels rise from a dense cloud at the base, spreading and dissipating upwards. It's also round and slightly ribbed, with a surface that is marked with small regular dimples, like a golf ball (but less pronounced).

They are both attractive apples in very different ways. McIntosh is understated but pretty, its blush suggesting red wine. Honeycrisp is vivid and bright like a candy or a toy.

Okay, lets eat. I should mention that I've got a second Mac here to supplement the smallish one I've started with, to match Honeycrisp bite for bite.

Honeycrisp's flesh is, as some promoters would have it, explosively sweet, a coarse light yellow that is very crisp and dripping with juice. Inside the Mac is a bit denser and also quite juicy, white with green highlights, and crisp.

Honeycrisp's texture, combined with its light quality, is very appealing. Its flavor does not change. Its intense sugar batters the Mac, alternating bites, but McIntosh's berries-and-wine flavors slowly reassert each time. To my surprise, as I eat back and forth the two antagonists are grudgingly complementary.

The best part of Honeycrisp's taste is the beginning of the first bite after eating some McIntosh, allowing hidden flavors to briefly peek through the wall of sugar. The first Mac bite after Honeycrisp is strangely watery and delicate by contrast, not something I associate with McIntosh, and there is a brief attenuated caramel note that I've never tasted in Mac before.

Honeycrisp for its part teases us with a brief flash of cabbage, sugared cole slaw, before the sweetness sweeps everything away.

People pay extra for Honeycrisps, which are tricky to grow and can be in short supply, but the plentiful (and dependable) Macs are cheap.

Both apples are consistent and faithful throughout. And which is better? Well, listen.

To me it is clear why both of these apples are popular. What's not so clear is why they would be popular with the same people. They are not just very different, they seem to chase fundamentally different ideals of what an apple should be. Wine or candy?

McIntosh has the better balance of sweet and tart, and rewards the taster with a dry astringent finish that lingers wonderfully in the mouth and throat. Honeycrisp has an amazing crunch, but I find the flavor cloying. Its sugar sweeps all away before it, which is impressive, but I like to taste things more than that. I did notice a slightly floral quality in Honeycrisp's finish that is very pleasant.

Whether Honeycrisp is the young prince ready to ride in and relieve the old man of his burdens, or an uncouth, faddish usurper, is probably in the palate of the taster.

The economic struggle between these apples does not mean they cannot share a plate and make some limited complementary synergy. I learned a bit more about both varieties by eating them together.

However, the Mac's balanced, measured flavors do not hold up well to Honeycrisp's saturated sweetness, and I think that the many qualities of McIntosh, at any rate, shine much brighter without Honeycrisp in the room, or at least the mouth.

As for the war between the Mac and Honeycrisp, time will tell. Arguably there are already plenty of McIntosh trees in the Northeast (at least the market seems to think so) and it does not follow that if the Mac wanes a bit it will therefore be extinguished.

I should be dismayed however if McIntosh declined so much that it no longer cracked the wholesale market and consequently was not available in supermarkets in winter and spring. Its authentic flavors are a welcome alternative to the saccharine stuff that is popular nowadays.


  1. Ha! A pomicidal grudge match, that got me giggling. I have tried over and over to like the popular Honecrisps but they are way too sweet for me, and awkwardly big. I didn't have the words to express what was "wrong" --- this article really refines and explains what it is about the Honeycrisps that I'm not crazy about!

  2. Love your photo, made me want to caption it 'Supersize me!'.

    While the Mac remains a favourite, it's really only good for a few weeks after picking. To my taste, storage does something to it. This fall, I've been trying to taste a number of Mac descendants. A few are spectacular, would love to see them more available.

    Results of Mac tasting and and

  3. Suzanne, thank you for those links! (To descriptions, from different bloggers, of a marvelous apple tasting in Toronto that was staged by Suzanne.)

    You could easily hold an entire apple tasting devoted to McIntosh and its offspring. I wonder what you think of my suggestions to Mac lovers.

    What are the highlights of the Mac relations you have tried recently?

  4. Ha! I had a table of 14 or 15 Mac relatives at my tasting. It's hard to find more here, at least in season mid-late September. And I quite liked your Mac lover recommendations. Am curious about Davey which is hard to find around here and I always seem to miss Tydeman's Early. Dayton, with its very distant Mac lineage might be a good inclusion. It was popular at my tasting this year.

    Highlights of Mac relations tried recently? An unusual, very Ontario, variety. A Snow seedling called Princess Louise. I included it on the Mac tasting table as a possible relation because Snow (Fameuse) weren't yet ripe. Spectacularly juicy, sweet bit with a slight Mac tart/vinous hit. Memorable.

    And this year, I found myself enjoying Burgundy over its parent Macoun. Not the normal state of affairs (I see you're a Macoun fan too!) but it may have been a bit early for Macoun. Freedom, of similar lineage, didn't stack up. FYI, up here we pronounce it MA-KOON.

    I've been paying attention to the disease resistant varieties (e.g., Liberty, Freedom, Redfree) with some Mac in their parentage. In part, because I find having smaller apples around handy. Of this group, I've liked the early Redfree. Liberty was a little disappointing given its Macoun relationship. A local-ish organic grower of many of these varieties has started supplying a farmers' market nearby so I'll give these a few years before fully weighing in :)

    Aside. Am still reeling from Saturday's road trip to a new-to-me grower's tasting. An almost overwhelming list of old varieties I'd only read about

  5. Suzanne, what a great event! I have made a link to your photos into a short blog post, hope you do not mind.

    Davey is not at all common, unfortunately because it is genuinely good. Probably the only reason it survives is thanks to the conservation efforts of the Worcester County Horticultural Society, of which Lathrop Davenport ("Davey") was a member.

    The society sells heirloom budwood of this and other varieties but unfortunately not this year as the group's orchard had a touch of fireblight earlier.

    Of the disease-resistant varieties I think I like Liberty the best, though I have not eaten widely of them; Jonafree is also good (though not Mac-like, nor especially Jonathan like for that matter; review forthcoming).

  6. The Redfree I had here in Wisconsin this year was excellent. The Macouns here that I tasted this year were not good. This includes some from a local orchard that were sold too early I believe and also from a tree in an orchard that I work at. The flavors did not develop this year and all samples even late in their season were tart spitters in my opinion. Last year is a different story - the Macouns were great!!! Apples are a funny bunch from year to year.

  7. Matt, Macoun is hitting her stride here in the Northeast, thank goodness. But I agree, the success of any particular crop really depends on many things!

  8. This post is incredible! I learned three new apple-centric vocab words. Keep it up...

  9. Catherine, thanks for your kind words of encouragement! Have a great apple season.

    1. I am addicted to the Honeycrisp...I didn't eat many apples I have one a day...and I love them refrigerated...
      but the season is just about over and I need a replacement...

    2. @Anon: They are very popular. As for what else to try, have you read my suggestions for Honeycrisp lovers?


Join the conversation! We'd love to know what you think.