Looks can be deceiving. A SweeTango that looks perfectly tantalizing on a tree might not be ready for picking just yet.
So how do growers identify the best time to harvest their SweeTango apples? They use a combination of science, experience and old-fashioned taste tests.
“Color is a major indicator of when the SweeTango and many other varieties of apple are ready, but it can also be deceiving,” said Chris Sandwick of Pepin Heights Orchards in Lake City, Minn. “Some apples at orchards are getting great color, but the interior quality just isn’t there yet.”
Growers use several tools and tests to decide when to harvest.
A refractometer is an indispensable device at any apple orchard. With this tool, a grower presses juice from a sample apple onto a slide, which is then held up to the light. A lens inside the device refracts the light and shows the amount of soluble solids in the juice.
Those solids are sugar and give the grower the Brix level of an apple’s juice. The higher the Brix number, the more sugar the apple contains. The more sugar, of course, the sweeter the apple.
Another test involves a simple spray bottle and iodine. Growers slice a SweeTango and squirt the sample. Iodine makes starch turn black, so an apple with a lot of starch and relatively little sugar turns black. It’s best to let apples in that condition ripen a bit longer.
Figuring out when to harvest SweeTango apples is not all science, however. Growers rely on their taste buds, too.
“We are certainly looking at scientific measurements,” Sandwick said. “But at the end of the day, we know what a good SweeTango should taste like.”
Testing is a continual process. Not all apples on a tree or in an orchard ripen at the same rate. Think of the tomatoes in your garden.
For SweeTango growers, the goal is consistency.
“We are looking for a consisting eating experience,” Sandwick said. “If we’re going up against potato chips and candy bars, we can’t have every third apple not tasting the way it should.”
Note: Pepin Heights Orchards leads Next Big Thing, A Growers Cooperative, which grows and markets the SweeTango apple.