Airlie Red Flesh

There is something a little fascinating about red fleshed apples. Red skins we’re used to, and the marketers tell us that it’s that rosy red color that attracts us, though I’m not sure I buy that. But red flesh is so unexpected, especially if the apple’s skin is yellow or green, giving us no hint of what might be hiding inside. Airlie Red Flesh is just such an apple.

It was found in Oregon, a lone tree growing in the rolling semi-forested hills between the tiny towns of Airlie and Kings Valley, north and a little west of Corvallis. Some say that the first to notice it was Jean Ivan “Lucky” Newell (1928-2016) who came across it sometime after buying a piece of land there in the late 1950s, and, according to one of his daughters, comparing the color of the flesh to his wife Audrey’s lips. As an ironworker and horseman, maybe apples didn’t interest him much for Newell doesn’t seem to have brought it to anyone else’s attention, selling the land in 1966 with the apple unremarked upon. Stories of how it came to wider notice involve, variously, pomologist William Schutz and/or a former local farm manager Thomas Kimzey finding the apple in the 1980s. What is certain is that by the 1990s it was being grown by apple enthusiasts in various parts of the Pacific Northwest and beginning to attract some commercial success as well.

How, though, did it end up in that field to begin with? Apples with red flesh aren’t complete unknowns, but they are hardly common. Before Lucky Newell bought that piece of land it had been owned for many years by the Story family. James Francis “Frank” Story (1895-1956) would have been farming it at the time the apple arrived, and one particularly intriguing notion is that its source was the northern California apple breeder Albert Etter (1872-1950). This is not as far fetched an idea as it might sound. Etter had been breeding red fleshed apples for many years, with Pink Pearl as his most noted red-fleshed success. According to an article written by Ram Fishman and reprinted in the winter 1996 edition of the newsletter of the Western Cascade Fruit Society, the Bee Line, in the late 1940s Etter sent scions of a number of his apples to Quentin Zielinski (1919-1967), professor of horticulture at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Perhaps one of those scions was for the apple now known as Airlie Red Flesh and just maybe Zielinski gave a scion to Frank Story.

This is, of course, highly speculative, but also not completely crazy. Well, it’s a little bit crazy since though Story was a farmer nearby there isn’t any documentation that would suggest he had any particular relationship with Zielinski. What is interesting, though, is suggestive evidence derived from the apple itself. 

First, a little science, the simplified version. There are a couple of genes that cause apples to create redness, either in their skin or flesh, and those genes are in turn controlled by other chemicals in the apple’s cells called transcription factors which in this case occur in two distinct versions. One set, type 1, tells the apple to make red pigments (anthocyanins) in all its various parts–leaves, stems, flesh, and skin. A different set, type 2, says “hey, only make pigment in the flesh. Leave the leaves green, the stems green/brown, and the skin yellow”. A classic example of a type 1 apple is Malus niedzwetzkyana, which was discovered in the mid 19th century in the the apple’s ancestral home of Kazakhstan. It was introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century by plant breeder Niels Ebbesen Hansen (1866-1950) who used it, and other Central Asian and Russian varieties, to create new cold-hardy apples in his South Dakota State College breeding program.

Surprise Apple

Etter used a type 2 apple for his breeding work, Surprise, which has light yellow skin and no evidence of any red pigment in its leaves or bark, only in its flesh. It is one of the parents of the apple Pink Pearl as well as countless other red-fleshed apples bred by Etter that were never introduced to the public. Surprise has apparently been in the U.S. much longer than M. niedzwetzkyana. Lee Calhoun describes it in his 1995 book Old Southern Apples noting that he found it listed in American nursery catalogs from as early as 1824. Noted horticulturalist Andrew J. Downing (1815-1852) had it in his orchard, though he didn’t think much of it describing it in the 1845 edition of Fruit and Fruit Trees of America as “. . . of little or no value, but admired by some, for its singularity—the flesh being stained with red. . .”

That Airlie Red Flesh is a type 2 apple like Surprise, and unlike M. niedzwetzkyana, suggests they are related, though definitive proof will have to wait until some enterprising scientist has analyzed the DNA of both. Even then, that wouldn’t prove that Airlie Red Flesh was one of Etter’s apples, yet there is something a little romantic about the possibility that it could be.

The final piece of this apple’s story concerns its various names. Airlie Red Flesh seems to be the name given to it by William Schutz in acknowledgement of the area where it was found. A second name, Hidden Rose®, is a trademarked (not patented) name created by Eric Schwartz, the owner of Thomas Paine Farms located just outside Kings Valley, OR. Various articles quote him saying that he took the apple and improved it, though what the particular improvements might be go unreported. Then there is Mountain Rose, a name which might have arisen to get around Schwartz’s trademark and yet sound prettier than Airlie Red Flesh. They are for all intents and purposes the same apple, and each of these names has appeared on cider labels over the last decade or so. In his Bee Line article, Fishman takes a moment to complain about the the decline in the standards of pomological nomenclature, particularly the practice of coming up with a new name for an established apple purely for commercial purposes, a practice that leads to a multiplicity of names and the attendant confusion. Frankly, he has a point.

Although Airlie Red Flesh is grown in a number of states, often under one of its pseudonyms, it is cidermakers in the Pacific Northwest that have particularly embraced it. Most of the examples I tasted through recently were various shades of pink, true rosé ciders, with noticeable but balanced acid. It is probably the anthocyanins that elicit the flavors of various red fruits, for in general the more red pigment retained in the cider the greater the range of red fruit flavors like red currant or raspberry. The exception to this was the traditional method cider from Alpenfire, Cinders, where some of those primary fruits had matured into the bready autolytic flavors that come with time on the lees. 

Double Mountain Redfleshed Rosé, Hood River, OR – dry; cranberry, pear, red cherry, watermelon, raspberry; sparkling; 2020; 5.9% ABV (a blend of Moutain Rose and Pink Pearl)

Art + Science, Cider + Wine Mountain Rose, Sheridan, OR – dry; plum skin, yellow apple, just ripe pear, bread dough, toasted almond, VA; sparkling; 2018; 7.2% ABV

Alpenfire Cider Glow, Port Townsend, WA – seam-dry; red currant, red plum, raspberry, strawberry, lemon, green apple skin; sparkling; (2018); 8.0% ABV

Alpenfire Cider Cinders, Port Townsend, WA – dry; red currant, red plum, raspberry, lemon, brioche, bread dough; sparkling; (2014); 8.9% ABV