With new Opal apple marketers and growers popping up around Europe and trials underway by South African produce giant DuToit, expectations are high that the Czech-origin variety – known scientifically as UEB 32642 -could reinvigorate the yellow category. As the second part of a series on Opal, at www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with key proponents of this apple which has been met with rave reviews around the world.
“Even people who usually don’t buy Golden Delicious apples would buy an Opal-branded apple if they knew how it eats,” according to Michael Weber of Germany-based Fruit Select, which holds the European marketing rights.
Following the success of UEB 32642 grown by Broetje Orchards in the U.S. Northwest, 64 trial plantings were established in Europe in 2007.
The initial focus had been on the British, German and Austrian markets, with exclusive deals though Univeg UK and SanLucar, but Weber said Opal was now moving toward the traditional yellow apple countries of Spain, Italy and France.
“We’re taking a step-by step approach. Univeg has been selling commercial volumes for four years and SanLucar for two years, so that is phase one,” he said.
“In these countries there is a relatively low appreciation for yellow apples, and so it was there we started the Opal project to revitalize the category.
“We recently had meetings in Spain where the market was evaluated, and we now have two new partners there – Orchard Fruit and Nufri. This year we are on our way to sign agreements to get Italian companies involved.”
While the Mediterranean countries have generally been oriented toward yellow varieties, Weber has noticed a trend of marketers struggling with sales and looking to new bicolored apples like Envy, Jazz and Kanzi.
One reason for this could be yellow varieties’ tendency to lose their crunch in the heat, and Weber therefore hoped Opal’s characteristics could help to turn the tables.
“Our trial plots in Catalonia, Spain, and the Italian provinces of Piedmont, Trentino and South Tyrol show very promising results,” he said.
“One of the biggest innovations is that it holds the crunch even under the heat. From the Czech Republic you don’t know if an apple can stand the heat they have in places like Washington State, South Africa or Spain, but it’s so important.”
Weber added the variety’s high Brix levels of around 15-16 were counterbalanced with acidity, creating a ‘universal’ flavor.
“The U.K. and German consumers like it, but so do the Italians and the Spanish. So we’re relatively confident that it matches consumer expectations in different markets and cultures,” he said.
With production set to grow rapidly from the current 3,000 metric tons (MT), Weber believes the variety could one day take a chunk of the European Golden Delicious market.
“I personally believe that a share of 2-3% of the market is achievable,” he said, adding 1% of the Golden Delicious market stood for around 22,000MT.
“When will this be the case? We don’t know. Possibly between 2026 and 2030.”
Brand recognition growing in the U.K.
In the U.K., where the number of planted trees has shot up from 2000 seven years ago to 136,000 today, Univeg UK is working hard to boost consumer loyalty and extend the marketing window.
Hannah Surtees, head of category marketing and insight, highlighted that plantings had been established in various different counties, which is important in a country where consumers have a strong preference for local produce.
“It’s great that Opal can grow well in the U.K. with sustainable returns for growers to make it viable in the future,” she said.
“For me it’s a brand and a product that’s fantastically exciting. Over the last few years while I’ve been involved with it we have done very consumer-focused marketing activities and the customers are absolutely wowed by it.”
Surtees said it had been a challenge launching a new apple variety in the U.K. market, which nowadays offers huge choice but is dominated by a select few.
“The market’s become increasingly busy with a huge range for shoppers, which brings both positives and negatives,” she said.
“The positives are it’s really exciting for consumers if they can see that range of choice and that there’s definitely an apple out there for everybody, but then on the reverse of that there’s a continued challenge for space.
“Around 70% of sales still go through five core varieties – Royal Gala, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious – and then you have a large tail of new products, which are very exciting and offer consumers great choice.”
She added while consumer insight groups had pointed out many shoppers have preconceived negative ideas about yellow apples, when given Opal to try this ‘completely switched’.
“It’s a consumer paradox, yes it’s yellow on the outside, but it’s everything you want and more on the inside,” she said.
Univeg UK has brought Opal to various food festivals around the country over the years, including the BBC Good Food Show, and has been ramping up its social media presence to build brand awareness and loyalty.
Surtees is now hoping to extend the marketing season as much as possible, both through controlled atmosphere storage and greater availability.
“For the next few years it’s about building better recognition for what a great eating apple it is and that outstanding flavor, which drives repeat purchases back to the product to continue growing sales,” she said.
Dutoit prepares for first commercial volumes
One of the major counterseasonal suppliers to the U.K. in the future is likely to be South Africa, where produce company Dutoit is one of several that has been trialling production for a few years.
The leading fruit packer and exporter has various Opal orchards in four areas around the Western Cape, and was able to evaluate the first fruit in 2013.
“A semi-commercial trial of 1150 trees was made in the Koue Bokkeveld in 2012. This was a calculated risk based on information gathered first hand from visits to Broetje in the USA and various growers in France and Germany,” produce development manager Tanith Freeman said.
“The past two seasons we have been able to harvest a good sample for packing and storage trials.”
Freeman said the variety seemed to grow well in a wide range of micro-climates in the Western and Eastern Cape. Sites to avoid are ones where Golden Delicious generally does not do well and where there is a historic high incidence of russet
The first small commercial volumes are expected next year, and while Dutoit is free to export to whichever company it chooses, Freeman said Univeg UK and SanLucar would be the natural choices to begin with.
“Considering the amount of marketing done in the UK by Univeg and SanLucar in Germany, I do believe these two companies would our first port of call,” she said.
“This year branded samples were sent to selected African markets. Their acceptance remains to be seen as Africa prefers a green Golden.
“It will be a huge challenge to position Opal as a different tasting experience against a perception of overripe Goldens.”
Representatives of TopFruit, which manages UEB 32642 in South Africa, emphasized the variety was in its very early stages in the country, but they believed it had strong potential.
“There are 33,500 trees currently in the ground, of which the bulk is planted with Dutoit, however not all trees are bearing as most were only planted in 2014 and 2015,” Pome fruit operations manager Corné Grundlingh said.
“Therefore we had small volumes this season, of which a few trial cartons were sent to Africa to test the consumers’ response, and some were introduced into the South African domestic market.”
While Europe is a key market for South African apple exports, research and trials will be carried out in a range of markets around the world in due course.
There are currently six South African companies trialing Opal orchards, but Top Fruits is looking to grow this number.
“We’d love to expand, we think it’s a great variety,” said pome fruit manager Peter Allderman.
He highlighted that feedback for the variety so far had been ‘extremely positive’, adding it was a relatively easy variety to grow.
“It has many grower-friendly characteristics. Most importantly it’s scab resistant and it’s also fairly resistant to powdery mildew, but also it’s very productive,” he said.
As for the prospects of Opal in South Africa, Allderman was hopeful for a bright future.
“At a time when we are facing declining per-capita consumption of apples, this is the kind of apple that could reverse that trend,” he said.
“We’d like to see it do very well. It’s a new category. Pink Lady was fantastic in that it introduced the pink category, and the Opal is not just a yellow apple – we’d like to see it start the gold category.
“It’s very early days, but hopefully consumers will like it and that taste and flavor is what will bring them back to it.”
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“Varieties are created by nature,” said Opal apple breeder