What tastes like cotton candy and looks like a grape? A Cotton Candy grape, of course.
The fruit looks like just another green grape, but a bite into the seedless variety immediately gives the sensation of eating a fluffy pink ball of spun sugar.
The grape is bred by International Fruit Genetics, and in the United States is solely grown by the farming company, Grapery. Both companies are based in Bakersfield, Calif. Jim Beagle, CEO of Grapery, said his company looks to grow grape varieties that are unique, but have a natural fruit flavor. It follows natural and sustainable practices and uses no genetic engineering, he said, and so, no, the Cotton Candy grapes are not injected with any flavoring.
“We were just trying to develop grapes with great taste, and we got lucky that one actually tasted like cotton candy,” he said. “Cotton candy is like cult food. People often tell us that it’s their favorite food in the entire world.”
When Mr. Beagle first tasted the Cotton Candy grapes, while harvesting them in the field on a 100-degree day, he felt that they didn’t taste like the actual fair treat. “They don’t taste like cotton candy in hot weather, or even when it’s room temperature,” he said. “So it’s best to refrigerate the grapes first before eating them to get the real flavor.”
New grape varieties are hard to breed, Mr. Beagle said, and the success rate is only 1 in a million. It took 10 to 12 years to breed Cotton Candy. The grape was first introduced in 2013, and is available at Whole Foods in Shadyside for $3.99 a pound and at Giant Eagle Market District stores for $6.99 for a container (about 1½ pounds) and 3 pounds for $8.98 at Sam’s Club.
Jill Braasch of Squirrel Hill bought the grapes — two bags of them — for the first time at Whole Foods last week. “They're creepy, but good,” she said. “And now the kids are eating them like, well, candy.”
Another first-time buyer, Naomi Stephenson of Penn Hills, said she could not keep her hand out of the bag after tasting the first one. “It is amazing. If you close your eyes, you feel like you were eating pink cotton candy. I love them. They are so wonderful,” she said. She had bought four bags in the morning, but then returned to Whole Foods the same evening to buy six more bags for her daughters-in-law.
When the PG staff tasted the grapes, the almost unanimous response was “it’s good”; one person called them weird, and the other just did not want to try them. But inquiring minds wanted to know if wine made from the grapes would taste like cotton candy, too.
“We made some wine from Cotton Candy grapes and it was terrible. The flavor was awful, and the wine smelled like stale doughnuts,” Mr. Beagle said. “The chemistry in the grapes in terms of tannin and acid structures isn’t right for wine. It’s very different in general for fresh grapes.”
Grapery’s newest variety is Moon Drops, which was harvested only late last week. Mr. Beagle said the flavor of the elongated, large grapes “is not as unique as Cotton Candy, but they taste like grapes should really taste.” As they are in their first year, only a limited batch has been harvested, and so Moon Drops will not be widely available on the East Coast.
Gum Drops is the next designer grape variety that Grapery is growing, and it will be available next year. The small, purplish-black grape has a candy-sweet flavor, Mr. Beagle said. “It’s got a strong fruity flavor and it’s as shocking as the Cotton Candy.”
Although he often needs to describe the shape and the looks of the grapes, Mr. Beagle said his company is all about flavor. ”We are super focused on flavors that naturally occur in the world of fruits.” He said his biggest challenge is to find grocers who value flavor, as most of them are more worried about color, size and the shelf life of the fruits.
So is there a flavor that Mr. Beagle feels is over the top for a future grape variety? “We will be sticking to flavors such as lemonade, mango, raspberry, plums, cherries and strawberries. We would not do steak or chocolate,” he said.
Arthi Subramaniam: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @asub