Illustration for article titled The forecasters have spoken: 2020 is the year of the blueberry
Photo: PetrBonek (iStock)
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

Every December since the start of the millennium, the Pantone Color Institute—the consulting and forecasting division of the world’s premier color standards company—has announced the “Color of the Year,” the hue its panel of international experts believes “serves as an expression of a mood and an attitude,” a “color snapshot of what we see taking place in our global culture.” In other words, the color of the year isn’t the most popular or trending shade; it’s the aura that shimmers around our feelings, the wavelength on the visible spectrum where marketers locate the pulse of our ever-shifting desires.

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But if our moods have a color, do they also have a taste? Firmenich, one of the globe’s top flavor and fragrance companies, says yes. For the past eight years, Firmenich has chosen a flavor to be the gustatory accompaniment to the year’s color: 2019, the year of Pantone’s “Living Coral,” was hibiscus-flavored. It came on strong, blazing Instagram-ready hot pink, but left behind a sour, puckery aftertaste—which pretty much describes the emotional trajectory of the year.

This year’s color is Pantone 19-4052: Classic Blue. “Instilling calm, confidence, and connection,” Pantone explained in a press release, “this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation … as we cross the threshold into a new era.” This year’s flavor, Classic Blueberry, reflects a similar urge to take shelter in the dependable, stable, and familiar. “Traditional is now trendy,” Firmenich explained in its own press release. Or, more precisely, familiar flavors help trendy foods—like cashew yogurt and kombucha—go down easier. “More traditional flavors like blueberry are being used to help [consumers] experience … new food trends, as they evoke positive feelings at a time in history when we crave optimism,” said Mikel Cirkus, Firmenich’s Global Creative Director of Foresight and Trends.

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Translation: in our dystopian, burning-earth future, blueberry flavor will make our cricket-protein smoothies and gluten-free keto muffins taste just like mom used to make.

Everyone is eating more blueberries. Global production of blueberries has doubled since 2007; in the U.S., it has grown even faster. Firmenich estimates that 2,000 new blueberry-flavored products are launched every year, in everything from baby food to vodka.

According to an international survey conducted by Firmenich, the number one feeling associated with blueberries is happiness. Comfort is second. The company points out that blueberries are also on trend for wellness. Consumers rank blueberries as the most super of all superfoods, according to their research.

But is this all that we can expect from our blueberry-flavored year? Happiness, comfort, and the mystical promise of antioxidants? The color and flavor of the year are selected by a cadre of elite consultants who perform their market research hocus-pocus in top secret. I’m not a trend forecaster, but I am a flavor historian. So I decided to peer into the big crystal blueberry and see what it could disclose about the taste of things to come.

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But hold up. What even is “classic blueberry” flavor? Unlike Pantone’s numerical system of color standards, there’s no corresponding set of flavor standards that pinpoints the exact register of blueberry-ness that counts as classic.

I try to imagine the essence of blueberry flavor. I think of blueberry muffins, blueberry pie, the blue goo sometimes sluiced onto cheese blintzes. These things only summon a kind of featureless fruitiness, pleasant sweetness with a mild acid tang. I walk to the Key Foods around the corner and buy a pint of blueberries flown to Brooklyn from Chile. They are firm and juicy, but the flavor is indistinct.

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I call up Mark Ehlenfeldt, a scientist with the USDA’s Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, to ask his thoughts on what “classic blueberry” flavor might be.

Ehlenfeldt tells me a bit about the history of blueberry cultivation. Most of the fruits that we eat today were domesticated hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. But blueberries, natives of North America, long resisted attempts to civilize them. Historically, wild blueberries were staple foods for Wampanoag, Ojibwe, and other indigenous nations, who foraged and dried the fruits and used them to prepare pemmican, a kind of proto-jerky power bar, among other things.

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In fact, until the 20th century, the only blueberries were wild blueberries. This changed in 1911, when Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, and Elizabeth White, a New Jersey cranberry farmer, began working together to tame the wild blueberry. Coville had figured out that blueberries need sandy, acidic soil to thrive. White heard about his research, and started tracking down wild blueberry plants to help cultivate a reliable high-yield, big-berried plant. By 1916, they had developed their first domesticated commercial variety. They continued to collaborate for the next two decades.

So do we owe “classic blueberry” flavor to Coville and White, and is it the same berry we’re eating now? At the supermarket, when you shop for apples, you pick and choose among Granny Smith, Pink Ladies, Red Delicious, etc. As for citrus fruits, there are navel oranges, tangerines, mandarins, clementines, and more. But when you buy blueberries, you’re just getting untitled, basic blueberries. Why is there only one kind of blueberry?

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Ehlenfeldt corrects me. When you buy blueberries, you’re not always getting the same fruit. They vary by region and growing season. Early season blueberries, in New Jersey and elsewhere, are mostly Dukes, big, firm berries with a good shelf life, but, he says, “only a mild flavor, at best.” In other words, they pretty much taste like nothing. If you want flavor, you’ve got to wait until peak season—early July in New Jersey—for Bluecrops, another variety originally developed by Coville.

“Most people, when they imagine blueberry flavor, they’re thinking of Bluecrop,” Ehlenfeldt says. “It’s got a nice balance between sweetness and acidity,” he tells me, and a good aroma. In New Jersey, the last blueberries of the season are Elliots. They are small and tangy, and good for pies.

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It’s a similar story when it comes to the rest of the country. Brian Bocock is VP of product management at Naturipe Farms, a grower-owned company comprising about 450 blueberry farmers around the world, from Argentina to Oregon. He’s also one of the people who coordinates the global blueberry supply, connecting growers with markets.

Bocock guesses that most U.S. consumers have only sampled about a dozen of the hundreds of blueberry varieties. He agrees with Ehlenfeldt that Bluecrops are the berries that come closest to the platonic ideal of blueberriness. “It’s got a sweetness that finishes off with a little tartness on the back end,” he says. “That’s what we consider the optimal blueberry flavor.

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“Blueberries can be a bit of a treasure hunt,” he continues. “You might go into an Acme or a ShopRite or a Trader Joe’s, buy some blueberries, and think, wow, these are the best blueberries ever!” By the time you go back for more, the retailer may have gotten a new shipment from a completely different variety, and you’re left disappointed. “One of our challenges as an industry,” Bocock explains, “is to create more of a consistent eating experience, 52 weeks a year.”

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A few years ago, Naturipe began trying to develop new plants that can deliver more of that optimal, classic blueberry flavor in multiple growing seasons and regions. “We are just starting to see the fruits of our labor,” Bocock says, laughing at his own pun, but he predicts that it will be another few years, at least, before the new and improved berries hit the market.

Ehlenfeldt, along with his USDA colleagues, has developed more than a dozen blueberry varieties, some of which explode the boundaries of blueberry flavor. There’s Hannah’s Choice, named for one of his daughters, an early season berry with peach overtones. There’s also Razz, a blueberry that tastes like a raspberry. And there’s Pink Lemonade, a pink blueberry with “a very distinctive flavor,” Ehlenfeldt says, “much more delicate tasting, very flowery and floral.”

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As I listen to Ehlenfeldt tell me about the universe of existing blueberries, I get increasingly psyched about the prospects for this blueberry-flavored year. It could taste like peaches, raspberries, anything! But it’s unlikely that any of us will find these berries in the grocery store. Blueberry growers are not looking to expand the repertoire of flavor possibilities; they are looking for a reliable, high-yield, easy-to-harvest berries that don’t go mushy. And you can’t exactly blame them. There may be increasing demand for blueberries, Bocock told me, but prices have stayed low. There’s little room for risk or playing around with new varieties.

So what does this tell us about this year to come and the aftertaste that this year will leave behind? There’s the latent possibility of radical change, of heavenly blueberries that taste like raspberries! But most likely, it will be more of the same.

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