California Hass it

But there’s more than one variety of our state fruit

Photo by Tristan Ferne (via Flickr)

Before the days of Super Bowl guac pots and California rolls, avocados were known as “poor man’s butter.”

Times have changed. Avocados are now a $300 to $400 million crop in California (the drought and Mexico’s surging exports have caused fluctuations in recent years), and the fruit is so coveted that San Diego County keeps a district attorney on the payroll who specializes in prosecuting avocado thieves.

The industry is also dramatically homogenized. Though hundreds of varieties of this New World jungle native exist, the ubiquitous Hass rules the groves and the retail market. Some of us have heard of Bacon, Lula, Pinkerton, Reed, Fuerte and Zutano avocados, but these avocados are much harder to find.

The first Hass avocado sprouted randomly and namelessly from a seed in a yard in Whittier in 1926. A man named Rudolph Hass eventually purchased the seedling tree from its owner and planted it in his own yard. Its fruits became popular among neighbors and friends. Grafts were made, and in following years and decades the Hass avocado would be cloned millions of times and become the leading commercial variety around the world. Among farmers and packers, the fruit is favored for its tough skins, which allow for long-distance shipping. Hass avocado trees also bear consistent crops year to year, whereas some competing varieties tend to produce a large crop only every other year, and for most farmers in the business of making money, Hass is the avocado of choice.

But some avocado enthusiasts assure that, in the wide world of avocados, the Hass is among the inferior kinds. On the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, farmer Ken Love, who has collaborated with UC Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in experimental cultivation of many fruits, has closely studied and evaluated at least 15 varieties of avocado.

Some are endemic to Hawaii, several are fantastic, and California avocado growers, as Love says, “need to get out more.” Love jokes that he doesn’t let his horses eat Hass. He much prefers varieties like the soccer ball-sized Ohata avocado, the faintly sweet Serpa, and the Yamagata—which first appeared as a feral seedling not far from Love’s farm. Love once ran a blind taste test of locally grown and imported avocados on a group of Hawaiian chefs. Winning varieties included the rich and buttery Kahalu’u and the islands’ favorite, Sharwil. Californian Hass flunked.

While Hass avocados from Chile and Mexico regularly arrive in California—and even in Hawaii—in great numbers, until recently, Hawaii-grown avocados were forbidden entry into the U.S. mainland. In 2013, the USDA approved the popular Sharwil for import, but all other varieties are still banned.

But even in Chico, a variety of flavorful avocados can be found. Chico Natural Foods frequently carries several types from small organic farms in Southern and Central California. The Reed avocado, says the store’s produce buyer, Kevin Durkin, is a large, creamy-fleshed variety; the Zutano is sweet with a very light, silky texture; the Gwen avocado is fairly oily; while the Bacon avocado has a smoky taste. And if none of those kindle your appetite, almost every store in the world carries Hass.