They’ve got four times the vitamin C of oranges. Fanciers call their rich, purplish juice - as popular in parts of Europe as orange juice is in the United States - “aromatic,” “very fruity” and “great stuff.”
Now, black currants are making a ripple in U.S. markets with the November release of Ocean Spray’s CranCurrant black currant cranberry juice drink.
The release has stirred excitement among the scattering of currant growers who tend pint-sized plantings of the pungent black berries across the northern United States and southern Canada.
“They’re very popular in Europe, but almost no one in the United States knows anything about them,” says Danny Barney, superintendent of the University of Idaho Research and Extension Center in Sandpoint. “If they’ve tasted black currants fresh, they probably never want to try them again. The flavor is strong, almost obnoxious.”
But as U.S. consumers are starting to discover, “once they’re processed, they’re delightful.”
At Homemade by Dorothy in Boise, Anna Baumhoff sells a black currant jelly made from Idaho-cultivated berries.
“People try it and they fall in love with it,” says Baumhoff. “I can honestly say it’s one of the few I do enjoy. … It tends to have more flavor than a lot of the other jellies.”
Ocean Spray now buys its currants from Europe, where Poland and Germany produce much of the world supply. That should continue until U.S. growers can produce comparable volumes, quality and price for juice concentrate, says Jay Dravenstadt, Ocean Spray’s principal food scientist.
In the meantime, he is discussing variety selection with interested growers.
“We’re not at the stage where we would advise growers to go out and start planting huge quantities,” says Dravenstadt. Still, the drink could tip smaller juice manufacturers to black currant’s potential.
“I do see a window of opportunity for getting some small-scale operations going,” says the University of Idaho’s Barney. “Idaho has some of the best currant-producing ground in the country.”
The best potential may be for half-acre or acre operations selling fresh berries or high-end value-added products such as jams, jellies, juice or syrups, Barney says. Nurseries offering newer, disease-resistant varieties also should find eager markets, he predicts. And their nutritional qualities should appeal to the health-food market.
“I think this is a real coming industry,” says Ed Mashburn, whose 200-member International Ribes Association deals with currants and gooseberries.
Mashburn has seen interest in currants swell among commercial and backyard growers over the past three years, particularly among blueberry and raspberry growers who use existing equipment on the season-extending crop.
While he can count only a few growers with 5 to 10 acres of currants, “most of them have the crop sold before they ever pick it” - mainly to wine, jam, and jelly makers.
At McGinnis Berry Crops Ltd. on Vancouver Island, Canada, propagator Dick McGinnis expects sales of his black currant plants to double this year and at least double again in 1998 as growers test them out. Orders come from Alberta, British Columbia, the U.S. Midwest and Northwest and especially from Quebec.
At Weeks Berries of Paradise near Logan, Utah, a berry farm and processor 30 miles from the Idaho line, Mervin Weeks has planted 2,000 black currant bushes over the past three years. This winter he plans to cook his first harvest into juices, jams and syrups.
Calling the black currant juice he tasted in Europe “really good, striking good,” he doesn’t expect consumers’ lack of familiarity to stall his sales. “I’m more concerned about raising them and getting good yields than I am about the product.”
Barney considers currants easier to grow than raspberries. The bushes take three years to produce a crop, last 15 years or more and require little besides fertilization and pruning while yielding 5 to 8 pounds of berries per bush. Harvest is by hand or mechanical. Hardy to about 40 degrees below zero, the plants languish when summer temperatures break 100.
Idaho once banned currant production because the bushes spread white pine blister rust, which felled the state’s white pine industry in the early 1900s. Only resistant pines are planted today. And currant varieties resistant to blister rust and to powdery mildew - currant’s other important disease - are increasingly available.
Currants are so comfortable in the Pacific Northwest climate that they grow wild over much of its woods.
“It’s a potential crop,” confirms Barney, “but it’s like any other: There are tremendous opportunities and tremendous risks.”