The sweetness of an apple is at the mercy of one thing: the weather. And this year, a combination of a dry summer and cool autumn nights have produced a crop that is sweet, firm and deeply colored.
Even the Macintosh, which prefers northern climes and ripens faster in the warmer Maryland summers, is doing well because of the cool September and October nights, said Richard Heflebower, a regional extension specialist for fruit crops at the University of Maryland.
One reason is the drought: The tree pumps less water into the cells of the fruit, meaning the concentration of sugar is higher, he said.
An apple will have developed a finite number of cells soon after it forms as a small globe on the tree. Then, the cells begins to get larger as nutrients, sugar and water contents increase during the season.
"After that time, if you get excessive amounts of rain, it can pump those cells up, and they fill with water," said Heflebower. "I've noticed that more with peaches."
Another reason for the good crop is that cooler temperatures in September keep fruit on the tree longer, for a good, slow ripening, he said.
That's the science of it.
Here's what the man on the street says:
"Those Red Delicious are extremely sweet. They're too sweet. They're too sweet to eat," said Bernie Dvorak of Chatterly, who with his wife, Penny, was standing over bins of apples at Weber's Cider Mill Farm in northern Baltimore County last weekend. "I've never tasted an apple that sweet."
He's 63, and an apple lover, so he speaks from experience. His wife loves apples even more, he said. She smiled in concurrence.
They don't bother with baking and sauce -- they eat their apples fresh.
"It's almost like peanuts -- you eat one and you can't stop," Bernie Dvorak said.
Penny Dvorak filled a plastic bag with a quarter peck of the Macintosh -- red globes with green highlights -- their favorite variety this year.
Joanne Drake and her two sons, Grayson, 5, and Hunter, 2, went apple picking last month and brought 7 pounds of the fruit back to their Overlea home.
"They're all gone, so we had to come back," she said, after picking about as many apples again at Weber's.
"Grayson likes to take them for his snack at school, and the little one likes them with peanut butter," Drake said.
The dry summer was a boon to all kinds of fruit: grapes, peaches and apples.
Several growers said their pumpkins are doing well, too, despite rumors of a pumpkin shortage. Most orchards are also selling pumpkins, and drawing hordes of people on weekends for fall activities such as hayrides, mazes, scarecrow making and apple treats, including fritters, cider and pie.
Every other week, from August through October, Marlene Brawner of Loch Raven Heights in Baltimore County drives a few miles to Weber's to pick apples. This year has been more of a pleasure than usual, she said.
"The apples are delicious this year," Brawner said.
Her favorites are the Gala apples, yellow with a red or pink veil of color.
"My oldest daughter just told me they were so sweet this year," Jill Anderson said of daughter Liz, after a family outing with her husband, Chip, and daughter Jenni at Weber's on Sunday.
"They were Red Delicious. Usually Red Delicious aren't that sweet to begin with," Jill Anderson said.
A week earlier, Bernie Dvorak had come alone and picked a sampling: three apples each of three varieties: Red Delicious, Macintosh and Golden Delicious. The Macintosh were the best, he said. So they came back for more.
"They're tart and hard," Penny Dvorak said.
Stephen Weber, owner of the farm, said the crop has been sweeter because of the drought, but the rain in late August and September has caused some of his varieties to crack. And while the peaches in the middle of the summer were supremely sweet, the ones picked later in August were not.
"This year in August, the flavor just washed right out of them," Weber said.
But on the whole, he and Allan Baugher, owner of Baugher's Orchards in Westminster, said their apples are sweeter and more intensely flavored.
"The drought normally would make them small, this year they've been a good size," Baugher said.
Orchard trees will drink up the extra sunshine in a dry summer and thrive, sometimes more so than normal, Baugher said.
"We had as good a yield as we've ever had," he said. "All those leaves on the tree, they change that sunshine to food energy for the tree. That's a pretty tall order, isn't it? The more sunny days you have, the better the tree functions.
"If I had a choice between a wet year and a dry year, I'll pick the over-dry year every time," Baugher said. "If you have an overly wet year, some varieties of fruit crack more readily. They've been in the dry sun, then they get lots of water and that makes them crack, and then you can't do anything with them."
The cracks aren't just unsightly, he said, but lead to decay. That means the apples can't be used for cider, applesauce or pie, which Baugher's produces in a large kitchen and bakery on the premises.
Long rain spells in the summer or late autumn also make it harder for workers in orchards. Baugher said sometimes the harvest can't wait, and workers have to climb ladders in rain boots, raincoats and hats.
"That's kind of a nasty thing to ask someone to do," Baugher said.
For some people, sweet doesn't necessarily mean a good apple.
"I like tart apples, so I haven't really noticed," said Lynn Van Sweden of Parkville, who was at Weber's. But the Jonathans she had this fall were very juicy and flavorful, she said.
Heflebower, the extension specialist, said even tart apples will taste better. The higher sugar content won't be enough to turn them into sweet apples, but the extra sugar will enhance their overall flavor and even tartness, he said.
Van Sweden wonders, however, whether this higher sugar content is responsible for an unprecedented pie problem: The bottom crusts on her two apple pies swelled and burned. It's never happened before. Same oven, same pans, same recipe as before. But the crust burned.
"I made apple crisp, and it was perfect," she said.