Though there are about 70 varieties of almonds grown around the world – from Spain and Australia, to Italy and France – due to the Mediterranean climate of California's Central Valley, the state produces 80 percent of the world's almond supply, selling to 90 different export markets. California also produces about 30 almond varieties of its own, though the vast majority of production (98 percent) is represented by 13 commercially relevant varieties.
With its focus on the orchard of the future, the California almond industry is "always looking for better and more sustainable almond varieties," Sebastian Saa, Ph.D., senior manager for agricultural research at the Almond Board of California (ABC) says. "We're convinced that through research and innovation, we'll find varieties that produce not only more pounds of almonds, but also higher quality with reduced management costs and horticultural inputs in terms of water use, pest management and more. As technology and experience advance, it'll allow us to discover better, more efficient varieties."
ABC: Can you share the different California almond varieties, including the basic classifications and what distinguishes them?
Saa: Among the 13 commercially relevant varieties, the Nonpareil dominates, accounting for about 40 percent of California's annual production. Other popular varieties include Monterey, Independence, Carmel, Fritz, and the combination of Butte and Padre—which are harvested together.
The industry classifies these varieties into three main types. The first is the Nonpareil type, with the Nonpareil variety being its main variety. This type is characterized by a soft—or "paper"—shell, and an attractive medium-sized kernel that's uniform in shape, smooth-surfaced and light blonde-colored in its skin. These varieties are mainly used for snacking because of their attractive kernel characteristics.
Then there's the Mission type. These varieties have small, short, plump kernels with wrinkled surfaces and dark-brown skins. Varieties in the Mission type include the Mission variety, Marcona, Butte, Padre and Fritz These are mainly used for natural roasted and bulk purposes, as well as in candy and chocolate applications.
The third group is the California type. This group was established about five decades ago for manufacturing processes like blanching, slicing and slivering. The varieties have a wide range of kernel shapes and sizes, from narrow-medium to narrow-long to narrow-large and so-on. They have a wrinkled surface and brown color. And because of consumers' high demand for snacks, many varieties in this type are used for roasting, salting and flavoring. Some of the varieties, such as Carmel, Monterey and Wood Colony, are also good for slicing and slivering because of their large kernel sizes.
ABC: Are there other ways to classify California almond varieties?
Saa: Yes. From a horticultural point of view, we divide the varieties by their main horticultural characteristics. While that may not be very informative for the consumer, it's helpful for growers when selecting which varieties to grow.
For example, you can divide almonds into auto-incompatible varieties, which require cross-pollination from one tree variety to another to produce fruit. Or self-compatible varieties, which can produce fruit without cross-pollination. Many almond varieties require cross-pollination, but some new self-compatible varieties do not and can be planted alone. Another horticultural distinction is harvesting time, as some varieties are harvested earlier in the season than others.
There's also the USDA grade classification, based on the minimum standards and tolerances in each grade for factors like percentage of doubles, defects and kernels injured by chipping or scratching during processing. The U.S. Fancy grade consists of shelled almonds that have less than 3% doubles, are clean and well dried and so-on—in other words, a very good-quality product.
ABC: Why do we need so many varieties of California almonds?
Saa: First, diversification is key. Different uses and different needs demand different varieties. When you think about an almond variety for snacking, for example, you think about crunch and strong flavor. But when you think about a variety for a plant-based milk, you're probably thinking about milder flavors. And if you're looking for a variety to cover in chocolate, you're looking for a short but round kernel shape.
Having so many varieties also offers growers' operational diversification. If you have only one variety that you need to harvest within a narrow window, you put a lot of demand on your resources at one critical point in the system. However, when you have multiple varieties that you can harvest sequentially, you can leverage your equipment and maximize your resources.
For more information on the future of almond varieties, visit Almonds.com for part 2!