Richard Owens had his first taste of a pawpaw while squirrel hunting in the woods with his dad in Johnson County, south of Indianapolis, when he was about 4 years old. The pair found a tree bearing fruit and decided to try one. “I had an open palate at that point,” recalls Owens.
That was some 50 years ago, and Owens as a child would never have imagined that he’d one day be growing this unusual fruit for a living – under the clever moniker Hoosier Pawpaw, no less. A former IT professional at Indiana University Bloomington, he retired in the summer of 2019 to focus full time on his orchard, which consists of about 250 pawpaw trees. “I ask myself, how did I get here?” he says. “I don’t know really, but I’m very glad and grateful to work where I’m at.”
So what is a pawpaw, exactly? It’s a kind of tropical fruit that’s indigenous to Indiana (believe it or not!), along with most of the eastern part of the United States, says Bruce Bordelon, a professor of viticulture at Purdue University. Pawpaws have been around a long time, he says; many older varieties of the fruit were discovered in the wild in Indiana and propagated.
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What Pawpaws Taste Like
The flavor of a pawpaw is comparable to a blend of banana and pineapple, with a hint of melon and mango. “A lot of people call it the ‘Indiana Banana,’ which has a nice ring to it,” Owens says. While this fruit certainly sounds delicious, it takes some effort to prepare it for eating. First, you have to remove the skin; you can use a knife or a potato peeler, or simply cut off one end and squish out the fruit. But before taking a bite, you must also remove the large brown seeds which run through the center.
A pawpaw is a little like a green tomato, Owens says, in that if you pick one off the vine before it’s started to ripen, it will never ripen correctly (and you don’t want to eat one that’s hard – it won’t taste right). When its texture resembles a ripe peach or avocado, with a little give when you press lightly, that means it’s ready to eat.
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The tree itself looks like it might belong somewhere closer to the Equator, with large, tropical-looking leaves. While wild trees grow to about 30 feet tall, a cultivated orchard will have shorter trees – and each orchard is as unique as a fingerprint, Owens says. Since pawpaws are not self-pollinating, growers must plant a different genetic cultivar every other tree to guarantee production. That’s why you may see a large pawpaw patch in the forest without any fruit, as there’s likely only one genetic strain present.
Why Pawpaws Are so Niche
Rumor has it that pawpaws were George Washington’s favorite fruit, Owens says, and that native Americans consumed them for nourishment for many years. They never really made it into grocery stores for the mass market, however. Unlike fruits such as apples and peaches, which are both lucrative crops in Indiana, pawpaws have a niche following. Those who love them, love them – but there’s also a population that feels strongly the other way.
“There’s a little bit of hesitation” around eating pawpaws, Bordelon says, with one reason for this being the prevalence of allergies to tropical fruits. Pawpaws contain bioactive compounds in their skins and seeds, and at one time, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company even used pawpaw extract to make ipecac syrup (a medicine used to induce vomiting after poisoning that’s rarely recommended now). And because the harvest window is so short, as is the post-harvest shelf life, pawpaws just simply don’t have the commercial potential of other fruits.
Where to Find Pawpaws
That said, farmers have still found a coterie who enjoys them. After selling pawpaws intermittently to restaurants in the past, Owens now has just one customer: His entire pawpaw crop, which amounted to more than 4 tons last year, goes to Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington.
Upland launched its first batch of pawpaw sour ale in 2013 with an experimental 5 gallons, and now, customers can’t get enough. This year, the company expects to produce about 1,800 gallons of the ale. Eli Trinkle, lead sour brewer, uses a high fruit rate, which comes through in the finished beer; after fermentation, the fruit is left on the beer for an additional two months. “Most people are blown away by the flavor you get from the fruit and cannot believe it grows naturally in Indiana,” Trinkle says.
Pawpaw sour ale is available seasonally at Upland and at a handful of bars around the country, and if you happen to be in Indiana during the fruit’s short harvest period in September, you can probably pick up a fresh pawpaw at a farmer’s market, too. Enjoy one while you can, as its unique flavor and appearance is fleeting.
“They’re fun to try,” Bordelon says, “but you won’t be seeing them in Whole Foods anytime soon.”