It was sweatshirt weather this past Saturday, but the autumn chill on the outside was no match for the heat on the inside among attendees of the second Heat Up Your Life event.
Staged in the parking lot of Roseville’s Bent Brewstillery taproom, it featured two dozen vendors from Minnesota’s burgeoning artisan fiery foods movement. Selling small-batch salsas, sauces, fermented products and juices with a kick, the vendors ranged from hot hobbyists to entrepreneurs looking to cash in on Minnesota’s growing interest in spicy flavors.
“It is a blazing scene,” said Rob Glacier, 26, the event coordinator and cheerleader, with a grin. He sells his handcrafted Nuclear Nectar sauce at farmers markets and co-ops, where he has to use his powers of persuasion to get passers-by to give his pungent elixir a try.
“What’s great is that everyone who is here is already converted,” he said. “This is the church of the hot, and we’re all bowing down.”
Almost every booth offered samples, which provided a revelation to some of the fire-eaters.
“I walked up and down and tried all of the hottest sauces,” said Jonathan Oltman, 23, of Shoreview. “Tasting them side by side lets you really tell the difference between them. Some have flavor and some just burn your mouth.”
The event also gave participants a chance to chat with the men and women who produce the pungent products, each with their own spin on spice.
Bernie Dahlin, 41, a mortgage loan officer by day, makes his Double Take sauces and salsas in 10 flavors, ranging from zestily mild to mind-blowing. He’s been selling the products, which he cans himself, at farmers markets for four months.
“It’s a farm-to-table operation. I started the peppers from seeds in my basement, then moved them to a farm in Amery, Wisconsin,” he explained. “I only put exotic peppers in my stuff; they offer so much flavor. Most people don’t use them because they’re expensive, but I can because I grow them myself.”
He’s especially proud of his yellow moruga scorpion variety, an intense gnarled pod that originated in Trinidad and is blistering enough to appeal to taste-bud masochists.
“It has a citrus flavor and it’s so hot you only need a little. You can fill the jar with the other good stuff — tomatoes, onions and garlic,” he said.
K.C. Kye’s products are unique because of their Korean flavors. A former pastor and municipal recycling officer, Kye, 32, is now working full-time to promote his K-Mama Sauce. Experimenting in a commercial kitchen in northeast Minneapolis, he made 80 versions of his Korean immigrant mother’s sauce recipe before he found the exact blend of sesame oil, rice vinegar, honey and the secret ingredient — gochujang.
“Foodies and Koreans know gochujang. It’s fermented red pepper paste,” he said. “Once people taste it, they want it. People are using my sauce like Sriracha — on brats, rice and beans, eggs. It’s on the table at the Kenwood restaurant in Minneapolis, and they put it on the Southern-style grits.”
Kye sold out of his spicy sauce at the Roseville event. Similar markets promoting the pepper have grown in popularity, with specialized festivals staged nationwide. This past April, New York’s third Hot Sauce Expo attracted about 10,000 spice girls and boys, each paying $10 to $100 for tickets to sample the wares of 45 purveyors at the two-day taste fest. (Pepto-Bismol not included.)
Those with a palate for the incendiary have an ever expanding number of choices. There are thousands of hot sauces, from mass-produced varieties manufactured by food giants to the kitchen creations of home cooks with little but a recipe, a dream and a box of canning jars. In the past 15 years, U.S. sales of hot sauces have grown by 150 percent, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, with annual revenue now topping $1 billion.
Interest in spicy flavors has also inspired those who want to grow their own peppers. Several vendors offered plants in pots, and Brendan Draves, 38, brought hundreds of tiny packages of seeds and dried pods to sell under his Swell Fella label. The restaurant worker grew 90 exotic pepper plants in containers at his Minnetonka home, then did the time-consuming and tedious work of extracting the tiny seeds while wearing two pairs of vinyl gloves to protect his hands from capsaicin. The compound that creates the fire on the tongue can burn skin as well.
Draves also sells small plastic bags filled with a product he calls Ouch Powder — dried pepper pods he pulverizes in a coffee grinder to the consistency of kosher salt.
“It’s a blend of 30 psychotically hot peppers,” he said. “You can put a pinch in tacos, barbecue sauce. My 16-year-old son likes it on French toast.”
Plenty of offerings
The mixed marriage of sweet and spicy also found friends. One vendor sold pepper-infused chocolates (Hot Lips) and cupcakes, and the ice cream vendor cooled things off with scoops of strawberry-jalapeño.
“Look at this turnout,” said Bent Brewstillery brewmaster and owner Bartley Blume. “Last year we had 400 people here; this year it’s twice that. There is a spicy culture in Minnesota, and it’s getting bigger.”
Cold beer, of course, is known as an ideal pairing for hot foods, and Blume used the occasion to premiere a limited-edition spicy brew.
“It’s called Dark Fatha, a bourbon-barrel-aged stout infused with ghost peppers,” he said. “It’s a big beer with a lot of flavor, so the pepper doesn’t overpower it.”
Still, not everyone in attendance was seeking high-powered heat. Barb Clausen and her husband came to the event because Bent Brewstillery is their favorite taproom.
“They gave me a sample of the spicy beer, but that was enough,” she said. “It was great, but there was no way I could drink a whole one.”
Vendor Tasya Kelen, 43, pitched a canopy over a table full of the spiced nuts she makes and markets. The yoga teacher started selling her flavored cashews, walnuts and pecans as holiday gifts. Now her Isadore Nut Co. products are in specialty stores.
She brought several spicy versions that moved from mild to moderate on the heat scale. The hottest, warmed with cayenne, turmeric and cumin seed, are too tangy for her tentative taste buds.
“I’m kind of a wimp,” she confessed. “I have to have someone who works with me sample them. What can I say? I’m a Minnesotan.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.