Little Elf. Fatalii Red. Naga Smooky Rainbow. Carolina Reaper.
Rob Coleman grows these hot pepper varieties and scores more — including some of the spiciest in the world — in hundreds of brightly colored pots, each carefully labeled, in his front yard.
Coleman and his wife, Cat Gilfillen, have been pepper gardeners for decades, setting up in front of their south Minneapolis home to capture the sunshine. They continue to add peppers and tweak the array, sticking a few flowers in among the veggies to "make it more palatable to the neighbors."
More than 100 pepper varieties grow in their yard.
"The number one question that people ask me is, 'Don't people steal them?' " Coleman said. "As far as I know, it has never happened."
Coleman, who chronicles his urban pepper growing on YouTube channel 7 Pot Club (named for the Trinidadian pepper so hot a single one can season seven pots of stew) starts the plants from seeds in his basement each February.
While the Colemans preserve their harvest, making a 7 Pot paste (peppers, with a bit of garlic, vinegar and lime juice), they also will often trade fresh peppers for other veggies with farmers they have befriended at the market in the Kingfield neighborhood.
During the growing season, Coleman also likes simply snacking on raw peppers as they ripen, even ones with supercharged scores on the Scoville scale, which measures a pepper's heat level.
A longtime musician who played in a reggae band for a time, Coleman got hooked on spice when he first tried a 7 Pot variety, encouraged by Trinidadian bandmates.
Gilfillen, who has a much milder palate than her husband, describes his introduction to hot peppers as "kind of like Spider-Man" being "activated."
Coleman didn't get much exposure to spice growing up in Indiana, but he does credit his ancestors for passing along receptive taste buds.
"My grandfather came from Austria-Hungary, in the early part of the last century and he grew what they call Hungarian wax peppers," he said.
(Hungarian wax peppers have a mild to medium Scoville scale range of 1,000 to 15,000. Some of the varieties that Coleman munches raw score in the 1.5 million to 2 million range.)
"I've always tried to find something hotter and hotter and hotter," Coleman said.
He started the YouTube channel three years ago, with Gilfillen as his videographer, and now has more than 17,000 subscribers. The pair, who work as freelance web developers, create videos that are informative (their most popular one, with more than 120,000 views, is a primer on growing hot peppers from seed). They also churn out videos that are upbeat and even a little trippy. Coleman writes and records original music for them, marrying his two passions.
Each video begins the same way: Coleman, who has shoulder-length gray hair and black-framed glasses, introduces himself, saying "Welcome to 7 Pot Club. I'm Rob." Then his catchy theme, "I Grow Hot Peppers," plays.
Every year at the end of the growing season, Coleman chooses his seven favorite pepper varieties, picks them and eats them raw on camera. For the annual tasting episode, he usually writes and records a brand-new tune.
In 2020, he couldn't narrow his choices to just seven so he tasted eight, and debuted a song called "Wow, Wow Wow," featuring a montage of him crunching peppers through the years.
"Please watch and listen while I mentally prepare myself for the pleasure and the pain," he tells viewers.
The track begins with a nod to our pandemic times:
"This was the strangest year / But I still grew hot peppers here / I'm going to taste them for you now / Soon I'll be saying 'Wow.' "
His top pepper last summer was called the Gator Jigsaw, a squat green-ripening variety that some say "could be the hottest in the world, although there are lots of peppers they say that about," he explains in the video.
After calmly crunching a big bite on camera, he gives his tasting notes. "Mmm. There's a taste of unripe fruit, a little bit of a black pepper accent to it. Quite savory. It's very, very hot."
Coleman prepares for the annual tastings by eating yogurt with bananas beforehand — because he loves the taste and because the superhot peppers can wreak havoc on his digestive system.
He eats peppers raw and by themselves.
"Sometimes I'll cut them up and put them on a sandwich or whatever," Coleman said. "Sometimes I regret that. I'll think, 'Oh, I can just eat this whole thing on a sandwich,' and I really regret that."
While the relatively short gardening season in Minnesota makes it an unlikely climate for growing tropical hot peppers, Coleman has found success by starting his plants indoors when it's snowing outside.
"I have found if you start them early, they do OK," he said. "When I first started, I was starting them in March or April and they weren't far enough along and they wouldn't mature."
He usually uses fish manure as a fertilizer but is trying turkey manure this year, too — testing to see which gives the plants the biggest boost.
"We'll see which wins," he said.
Beyond the front yard
Most years, Coleman will enter a few of his peppers in the Minnesota State Fair's vegetable competition. Because the fair's judges value uniformity, they need to be the same size, shape and color. In 2018, he won a blue ribbon for his half-inch Jellybean peppers, a variety of tiny white habaneros from Peru.
This year, he plans to enter some of his peppers, but he'll wait until the last minute to decide which variety to pick and bring to the competition.
He's known beyond the fairgrounds, though. His YouTube channel has connected him with fellow pepper enthusiasts on every continent except Antarctica. Last year, he collaborated with a hot sauce maker for the first time, shipping peppers throughout the season to Pennsylvania. A product with local hot sauce maker Lost Capital Foods is now in the works, said Coleman.
Even as he continues to grow and try new varieties, Coleman has a few pet peppers.
"I have my varieties that I love to snack on," he said. "Some of the habaneros I like to eat with meals. My favorite thing is just to take a bite of them. I just go out and pick them right before dinner."
When he and his wife go out to eat, Coleman often finds even the spiciest dishes are too mild. They are regulars at Vo's Vietnamese restaurant, where he brings along some frozen peppers from his front-yard patch to add to his vegan pho.
"I'm known for going out and taking a little container, and I'll just kind of discreetly dump them on my food," he said.
Erica Pearson • @ericalpearson