Why you should care
Because hot sauce in your bag is swag.
Like many hot sauce heads, Dylan Keenen traces his addiction to the spicy-sweet Asian chili sauce Sriracha. He and his girlfriend Becky Gibbons drizzled it over their dorm food, masking the taste of gelatinous eggs and stale mac and cheese. Their hankering for heat grew, and they amassed a collection of condiments that Keenen’s father brought home from his travels. When they settled in Alameda, outside of San Francisco, they hunted for local hot sauce shops to restock their stash but found none.
So in true enterprising Bay Area fashion, the young, fresh-faced couple opened their own: Heat Hot Sauce Shop in downtown Berkeley. After three years of business, they temporarily shut down the storefront in search of a larger location. Luckily, they plan to open a new store in neighboring Alameda in the next month or so. Meanwhile, the online store is still humming along and now sells more than 450 hot sauce varieties, offering a taste of Americans’ obsession with the stuff. According to IBISWorld, the hot sauce industry grew 5.3 percent annually from 2010 to 2015 and generates $1 billion in revenue. Not unlike craft beer, hot sauce is experiencing a renaissance. Scores of specialty producers have surfaced, titillating taste buds with ever more piquant peppers and unexpected flavors, from kiwi to maple syrup.
Rows of red and black shelves line Heat’s walls, stocked with gleaming bottles of hot sauce organized by pepper variety. Milder chipotle and habanero-based condiments greet customers near the entryway, while further along lie sauces made with tear-inducing ghost pepper and seven-pot chili, and the even more blistering Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion cultivars. Keenen reserves the top shelf for extracts of capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat, including Pure Evil 9.6 in sinister red-and-black packaging — an extract so scorching that customers must sign a waiver to buy it.
But hot sauciers are challenging our palates with more than just spice. These days, fruit is a trending ingredient. Heat’s fruit-based selection features sauces made with blueberries, peaches and pomegranates, to name a few. My favorites include Yellowbird’s Habanero Sauce, a tart, biting blend of habaneros, carrots and tangerine juice, and Small Batch Organics’ Yin Yang Sweet & Smoky Habanero Hot Sauce, reminiscent of barbecue sauce but with a crisp sweetness, perhaps from apples (although the company mysteriously lists only “organic fruit” on the label).
A second wall of shelves displays hot sauces from around the world, including searing-yet-sweet Jamaican scotch bonnet sauces, creamy African peri peri pepper sauces and garlicky, slow-burn Asian chili oils. Keenen owes much of the hot sauce craze to the recent influx of immigrants and their fiery fare. “People want to expand their horizons,” he says.
And now they have more options than ever beyond the ubiquitous Tapatio and Sriracha— thanks to an explosion of small-batch artisanal producers. Spurred by a shift toward knowing the origins of their food, “people are making their own stuff,” says food blogger Joe Di Stefano. Brian Todd, president of The Food Institute, also credits hot sauce’s convenience — it’s a cheap, easy way to enliven any dish. Of course, the machismo of downing the spiciest of sauces without flinching — and the ensuing endorphin rush — have also fueled the fire.
Keenen and Gibbons (now 26 and getting married next month) prioritize flavor over heat when sourcing sauces, but they also acknowledge that taste is personal. Whether it’s a sweet and smoky concoction you desire or low-sodium and gluten-free, the best part about hot sauce is the dizzying variety. “There’s something for everyone,” Keenen says.
Ready to feel the burn? Check out the list below to find a purveyor near you.
Heatonist, 121 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn, NY
Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop, 618 E. 6th St., Austin, TX
Peppers of Key West, 602 Greene St., Key West, FL
Light My Fire, 6333 W 3rd St., Suite 230, Los Angeles, CA