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The Heat Index 

From the stalwart Tabasco to a pack of brash boutique bottlers, local hot sauces are burning into the national consciousness.

In an airplane hangar-size warehouse on the grounds of Avery Island in New Iberia, a liquid orange and red trail dots the floor like burning coals. In a corner, a pair of industrial-strength rubber boots is covered with the sunset-colored mixture. The air carries an invisible charge that makes uninitiated eyes mist over. The source of the vapor lies in a row of open oak barrels waiting to be sealed, and McIlhenny Company historian Shane Bernard peers into one of the barrels and offers a piece of advice. "Dip your finger in and get a little bit, and put it on your tongue," he says. "Then spit it out."

It sounds like the genteel ritual of a wine tasting, and swallowing a teaspoon of tabasco pepper mash surely can't be threatening. But 10 minutes after following Bernard's instructions, it's clear that the Tabasco sauce factory is no place for bravado. The lingering effects of the miniscule amount create a creeping tornado in the sinuses, and hair suddenly feels like it's charged with static electricity. It's moments like this when Bernard's duties change from McIlhenny archivist to safety monitor. "Don't forget to wash your hands," he says.

It's a lesson that's been taught on Avery Island for 133 years. The south Louisiana landmark is where Edmund McIlhenny first experimented with a pepper sauce in 1868, and patented his culinary concoction in 1870. On much of the 2,200-acre grounds, time seems to stand still. Large parts of the island remain undeveloped, and indigenous wildlife thrives. On this balmy October day, six deer quietly graze at the edge of the woods surrounding McIlhenny's corporate office. In the marsh, rows of turtles line the water's surface, and in a nearby field, a pack of buzzards pick over the carcass of an armadillo. On the site of McIlhenny's first factory -- the size of a small house -- old cologne bottles used for bottling sauce jut out from the dirt, still intact after a century. And Edmund McIlhenny's original recipe -- a mixture of peppers, vinegar and salt -- is still used today.

Yet even as nothing has changed, everything has changed. McIlhenny Company is now a corporate juggernaut, and its Tabasco brand is recognized around the world. The sauce is bottled in 21 different languages and dialects, exported to 100 countries. More than 100,000 tourists tour Avery Island annually. The company has aggressively marketed the Tabasco name, through a clothing line and a chain of retail stores, and also co-branded with fellow food giant Heinz for a specialty ketchup.

McIlhenny Company isn't alone in the phenomenal growth of hot sauce in the last decade. Louisiana brands Crystal and Louisiana Gold are also local icons with a national presence. And independent bottlers are making their presence felt, flooding the market with specialty hot sauces appealing to gourmands, collectors, and a growing segment of consumers obsessed with finding the hottest sauce available.

All those factors are heating up cash registers, too. According to a 2001 report by Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources, Inc., retail grocery sales for a 52-week period ending Oct. 7 brought in more than $117 million dollars. (Tabasco leads the pack with $28 million; Louisiana Hot ranks second in Louisiana brands with more than $10 million, and Crystal accounts for slightly less than $9 million.) Yet those numbers only tell part of the story. The figures don't include Wal-Mart sales, food-service sales, mom-and-pop stores, military sales and international sales. A 1998 CNN Financial report estimated total annual sales at $140 million, but even industry experts admit that most numbers cited are educated guesses.

"All we have are estimates, because many of the companies are privately held, and don't release sales figures," says Dave DeWitt, founding editor of Chile Pepper magazine, author of 10 books about chiles, and currently publisher and editor of Fiery Foods and Barbecue magazine. Some of them might, but they often don't distinguish product lines in those figures. And now there's gourmet and specialty store sales, and web sales. It's probably in the neighborhood of $200 million now annually."

Behind those numbers is a staggering range of sauces made from different peppers and different recipes. Their common bond is capsaicin, the natural substance in peppers that produces the heat sensation. Capsaicin has no odor or flavor, but acts on pain receptors in the mouth and throat. According to The Wellness Ecyclopedia of Food and Nutrition, capsaicin is so powerful that one drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water will cause blistering of the tongue.

The industry standard for measuring capsaicin is Scoville units, based on a scale developed by a pharmacist in 1912. The hotter the pepper, the higher its Scoville units. For example, bell peppers register zero Scoville units; anaheim peppers score 25-1,400; cerranos clock in between 7-25,000 Scoville units, and blinding habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers approach the 300,000 mark. Pure capsaicin has a Scoville heat unit score of 16 million.

In the laboratory at McIlhenny Company, Quality Assurance Industrial Specialist Leslie Hall checks the capsaicin levels of every batch of Tabasco sauce. "We use high performance liquid chromatography, and also test for moisture, pH levels, salt and viscosity," she says. Their capsaicin testing is a precautionary measure, as the peppers used for Tabasco sauce -- primarily grown in Central and South America, with a small crop grown on Avery Island -- are already measured for quality control before they are processed.

But it's not the capsaicin levels that distinguish Tabasco, Crystal, Louisiana Gold and most Louisiana hot sauces. "The first thing that your palate tastes is the vinegar, then the chile aspect comes in later," says DeWitt. "It's a style of making this kind of sauce that depends on the vinegar combination. I think that the quality is very high, so it's not an issue of quality. It's one of style and flavor, and whether or not people prefer cayenne-based Louisiana sauces and that style, as opposed to, say, Mexican or Caribbean sauces, which they're competing with on a national level."

That competition heated up in the late '80s, as Paul Prudhomme's Cajun cooking created a national stir, and demand for spicy foods encompassed the hot sauce industry. Before long, a whole new breed of hot sauces started appearing on shelves, taunting consumers with an underlying question: Are you strong enough to handle this sauce?

This category of boutique sauces is dominated by four marketing themes: physical suffering, damnation, enraged animals, and rectal damage. The first category boasts such brands as Crying Tongue, Insanity and Deathwish. The second contains names like Below Hell, Satan's Slow Burn, and Hell in a Bottle. The third has Captain Redbeard's Sharkbite, Screamin' Blue Hen, and Lethal Gator. The fourth category features such memorable creations as Ass Blaster, Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally, and Ass in the Tub Armageddon.

"It's the only segment of the industry where you can get away with scaring, insulting and threatening the customer," says DeWitt. "There's going to be extremes in any industry, and that's the mindset of this industry. All these super-hot sauces are mainly sold as novelty and gag items -- I suspect there's very few of them actually being consumed."

DeWitt sees one benefit of the super-hot varieties. "They're a chemical that has some uses," he says. "As an example, suppose that you are manufacturing a potato chip of a certain heat level, and you want it to be that heat level all the time, without the variations that happen with powders, depending on processing, age and other factors. If you use these extracts and know the precise heat level every time by measuring using high-performance testing, you can put these extracts into your mix making these chips."

Since manufacturers aren't mandated to put capsaicin levels on their products, the possibility of dangerous physical reactions exists. DeWitt hosts an annual hot sauce and barbecue convention and trade show in Albuquerque, N.M., each year, and carries a $2 million liability insurance policy at his convention. "One manufacturer didn't follow regulations, and a man put a potato chip in his mouth, and fainted right away on the floor," DeWitt remembers. "For the hot sauces, I only allow tastings on the end of a toothpick. We've had spontaneous vomiting and dizziness from people who are sensitive to it, and in some cases, these extracts can cause contact dermatitis, like poison ivy."

The sauces responsible for such reactions don't stand a chance in DeWitt's Scovie Awards, the convention's annual tasting competition. Hot sauces in a variety of different categories, including Louisiana-style, Caribbean, habanero and fruit-based, are judged by a panel of food-industry professionals. For independent bottlers, it's a chance for recognition in the fiercely competitive specialty sauce market. It's also proof that you can't judge a sauce by its name or label.

A case in point is Bayou Butt Burner Sauce from Prairieville's Hiram Davis, which won second place in the medium hot sauce category in the 2001 Scovie Awards. Fifty-two-year-old Davis, a former safety manager for a trucking company, is an entrepreneur who turned a weekend hobby into a new career. After planting some cayenne peppers in his backyard five years ago, he had a bumper crop that autumn, and couldn't stand the thought of throwing away the extra peppers. After experimenting on his kitchen stove, he filled 60 bottles and gave them away to family and friends. Encouraged by the feedback, he drove to Angola and bought a few hundred more bushels of peppers, and made another 60 bottles every weekend.

"I went to Quik Print and made a label, just a little two-color deal," says Davis. "I just wanted to see if there was any demand for it, and there was. So I went on and got myself legal, went through the health department. Every other weekend I went to the French Quarter and knocked on doors, trying to get people to try the sauce. I finally got a distributor to pay attention."

Davis says the secret to his sauce is his unique recipe. "I don't like a lot of the Louisiana stuff, with all that vinegar and salt. I cook the entire thing, so it's more like a canned product, and that's what makes it different."

After selling approximately 1,000 bottles of Bayou Butt Burner his first year, Davis christened his fledgling company HongryHawg Products, Inc., and annual sales of his Bayou Butt Burner sauce -- "I couldn't resist the name," he says -- are now approaching the 10,000-bottle mark. Taking a cue from industry giants like McIlhenny Company and Bruce Foods, Davis has expanded his product line, and now makes a barbecue sauce and seven different hot sauces -- including Bayou Fireballs, whose label features an alligator shooting skyward courtesy of a rear-end explosion, with the tag line, "Get a Tan Where the Sun Don't Shine."

"I come up with the recipes right here on my stove, do the math, multiply it out, and take it to a food processor," he says. "I always have to tweak it just a little bit, and then the labels are all my ideas. I go to Magnolia Labels in Jackson, Mississippi, and sit with their art department and tell them what I want. There's a lot of love that goes into the whole process. I still peddle my hot sauce from Houston to Shreveport, and if you're not afraid of the hours, it's a lot of fun."

For Davis and his independent and corporate peers, part of the challenge in creating hot sauces is anticipating culinary shifts. "There are definite trends that happen," says DeWitt. "Whenever anything involving a certain region or cuisine or food style gets a lot of notoriety, all the things attendant to that increase in sales. Louisiana hot sauces led the country in terms of being out there and cultivating awareness. Then the Southwest region got big. Then what we went through was habaneros, and it was associated with Mexico and the Caribbean. Right now chipotle peppers are getting popular." (McIlhenny Company is introducing a Tabasco chipotle sauce in 2002.)

"Eventually, the South American chiles are going to be popular," predicts DeWitt, "and once that happens, suddenly everyone will be growing peppers, cooking with, and eating food from South America."

No matter what the future holds for the industry, the market for local hot sauces remains secure. As McIlhenny Company's Tabasco brand continues to lead the way in burning the taste of Louisiana into America's consciousness, high-profile chefs such as Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse keep the spotlight shining on local cuisine.

Meanwhile, on Avery Island, Tabasco's four production lines can now produce half a million bottles in one eight-hour work day, and the company is utilizing new technology to meet demand. Tabasco previously drained its pepper mash in individual oak barrels before final processing; the company recently modernized its production line with 1,600-gallon oak tanks, connected to computers that monitor the mash's moisture levels.

Yet even as everything has changed, nothing has changed. There's a small Tabasco deli on the grounds, where the screen door brings the south Louisiana breeze floating through the woodframe building. And as it has here for the past 135 years, hot sauce occupies the center of every table.

click to enlarge Edmund McIlhenny first created his original recipe for a pepper sauce in 1866, and patented the culinary concoction in 1870.
  • Edmund McIlhenny first created his original recipe for a pepper sauce in 1866, and patented the culinary concoction in 1870.
click to enlarge Tabasco's pepper mash is aged in oak barrels for three years before processing. - SCOTT JORDAN
  • Scott Jordan
  • Tabasco's pepper mash is aged in oak barrels for three years before processing.
click to enlarge New Orleans' Crystal hot sauce is a local pepper icon with a substantial presence in the national market. - EILEEN LOH HARRIST
  • Eileen Loh Harrist
  • New Orleans' Crystal hot sauce is a local pepper icon with a substantial presence in the national market.
click to enlarge Bayou Fireballs from Prairieville is part of a growing breed of hot sauces that taunts consumers with the underlying question: Are you strong enough to handle this sauce?
  • Bayou Fireballs from Prairieville is part of a growing breed of hot sauces that taunts consumers with the underlying question: Are you strong enough to handle this sauce?
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