Bennett: Hot sauce? It’s all a matter of degree
“Would you like to try a hot sauce flight?” John Kessler asked as we stood chatting about hand-cutting habaneros and why he aims for flavor before heat in his company’s underground pantry space at Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market.
“A flight? Of hot sauce?” I said, confused. “Aren’t flights for wine and beer?”
Minutes later, I was back at street level, just steps from the East End Incubator Kitchens, where he spends two to three days a week making and bottling his Infinity Sauces — with eight small squeeze bottles of Kessler’s goods splayed out in a line before me. As far as he knows, his is the only company in the country that offers flights of hot sauce, which you can get during his weekly appearances at the Anaheim farmers market (you can also buy bottles online).
He handed me a biodegradable spoon, poured a dab of his popular chipotle sauce on it and started in like a sommelier at a vineyard tasting room, explaining as I slurped it up that it’s a versatile sauce that goes well with anything.
“The heat isn’t going to stick around,” he says as I close my eyes and imagine all the breakfasts the sauce could enhance. “It’s not there to burn you.”
We made our way down the line, to the signature habanero Infinity Sauce — which he started making for friends one summer after he planted a few habaneros in his Fullerton backyard and ended up with 500 of the peppers — then to the double-thick, double-intensity versions of both.
We tried one made with fresh ghost peppers, a designated “superhot” pepper that clocks in at 1 million Scoville heat units, the scale used for grading a pepper’s spicy heat (for comparison, jalepeños are around 8,000 Scovilles, habaneros average around 300,000 Scovilles and U.S. grade pepper spray is around 2 million). The sauce had a full mouth heat that dissipated quickly, leaving behind a citrus flavor that Kessler says is natural in the pepper itself.
“This next one is fun,” he says, referring to Scorpion Money, made with another superhot pepper, at 1.4 million Scovilles. “I’ll walk you through it.”
Hesitantly, I put a coffee-bean-sized portion on my tongue and closed my mouth.
“You’re going to get mango right away, then some vinegar tones,” he started as sweet then acidic flavors washed over my palate. “You should be getting cumin and paprika flavors right about now. Then, the heat’s going to start at the upper part of your throat and work its way up to the roof of your mouth, and in about five seconds, it’ll fully develop.”
It did everything he said as he said it, the pepper slowly overtaking the sauce’s complex flavor, releasing its capsaicin to assault my senses. My eyes started watering. I opened my mouth as if that would help. The heat was on my lips, in my throat and tickling my nose. I breathed slowly, concentrating on a future without burning. About 30 seconds later, the scorpion pepper relented and the experience was over.
Infinity Sauces is one of hundreds of new small-batch hot sauces to enter the market in the last few years as part of a growing interest not only in specialty condiments, but also the masochistic act of ingesting some of the hottest chili peppers in the world.
The driving force in this movement are so-called pepperheads or chiliheads who seek out sauces made with scorpion peppers, ghost peppers or the newly crowned hottest pepper in the world — the Carolina Reaper, a cross-breed created by the owner of a hot sauce company in South Carolina. Hot sauces for this crowd have labels that scream pain, with grimacing faces, nuclear bombs or references to exploding butts, which only hints at the damage that too much of the liquid inside can bring.
But for as much as Kessler respects the pepperheads and appreciates their love of spiciness, he prefers for his labels to have a more classic look and his sauces to have more nuance than heat. He puts as many as 15 ingredients in them — from fruit to herbs — to ensure they aren’t just face-melters that taste like the vinegar-and-salt of Tabasco yore.
“Everything I do is about flavor first and foremost, with heat being a secondary component,” he says. “There is heat, but it’s all about flavor. That’s what I pride myself on.”
Kessler’s company is one of only two Orange County hot sauce makers that will be presenting at the annual California Hot Sauce Expo, returning to Long Beach next weekend. The festival is, on the surface, a place to sample and purchase hot sauces from more than 40 companies like Kessler’s, but it also doubles as a chilihead convention and craft beer festival with pepper sellers, spicy food-eating challenges, bloody Mary-making competitions and more.
Now in his second year of producing, bottling, selling, distributing and marketing Infinity Sauces on his own, Kessler has created dozens of different hot sauces, experimenting with everything from hatch chiles to craft beer.
With a business model inspired by craft brewing (thus, also the flights), he produces seasonal varieties, makes limited-run bottle releases, collaborates with other artisanal makers on special products and has no problem giving advice to upstart businesses like his own. He hopes that through his openness, he can help create a robust community that elevates all craft condiments.
As for the Scoville chasers who scoff at Infinity’s pain-free labels and secondary focus on superhots?
“I always say that Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors for a reason,” Kessler says. “People have different palates and want different things, so let them have it.”
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.