Ninety-Nine Bottles of Sauce in a Box
Ninety-nine bottles of sauce… Take one out, pass it about…
Wait! We just put those in there.
Okay. Many of you have probably been wondering just what the heck we’ve been doing with our time during the day here in Costa Rica. How do we earn our keep in this beautiful place?
Well, I’ve mentioned before that we came here primarily to work for an up-and-coming, family-owned hot sauce company called Chile Town. We knew before we arrived that there would be some office work involved, including writing press releases and blog posts for the company website. We also knew that we would potentially be making some of the sauce itself.
What we didn’t know is what, exactly, making hot sauce entailed.
It starts with the chile peppers, most of which are grown and hand-picked right here on the property.
Without giving away too many trade secrets before the sauce gets released to the U.S., I will say that some of the hottest peppers in the world are grown and used right here. For that reason, caution must be used even during the picking-process. Notice the gloves. You don’t dare touch your eyes or exposed skin after handling hot peppers.
At this point some type of magic happens and the peppers are somehow washed, seeded, and mashed up into what we call… well mash. By the way, at Chile Town each individual hot sauce uses an individual type of chile pepper – unlike many other hot sauces, which just use an extract to bring the heat, the sauces we’re helping to make here actually use the heat and flavor that come directly from the chile variety itself. So a mild(er) sauce like the one called La Muñeca (“The Doll”) uses a less-spicy variety of pepper (yellow scotch bonnet) than the sauce called Bandito (“The Bandit”), which uses orange habaneros.
It’s all very scientific.
And if you think habaneros are spicy, some of the Chile Town sauces get even hotter than that!
*By the way, thanks to Becs for taking most of the following photos. My gloved and mash-covered fingers were not about to get anywhere near my beloved camera. Or my hair, apparently, which is a mess. Apologies.
So what we end up with is this mash.
Of course, the color/consistency vary depending on the type of pepper we’re using. These are smoked jalapeños for the smoky Don Fuego (“Fire Boss”) sauce.
The first part of this entire process is really just basic cooking – we mix all the ingredients according to Aaron’s (aka “The Mayor’s”) top secret recipes and stick ’em on the stove to simmer.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Once all the ingredients are partying together in the pot and the sauce starts to thicken up, it’s time to blend. This ensures a smoother, even consistency and that all of the flavors are truly melded to perfection.
The problem? An industrial-sized blender, Aaron owns not.
So we use the small one. Again, and again. And again.
I’ll admit that this is probably the scariest part of the process for me. I mean – you have this substance that is 2 kinds of hot – temperature and spicy – so if the blender decides to say… I don’t know… blow up in your face, you’re seriously burned. Heat burned and heat burned. Not pretty. I’ve caught a splatter or two to know.
So we try to use the utmost precaution, especially during this phase of sauce production.
Once everything is blended, it goes back in the pot and back on the heat. This time it needs to get to a certain (extremely hot) temperature before it can be bottled. The goal is to have everything nice and evenly cooked to the desired level of thickness.
Aaron’s stove takes a beating.
While the sauce is cooking, we need to wash bottles. Lots and lots of bottles.
And of course, since no one wants to buy empty hot sauce bottles, we need to fill ’em.
This step is a tid bit precarious, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.
We are sauce-making machines.
No thanks to this punk, who didn’t even bother to watch.
Once they cool a bit, we add the seals and labels. Eventually, they look like this:
Pretty groovy, huh?
Ironically, the most stressful part of the process is after all the sauce is made and we’re cleaning out the pots. When the cold water hits the warm hot sauce remnants, the noxious chile fumes somehow get set off and I’m thrown into an ugly, hacking and sneezing fit. It ain’t pretty.
And while Erin’s superior writing/editing skills have since earned her a place back in the air-conditioned office, I really don’t mind toiling over a steaming hot chile pepper concoction several days a week. A true sense of accomplishment accompanies every seal of every lid; and while I dread the potential day when Aaron opens a bottle of sauce I made from one of his recipes and, God forbid, something just doesn’t taste quite right, I will at least savor the experience until that time.
Even though all of the bottles that eventually get sold in the U.S. will have been made to exact specifications in a factory by qualified professionals, I know I will smile every time I see one because I am now a first-hand witness to just some of the frustration, sweat, and determination that goes into creating a product.
And it’s pretty damn sweet. And spicy.