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HEAT Hot Sauce Shop

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Becky Gibbons and Dylan Keenen at the HEAT tasting bar

Some Like It Hot

By Sarah Henry • Photos by Naomi Fiss

Siriracha shortage? Don’t sweat it. There are plenty of other hot condiments to choose from at HEAT Hot Sauce Shop in Berkeley. At this year-old store, fans of blistering heat in a bottle can choose from more than 300 varieties of sizzling seasoning designed for those who like a little fire with their food.

For starters, the shop carries about 40 so-called superhot sauces of the sort that can bring tears to the eyes. Not everyone can handle the heat, as HEAT’s owners discovered during their first months in business. Products containing ghost peppers or Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, considered two of the hottest peppers in the world, have sent a couple of thrill-seeking hot sauce devotees fleeing—and screaming—out HEAT’s front door.

This curated collection with a kick is the pet project of twenty-something couple Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons, who share their passion for piquant peppers with their customers. “We’ve seen all types enjoy our tasting bar—from 70-year-old white-haired grandmothers to eight-year-olds who have no problem with the super hot stuff,” says Gibbons, who can’t imagine eating rice and bean dishes without a dash or two of pepper sauce. Keenen, a devotee of hot sauce drizzled on eggs, pizza, pretty much anything, says he enjoys educating the public about the range of products available. “I think it’s funny how many people automatically go for Sriracha, which is actually pretty sweet,” says Keenen. “We open up their minds and their palate to other flavor possibilities.” The couple have a designated hot sauce fridge in their Alameda home that’s packed with some 50 bottles of pepper sauces ranging from mild and mellow to sharp and snappy. He’s fond of Secret Aardvark Habanero: The roasted tomatoes and carrots compliment the heat and fruitiness of the habaneros, he says. She’s more likely to grab a bottle of Lottie’s Traditional Style Barbados Hot Pepper Sauce: “[It] contains my favorite peppers, the Scotch Bonnets, and a bit of mustard,” says Gibbons. “The heat continues to build as you eat. At the end you’re panting from the heat but still wanting more because of the incredible flavor.”

When it comes to packing heat, East Bay residents appreciate hot sauce made close to home, say the pair. Locals support independent, small-batch brands sans food colorings, preservatives, and additives. Top picks at HEAT include Oakland’s Pretty Dog Hot Sauce, Lucky Dog from Hayward, and HEAT’s own in-house label.

Hot sauce keeps life interesting for those who crave the heat that hurts so good. Keenen’s love affair with spice began in his fifth-grade school garden, where he bit into a jalapeño out of curiosity. It took a while to work up the courage to eat fiery foods again, but by high school Keenen was regularly eating eggs with Tabasco, his gateway to a life of spice. By freshman year in college at UC Santa Cruz, Keenen was putting Sriracha on almost all his meals. Gibbons had a different pathway to pepper sauce. She couldn’t cope with the burn of Hot Cheetos, a high-school favorite, so she decided to train her tongue to manage gradually hotter and spicier tastes, starting with red pepper flakes and moving up the heat scale from there.

Keenen hails from Ojai, a small Southern California community that’s home to hippies and farmers and hippie farmers. Hot sauce is something of a family affair: His stepfather, Steve Sprinkle (who pens a column for Edible Ojai & Ventura County) is an organic farmer growing, among other things, the peppers destined for HEAT’s store-brand hot sauce. Keenen’s mother, Olivia Chase, runs a café with Sprinkle in Ojai called The Farmer and The Cook, where house-made hot sauce sits on each table. Keenen’s dad, George Keenen, fueled his son’s interest in hot sauce by routinely bringing Dylan bottles of spicy stuff picked up on his travels. It was after spotting a dedicated hot-sauce store in New Orleans that the older Keenen suggested his son open such a shop. “Both our families helped us and passed on the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Keenen. “Becky’s mom has her own holistic health business and her dad was a manager at Vons. My biological dad and mom opened a bakery around the time I was born and I worked almost every job at The Farmer and The Cook while growing up, so I got to see the ins and outs of running a small business firsthand.”

What is it about hot sauce that attracts both risk-taking types and those who just want to add some zing to a dish? It’s a party on your palate for relatively little cost and often zero or few calories, notes Keenen. Then there’s the admittedly addictive element—that chemical rush that comes with setting the taste buds on fire—that stokes the flames of self-described chileheads.

How hot have they got? There’s a no-heat-wimps zone in the store where the superhot sauces hang out: concoctions with suitably over-the-top names like Nothing Beyond, Satan’s Blood, and Pure Evil. Nothing Beyond clocks in at 4 million units on the Scoville scale, a heat-unit measuring system that refers to how much dilution is needed to render heat imperceptible on the palate. By comparison, Tabasco sauce measures a relatively mild 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Some of the hottest sauces in the store sport warning labels or promise pain, as their labels with screaming faces suggest.

HEAT, which also offers hot salsas and marinades, spicy drinks, and even fiery jellies, chocolates, and candies, generates about a quarter of its business through online sales, which are steadily increasing. And—who knew?—hot sauce production is really hot right now. It’s one of the top ten fastest-growing U.S. industries, right up there with solar panels, generic drugs, and yoga studios. Given this insatiable appetite for spice, Keenen and Gibbons plan to launch a farmers’ market stand and ramp up their own hot sauce production, bringing back their popular Scotch Bonnet Hot Sauce and adding new house-brand products, including one featuring the fatalii pepper, a spicy bright yellow pepper with a unique citrusy flavor. Thrill-seeking hotheads take note. •

 

HEAT Hot Sauce Shop, 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, 510.849.1048, heathotsauce.com

 

HEAT Hot Sauce Shop, 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, 510.849.1048, heathotsauce.com

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