Fermenting chiles to make hot sauce is not new. After all, Tabasco — one of the most ubiquitous (but not necessarily the best) hot sauces in the country — is aged in oak barrels for about three years. But many hot sauce makers do not ferment, instead, they rely on vinegar as a preservative and for flavor, and sometimes cheap vinegar at that.
Recently, two Oakland-based companies have emerged that offer fermented hot sauces worth trying. Both makers believe that fermentation adds a depth of flavor many other sauces on the market lack, as well as additional health benefits. They both source the majority of their organic chiles from farmers in Santa Cruz. And both have Colorado in common, too.
Raw Sauce is the creation of George Fowlkes and Alex Harros, who met as college students at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. They lived in a group house, and first bonded over their love of food by throwing large pizza parties for their friends.
The summer before senior year, Harros returned from a visit home (Harros is from Los Angeles; Fowlkes from New York) with a jar of fermented chili paste from Gjusta, a noteworthy L.A. bakery and restaurant. “It blew our socks off, we had never tasted anything like it before, everyone freaked out about it,” Fowlkes recalled. “We decided let’s try to make our own.”
Neither knew anything about fermentation at the time, but they proved to be quick studies. Over summer break, they tinkered and experimented, using a group of friends as their focus group. By the time their fellow students returned to campus, Fowlkes and Harros had 75 bottles ready, which they sold out of in two days.
Friends encouraged them to enter a business pitching competition sponsored by the school called “The Big Idea.” They came in second place, which came with a sizeable amount of money. They used the prize money to launch Raw Sauce in January 2018.
Last summer, they moved to the Bay Area (Harros’ mother attended Cal, which was one reason he wanted to live here; the agriculture was another), but quickly realized they had a limited amount of time before chile pepper growing season was over.
In a few weeks’ time, they found a commercial kitchen space at Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, applied for the appropriate permits and licenses, and quickly sourced peppers to make their first batch.
Once their peppers were fermenting, they worked on everything else: designing labels, branding, creating a website. Raw Sauce officially launched its online store this March, and soon after, got into its first markets, including Piedmont Grocery.
Harros believes commercial brands of hot sauce lack a depth of flavor that their sauce provides, as well as that umami flavor.
“From fermentation, we can get the umami of red meat in a sauce which is plant-based and that’s really cool,” he said.
Said Fowlkes: “Even though the peppers were grown last fall, they still contain this bright red color and that’s also because of fermentation.” Added Harros, “It’s a living microenvironment preserving itself.”
Raw Sauce comes in two flavors right now, serrano and garlic and peach habanero (the peaches come from East Bay farmers market staple Kashiwase Farms from Merced County).
The pair knows that the hot sauce category is an oversaturated one, and clearly they have to be doing something different to make a dent in the market.
“We believe that fermentation makes for better flavor, plus you have the added bonus of a functional sauce with probiotics,” said Fowlkes. “The vinegar-based ones fall short on flavor.”
Added Harros, “We want to promote this as a small piece of a healthy diet that you can add. Your lifestyle might not allow for you to make a meal with an incredible depth of flavor. The beauty of fermentation is that with a little of the sauce in your marinade or dressing, it turns it into a more exciting experience.”
Find Raw Sauce at Piedmont Grocery (4038 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) and other locations in San Francisco.
An interview with Sexí Spice maker Jared Marchildon veers through many topics: climate change, the past crisis in Darfur, colonialism, the tragedy surrounding today’s immigrants and refugees, Mayan history, references to too many Latin American writers to count. It’s very easy to forget that you’re there to talk about hot sauce.
Marchildon is a former radio/television producer turned entrepreneur, but one thing he wants to make clear: “I’m not a hot sauce guy. I’m a medicine man.”
He’s the first to admit his path is a bit amusing, even for him.
“I used to be writing voiceovers and doing interviews. I’m kind of surprised that I’m now a business owner trying to make this food business work. I had worked for Jimmy Carter. I didn’t see myself at the farmers market pushing hot sauce,” he said.
But there he is, at local farmers markets, doing just that.
He sees his hot sauces as a vehicle for the herbs and medicinal mushrooms he puts in them.
Marchildon says he grew up in “chile territory,” in Colorado near the New Mexico border, and always preferred his food spicier than anyone in his family. He also says that while his family wasn’t especially into food, he has always had an especially discerning palate.
His journey to food entrepreneur began with his own chronic stomach pain. He saw a Western doctor for a year to try to resolve it with no change. He then went to the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and left with a big bag of Chinese herbs. When he got home, he brewed them up and “felt better than I had felt in years.”
This led to both he and his wife attending herb school, which led to the couple experimenting with what they learned on themselves. “We started getting into the adaptogens,” herbs that are meant to alleviate stress. “They are usually taken in the form of a tea, but given that they’re safe for long-term use, they can build our energy and make people calmer, making them have better relationships with those around them,” he said. He began wondering why adaptogens weren’t part of our food culture, and how to introduce them to more people.
Hot sauce came to him as the vehicle, as people who use it, do so often, sometimes at every meal.
“The first one I started with was ashwagandha, an Indian herb. When I had this idea, I had no idea adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms would become a thing. I wasn’t thinking about fermented foods becoming a hot trend, either. I didn’t come at it from the perspective of being on top of this hot food trend or riding this marketing wave.”
Yet that’s kind of what happened. Marchildon uses the kitchen at Oakland’s Boot & Shoe Service (he worked there for a spell). A small room off its wine storage makes the perfect home for his ferments.
He usually has a variety of 10 or so sauces to sell at the market; and while he’s still using herbs, he’s now much more impartial to medicinal mushrooms. Just as his company’s slogan is “Eat to Evolve,” he says his product is constantly evolving, too. “Mushrooms do a lot of the same stuff, but they’re closer to culinary flavors. There’s a dance to be had with marrying them into a culinary product.”
And a word about the name; while Marchildon’s business name is Recetas Poetas, which is styled after a Latin binomial and has multiple meanings, his wife came up with the name Sexí Spice for the hot sauce. “It took me a long time to agree to it because it’s just one dial twist off from gimmicky,” he said.
Yet after a somewhat lengthy discourse about how the ‘x’ sound was changed over time in Mexico, he says some herbs in his hot sauces are good for promoting lucid dreams, better functioning lungs and perhaps most importantly, a heightened libido.
Find Sexí Spice at Berkeley farmers markets (Shattuck and Rose streets on Thursday; Center St at MLK on Saturday), The Local Butcher Shop (1600 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley); Alembique Apothecary (901 Hearst Ave.); and Preserved (5032 Telegraph Ave., Oakland)