Hot sauce scene heating up in Waterloo region, writes Andrew Coppolino

Hot sauces are a hot commodity in Waterloo region with many local producers offering up their diverse takes on the condiment, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

'People are looking to ... have their own signature flavour,' says Ifoma Smart

There's a growing number of locally produced hot sauces in Waterloo region. There are even more sauces being created in the surrounding area, as well. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Waterloo region is in a hot sauce renaissance, with online markets and specialty food stores carrying small bottles of bright red condiments made by local entrepreneurs.

The sauces are packed with Caribbean-inspired flavours and dole out Scotch Bonnet spice and Scoville heat units ranging from mild to quite uncomfortable.

Similar to how craft breweries distinguish themselves from the beer giants, small-batch hot sauces are sought out by customers looking for local options that rival the big players like Frank's Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce and Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha (or "Rooster") sauce of Los Angeles.

"I think the reason there's a popularity in hot sauces is that people are looking to augment their dishes and have their own signature flavour, if you will," says Ifoma Smart of Wicked Smart Hot Sauce.

Based in Kitchener, Wicked Smart plays on both Smart's surname and the Caribbean expression, "Wicked!" The sauces come in two styles: Calypso and Soca.

Smart, born in Trinidad and a former chef, says Waterloo region is blessed with choice.

"We're seeing an increase in different cultures and an increase in heat levels. People are more open to trying new and different foods," he says.

Sourcing local sauces

St. Jacobs retailer Taste the 4th Sense specializes in oils, condiments and sauces, and says the pandemic has impeded shipments from the U.S., so they anticipate sourcing more local products from small businesses. There are now a surprising number of options. 

A popular brand and early entrant into the hot sauce market, Phlippens makes three sauces: original, hot and sweet.

A larger food purveyor and farm in Cambridge, Barrie's Asparagus, jars up hot and mild asparagus sauces as part of their expanding food product line, while Jeff Davis' Island Son has been making the popular Bajan Tyga micro-batch hot sauce for a couple of years now.

"I started cooking hot sauce for friends years ago before I incorporated in January, 2019," Davis says, noting that growth in the sector has been significant. "It's crazy how many new hot sauce companies have sprouted up."

Davis makes a seasonal "super-hot" sauce too. "I call it Triple R and make it when I have access to Carolina Reaper Peppers."

(At over two million Scoville heat units, Carolina Reapers clock in as one of the hottest peppers in the world; Frank's registers at 450 Scoville heat units, Sriracha at 2,200 and a bell pepper at zero).

Ifoma Smart of Wicked Smart Hot Sauce. Wicked Smart plays on both Smart's surname and the Caribbean expression, "Wicked!" The sauces come in two styles: Calypso and Soca. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Small-batch producer Hellspeler Pepper Company cooks up several hot sauces made with hot peppers grown in Hespeler (and they get my vote for best punning name).

'Focus on the flavour'

Jaret Flannigan, a local chef and partner in Gunpowder Sauce Co, says he's seen the market grow during the pandemic. 

"Well, 2020 was the year of the side-hustle," says Flannigan. "A lot of people are taking an idea they had before and trying to make some extra money. I think it's awesome that it's forced people to do it."

Flannigan says their Cannonball Caliente sauce does great things to a Caesar cocktail. Look for the May re-brand and launch of the Kitchener-based Gunpowder as Great Canadian Sauce Co.

Ruckus Foods, also from Kitchener, makes seven hot sauces and two barbecue sauces out of the Little Mushroom Catering kitchen. The Scoville units are there but restrained, says Ruckus' Alan Charlebois.

"We focus on the flavour of the fresh peppers, but the sauces are not too hot. We want the sauce to enhance the flavour of the food not explode it," he says.

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino adds Phlippens hot sauce to an egg salad sandwich. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Also in Kitchener, Out of the Box Snacks makes several hot sauces, including gluten-free and vegan versions.

Handed-down recipes

Located just south of Cambridge, Neil's Real Deal is making a hot sauce that draws on family tradition, as these smaller local businesses often do.

"We make all our own hot sauce, and it has a long family history. The original Scotch Bonnet recipe is fourth-generation from Neil's great-grandmother in Trinidad," according to co-founder Brooke Turkstra.

They make a cauliflower-based hot sauce and jalapeno and chipotle versions.

"The original Scotch Bonnet sauce has a slow burn that is intense but doesn't last. It has a beautiful flavour from the Scotch Bonnets," says Turkstra.

Using tomatoes from "Elmira's Own," Travis Kell of Kellson's Craft Condiments makes a hot "ketchup," as he describes it, while his mustard-based sauce is packed with cayenne — and he estimates, "hotter than Frank's."

Kellsons has a small but loyal following; he appeared at local farmers' markets on a rotating basis before the pandemic shut things down. The small-batch producer makes the sauces at a health department-certified church kitchen.

"Our sauces have achieved a sort of cult status of their own," Kell says, noting that the sweetness provided by fruit is key to balancing the heat of a Scotch Bonnet. 

While Kellsons has a tomato-based hot sauce, chef Malcolm Henry of MH Foods in Cambridge bases their three Caribbean-inspired sauces on sweet potato paired with Scotch Bonnet, inspired by Henry's Jamaican heritage.

Spice and flavour

In general, hot sauces tend to head down two distinct paths: you get straight-up hot-pepper volatility or something that is moderated by fruit. 

For instance, Rootham Gourmet Preserves of Guelph has Red Crimson Hot Sauce, and they also prepare Niagara Peach Ghost Pepper and Strawberry Jalapeno versions.

Similarly, Waterloo-based chef Shenelle Arielle Neils, formerly of Bhima's Warung and now a corporate chef, is preparing labels and logos for her hot sauce that takes the fruit route.

"I make a Trinidadian-inspired hot sauce that is called Chef Arielle's Mango Pepper Sauce," she says, noting that her "green seasoning" marinade is already on the market.

The hot sauce renaissance, perhaps taking a cue from its historical namesake which broke from the Middle Ages, breaks from a reliance on tear-inducing extreme-spice heat.

"Once upon a time, people would have hot sauce with the hottest peppers just to show how brave and tough they are," says Ifoma Smart.

"Now, people are looking for flavour though that heat is definitely there."

Jaret Flannigan is a local chef and partner in Gunpowder Sauce Co. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.