Local spice enthusiasts are looking forward to Boston’s second annual Hot Sauce Festival. The festival, which runs April 29 and 30, will feature local craft beer, live music and 24 hot sauces from vendors across the Northeast competing to be crowned the best.
John Kasper, the founder of Whitehouse Station Sauce, spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath and was kind enough to share some sauces ahead of the festival.
Arun Rath: First thing I’d like to ask you, to just play a stereotype here: when you think of hot sauces, you think of the South, generally. For someone who might be more ignorant, who might ask, “Why did Boston need a hot sauce festival?” Educate them.
John Kasper: Well, two reasons. Number one, Boston is my favorite city in the world. I love the history and the culture. Reason number two is that the New England area is home to some of the best artisanal sauce makers on the planet. We want to feature that and they’re going to be a big part of this festival.
Rath: Awesome. Tell us a bit about that and some of the sauces we’re going to see represented, the diversity of sauces in our area.
Kasper: Yes, you’ve got some of the major players up there: Angry Goat, who’s out of Vermont. They’ve been featured on “Hot Ones,” they’re going to be attending. We’ve got Karma Sauce, again, another major player in the industry. They’re actually out of Rochester, but still Northeast. They’re going to be there.
And even a lot of local sauce guys right in your backyard. Craic Sauce, right in Boston, 13 Stars, Decimation. And there’s also some major players from the Tri-State area down here. We’ve got companies like ourselves, Hell’s Kitchen Sauce, my good friend and sauce maker extraordinaire, Ron Menin. So, we’ve got a nice representation of the Northeast from this show coming up.
Rath: How did the first festival go last year?
Kasper: It went well! There was a learning curve. We tried to find a location this year that was a little bit more on the beaten path, so to speak. But we got a nice turnout.
And this year, partnering with Nicola Williams has really given us a leg up. She’s done the annual Jerk Fest up there for many years now, and she really helped pull this together. Couldn’t have done it without her.
Rath: So, there is a competition here. Tell us a bit about how you pit sauces against another. I like hot sauces, but I’m not a connoisseur. How do you judge a hot sauce?
Kasper: The way we’re going to do it is we’re going to judge on seven different criteria, heat being one of them. But also, things like the consistency of the sauce, the flavor and balance. Is it a balanced sauce? Do you get flavor — and then if, immediately, the heat, and it’s overwhelming? It really is a dance to try and get that perfect sauce where you get the balance of heat and flavor.
Interestingly, there’s going to be three different awards. One is going to be the Fenway Fire Award, which is the best sauce that would pair with the hot dog. Second is going to be the Green Monster, the best verde or green sauce. The big prize is the Wicked Pissah for the best sauce in Boston. We’re going to have a lot of fun with this.
Rath: Who are the lucky people that get to to judge this competition of spice?
Kasper: The judges for this event are two gentlemen who are pretty well versed in the hot sauce community. First is Kyle Seip. He’s also known as Cast Iron Kyle, and he refurbishes old cast iron pans and Japanese knives.
The other gentleman is Anthony “Hot Sauce King” Merenda. He’s a staple in the community, and his claim to fame is guzzling down a bottle of some of the hottest hot sauces and putting it on YouTube. He’s quite a character.
Rath: That sounds awesome.
Very often in conversations like this, I complain that, “Oh, man, this is making me feel hungry.” And that is the case now, but what’s awesome is that I am set up right here with some sauces that you were kind enough to send up. And I’ve got some wings that are still — kind of — warm. So, you want to talk me through a little taste test here?
Rath: So, let me go through what we have here. First off, these are from the Whitehouse Station Sauce Company. There’s a Table Sauce, that is probably going to be not too challenging, right?
Kasper: It’s not high on our list of spicier sauces. There is some Carolina Reaper in there, so you will get a kick on the tail end, but I would say that, in our world, that’s probably a medium heat sauce.
Rath: It’s a beautiful color. I can see actual flecks of pepper in there. I’m just going to take a bite.
Kasper: Sure. I’ll give you some background on that sauce. We debuted that, actually, last year at the Boston show, and it’s already become our biggest seller. We won the silver medal at the New York City Hot Sauce Expo last year. It’s called “Table Sauce” because it pairs with almost anything on the table.
Rath: I could see why this would win. I would actually prefer the sort of low level of spiciness. I would say this is just about perfect. It goes great on chicken, I can tell you that much. I would say for me, just the right level of not too sweet and just the right level of bite. There’s a really nice aftertaste to that, as well. That’s great.
“It really is a dance to try and get that perfect sauce where you get the balance of heat and flavor.”
John Kasper, Boston Hot Sauce Fest co-founder
Well, I’m going to have a little shot of milk to cleanse my palate. And let me get this next one up. I’m excited about this, because you mentioned the verde, the green sauces, and that actually tends to be my favorite. Right here, we have Apple Wood Smoked Poblano-Jalapeño sauce from the Whitehouse Station again. Tell me a bit about this, and I’m just going to put this right on a wing.
Kasper: This is unique. It’s the only sauce we make that actually has any kind of smoked peppers. We’ve smoked them for about an hour in apple wood. It’s funny, we have had vegans tell us this is their guilty pleasure because it tastes like bacon. This is actually also an award winner, with a silver medal two years ago in New York. It’s our second-biggest seller, so enjoy.
Rath: Yeah. It’s a bit subtler. Yeah, that’s really nice. It’s a really lovely kind of like deep green hue. Beautiful, lovely sauce.
All right, let’s go to our last one. Our last one that we have here looks exciting. This is a real, almost a fire engine red. This is the Zavory habanero. Tell me a bit about this.
Kasper: Zavory habanero is a very unique pepper. It’s a habanero pepper with no heat. If you were to crack it open and take a whiff of it, you’d be like, “Oh, my God, this is going to kill me.” But once you bite into it, there’s no heat. What you get is that nice fruity floral habanero flavor palette.
So, we throw in a percentage of regular habanero to give it a little bit heat, but you really get that nice habanero flavor without getting punished.
Rath: Yeah, that is wonderful. It doesn’t kick in right away — like you’re saying, it’s got a nice zing to it. My tongue is really tingling but it’s not like kicking my butt, really, in terms of like the spice level. I can still taste the chicken wonderfully, and I’d really have a hard time picking a favorite.
John, this has been great, this is about as fun as it gets for an interview. Thank you so much.
The Boston Hot Sauce Festival runs April 29 and 30 at Garage B in The Speedway, Brighton, Mass.