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Local Hot Sauce Makers Use Flavors From Their Cultures

Gerard Albert III
Alan Espino adds ingredients to his sofrito hot sauce.

Alan Espino didn’t discover his love for hot sauce growing up eating his mother’s Cuban cooking. 

He’s part of a growing number of Miami hot sauce makers cashing in on the popularity of the condiment. Nationally sales have increased by 23 percent over the last five years. In South Florida, hot sauces are infused with ingredients from the diverse range of cultures in the area.

“Growing up, hot sauce was just not a thing; spicy food is just not a thing. At least for the Cuban community, hot sauce is very polarizing,” Espino said.

Espino owns Beat Culture brewery in Miami. And when it comes to the hot sauce debate he’s picked a side. He fell in love with hot sauce traveling in Thailand years ago. 

“There’s something almost masochistically attractive about hot sauce like that element of pain. It's peculiar; it almost makes you want to try it more,” he said. “It makes you very curious and it does have a level of enhancement to things that makes food very very interesting.” 

Espino was trained as a microbiologist and in his free time started experimenting with fermenting beer and later the classic Cuban sofrito sauce.

“It’s a base reduction that’s used in a lot of foods, so vaca frita and rabo encendido it's, I guess, culturally significant that even when you’re making it you have people reaching over you shoving bread into the pot and still eating it up,” he said.

Credit Gerard Albert III / WLRN
Some of the ingredients Espino adds to his sauce are common to the Cuban diet. Others, like Thai peppers, aren't.

His sofrito hot sauce has green peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic, just like abuela would make it. But then he adds home-grown habanero and thai peppers to give the sauce heat.

And here’s where Espino’s background as a microbiologist comes in. He twists open a vile of bacteria and pours it into the container to kick-start fermentation. The process of fermentation involves the chemical breakdown of ingredients by bacteria.

“Right now we’re experimenting with temperature in which it ferments to see if that will give a different taste, different turnover time, different finish date,” he said.

When Espino is done putting the ingredients into the container, he seals it and places it on a shelf where it will sit  for a few months fermenting. 

Credit Gerard Albert III / WLRN
The sofrito sauce will have to ferment for at least two months before it's ready to eat.

Espino offered some of his pineapple habanero hot sauce to give me an idea of the type of heat.

“There’s heat to let you know that there is heat, but it’s not the overbearing 'I'm crying and sweating in the corner' type of painful heat,” he said.

That kind of painful heat depends on who you ask. Carline Phanor’s hot sauce company, Men Pa’w, or “this is for you” in Creole, started in her kitchen 10 years ago. Two years later, she was in grocery stores across the state.

“Coming from the islands, from Haiti particularly, we are very much into spices. We do not negotiate our spices and we eat hot,” she said.

At the base of her sauces are peppers from Jamaica and Haiti: Futali peppers, chocolate habaneros and Scotch bonnet peppers.

“Scotch bonnet is similar to many of the Caribbean peppers. Like in Haiti we use piman bouk. It's a little bit citrusy. It's got a nice flavor and it's hot. That’s why they like it,” she said.

Phanor also uses olive oil and apple cider vinegar to offset the heat. 

“Some people say, 'I like hot hot hot,'” she said. “But ours isn’t just hot. It's well balanced, so it gives you a nice kick at the end.”

Her original recipe sauce is her bestseller. Phanor said it can be used for more than just dipping. 

“The Haitians they love this one because they can marinate their meats, your fish, your salmon. You can just cook up a storm,” she said.