LISTOWEL – Most of the peppers, tomatoes and mint which Erik Begg uses in his award-winning Fresh Cents jalapeno sauce are grown in his Garden of Apologies at his home on the third concession just outside of Listowel. Any other ingredients he needs such as garlic and maple syrup he sources locally.
Even though he sometimes finds himself at odds with pests, he likes the green footprint involved with his organic garden.
“We’re mostly off the grid here, we use green energy, we’ve got solar panels on the roof,” he said.
For most of his life, he played in punk rock bands, lived in cities and spent his time in bars.
“Then I got married and moved to the suburbs,” he said. “I thought I’d start gardening in the backyard as a way to relax. It wasn’t as relaxing as you’d expect because I ended up fighting racoons but through happenstance, I found a ghost pepper seedling outside of a health food store.”
He planted it just to see how it would grow. The raccoons left it alone but he ended up with peppers he couldn’t eat so he turned them into a hot sauce he couldn’t eat.
He saved the seeds and planted them again the next year and he added a couple of varieties of scorpion peppers and a Carolina Reaper.
Again, he ended up with peppers he could not eat and he turned them into a hot sauce he still could not eat.
“I am now (an eater of hot sauce) but my tolerance has come up since that point,” said Begg. “I’ve always loved hot food, I’ve loved hot curries and spice but the ghost pepper was hotter than I could handle, the reaper on top of that is one step hotter still. It peaks at twice the heat of a ghost pepper. It’s up to 2.2 million Scoville units versus just over a million for the ghost.”
Begg decided to bring his hot sauces to work since he still hadn’t built up a tolerance to eat them himself.
“A few of the Jamaican guys I worked with got a hold of this reaper sauce, they looked me up and down, this middle-aged white guy from the suburbs and they said – you made this, do you have any more of this? It was a 23-bottle batch and I had it sold out in two days,” he said.
He called it Sorry Sauce, being the nice polite Canadian who made very hot sauce.
It was an accidental company, a hobby which accidentally created demand. For the next few years, he ordered hundreds of different pepper seeds trying to figure out what he liked and played around with recipes.
“Each pepper does have its nuance and its flavour,” he said. “One of my favourites being the chocolate bubble-gum. It’s super-hot so it will run 1.5 million Scoville units at its peak but it’s got a very sweet black cherry flavour to it. It’s a creeper heat so you won’t notice what you’ve done to yourself until about three to five seconds in.”
His first few seasons were spent studying recipes of cooks who had come before him learning what combinations appealed to his palate.
“For the kind of hot sauce I make there are three basic ingredients – your hot pepper, some vinegar and salt – that’s it,” he said. “Something like a Louisiana hot sauce is vinegar salt and peppers and anything on top of that just comes together as jazz, it becomes the interpretation.”
In most cases Begg likes to use apple cider vinegar for the aesthetic and the sweetness it brings out in the flavour.
“I’ve been plant-based since 1990 so I know my way around the kitchen, just out of simple necessity,” he said. “The last few years you have been able to get a lot of plant-based alternatives pretty easily but I have had to learn how to cook some stuff to survive for 30 years. I’m by no means a fancy chef but I’m pretty good at slapping some stuff together and keeping myself fed and it seemed to translate alright into the hot sauce.”
As his hobby become a real business Begg completed all the food safety courses he needed. He may experiment in his kitchen when coming up with recipes but he leaves home to bottle his product.
“Everything is now done in a commercial kitchen,” he said. “Everything is food safe and everything is compliant.”
The closest commercial kitchen available to rent is in Palmerston at the community centre so when it comes time for production that is where Begg can be found with teary eyes and a runny nose as ghost peppers boil, while the senior citizens walk to country and western classics or the early education program for toddlers is happening.
“I’m pepper-spraying myself for a few hours and these poor kids are out there playing on the floor,” he said. “The saving grace is the hot steam rises and the kids are short so I think they are okay. It always cracks me up when I’m in there playing punk rock and boiling ghost peppers as the kids are crawling around playing with Lego.”
The community centre has a regularly inspected kitchen with everything legally compliant which allows Begg to make his sauces safely.
“That’s a step out of the cottage industry into the actual business,” he said.
At this point, Sorry Sauce produces six or seven batches, each batch is between 160 and 200 bottles, for approximately 1,200 units a year. Begg hopes to up that so his hobby can become his main source of income.
This year two of his sauces have been honoured with awards. Fresh Cents won the Best Jalapeno Award at the 2020 Canadian Hot Sauce Awards.
“I was surprised and flattered that it won the jalapeno award this year given that it was a highly experimental recipe,” he said. “I just kind of threw it together and it tasted good. It came out very well.”
Since seriously getting involved with hot sauces, Begg has discovered there is an underground hot sauce community with conventions such as Heatwave in London. It was at Heatwave on Feb. 29, just before the COVID-19 pandemic put conventions on hold, that another one of Begg’s creations, Cherrynobyl, won an award for Best Extreme Sauce, with its reaper level heat.
“Oddly enough it has become a terrific dessert hot sauce,” he said. “People use it on ice cream or cheesecake. I’ve tried it on plant-based cheesecake, either chocolate or vanilla, it works out very well.”
This year’s batch of Sorry Sauce hot sauces are all ready to move into the retail market with a UPC added to the labels for the first time, but at this point the best way to order is Sorrysauce.ca. Begg will deliver locally and will offer a free apology with every order.
Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.