When I ask Isabel Street Heat owner Tony Stoy about the last time he hurt himself while making hot sauce, he brings up an incident three years ago that occurred while he was processing ghost peppers.
“I had this respirator on,” he says, “and this seed actually popped off [a pepper], got caught behind the glass [of my respirator], and sat on my nose while I was processing peppers. It was … kind of spicy.”
It’s a Saturday morning when we first meet at GIA Kitchens, the shared workspace where Stoy operates. We’re in a tidy, well-lit storage room not far from the entrance. Our voices and their subsequent echoes are practically the only sounds in the whole building.
There’s an industrial shelf in here stacked with boxes and bins, and big blue plastic drums are all around us. Stoy ferments his peppers in these drums for three months before cooking them and ultimately making the hot sauces. He explains how he loads them up, lays a cover of bay leaf over the top of them, and finally coats that with a salt cap.
The idea was inspired by the techniques used while Stoy was working kitchens down in New Orleans, where he spent a few years in the late 1990s aging meats and fermenting hot sauces. When I ask about specific sauces that inspired him, he brings up New Orleans-born Crystal Hot Sauce. He also brings up Tabasco.
Fine: Tabasco is most folks’ baseline for a workaday, don’t-write-home hot sauce, but did you know Tabasco ages their tabasco peppers in white oak barrels after being mashed? It’s true.
And that’s the last time Isabel Street Heat and Tabasco sauce should ever be mentioned this closely together.
TRY THIS AT HOME
I filled up a table spoon (not tablespoon, table spoon) with Isabel Street Heat’s Ghost sauce, dumped that spoonful into my mouth, sat down on my couch, and started playing video games on my phone. Within minutes, a bold heat had left my mouth a watering mess and was working its way into my visceral mass. It would feel for a little while the way I imagine the inside of the fireplace at my folks’ house feeling when it’s burning hot.
By Stoy’s estimation, six ghost peppers go into every bottle of Ghost.
“It’s got a hood heat level,” he says. “If you’re somebody who likes a lot of pain, it’s going to be very mild for you; but if you’re the typical, like, hot sauce is hot, the ghost is good enough to add some some good heat and flavor to your dish without completely killing it.”
Isabel Street Heat sauces aren’t meant to be loaded onto a spoon and gulped as a method of self-conflagration. Stoy highlights their purpose as a condiment, meant to add an extra flavor dimension to meals. I’ve already told you how Isabel Street Heat’s Cilantro Lime Serrano can turn an unseasoned swordfish steak into a Flavor Per Second monster. The Thai Chili sauce, meanwhile, makes a lively work lunch out of my otherwise disastrous lentil recipe tries. When I don’t really need heat, and I just want a smooth flavor injection, I lean on the Chipotle.
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM
Stoy is originally from Maine, and a mountain-climber. He’s scaled the highest mountain in Maine, Mt. Katahdin, and hopes to one day hike up a few out in Colorado.
Stoy’s years in the restaurant industry began during high school at high-end restaurants on Maine’s Atlantic coast. He got some time in as a pastry chef and sous chef out there before moving down to New Orleans. He eventually moved back to Maine to help his mother open a restaurant, but left the industry not long after that.
“I just kind of woke up,” he says, “and, after working 60-80 hours a week, nights and holidays and weekends, you kind of go ‘You know, this isn’t really a life that’s conducive to family life.'”
Stoy moved away from the restaurant industry when he moved to Minnesota with his wife and two daughters in 2005. Now a lead foreman at Motorwerks BMW, he can keep up with the family and keep Isabel Street Heat going in the off-time. But there’s another benefit – an eager test group when new batches are crafted.
“Everyone will tell you it’s great,” he says. “Depending on how much they want, that tells me how good the sauce really is.”
Stoy recalls the first time he was asked about the sauce by a co-worker. He had what would become his Thai Chili hot sauce, a blend he’d made with a neighbor back in 2005. He was blessing a slice of pizza with it at work, and somebody noticed. Yada yada yada, he was bringing hot sauce into work and it was getting bought out.
It soon escalated to the point where he made 140 cases of hot sauce in one year, he recalls, and that precipitated the first discussions of a business launch. In 2013, he set up shop for the first time at his local farmers market on St. Paul’s west side; in 2014, he was licensed and operating out of GIA. Today, Isabel Street hot sauces are sold in over 100 stores and restaurants across six states.
So, how does he do it?
Stoy starts his work days at GIA with a music selection. He says he casts a pretty wide net in terms of musical tastes. Bob Marley and Tom Petty are the examples he gives me. Some mornings, he’s processing peppers: washing, de-stemming, and running them through a meat grinder.
“[The grinder] chops up the peppers without atomizing a lot of oils,” he says, “so your eyes aren’t burning.” As another layer of protection, he turns on an exhaust hood when the hotter peppers are being processed.
This happens pre-fermentation. After those peppers spend those three months in those big blue drums, they’re blended with vinegar and cane sugar, then put into a steam kettle. Meanwhile, bottles are cooked at 180 degrees for five minutes to ensure shelf-stability. Once all of that’s done, it’s off to the bottling line!
“I have bottling equipment,” he says with a laugh. “I use my arms.”
The benefits of a pneumatic machine haven’t lined up with the costs, says Stoy. For now, he and some friends tackle it bucket brigade-style: one fills, one caps, one slaps on labels. Stoy estimates they can do 120 cases this way in six hours’ time.
They hit cruise control, but they don’t rub their eyes.
NOTHING IS WASTED
Stoy learned something about materials management during his baking years: “If you mess up a cake,” he says, “it becomes tomorrow’s ice cream.”
Anyone in or around the restaurant industry (of even me, a guy who just talks about it) knows the core principle here: utilizing your ingredients, making sure every piece has a purpose. I first learned during a cooking class hosted by Butcher and the Boar back in the day, and was most recently reminded of it by Stoy here.
Remember those leaves, and that salt cap? Once the peppers are finished up, the bay leaves are dried off and used for seasoning. Meanwhile, the salt caps from his hottest sauces (Ghost, Habanero, Fatalii) are smoked for 16 hours, dried to remove moisture, and used in his habanero salt. The salts from the other varieties (Jalapeno, Cilantro Lime Serrano, Thai Chili, Chipotle) are worked the same way for chipotle salt. This salt also gets mixed with cracked pepper to make Isabel Street Heat’s St. Paul Mix.
“You’re always thinking of different ideas, and utilizing all your ingredients,” he says. “You don’t have much profit margin. You don’t have an opportunity to have excess waste. You’re trying to use everything.”
Dry rubs and salts currently available on the Isabel Street Heat website include Jamaican Jerk, BBQ, and fish rubs; chipotle and habanero salts; and that St. Paul Mix, which is making its way up my ladder of do-everything seasonings.
Now, there’s one more barrel in the storage room. This one’s made of oak, and lying on its side. It’s from Roseville-based Bent Brewstillery. You’ve heard about this sriracha, right? The one Isabel Street Heat makes with peppers fermented in a Dark Fatha stout barrel?
Stoy got a Barrel from Blume a few years back and put 250 pounds of vine-ripened jalapeños inside. Those jalapenos spent four months in there, and the barrel was occasionally rolled to keep fresh mash on the barrels. This yielded 400 bottles of barrel-aged sriracha, and those bottles were sold out in a month.
End of story, right? Not for the Barrel. Once Stoy was finished with it, it went back to Blume and was filled with rum. What comes out of that is Flamebringer. The only descriptors on the web page are Peppery. Fiery.
“It sat in there and just pulled all the oils,” says Stoy. “What you get is a completely different flavors. You get a good spiced rum, but then you get almost a green jalapeno flavor that comes out of spiced rum, and it has a really good heat level. It’s this whole evolution of a barrel. Most times you only get two turns out of a barrel, so we’re getting four.”
Isabel Street Heat also has Jalapeno and Habanero sauces on the main roster; a hot sauce made with African fatalii peppers occasionally gets released into the wild on a small-batch basis; and rumor has it a Korean lemongrass ginger sauce might be ambushing your Instagram feeds sometime soon. Might want to update your Following list. More information can be found at the Isabel Street Heat website.