Jason Crowley started his business with a few Birdseye Chilli seeds and a cotton bud. It quickly transformed into Crowley’s Hot Sauce, an established business with a record-setting sauce.

Winning international awards for his chilli sauces, Crowley’s Hot Sauce has come a long way from humble beginnings in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. With a passion for food and cooking and a history of sauce making in the family, Jason has no plans for things to cool off anytime soon.

How did your business Crowley’s Hot Sauce begin?

That is a very interesting question and has an answer that may sound quite corny.  It literally grew from a seed.

Around spring 2010, I was cleaning out the fridge. My son was three back then. I found an old Birdseye chilli I was going to throw out but decided to do the old ‘grass seeds on cotton wool’ experiment with my boy, but this time with chilli seeds. A few days later, we had germination. A few weeks later we had some established seedlings and from there, around 20 plants in the back yard. In their first season, the plants produced over 20kgs of Birdseye Chillis. 

I’ve always loved food and cooking, and at the time I was working for a large corporate I.T. company, so cooking was a nice way to relax. My Mum and Nan used to make their own tomato sauce using the acid-base additives from the supermarket which didn’t taste that great to me. In my limited spare time, I’d developed my own tomato sauce recipe from scratch. It was pretty basic, but the process was a bit more involved. Using a little knowledge passed down from family and my own experimentation, I started creating hot sauces.

Our first one was the Cajed Heat – an awesome Cajun/Mexican spice based flavour that rocks anything needing that earthy cumin and coriander punch – with only a touch of heat (not too hot, and not too mild). The second was our Sweet Lovin’ Lime – my take on a basic sweet chilli sauce – with a slight variation in the lime.

I gave out a few samples to some friends and a few suggested that I should sell it as it was pretty good. I gave it some thought and the first result was, “why would anyone buy this stuff?” And so I called the local Farmers Market coordinator who said I was welcome to participate if I had insurance sorted. My response was, “what insurance?”

So from there, the journey started with enquiries to the council, insurance, food safety, product development, pH and acidity levels, and the science behind shelf stability, best before dates and everything else I never really considered. From a seed in 2010, the Crowley’s Hot Sauce journey hasn’t stopped.

Crowley's hot sauce
Crowley’s hot sauce stand at a market.

What dishes do you think pair best with your hot sauces?

Our whole range, from the mild to the wild products are all very different and were originally designed as table sauces, developed with a view to, “create something a little different” to what was on the supermarket shelves. I’ve always liked bbq, burgers, wings, ribs, steaks and all things meaty. A few sauces were designed to complement beef, chicken and pork but to also merge with different cuisines and cooking techniques. The stereotypical hot sauce in supermarkets is of an Asian style and we do a couple of variations on that – stir fry, rice, noodles, soups, stews and casseroles can all be amped up a touch with an Asian influence. The really popular cuisine in the food scene these days is the American bbq and a low and slow approach to cooking beef brisket and pork shoulder, legs or ribs. It’s our BBQ Sauce and our higher-end hotter products that can really match a good bbq. We complement and elevate the end result by using Crowley’s Hot Sauce through the cooking process, from marinades to glazing and basting.

Which sauce is your best seller?

Our best seller for the earliest part of our journey has been our Smoke and Fire – a medium in heat savoury bbq sauce with only a touch of sugar. It’s not sweet, it’s a beautiful smokey savoury base that works well with pulled pork. In the last few years, we have developed a range of sweet smokey bbq sauces that have taken centre stage.

Most of our range is what I have developed based on what I liked and what I thought would work. There’s been a great success in that but the biggest driver for the success of those products was asking our customers, “what do you want us to make?” We started with three bbq sauce based recipes and heat levels and asked our customers to buy into the tasting and development programme. 

They paid $20 to get Crowley’s Hot Sauce samples and then were asked to complete a survey. It wasn’t just a survey with basic questions asking if they liked it or if it was too hot or not hot enough. We wanted to know exactly what they smelt, what they saw, how it made them feel (even before tasting it). The most important thing for us was understanding if it made them think of anything from their past (or present).

After the surveys came back, we read, listened and re-designed the two products that are now our BBQ Onion and BBQ Onion, Garlic and Rosemary products. Since their inception, they’ve been our standout biggest sellers.

Tell me about your proudest moment in business with Crowley’s Hot Sauce so far.

One would have to be winning back to back, the 2015 and 2016 World Hot Sauce Awards where we took out the Best Smokey BBQ Sauce with our Smoke and Fire, both years. It was held in Louisiana, USA. We didn’t attend but sent products to be sampled and watched the awards via live stream. To take out the category in 2015 was awesome. To take it a second time was validation that we must be doing something OK.

We’ve had other second and third place rankings across our whole range, plus another number one in the Best Habanero Hot Sauce category at the New York Hot Sauce Awards in 2017 for our Haba Nice Day.

Whilst getting top awards is a pretty good feeling our proudest moments come in the form of face to face communication and the friendships that develop with our awesome customers. When someone tells you it’s the best BBQ sauce they’ve ever tasted, or they take it home and their kids can’t put down our Garlic Source so they message you with pictures of the kids and the bottles with huge smiles – that’s the crowning glory. That’s what makes us get up and keep going each day, those moments outweigh any accolades or awards.

Crowley’s Hot Sauce Hallucinator has a slow-release, but don’t let this fool you. It sure packs a punch.

Do you grow all the chillies used in Crowley’s Hot Sauce?

That’s definitely where it all started. After the first two years as a hobby business, growing and making small batches at home and looking after the plants became unmanageable. The time making and selling started to outweigh our ability to manage our plants. Over time and with the limited growing seasons, it was apparent I needed help. We found a company in North Queensland that grow all year round – thousands of plants and consistent supply – we have been in a business relationship for the last ten years. For Crowley’s Hot Sauce to focus on the production and marketing and leave the growing to those that do it for a living was a no brainer. Whilst we don’t grow anymore (except hobby plants), we do still source top quality produce from our Australian growers.

What are some of the most epic flavour failures that you’ve experimented with?

Ahem… failures? What is this blasphemy?  

All joking aside, I’m a big fan of making mistakes or trying to recreate a mistake in a process so you know what not to do next time. If you don’t try something, you just won’t know what it’s like. Whether it’s adding too much sugar, or salt (or not enough), or thinking that taking an existing recipe and adding product X and item Y would be awesome only to find that it’s dull and lifeless as the end result.

Once I tried a Blueberry Sweet Chilli. It looked awesome, had gorgeous colour and beautiful texture but absolutely no flavour at all, apart from a touch of sweetness and a little heat. What looked like blueberry, definitely didn’t taste blueberry at all. There have been a few others like a pineapple based sauce that I wasn’t happy with, and a Mango one that for some reason – I just couldn’t get the balance right. If the balance is out, then that recipe goes out the door with it. 

The most memorable lapse in judgement was when I took the journey with hops (yes the things that flavour some beers). I thought if it can bring flavour to beer then surely it can do the same for me. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing hop based sauces in the market… just not mine.

Given Crowley’s Hot Sauces are all gluten-free I didn’t want to use beer in the sauce because of the barley and grains. I boiled up a few hops and added them in. I’m still not sure what I did six years later but the resulting flavour and odour (not aroma) were… very “funky.” After letting the product sit in the bottles for a few weeks and mellow out, things only got worse, so out it went.

What’s it like taste-testing your hot sauces for the perfect balance? Surely things go a little numb after a while!

I’ve been very fortunate in the development of new products. Knowing what balance to strike with sweet, salt, and acid and then pushing those in different directions to create a base for different palates is a pretty cool skill. Adding flavours in between those sensations helps take them to the next level and knowing how much heat to add when it’s enough or too much is definitely a learning curve. The milder and medium parts of our range are exciting to deal with. The products at the higher end of our Crowley’s Hot Sauce scale are a little more difficult to develop, especially when my heat tolerance is tailored around the mid-range products. Like a surgeon’s hands, my palate is my best asset so I try not to overload it with too much heat too often. However, I do taste every batch we make and the development of the hotter products is somewhat of a challenge. If it’s hot, too hot or extremely excruciating for me, I know it’ll be awesome for the top 10% of my customer base.

Jason has created a range from mild to mind blowing, so there is a sauce for every level of taste.

What has the reception of the Crowley’s Hot Sauce Hallucinator been like?

It’s been a wild ride for all of our customers. From the hotheads that can handle it down to those that think they can. We always joke about how bad it is and encourage people not to do it, so you could imagine how that goes. 

Don’t touch it. Don’t poke the bear. Don’t push the big red button! And they always do. The more we tell people how wild it is and how it’ll affect their senses, and how the associated physiology works, the more they’re confused, intrigued, scared and curious.  

It’s been a big hit. I initially set out to only do natural chillis and high-end heat products, but the more high-end customers we spoke to the more some said, “I want it hotter.” In the end, we relented and developed the Hallucinator, and it’s been a whole heap of fun since with a few moments of, “Oh, oh, what have we done?”

What are the phases of the endorphin experience?

This is a pretty cool part of the process. For those that are willing to go high enough and hard enough into the Capsaicin tasting experience the end result is a small moment in time where everything feels good. The euphoria that comes afterwards can leave you feeling relaxed, slightly numb in localised areas of your body and either a little tired or for some, an extra burst of energy.

The capsaicin and specific chemical makeup trigger the same receptor that picks up heat pain, like when you put your hand over a flame or sit on the seatbelt in the car mid-summer. Capsaicin will trigger that receptor and the area that it’s in contact with will react with nerve endings and hence you’ll feel that burning sensation. The higher the receptor reaction the more the nerve response and the more pain you’ll feel.

Once the receptors start to register the signals, and those signals increase, there’s a point where sections of the brain release the endorphins to counteract the pain. Dopamine (not an endorphin) can also be produced, helping to add to the pain relief and deliver that feeling of pleasure and an ultimate high (known as The Runners High or an Orgasm).  There’s a whole lot of science that’s available online. Let’s just say the higher the pain response the bigger the rush. It’s not just an endorphin rush but also includes increased blood flow around the body thus decreasing blood pressure and possibly delivering a dizzy off-balance feeling, coupled with the potential for adrenaline and the fight or flight response.

What I can tell you from first-hand experience is about the reactions and experiences some of our customers have had.

Customer 1

Spilt the Hallucinator on the kitchen bench and wiped it up with a dishcloth and rinsed it underwater and literally covered their hands and fingers with an invisible coating of Capsaicin. They proceeded to have a shower and with the help of warm water and soap, spread the Capsaicin all over their body. They rang me to ask how long the pain lasts. My response was maybe 15 to 30 minutes – their concern – it’d been 17 hours. Now we have a thorough user manual and safe cleaning process.

Customer 2

At a Chilli Festival and thought they could handle some high-end heat. They overloaded their toothpick (we only sample on toothpicks) and in the first 30 seconds experienced the massive adrenaline kick, the rush of blood, and promptly collapsed to the ground.

Customer 3

At the same time as Customer 2, Customer 3 was wearing a light blue shirt and within a minute looked like a dark blue melting candle, and shortly headed to the same ground level as his mate.

Customer 4

A Chilli Festival goer picks up two toothpicks and consumes around half a teaspoon. They looked me in the eye, sweating like it was 100 degrees Celcius and tried to have a conversation. He did pretty well. But 12 months later returned to tell me that day, as he was driving home, 20kms down the road the internal pain hit. His vision went blurry and pulling over to the side of the road was a struggle.  

Customer 5

Tried the Hallucinator with his wife and newborn alongside. He tried to maintain a level of composure but within 2–3 minutes is wandering off towards the carpark, leaving his family with me. His wife asked if he’d be ok. I assured her he’ll be ok and 20 minutes later, he comes back with no idea what just happened other than a guy woke him up because he was asleep on the bonnet of his car.

Customer 6 onwards…

You get the drift.

Crowley's hot sauce
Crowley’s Hot Sauce visits markets all across New South Wales.

How do you extract the Capsaicin?

There are a number of processes to extract essential oils from herbs and flowers, but for chillies, the process uses a solvent. Commonly high alcohol percentages (95%), or Hexane. Hexane is a solvent with a low odour, is clear and doesn’t produce toxic fumes during the process.

Firstly the Chillis need to be dried and ground to a powder. Dried to remove any non-essential liquids and powder to help increase the surface area that will come in contact with the Hexane. The powder and Hexane are blended together and intermittently agitated over a period of around 1 to 2 weeks depending on the manufacturer. Once the capsaicin oils and components have diluted into the Hexane or Alcohol, the solids are strained and the result is a deep dark red liquid blend of capsaicinoids and Hexane.

The last step is to evaporate the Hexane and leave behind the pure capsaicin which if done effectively will result in a black waxy solid substance. As a rough guide, 200kg of chillies such as Ghost Chilli, Trinidad Scorpion or Carolina Reaper will produce around 1kg of 9million SHU extract. We aim to use 9 million Scoville Heat Units, but they do produce 1, through to 9 million and 16 Million SHU pure capsaicin will be a white crystalline waxy substance which will only dissolve back into high-end alcohol. Trust me when I say if you spill that on bare feet, be prepared for 2 weeks of ultimate pain and suffering every time you take a step.

The Mad Dog 357 Plutonium No.9 appears on Google as the world’s hottest hot sauce at 9 million Scoville Hotness Units. Is this how much is in Crowley’s Hot Sauce Hallucinator?

The Mad Dog 357, 9 Million Pepper Extract is just that, the pure extract sold in a 30ml bottle. Theirs is liquidised so they will still contain a small amount of residual solvent to keep it liquidised. The difference with Crowley’s Hot Sauce Hallucinator is that at room temperature (26C and below) the extract we use is in a solid-state. When we add it to our spice blend, the volume of capsaicin resin we use resolidifies and throughout the jar, there’s a tiny dispersal of 9 million SHU capsaicin extract in every mouthful. Additionally, the more solid the extract the longer it takes to disperse across your palate and thus the longer the time between, “It’s not that hot” through to, “I WANT MY MUMMY!”

What’s the best way to overcome heat intolerance?

If you try some of the products classified as mild and it’s still a little too hot for you, you have to keep on keeping on. It’s like going to the gym, start with the small weights and keep exercising and you’ll be up with the big boys in no time. Chilli and the brain are similar, where the more you do it, the better it’ll become.

The way we try and explain it is it’s like a target and you’re shooting arrows at it. If the target (Brain/Receptor) is clear and you shoot 1 arrow (mild chilli) at it, you’ll feel it. If you shoot another arrow the target is still pretty clean and it’ll feel it. Over a small amount of time if you don’t shoot any more arrows (i.e. have no chilli) the previous arrows will fall out and expose the whole target again.

Just imagine over a few weeks if you have mild chilli every day (mild arrows) and you keep shooting those arrows at the target over and over again without letting too many fall out, you’ll overload the target full of arrows. 

Eventually, the next lot of milder arrows (mild chilli) won’t make it through and won’t hit the target (Brain), so you have to start using bigger arrows and a stronger bow (hotter chillis with a higher concentration of capsaicin) and it’s these bigger volumes that push through to the receptors and finally give you that heat sensation you’re looking for. The process repeats, the hotter you consume, the more you overload the receptors and the hotter you need to push through again and again. 

But how do you go up and down with your tolerance? If you stop using chilli and stop shooting arrows at the target the previous arrows will fall out and disappear and over time will expose the target again so you’ll be back to square one where the milder stuff will still give you a buzz. 

We always say to our customers, “time is both your enemy and your friend.” Whilst the pain sensation in the mouth will reduce after around 5 to 30 minutes depending on the persons’ experience, volume and intensity of the product, it’s that 5 to 30 minutes when coupled with a fight or flight experience, increased adrenaline and an inability to think clearly, seems like hours!

So firstly, without doing anything, over time you’ll be back to a level of ‘normal’.

Lastly, does milk help? If not (or for the people who don’t drink milk) what are your best suggestions?

If you’re desperate, the usual suspects like Milk, Yoghurt, Cheese, Bread, Sugar or Sugary substances, Chocolate and Cream all work, sometimes. If you’ve experienced the hotter side of average, these will definitely give you some relief. If you’re at the higher end where the capsaicin sits, then, in reality, those won’t help much at all. We’re always on the hunt for that magic potion, the one that could disrupt the industry and cause all chilli experiences to be a null event. We haven’t found it yet, but if we did we’d probably keep it a close secret.