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The Cult of Crystal Hot Sauce

How New Orleans’s famous cayenne condiment conquered America

Things can get awkward fast for David Guas when some of his regulars walk through the door. Guas is a New Orleans native and owns and operates Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia. For the last seven years, he’s stood firm in his love for and commitment to Crystal hot sauce, a reddish-orange Louisiana sauce with just three ingredients: aged red cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt. There are bottles on every table — right next to the salt shaker — and Guas sells it behind the counter, too.

“I think this hot sauce is drinkable,” Guas says. “There’s just something about the blend and balance of vinegar to salt to heat. It’s perfect.”

But here’s where things get really weird. Some of Gaus’s most loyal customers are also New Orleans natives, and they hail from a long line of Louisiana hot sauce families. “I can tell you personally that I know people from other hot sauce families that live here, that eat here, and that bring their own sauce,” Guas says. “They have to accept that I’m a Crystal guy, and I’m not going to change.” Guas isn’t a paid spokesperson for Crystal. He’s simply one of the many chefs, consumers, and devotees who consider themselves fans.

Touch down in New Orleans, and probably the first thing you’ll notice is the rows of Crystal hot sauce for sale in the airport gift shop. Crystal hot sauce has been in New Orleans for almost a century. It was once the official hot sauce of the New Orleans Saints NFL team. And if you venture into almost any New Orleans restaurant, whether it’s white-tablecloth or a po’ boy takeout, you’ll see that signature white-and-blue label with a green cap. Crystal’s parent company, Baumer Foods, processes more than 12 million gallons of cayenne pepper mash annually just outside New Orleans, resulting in 3 million gallons of Crystal hot sauce, shipped to more than 75 countries each year. Bottles pop up on tables everywhere from Miami (its largest U.S. market) to Dubai.

Of course, every cult has a leader. For Crystal hot sauce, it’s a guy who goes by the name of Pepper. Alvin A. Baumer III, or Pepper, as he’s known by almost everyone, is the soon-to-be heir of the Crystal empire. His grandmother, Dottie Brennan, is one of the original proprietors of Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans institution in its own right, and she gave him the nickname while he still in the womb.

“It was predetermined,” Baumer III explains. “My dad and my grandfather are both named Alvin. So she thought it would be an easier way to tell us apart. The name just stuck.”

Crystal hot sauce was started in 1923 by Pepper’s grandfather, Alvin Baumer, a descendent of German immigrants who came to New Orleans after the Civil War. As a young man in the early 1900s, Baumer held many jobs, including one at his dad’s bar in the French Quarter, where draft beers cost just a nickel and were paired with a free plate of red beans and rice.

According to the family lore, it wasn’t until Baumer met his future wife, Mildred Bacher, that his life changed forever. She was the daughter of a wealthy New Orleans real estate broker and businessman, and at the time, Baumer was a laid-off worker from a local hardware store. He bravely asked his future father-in-law for a personal loan, enough to buy him the ownership of Mill’s Fruit Products, a sno-ball syrup producer on Tchoupitoulas Street near downtown.

“That’s really where the origins of Crystal Pure Louisiana hot sauce began,” says Alvin Baumer Jr., the current CEO of Baumer Foods (and father to Pepper Baumer). “When Alvin bought the sno-ball syrup business, he found a hot sauce recipe in the drawer of the company’s archives. It was kind of like going into your grandmother’s kitchen, opening a drawer, and finding the world’s best recipe for lemon meringue pie.”

Baumer Jr. is the first to admit that his father’s good fortune is pretty unbelievable. The company grew quickly because of that recipe-in-a-drawer discovery, which christened Crystal right from the start.

But that wasn’t the only sauce Baumer was making. He transitioned from sno-ball syrups to other preserves and canned-good products. In the 1940s, the business turned into Baumer Foods Inc., and during World War II, almost all production went to supplying jellies and preserves for U.S. troops. After the war, Baumer stayed in the jellies and preserved-goods business, producing cans of shrimp, green beans, okra, sweet potatoes, and kidney beans.

It was a postwar boom in business that eventually drove the company to move to a bigger factory space. And for decades, Crystal hot sauce grew and flourished at a factory on Tulane Avenue in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans.

“At that point, I put the production lines together kind of like a kid assembling toy trains,” Baumer Jr. says. “We had production tracks running through walls and in circles.”

By the company’s 80th anniversary, space was growing very tight, and one of the biggest disasters in New Orleans’s history was looming. “I woke up on the morning of August 29, 2005, after Katrina, owning only the rights to a hot sauce label and a flooded plant,” Baumer Jr. says. It would take months for the company to begin producing hot sauce again, and two years to move into a new factory in Reserve, Louisiana, about 45 minutes west of the city — and nine feet above sea level.

Hurricane Katrina completely destroyed the Mid-City factory, taking with it an archive of photos, documents, and yes, the original Crystal hot sauce recipe. So what exactly is the Louisiana hot sauce produced at Reserve? According to Baumer III, Louisiana Hot Sauce by definition is a vinegar-based hot sauce made with aged red cayenne peppers.

The field of options for Louisiana hot sauce is narrowing — Texas Pete in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Louisiana Hot Sauce in New Iberia, Louisiana, are both considered competitors. Crystal is the top-selling hot sauce in Louisiana and ranks ninth in market share for the United States. Tabasco, which is not considered a direct competitor because it’s made with a different pepper (also called tabasco), has the largest market share for an independently owned and operated hot sauce brand, and it’s primarily due to a global presence and small bottle size.

But for the Crystal brand, consistency comes from a staff that’s been making hot sauce their whole life. And Crystal maintains exclusive rights to aged peppers shipped from Chihuahua, Mexico, one of the product’s key ingredients.

Inside the newish Reserve plant, at first shift, which starts at 7 a.m. on Monday morning, some 80 employees are busy turning ground cayenne pepper into batches of hot sauce. One whiff of the cayenne pepper mash tun’s steam will make your eyes water and skin flush, not to mention the fact that the entire factory floor smells of burnt cayenne pepper.

“After 38 years of working here, I can barely smell it,” says Doug Wakefield, vice president of operations at Baumer Foods. “Part of the beauty of Crystal is that it’s the same formula that we’ve been making since we started. Each day, we produce consistency and quality.”

B.J. Lieberman used to work at Husk in Charleston and says there were just a few staple spices in the restaurant’s “seasoning portfolio,” including butter, salt, lemon juice, simple syrup, and fresh herbs — but there was only one that came in a prepackaged bottle: Crystal hot sauce. Lieberman, who’s now the head chef of Rose’s Luxury in Washington, D.C., says Crystal continues to be his go-to hot sauce for classic Southern dishes, like a pickle-brined fried chicken dish that’s served nightly at the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat rooftop garden.

“It’s actually not that hot,” he says. “It has a ton of vinegar, salt, and it is a great consistency — what the French call nappe. It is also a beautiful texture and perfectly smooth, so it lends itself well to adding to other sauces, or mounting with butter, or a host of other useful applications.”

As it turns out, many well-known chefs gravitate to the bottle, and not just because it’s a good side or condiment. TV personality and celebrity chef Jeff Henderson uses the sauce religiously in his demonstrational cooking as a way to add subtle heat and flavor. Andrew Zimmern has lauded its “very beautiful hot pepper flavor.” Chefs who are in the Crystal cult repeatedly cite it as a versatile hot sauce with a slightly acidic and vinegary edge.

“I use it on everything from eggs, red beans, fried chicken, anything really, just to elevate the flavor of the dish I’m making,” says Matt Floyd, executive chef at Bon Ton in Atlanta.

For some chefs, the attachment to Crystal taps into childhood nostalgia. Ryan Rogers, who heads up Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken in Louisville, Kentucky, is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and can remember passing the bottle of Crystal hot sauce as a kid at family meals that included gumbo, jambalaya, and stewed chicken.

“Culinary foodways of the South have been on a massive upwards trajectory,” Rogers says of many Southern staples’ recent rise to prominence. “Chefs have made it a point to celebrate the foods that they grew up on, or came to love, with the rest of the country. Part of celebrating those foods is looking at legacy brands that have been crafting food memories in the South for generations.”

Nowhere is the love for Crystal stronger than in New Orleans. Sandwich shop Turkey & the Wolf is located in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood. If you step behind the sandwich counter and walk into chef-co-owner Mason Hereford’s kitchen, Hereford will reveal that he uses Crystal almost as an homage. In an Inception-like move, Hereford adds Crystal hot sauce to his house-made hot sauce that comes doused on deviled eggs and fried-chicken skins. He also uses it for po’ boys and sandwiches, like his collard green melt.

“I think a lot of people would be like, ‘You put hot sauce in your hot sauce? That’s really dumb,’” he says. “But our sauce comes out really well-rounded.”

Of course, Hereford is open to other hot sauce brands — he can easily rattle off some of his favorites, like Tabasco, Tiger Sauce, and Texas Pete. But according to him, Crystal is “next level.” “Our go-to has always been Crystal,” he says. “I think to me it’s the perfect representation of what an American hot sauce can and should be.”

Tim Ebner is a food writer and Eater contributor based in Washington, D.C.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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