Graham Frizzell chats chilli and beer with Melbourne Hot Sauce founder Richard Nelson and Ben Duval from Carwyn Cellars’ brew project, 40 Ft Brewing.
Beer and chilli go together like Batman and Robin or French and Saunders. It’s a double act that’s played out everywhere from fried chicken joints to the local pub’s centre stage, where the brave (and stupid) attempt to temper the flames of incendiary jerky with big brand lager. Wherever beer is to be found, something spicy is inevitably nearby.
But one man is taking the marriage of hops and spice to insane new heights: Richard Nelson, founder of Melbourne Hot Sauce. Over the past few years the Christchurch-born, Melbourne-based former chef of 16 years has been tinkering with the two elements to create award-winning and utterly delicious spicy concoctions. And along the way he’s worked alongside some of Melbourne’s up-and-coming brewing talent in 40 Ft Brewing Co and Wolf of the Willows.
How did Melbourne Hot Sauce get started?
Richard Nelson: I’ve been a chef all my life and the idea for Melbourne Hot Sauce came about eight years ago. I was doing a lot of Cajun, Creole and Mexican [cooking] – all of which required a lot of hot sauce. Looking for hot sauce eight years ago, there was nothing besides Tabasco, Crystal and a couple others – all very bland and one-dimensional. So I thought I could use my cheffing skills and make something better!
We’ve been around for about three years now, and the original idea behind it was producing small batch, hand-crafted, quality hot sauces. We wanted to do something different, not just replicate the other mass-produced stuff that’s out there.
It’s about having a point of difference, assuring quality control and having something unique – not just heat in a bottle for the sheer novelty. It’s more about the flavour, balance and creating something you can use all the time with all kinds of food.
Our sauces are not just “legally” all-natural, they really are all-natural. There are some products [on the market] that are, from a legal standpoint, “natural” but are in reality very unnatural. Citric acid, sodium benzoate and all those sorts of things are legally natural, but in reality they’re nasty things!
How did the collaboration with 40 Ft. Brewing come about to create the Gran Humo Negro hot sauce and chilli porter?
RN: The original credit has got to go to 40 F. Brewing and Carwyn Cellars. When the 40 Ft Brewing guys told me they’d made a chilli beer, initially I was sceptical about it. It took me a little bit of convincing to get on board. [Gran Humo Negro] is a chilli beer done right, whereas some chilli beers are done absolutely wrong! It’s subtle, not overpowering chilli-wise and there’s quite a lot of depth – something that could, naturally, be turned into a hot sauce.
After trying the beer I had the recipe in my head almost straight away. I knew exactly what it should be.
Ben Duval: We’ve got a fresh batch of Gran Humo Negro (smoked chilli porter) on tap now. It’s tasting even better than the batch we did last year. Once we hook Rich up with the beer there’ll be another fresh batch of Gran Humo Negro sauce as well.
Gran Humo Negro porter was originally my homebrew recipe. When it came to time to upscale it to a commercial-sized batch there was only one man to speak to: Brendan O’Sullivan at 3 Ravens Brewing. He’s had experience incorporating chilli in beer in a variety of ways. Brendan’s also just a damn good brewer who I trust!
The main genius came in the form of how the chillies were incorporated [into the beer]. The majority were heat-treated Morita and chipotle chillies, which were dunked in the beer post-fermentation for a week, which is where the lovely savoury-smoke character comes from. The rest were soaked in rye whiskey in the form of a concentrated tincture to extract the heat. Blending trials were conducted to find the sweet spot in terms of heat.
You recently unleashed a collaborative hot sauce with Wolf of the Willows and St Kilda Burger Bar, called Hop Smoked Jalapeño. What inspired you to work with beer and hops in particular?
RN: St. Kilda Burger Bar is a part of the Grosvenor Hotel and I’ve had a good relationship with them for a while. We’ve always toyed with the idea of collaborating with one another. [The SKBB] pitched the idea of working with Wolf of the Willows as well. I’ve met those guys and they’ve got a great product.
When collaborating with other companies it’s not just about the end product, you have to actually get on with the people [you’re working with]. You have to work with them on a relationship-type level otherwise it doesn’t work. Scott McKinnon [of Wolf of the Willows] is a great guy, and it’s important for us to work with people of the same ethos.
BD: [Scott McKinnon] likes growing his own chillies and does his own sauces too.
RN: He makes more of a chutney, chipotle relish sort of thing. He’s already had the interest, he supplied some of the red jalapeños that he grew himself for the test batch [of the sauce].
The ingredients are a lot simpler [than those used to make Gran Humo Negro sauce.] There’s the beer itself, the jalapeños and hops were smoked over cherry wood. The end result is all about letting those flavours speak individually.
BD: Wolf of the Willows do a smoked porter as well, which would lend itself really well to a hot sauce!
RN: Like the Gran Humo Negro [sauce] it took about six months of tweaking, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The most important thing is getting that perfect balance. If one little thing is out of whack, the whole doesn’t make sense. Both sauces are completely different but they make perfect sense.
Hot sauce and beer have this sort of synergy. Both have come from the same spot where once it was a cottage micro-industry – all you had was the big boys out there. Now it’s gone full circle and the bigger companies realised peoples’ palates have changed, consumer decision-making processes have changed. It’s at the point where the bigger companies are on the back foot, trying to replicate what the little ones are doing.
A big thanks must go to Rich and Ben for sharing their time and providing great insight into some of the best collaborative projects going in Melbourne right now. Watch out for a possible return of last year’s huge Day of the Dead event at Carwyn Cellars. Last year’s was a huge hit with Richard Nelson smashing out the tacos and a massive line-up of chilli beers!