April 24, 2015 / 4:03 PM / 2 years ago

Hot sauce is main course at New York showcase

Bottles are filled along a production line at the factory of hot sauce company Culley's in Auckland, New Zealand in this 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters April 24, 2015.Culley's/Handout via Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Zealand chef-turned-entrepreneur Chris Cullen seems to have hot sauce running in his veins, judging from the passionate way he speaks about one of America's hottest food trends.

"I had a love of food and all things hot and spicy ever since I can remember," says Cullen, one of 50 or so vendors offering their interpretations of the spicy condiment at this weekend's New York City Hot Sauce Expo in Brooklyn.

"Culley," as he is best known, is not alone his devotion to the hot stuff. The expo is expected to draw thousands of "chili heads" paying between $10 and $100 each (for "super VIP" tickets) to sample a breathtaking array of a condiment that has gone from cult status to mainstream in recent years.

"There's really a strong sense for us that there is a market up in the States," said Cullen, who has concocted a limited-edition kiwi-based hot sauce, known as Thunder from Down Under, to set himself apart from the pack. "And there doesn't seem to be an end to it."

The U.S. hot sauce market has grown to $607 million from $228 million in 2000, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Revenues from hot sauce sales could swell to $1.3 billion by 2019, according to researcher IBISWorld.

Growth is in part a reflection of changing American tastes and the rising popularity of spicier international cuisines such as Thai and Szechwan food.

Demographic trends have played a part, too. Sales of hot sauce have risen alongside the number of Hispanics and Asians living in the United States, according to a 2014 study by IBISWorld.

This year, organizers say they had to turn down more than three quarters of the vendors who applied for the show, which will cover 65,000 square feet (6,000 square meters) of space at the Brooklyn Expo Center.

SPICE MANIA

Chris Cullen, founder of hot sauce company Culley's, tastes his Trinidad Scorpion Hot Sauce at the company's factory in Auckland, New Zealand in this 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters April 24, 2015.Culley's/Handout via Reuters

One measure of hot sauce's popularity is the proliferation of tasting events over the last decade. There are now about a dozen expos across the country, and an invitation-only camping event in Indiana that has been described as the "Woodstock for Chileheads."

In perhaps the most telling sign of hot sauce's move in the mainstream, H.J. Heinz Co [HJHC.UL] earlier this year launched a ketchup fortified with a kick of sriracha, a spicy sauce with Thai origins that has swept the U.S. market.

Sriracha mania is widely credited to the success of California-based Huy Fong Foods Inc, a company that was the subject of a 2013 documentary film by Griffin Hammond. Huy Fong's distinctive plastic bottles featuring a white rooster logo and green cap are a rising staple in American kitchens.

Chris Cullen, founder of hot sauce company Culley's, holds fresh New Zealand grown green Habanero peppers used in the Culley's Green Chile Sauce, in Auckland, New Zealand in this 2014 handout photo obtained by Reuters April 24, 2015.Culley's/Handout via Reuters

But not all hot sauce is created equal: they range from the merely spicy to the dangerously fiery. On the upper end, it is difficult to explain why a condiment that creates an uncomfortable burning sensation in the mouth is so wildly popular.

"People come to like a wide variety of innately negative experiences: the burn of chili pepper in the mouth, the bitterness of coffee, the fear from riding on a roller coaster," said Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who has done research on the topic.

"Such benign masochism is widespread in humans, and we really don't know how that process operates."

Be that as it may, organizers of the New York event are taking precautions against unintended suffering among expo-goers, says Steve Seabury, the show's organizer and owner of High River Sauces.

The expo will hand out free cartons of milk to help soothe palettes. And for anyone who has overindulged in a sauce that is too hot to handle, an emergency team, including medical services and an ambulance, will come to the rescue.

"It's a really, really painful experience," said Seabury, speaking like someone who knows firsthand. "And some people that are not used to that really lose their minds."

Additional reporting by Frank McGurty; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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