Louisiana's Hottest Commodity
Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
AVERY ISLAND -- Making TABASCO® pepper sauce requires more peppers than Peter Piper could pick, even if he perpetually plucked pecks of properly propagated pungent peppers.
And behind that prodigious production is John Simmons, the great-great-great grandson of Edmund McIlhenny, founder of the TABASCO® pepper sauce empire.
The McIlhenny Co. remains a family operation run by McIlhenny descendants. John’s father, Tony Simmons, became the chief executive officer after the death of Paul McIlhenny in 2013, making Tony the fifth generation family member to run the business. The McIlhenny senior vice president, Harold “Took” Osborn, is Tony’s cousin.
John, 37, grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in history. He later graduated from LSU Law School and practiced law in Lafayette until he started working on Avery Island in 2014.
He said getting the job with McIlhenny was not guaranteed even though he’s part of the family, and he had to interview for the position before it was offered.
He enjoyed practicing law with an insurance defense firm, but he admits working and living on Avery Island is a less stressful way to make a living. “This is a pretty fun gig.”
He is married to the former Catherine Wise who grew up in Crowley, and they have a son, Elliott.
To work for McIlhenny, John had to make the transition from the legal profession to McIlhenny’s senior manager for agriculture.
“I’m responsible for every pepper that goes in every bottle of pepper sauce.”
Most of the peppers that go into TABASCO are grown under contracts with overseas farmers. John said that practice started several decades ago when the peppers were grown at one location and several crops were lost. Having smaller growers in diverse locations helps minimize risks of losing a year’s worth of peppers.
The company contracts with Western Hemisphere growers in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. It also is grown in Africa in Mozambique and South Africa.
A grower has a pretty good deal, John said. “He’s a guaranteed seller at a guaranteed price.”
The countries represent a wide variety of terrain and environmental conditions. . For example, dry weather is common in Colombia, while the crop in Peru has to endure desert-like conditions.
The best yields come from Colombia, where a hectare of land (approximately 2.5 acres) can produce 25 tons, John said. Plants grown there produce peppers for up to 10 months.
He visits the farmers in the Latin American countries regularly throughout the growing season, and he has to visit with farmers and inspect mills where peppers are ground. All that means he’s out of the country for about a week every month. A cousin, Loki Osborn, visits the African growers.
After harvest, the peppers are ground and mixed with salt to be shipped to Avery Island.
All the pepper seeds are grown in the U.S, on Avery Island. A small patch also is grown in Florida just in case something happens to the Avery Island seed crop.
“The purpose of this farm (on Avery Island) is research and development, and seed stock.”
In February, seeds are planted in greenhouses on the island, and the seedlings are transplanted no later than April 15. After harvest, seeds are shipped to growers overseas.
This year’s seed crop on the island totaled 20 acres.
Pepper plants are selected for seed before pickers are turned loose on the fields. Tony, John and Osborn go through the fields and select the best plants for seed stock. A big part of the selection is based on whether a plant grows peppers that are easy-to-pick, John said.
Seeds are dried to 8-11 percent moisture, then washed and packaged in 1.5-pound bags, each enough to plant 30 acres of pepper plants. The Avery Island crop usually yields 300 to 600 bags a year to be sent to overseas growers.
In case of a bad seed-growing year, a reserve supply is kept in a bank vault.
Research has been conducted to making a mechanical picker, but so far a machine can’t determine when a pepper is ripe enough to be picked. “It has to be done by hand,” John said.
Pickers are paid by the pound, John said. “We don’t have a problem finding folks. We have a good group of people who come every year.”
Normally, picking would start in August but this year’s cloudy, rainy weather set the crop behind by a few weeks. This harvest finally began Sept. 6.
Harvest ends at the first frost, or when the day’s total drops to only 2 barrels a day.
After the seeds are extracted from the Avery Island peppers, the fruit also is used to make sauce. Some of the peppers grown on the island also are used to make the Tabasco Family Reserve pepper sauce that’s aged longer than 3 years.
Farm manager Kip White said harvesting spreads disease as the army of pickers moves through the rows, dispersing concentrations of viruses and fungal spores throughout a field. In just one week of picking, the spread of disease is striking, he said.
Peppers are to be picked when they are dark red, a sign they are fully ripened. A red stick, or “le petit baton rouge,” is used as a gauge to measure the ripeness of the peppers.
Peppers on the bottom ripen first, but sunny weather is required to speed up ripening.
From flower to ripe fruit requires at least 72 days.
“You’ve got to have clear days and clear nights to ripen,” White said.
John said the peppers have never been bred for disease and insect resistance.
Fungicides and insecticides are needed to control pests such as hornworms, aphids, stinkbugs and cucumber beetles. Diseases include tobacco etch and pepper mild mottle virus.
White said sunflowers are being used to lure the insects away from the pepper plants, and the bugs are sprayed on the yellow flowers.
LSU AgCenter scientists provide expertise to help McIlhenny, just as they help backyard vegetable growers.
Mary Helen Ferguson, a plant pathologist with the LSU AgCenter, visits the field to help the company identify disease and insect problems. She said some plants are showing signs of disease that’s to be expected with the wet summer. “I’m finding surprisingly fewer than expected.”
She is collecting samples to find out what is causing fruit rot. “We’re looking for any problems we can address.”
Early in the season, cucumber beetles were found on young plants, and stinkbugs have been found along with some aphids, she said.
Fortunately, since the peppers are dried and ground, slight cosmetic insect damage is not a concern.
“LSU has helped us in numerous ways,” John said.
He said Ferguson’s assistance helps identify pests before they become a big problem. An agronomy team run by crop physiologist Dr. Raj Singh, soil scientist with J Stevens and weed scientist Ron Strahan makes soil fertility recommendations and helps manage weeds.
“We’ve worked with LSU for 3 years, and all 3 years we have had good harvests, healthy plants and strong healthy seeds to send around the globe,” John said. “It’s a good team and they do a lot for us.”
After harvest, the plants are shredded, filling the air with the strong tang of pepper as tractors pass over the fields. “We try to cut into the wind,” White said.
After spraying, a flock of 100 blackface sheep is released on fields to control weeds and to provide some fertilizer. Fields are left fallow for 4 years before planting.
TABASCO® pepper sauce is made from the recipe by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 with salt, vinegar and peppers. The peppers are ground into a mash the same day they are picked. “We don’t have sinus problems when we grind the peppers,” White said.
The pepper mash is aged 3 years in wooden barrels. It’s the aging that makes the distinct flavor profile of TABASCO®, John said.
A thick layer of salt seals the barrel lids, and the salt is replaced every 6 weeks. The salt is from the salt dome that Avery Island sits on, mined by the Cargill Corp.
Each barrel has enough pepper mash to make 10,000, 2-ounce bottles of pepper sauce.
Wooden barrels from the whiskey distilleries are used, and that explains why many of the barrels have labels from such well-known companies such as Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. The increased demand for whiskey has resulted in more barrels available for TABASCO®, John said, and distillery laws restrict the use of barrels to only one batch of bourbon. “The boom in the bourbon business is good for us.”
The interiors of whiskey barrels are charred to give the liquor its smoky flavor and amber color, but that is undesirable for making pepper sauce, so that layer of charcoal has to be removed. The company had a special decharring machine built to solve that problem, one of only a handful in the world.
Another special machine had to be built to install stainless steel hoops on the barrel, replacing the original iron hoops which rust badly from the salt used in the aging process.
After aging, the peppers are mixed with the vinegar. Tony Simmons inspects all the barrels entering the blending plant each day of processing to make sure every barrel contains a good batch of mash. “Quality is the most important aspect for us,” John explains.
The importance of quality is a key component of the company mission statement hangs prominently throughout the company’s buildings: “Since 1868, the McIlhenny Family has been committed to premium products that enliven the flavor of food. Our mission is to assure that our TABASCO® diamond provides uncompromising quality.”
Two trucks from Alabama arrive at the plant daily with 5,000 gallons of vinegar to mix with the mash. McIlhenny started using vinegar made from sugarcane instead of corn because of concerns by the European Union about GMO corn, John said.
The pepper-vinegar concoction is held in mixing vats for 2-4 weeks. Solids are filtered out of the pungent red sauce in containers that hold enough sauce to fill 200,000 2-ounce bottles.
The leftover dried solids are used for a variety of food and industrial purposes, such as analgesic ointments spices.
An in-house lab tests the sauce for such qualities as pH and salt content, and a gas chromatograph is used to analyze the sauce’s flavor profile.
“Everything is tested before it’s bottled,” John said.
Bottling is accomplished with dizzying array of automated machinery that dispenses the sauce into bottles, installs the distinctive red cap, applies the labels, and seals and boxes each bottle. TABASCO® is sold in over 180 countries.
The McIlhenny Co. vigorously defends its trademarks, and the name of the company’s product, John said. “Nowhere in the world can you use TABASCO®.”
Even the octagonal cap and bottle design are trademarked.
The TABASCO® peppers are scientifically labeled Capsicum frutescens. “All the capsicum comes from the Amazon Basin and it spread throughout South America and the Caribbean,” John explained.
Columbus took capsicum peppers back to Europe, he said, and from there it spread to Asia to become a key ingredient.
But the exact origin of the Avery Island TABASCO® peppers is a mystery. “We don’t know how Edmund McIlhenny got the seed in the first place,” John said.
A story of a letter seems to indicate he may have gotten seeds from someone in California, he said, but it’s not clear if that was the original source.
Tabasco peppers have some distinct differences from jalapeno and habanero. Tabasco peppers grow upward, while the other peppers hang down. Tabasco peppers also are loaded with juice that make them excellent for making sauce but other peppers are dry inside.
The Avery Island peppers aren’t the hottest on the planet. The Scoville scale is used to measure the pungency (spicy heat) of chili peppers in Scoville heat units. John said Avery Island peppers when dried have 42,000-43,000 Scoville units, and the sauce is 2,500 to 5,000.
The hottest pepper, the Naga Jolokia, has around 1 million Scovilles.
But McIlhenny has developed an eye-watering habanero sauce. “We want to let everyone know that we can play in that space,” John said.
The company has branched out in past years, partnering with other companies to use TABASCO® pepper sauce in jellies, jelly beans, A1 Steak Sauce, popcorn, pickles, dips, mustard and even SPAM.
But the key product of the McIlhenny is the original pepper sauce.
“We know how to make really hot food taste really good,” John said.
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