'Superhot' peppers find spicy niche

05/17/2013 11:10:00 AM
Jim Offner

Jalapeños, habaneros and other hot peppers are routine to Marlin Bensinger.

Bensinger, a member of The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and farming and technical director and owner of Chromtec LLC, Las Cruces, N.M., grows “super hot” peppers — a market niche he has nurtured for nearly 50 years.

Bensinger said he grows six or seven Trinidad varieties and 10-11 others on 1 or 2 acres, “depending on the year.”

He grows the Trinidad moruga scorpion, which he claims is the world’s hottest chili pepper at more than 2 million Scoville heat units.

“These are the peppers of choice right now,” he said.

They are not for pepper novices, though, he said, noting that his customers are primarily high-end gourmet restaurants whose patrons know exactly what they want and will pay up to $500 per meal to get it.

“You won’t find it readily in a supermarket, the reason being it is so dog-gone hot,” Bensinger said.

His customers, which he described as “extreme gourmet restaurants,” routinely will have patrons sign waivers — just in case they can’t take the heat.

“The restaurant usually will have you sign a waiver that the customer will hold the restaurant harmless in case of any medical emergency or injury to the body,” he said.

Trinidads are not for novices, Bensinger said.

“People see a pepper like a habanero, they know they can cut it up with a modest amount of caution. With the super hots, all you have to have is have a shot of juice hit you in the eyes, and you can easily be in, like, convulsive fits for a period of time, for the uninitiated person,” he said.

The super hots are not tough to market because connoisseurs will seek them out, Bensinger said.

The peppers often are found at events like the annual National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show in Las Cruces, Bensinger said.

“We generally sell to distributors or processors who know what they’re doing,” he said.

Annual production volume varies, Bensinger said.

“It’s a crapshoot,” he said. “Some years, we can have 10,000 or 20,000 pounds, others years, a couple of thousand pounds.”

New Mexico has been slogging through an extended drought, which can be beneficial to hot peppers, Bensinger said.

“They’re used to not a lot of water,” he said.

Super hot peppers, such as Trinidad scorpions and ghost peppers, often are sold in dried pods with viable seeds in a plastic bag, priced from $3-7, said Dave DeWitt, president of Sunbelt Shows Inc., Las Cruces, which puts on the fiery foods show.

Attendance at the show serves as a reliable barometer for the following of super hot peppers, said DeWitt, a Chile Pepper Institute board member who serves as consultant for ChromTec.

“We had an attendance of 20,446 and about 200 exhibitors there this year,” DeWitt said. “Chili peppers in many forms were promoted, displayed and offered for sale, especially the super hot varieties.”

The show is primarily a showcase for the hot sauce manufacturers, Bensinger said.

“Most people cannot take the kind of pungency that comes off these super hot peppers,” he said. “You’re almost at the point of pain when you’re eating these super hots.”



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