Just in case you weren’t following us yesterday, this is the second part of my interview with Conan Herring, co-owner of Howler Monkey Hot Sauce. We shared some wings, beer, and an awesome chat about the history of the company and the peppers that influenced them. You can read the first half here.
Next up, Cardenas is it?
Cardenas, it’s a town in the former Canal Zone.
So that’s where you were born?
Born and raised.
What’s the pepper culture like there? Were you born with a bottle of hot sauce in your hand?
Definitely, a lot of people like hot sauce. Similar to the U.S. where most restaurants are going to have hot sauce on the tables. The difference is, down there, everything is going to be a variation of the Aji Chombo picante sauce.
It will either be the grocery store bought stuff, their private recipe, or just a generic style of the stuff, you know, it’s always going to be that kind of sauce.
Now, everywhere in the world, Tabasco exists and it’s going to be down there. You know, you go to a Marriott down in Panama, you’ll find Tabasco along with a local Aji Chombo.
Very much part of the culture, as far as the food and such, people like it very spicy. But what’s different, up here you have this culture of people that are like seeking out all kinds of hot sauces all of the time, looking for stuff.
Panamanians are content with their Aji Chombo. They have their “go-to’s” that they like more than others, but they’re not looking for their Habanero sauces or Ghost Pepper sauces. That’s not big down there.
Well, being from Panama, it’s easy to see why the Aji Chombo was the pepper of choice. Why does everyone there love it so much?
The thing about the Scotch Bonnet in general, that’s what I think what Aji Chombos are closest too, if you want to compare them. In my opinion is that Habaneros have a different burn, kind of like in the back of your throat and back of your tongue, where Scotch Bonnets are more in the front of your mouth.
One thing that’s different about the Scotch Bonnet / Aji Chombo pepper is that you get that taste and that burn, but it doesn’t linger. You’re not going to put too much on your food and ruin it, you’re not going to regret eating it because you’re mouth’s on fire.
That’s what the Scotch Bonnet in my opinion has on the Habanero. Better flavor. Though they’re similar in heat…
Right around 250k – 350k…
Yeah, but I think it’s the flavor that’s better. I think why the Jamaican’s love it so much and why Panamanians love it so much is that it’s a great cooking pepper. You can put a couple in a pot of stew, let it permeate, take em out, and it adds a great flavor with not too much heat.
We did our first show and we were like, ok, here’s our one sauce, and the question was “What else you got?”
So when was the first time you tried one?
Hot sauce or a pepper?
The Aji Chombo.
I’ve never eaten a whole pepper. My first exposure to it is in a Latin American dish called Ceviche.
The one with the fish correct?
Yes. Basically it’s a traditional dish where the lime juice cooks the fish. You don’t cook it over a fire or in the oven.
So how do they incorporate the pepper into that?
One of the main ingredients is the Aji Chombo. That’s the first time I’ve ever had it.
How old were you?
I was about 10 or 12 years old.
That’s a staple around there huh?
Yeah, it’s one of the appetizers on pretty much every menu.
So you mentioned your partner Tom, we haven’t met yet, but how did you guys meet?
We both went to the same schools in Panama. Played in the same sports leagues and such. He’s a few years older than me and really good friends with one of my best friend’s brother.
We became closer friends when we moved to the states looking to go to college. Tom was already living here at the beach going to UNF. So I decided I wanted to come here and check it out. I hung with them and a bunch of other friends for a weekend and had a good time.
We have a pretty niche group of friends from the Canal Zone. The group here was a bunch of good guys, and Tom was one of those guys. We started hanging out and when I eventually moved here to go to school, that was around 1998.
So we had known each other for about 12 plus years when we decided to form this company in 2010.
How did you decide, let’s start a hot sauce company?
You go to the grocery store, you’re going to find a Jamaican hot sauce, a Texas hot sauce, a Louisiana hot sauce, a Mexican hot sauce. We were like, Panama’s got a unique hot sauce, a little different than everything else.
With the mix of the cultures there and such?
It’s like you know what, we wanted to take a shot at introducing a Panama hot sauce and take one to market. That was the idea.
How did you guys find out you both liked hot sauce so much?
Hanging out, BBQs, traveling back to Panama together with both of us coming back with hot sauce. Eating over at his house and knowing he had a stash of Gilby’s hot sauce.
So do you ever push each other to try hotter things?
Nah, we’re not really into that. I like really hot stuff, but I have my limits. I’m more about flavor heat combinations. For example, we only created the hot version of our sauce because people were asking for hotter sauce.
We did our first show and we were like, Ok, here’s our one sauce, and the question was “What else you got?”
That leads me to my next question. You guys have four sauces, and I’m assuming the Original was your first. How long did it take you guys to dial in that recipe to the point where you were like “This is our sauce!”
That was definitely a process. So when we first started this, we were actually growing our own peppers. So my grandfather had brought up his plants from Panama, some seeds, and he planted them in Ocala.
So we had some true Aji Chombos from Panama.
He gave me some of those plants, I had some, Tom had some, and next thing you know we were like, you know what, let’s grow a bunch of these plants, make our own sauce, we’ll have our own peppers right?
We can say we have our own genuine Panamanian Aji Chombo peppers, which we thought was important at the time but we found out really wasn’t.
When we first went into business and were talking about mass production, the quantities you need of pepper are so high, you know. We’re talking about 50, 60, 70, 80, you know hundred pounds of sauce at a time. There was just no way we could keep up with growing them. I mean, we had like 30 plants at the time.
So we’re making our own sauce with this pepper, just testing it out. Neither of us had made sauce before but we knew a lot of people who had. We were hitting people up asking them what to use, some said use oil, some said not, you know… boil the vinegar, don’t boil the vinegar…
So we just started playing in the kitchen. Got the blender out and started making sauce. We were basically trying to replicate that Panamanian style of sauce.
We ended up with three different sauces, that we could replicate and that we were happy with.
So we started taking them to the Ritz for the Jaguars tailgates here in Jacksonville Beach. We’d put them on the table and it we’d literally have A, B, and C. People would start putting them on their fish and then we’d go through and poll people, asking what they thought. Overwhelmingly, B, I think it was B, is what they liked.
So we took B, and then we started working with our commercial kitchen to understand, ok what’s the next level?
So we’re taking this thing that we made in a blender and figuring out how to cook it in a kettle. Then things that we’ve learned were “Ok, we have to cook everything. We have to bring up the PH levels.” We didn’t know that.
When you start looking at things like onions and garlic, it drastically changes the flavor greatly when cooked, even the pepper to a degree.
So we had to re-scale that. We went back and forth with our bottler and he made us 7 or 8 samples before we were like, that’s the one.
So of the four, what’s your favorite?
I’m typically an Original kind of guy. I can use it all day on anything. It’s my go to. If I’m eating steak, Amarillo.
That’s my favorite!
It’s a great dipping sauce too. It goes well with your rice, fish, or beans too. On chicken or pork, I’m using Verde.
Verde is going to be a marinade as well. Look for that to come. That sauce is so good as a marinade.
The way I discovered it was that I put it with some skirt steak, along with other ingredients, and it was so damn good I had to go back and say “I’m going to re-make this without anything else but the Verde!”
So now when I make skirt steak, I let it soak for 12 hours in the Verde by itself. I’m telling you man, it’s great on steak tacos, it’s freaking crazy.
I use the hot too, but like I said, I like the flavor more than heat.
So I was using the Amarillo this morning on an omelet and I was reading the bottle and saw the “Fresh from Florida” label on it. What does that mean?
Basically it’s a community of people who sell fruits, vegetables, or products like myself who’s ingredients come from Florida. It’s a great campaign to help local businesses get their stuff out there.
So I have a couple generic questions for ya… What is your favorite hot sauce other than howler monkey?
Let me think about that. I’d say my favorite was the one that inspired Howler Monkey, Gilby’s home brew from the Elks club back in Panama Lodge 1414. They still sell it today. If I can get this guy’s recipe I will work on replicating it.
And that was the Jamaican bartender there?
Yes he was of Panamanian/Jamaican descent, and he was a bartender there. He recently passed away, and he was basically a staple at that bar, for years, probably more than 40 years honestly.
Almost 20 years ago was the first time I set foot in one of those places and he had been there for like 30 years before that. That was our inspiration. Still can’t crack his recipe.
That’s a legacy you should carry on!
We’re trying. We’re trying to get in touch with his family there because they still sell it. I would love to make a Howler Monkey sauce and name it Gilby’s.
Well that leads me to my last question… What’s in the future for Howler Monkey?
Well we’ve currently been spending a lot of time and effort trying to become a brand that’s recognizable in North Florida.
I think we’ve done that.
We’ve won best of 904 for the past three years in a row and I think we won the best of the beaches this year but something was weird with the survey there.
Our focus now is continuing to grow the brand big here and spread across Florida to Tampa and Miami. We just got picked up by a big distributor in Atlanta. We just sold 10 cases to Canada.
We’re just trying to get the name out there and we’re looking to expand our product line. We’re looking to make a wing sauce, a chimichurri, and maybe spicy ketchup.
We have no problem selling our sauce because if you taste it, you like it. We do not have to go around shoving it down people’s throats giving it away for free for people to like it.
Well is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?
If you’re into trying new things and into hot sauce I recommend giving ours a try because it’s unique. We’ve got our own thing going on and I dare you to try it.
Especially if you’re not into hot sauce, try it. I’ve had people who never liked hot sauce come up to me and say “I didn’t eat hot sauce until I tried your hot sauce.”
If you haven’t yet, check out Howler Monkey Hot Sauce today.