I kept hearing the name “Sweet Heat Gourmet” popping up on social media and in hot sauce reviews, but they really caught my attention at ZestFest this year when their Pineapple & Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce took the Golden Chile for Best Fruit Based Hot Sauce. However, it wasn’t just their delicious sauces that made me fall in love with the brand. Pick up any of the bottles, and you’ll see the phrase “Meet Your Farmers” along with the names of the Pennsylvania farms where the produce was grown. I love this! I was born and raised in Delaware, and a lot of my family still lives in DE and PA—my dad graduated from Penn State—so I appreciate the fact that they support and promote the local PA economy.
June marks the first month that Sweet Heat Gourmet’s products are available here at Hot Sauce Depot. So I got the chance to chat with founder Michelle (Shellie) Mierwald and learn more about how Sweet Heat Gourmet came into fruition.
It all started in 2011 after Shellie graduated from college. At the age of 43, she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her Culinary Arts degree: Open a restaurant? Start a catering business? It was a big decision to make. While she thought about it, she was also buying local produce and making her own sauces and salsas, which her friends and family started encouraging her to sell. Shellie didn’t take them very seriously at first, until it all just came together one day in a “Eureka!” kind of moment. So Shellie met with Linda Feltman at Penn State’s Small Business Development Center to learn what she needed to do to start out and run a small business. The following spring, she started selling her sauces at the local farmers' market, and Sweet Heat Gourmet was officially born. Today, this hot, young company continues to take off while remaining true to its homegrown roots.
Mary: The fact that you put "Meet Your Farmers" with their info on every bottle is unique and awesome. How did you get the idea to do that, and have the farmers seen any benefits from it?
Shellie: My love of local foods started when I was in culinary school at Penn College in Williamsport. I was taking a Regional American class, and the chef instructor, Chef Mike Ditchfield, had each one of the students manage a Regional dinner on Friday night throughout the semester. I was pretty nervous—I went back to college when I was 40—so I volunteered to manage the first service, which happened to be "Buy Fresh Buy Local." I had to learn about what that meant, and all the ingredients for the dinner were local. It sparked an interest in me that only grew more when I later took a catering class with the same chef. A couple of my friends and I managed a catering project where we got donations from a local farmers market, went back to the kitchen and created an entire menu out of food donated from the farmers. That's when something just kind of clicked in me. As far as the farmers we work with, they have enjoyed having their amazing produce featured in the sauces to show people that a variety of things can be done with their products. They've seen more interest in what they have in season and have had customers approach them that have seen their farms on the labels. We're all just trying to inspire people to eat more locally: To get to know the people that grow your food and support the local economy. It's also created a nice network between the farmers, us, and the restaurants and stores we sell to. We all get to know each other, and farmers end up selling in even more places they hadn't before.
Mary: How do you come up with new sauces, and which is your personal favorite?
Shellie: We come up with our sauces based on what is in season. For the hot sauces, the flavor profile of the pepper helps dictate that process a little more. My husband makes the hotter stuff, he'll try the pepper and give me a flavor profile. Then we look at what's in season and what we think will complement the flavor of the pepper. From there, I create a base, like the roasted vegetable and roasted garlic base for the Carolina Reaper Roasted Garlic Hot Sauce. I create the base without the pepper, perfect it, and then we add the hot peppers, constantly tasting till we get the heat level we like. You'll definitely find hotter sauces than ours out there. But we're going for that perfect balance of heat and flavor.
With our other products, I see what's in season, and go from there. For example, this week I found some really nice watercress from Clan Stewart Farm, and he also had some beautiful garlic scapes, and I had just had dinner the night before from Chef Kirsch McMaster and Chef Andrew Monk at the Nittany Lion Inn, they did a "PA on the Patio" night with local foods and had a beautiful cut of beef with chimichurri. So I was inspired to make a watercress chimichurri with ingredients from Clan Stewart Farm. Based on customer response, we might keep a product in regular rotation, as long as the ingredients are readily available. Beside our regular line of products, we have seasonal items such as our Strawbango Hot Sauce that is only out in limited quantities during strawberry season. But my personal favorite sauce is the Bulgogi Asian BBQ Sauce. My sister-in-law is Korean, and I took her recipe for a traditional Korean marinade and made it into a BBQ sauce. And it's currently our best-selling sauce!
Mary: What flavor profiles do you personally prefer, and what sauces do you like from other brands?
Shellie: I personally prefer sauces that complement my food, make it taste better. I like heat, but not a ton of heat. I tend to lean more toward the medium hot sauces. But my absolute favorite sauces are Boom Shanka by Bigfat's in Chicago, Surprisingly Mild Guajillo Ghost from Fat Cat, Defcon 3 Wing Sauce by Defcon Sauces, and Culley's Trinidad Scorpion Hot Sauce from Chris Cullen in New Zealand.
Mary: Do you have any new sauce flavors coming out soon?
Shellie: I just started to kick around some ideas with peaches, we already have a Habanero Peach Hot Sauce, but I'm thinking of ideas with maybe a Grilled Peach BBQ Sauce, which I've made in the past but am looking to revamp it and make it even better. I'm also considering making a Black Cherry & Chocolate BBQ Sauce with local black cherries. I made a test batch once and it was absolutely phenomenal.
Mary: Can you share a cooking recipe that uses one of your sauces as an ingredient?
Shellie: Sure we have quite a few! With the Bulgogi Asian BBQ, we like to mix some in with burger, throw it back in the fridge to tighten up, grill the burgers and baste with the sauce. Then top with grilled pineapple, kimchi, colby jack cheese and lettuce. Add a little of our Pineapple & Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce to some mayonnaise to make a spicy mayo and add to the bun.
Another favorite is a friend of ours, reviewer Bill Moore, made salmon one night and took our Key Lime Pear Hot Sauce and mixed it with melted butter and made a key lime butter sauce for the salmon. I thought that was a phenomenal and creative idea. Another easy recipe is take a pork shoulder, sear it, throw it in the crock pot with sliced napa cabbage, onions, and granny smith apples. Pour a bottle of Apple Bourbon BBQ Sauce on top and let it cook all day. Not only delicious but your house smells amazing too!
Mary: If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself back when you were growing up, what would it be?
Shellie: Don't be afraid to take chances. Take a leap of faith. Sometimes it doesn't work out, learn and build from those experiences.
Mary: Is there anything else you'd like people to know?
Shellie: Our passion is making sauces, we make them all entirely by hand, bottle them by hand, label them, everything. Love truly does go into our sauces. From the farmer who starts his crop seedlings under his bed in February, to our choosing the very best produce to create our amazing sauces, every bottle is carefully crafted from beginning to end. We never say, "Eh, it's good enough." Every batch is tested, tasted, and tasted again. You'll always get our very best.