By John Adamian
2:15 PM EDT, July 10, 2013
Douglas Crane is a little like Ferdinand the Bull in the classic children's book. (Ferdinand liked to sniff flowers while his young bull peers were out in the fields butting heads, charging at each other and generally gearing up for violent showdowns with a matador.) Crane makes hot sauce. And the world of hot sauce is filled with blustery, macho, pyrotechnic, face-melting hot shots. Lots of dudes (and avid customers) who like to test the limits of the taste buds by blasting their mouths with weaponized amounts of heat from hot peppers, basically turning their tongues into blast sites. Crane — though he loves hot sauces — doesn't go in for all that extreme stunt-eating and fire-breathing. Crane is the man behind Dragon's Blood Elixir. Despite the scary-sounding name, Dragon's Blood Elixir is a line of Connecticut-made hot sauces that are noteworthy for all of their rainbow-spectrum fruitiness and atypical hot sauce flavors. Over the summer you can expect him to roll out different sauces using blueberries, peaches, muskmelons and other counterintuitive hot sauce creations.
"Heat for the sake of heat doesn't appeal to me," says Crane, who spent most of his career as a restaurant cook, before devoting himself to hot sauces. "For me, the flavor component is critical — I see these as a cooking sauces."
That isn't to say that Crane doesn't craft some very hot sauces — he does. Crane capitalizes on the American trend for hot stuff, what one researcher calls "benign masochism," a trend that's fueling hot-sauce sales. (A 2012 study found hot sauce production to be one of the top 10 fastest growing industries in the U.S.) Crane cooks up a Jolokia sauce (made with the hottest pepper in the world, also known as the ghost pepper). And another sauce is called For Whom the Bell Tolls, which deploys nine varieties of locally grown super-hot peppers. Crane's signature Dragon's Blood Elixir has a heat that sneaks up on you, too. But still, Crane says, he varies the heat index quite a bit. "Some of them I do put a skull and crossbones on, because they do demand your attention," he says. "Some are mild — they barely would disturb a kid."
As a chef, Crane used to concoct plenty of hot sauces, but he created them specifically for certain dishes. Some were fruity, some had lots of herbs, some added a sweet or tangy edge. Crane, who is in his late 50s, was the food service director at the Hyde School in Woodstock, where he still lives, before walking away from that career in 2009 to focus on sauces. But while he was there he had the perfect test-kitchen and test-audience scenario. "I had 300 kids and faculty that I could practice on," he says.
When he got started in 2009, Crane initially lugged his ingredients to a church kitchen where he rented space. Two years ago Crane outfitted his own space in Putnam, where, he says, the "zoning regulations were so friendly." Now he spends about half of his week in the kitchen concocting sauces, some of which are limited-edition small-batch creations that he might only make 80 five-ounce bottles of. The other half of his time is devoted to getting out on the road, with the help of his niece, setting up stands at regional farmers markets from eastern Connecticut down to Farmington and up to Enfield and Springfield, Mass. "On Fridays I do a market in Bozrah," says Crane. "Saturdays — I do Ellington and Storrs. And then the Coventry market on Sundays."
Back in May, Crane attended the First Annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo, where he hung out with chile heads from around the country.
And Crane has had pretty good success. He keeps tabs on the places he's reached. "I have a map on the wall of my kitchen of all the places I've sent sauces — all 50 states, seven of the Canadian provinces, and at least 24 countries," he says.
Crane gets a charge out of getting out and connecting with people — vegetable growers, cooks and regular customers — out at the farmers markets. He says he enjoys talking about cooking with people, some of whom might not consider themselves to be avid hot sauce connoisseurs. Crane will ask people what they like to make at home, and he'll offer suggestions about which sauces might pair nicely with a roast chicken, or grilled fish, or what can stand up to slow-cooked pork, for instance.
"I can tailor this pretty closely to what I think can work best for them," he says. "I'm much happier actually meeting the people and talking to them."
Crane also likes to barter with local farmers, trading some sauce for a batch of fresh herbs, or locally grown garlic, or a bushel of peppers picked that morning, for instance. The day before we spoke Crane had made a batch of Creole-thyme sauce using herbs he'd just gotten from a local grower.
When the harvest really gears up later in the summer Crane finds himself making a different sauce every week. These turn into sauces that might only exist once, in a single four-gallon pot that gets divided up and sold out. "Because it's such a small batch thing, I don't have a preconceived notion of how it's going to come out." Depending on what Crane's cooking, you might find things like a mango-ginger sauce made with pineapple and habanero, or a honey-lime curry sauce made with coconut milk, or a chocolate sauce made with fruit purees and Caribbean cocoa.
"As a cook, I'm very aware of the sweet-tart balance that I'm looking for in a sauce," says Crane.
His main line of 10 sauces are more standardized, with set ingredients and proportions and labels that meet all of the requirements to allow him to mass produce and ship the stuff. Those include a roasted garlic sauce, a Caribbean mustard sauce, a chipotle sauce and more.
Crane retains a spirit of enthusiastic experimentation.
"I haven't had so much fun since I started my cooking career," says Crane.
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