SC businessman hopes to turn chili pepper fame into fortune

In this 2013 photo, Ed Currie holds three Carolina Reaper peppers. The Guinness Book of World Records decided Currie’s peppers were the hottest on Earth, ending a more than four-year drive to prove no one grows a more scorching chili.
In this 2013 photo, Ed Currie holds three Carolina Reaper peppers. The Guinness Book of World Records decided Currie’s peppers were the hottest on Earth, ending a more than four-year drive to prove no one grows a more scorching chili. AP

All around Ed Currie are pepper plants, some a near microscopic leaf, some more mature plants that are three or four inches tall.

Currie pulls one of the mature plants from a plastic flat, looking at its roots, packed into a four-inch-tall pyramid.

“You can see the good fuzzies,” he says, pointing to the maze of roots that will soon feed on the nutrients in the soil at the Springs Farm. “This will be a healthy plant.”

There are hundreds of plants in each of three greenhouses. Each one can trace its lineage to HP22B which Currie grew in his backyard in Rock Hill.

HP22B – which stands for High Power, pot number 22, plant B – was a cross between a La Soufriere pepper from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and a Naga pepper from Pakistan . It looked nasty and gnarly – and it was hot.

So hot that when Currie had it tested and then certified, he had the hottest chili pepper in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

His Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper, on average, has a Scoville heat unit rating of 1.5 million. Jalapeno peppers have a Scoville rating of 2,500 to 8,000. The world’s previous hottest chili pepper, the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T,” has a Scoville rating of 1 to 1.4 million.

In November 2013 Guinness told him he held the world record.

Now two years-plus later, Currie says it’s time to turn fame into fortune.

“My 15 minutes of fame has lasted a lot longer than 15 minutes,” Currie said last week. The fame includes more than 800 media stories, interviews and TV appearances, including a recent one on Russian television where the TV crew was as fascinated by his gun collection as his pepper.

Now, with a strong wholesale market for the Carolina Reaper, demand for other, less-hot raw peppers, and a line of hot sauces and other products, Currie said this could be the year his PuckerButt Pepper Co. becomes profitable.

It’s a far cry from when he started. In 2003 he was selling his “Smokin Ed’s” hot sauce from a table at Trader Marc’s flea market. Shutterfly now turns pictures into memories where Currie got his start.

He made his peach mango sauce to woo a woman he was interested in. They married, and he and Linda now have two children, Katie, 4, and Eddie, 2.

Currie now has two store fronts on Main Street in Fort Mill. One is a retail shop/kitchen. The other is a storage area, office and distribution center from which he ships orders worldwide.

He has farms in Rock Hill and Chester but is concentrating his pepper production at nearby fields owned by Springs Farms.

Ron Edwards, farm manager for Springs, said growing peppers isn’t much different from the other vegetables they cultivate.

As with other vegetables, the pepper field requires fencing. Deer, at least those in the Fort Mill area, eat the growing peppers.

“Deer will eat anything that is green except a John Deere tractor, and they will lick that,” Edwards said.

The biggest difference comes when it’s time to pick peppers. Each picker must wear gloves so as to avoid contact with the pepper’s capsaicin, which makes it hot. Even the smallest amount of capsaicin in an open cut can be extremely painful.

Currie predicts he will have as few as 12 and possibly as many as 25 acres of peppers of all types being grown. He estimated he will have 20 tons alone of the Carolina Reaper for processing into mash, powder or packed in plastic buckets. The mash and the powder go into a wide variety of food and commercial products.

They are even used in beer and vodka. Full Spectrum Brewing Co. of Fort Mill recently debuted its Reaper Roast Amber. The Charleston Distilling Co. makes Carolina Reaper vodka.

Stephen Heilman, co-owner of the distillery, said Carolina Reaper vodka is simple to make. Distill about 300 liters of vodka and then add 15 peppers and let it sit. In a few days, it is ready for bottling.

Carolina Reaper vodka works well in Bloody Marys and martinis, he said. “It brings the heat but doesn’t affect the Bloody Mary mix,” Heilman said.

Currie’s plans include opening a processing facility in Fort Mill and after that a bottling facility. He wants to have everything done locally.

But to reach his goals, Currie had to learn to surrender control – first to God and then to others who shared his vision.

“God made me painfully aware that there were not enough hours, not enough of me, to do it alone. I had to find other people to do the work.

“It’s hard to do. I have to pray each day.”

He asked Brett Rogers, a friend, to leave his construction business to learn the pepper business.

“Rogers’ first reaction was “no way. ... we are friends.”

Their work partnership works “because we are both passionate guys,” Rogers said. He uses the Charlie Brown comic strip to describe their relationship. “I’m Charlie Brown and he is Lucy with the football. He pulls away the football and snookers me.”

But they share the goal of doing what others say can’t be done.

“We want to show that it can be done and there is no one else doing this. It’s American jobs and it’s being done locally. ... There is no reason we couldn’t be like Tabasco.”

Rogers was one of the first people Currie asked to test the HP22 pepper. Two years later, eating a Carolina Reaper is still a challenge for Rogers.

“He does it with ease; I do it with a struggle,” Rogers said.

The Carolina Reaper, though, is not the hottest pepper in Currie’s arsenal. His latest hot pepper, HP63, has an average Scoville rating of 3 million. It’s called the Gator around the Puckerbutt Shop where there already are bottles filled with product using its mash, waiting for testing.

But Currie said there is no hurry to bring a hotter pepper to market. Interest in the Carolina Reaper continues to rise “so there is no reason to shoot myself in the foot.”

Another Guinness world record filing is possible, but this time the motivation will be different.

“I won’t do this as an ego thing. If we do it, it will be a business decision.”