Dean Honer: Meet the Yorkshire musician turned hot sauce expert
In 2016 the Sheffield-based musician and producer, Dean Honer, was in Austin, Texas with his band The Moonlandingz supporting Iggy Pop. When not warming up for the legendary singer, Honer could be found hitting the endless taco trucks of Austin, tingling and tormenting his taste buds with a wide variety of hot sauces the kind he had never tried.“Then I got back home and started ordering more from a specialist online shop and it all started from there,” recalls Honer. From then on, an obsession grew and seven years down the line Honer is joint author of Hot Sauce: A fiery guide to 101 of the world’s best sauces.
Honer’s co-author is the award-winning drinks writer and author Neil Ridley. When the pair met at a synthesiser convention in Sheffield about five years ago, they clicked over music and soon realised they shared a joint love of fiery hot sauces. And so began a journey to sample and document a vast array of sauces from all over the world.
“You should see my cellar,” laughs Ridley. “There's probably a couple of hundred bottles in there. It’s been quite a journey.” The beautifully illustrated book is comprehensive yet also easily digestible. It features a guide to 101 sauces from 50 countries, taking in their history, what they taste like, how hot they are, along with serving recommendations. Plus, it also features some of the pair’s own recipes, interviews with sauce makers, a history of chillies, and even tips on how to best counter extreme heat. “We were surprised at the number of sauces there actually were,” says Honer. “We feature ones from everywhere – Iceland to Lithuania and from Puerto Rico to Japan.”
While researching the book, they also realised this may be a bigger area of interest than they first realised. “We also discovered the YouTube series Hot Ones,” says Honer, of the interview-based show in which celebrities are asked questions while they eat increasingly hotter sauces. “It has millions of followers, and so you realise it’s grown exponentially but there's not really anything else like this book available. There’s been no real guidebook."
“We wanted to try and show the incredible diversity that you get with hot sauce,” says Ridley. “It was about showing how independent and artisanal it is, because you've got lots of creative minds coming up with some incredible recipes. But to counter that, it was also about celebrating some of the great brands of our time like Tabasco, Crystal and Frank’s. Some of these brands have 100 years of heritage. We became obsessed with the idea that everyone's got a fridge full of condiments they love but seldom think about what the origins are.”
Honer and Ridley as a duo go by the name the Fire Eaters and they have created a fire eaters chart in the book to rate every sauce on a scale of its heat: magnificently mild, subtle and warming, moderately mouth tingling, alive and kicking and stupendously scorching. There is one rating, illustrated by a skull and cross bones, called ultimate fire eater. This is given to just one sauce from America called the Last Dab Apollo. “Because it's so hot, it will pretty much last you a lifetime,” says Ridley. “Come the apocalypse, you'll still find bottles.”
He remembers his first experience with it vividly. “We were having a Zoom call with our publisher and this sauce had just come in,” says Ridley. “I thought I'll really try and impress the publishing director and have some but I poured too much out and for about 30 seconds I couldn't speak. It was so intense.”
However, it’s not a book aimed at people who enjoy torturing themselves. “One of the criteria was let's not go for all the mad heat extremes,” says Ridley. “People who are really genuine about their craft will tell you that the flavour of the pepper is probably more important than the heat. If we can draw new people in with flavour then we've achieved our objective with this.”
Given the rich musical background of Honer, who has had chart success with his electronic pop outfits The All Seeing I and I Monster, as well as working as a record producer for the likes of The Human League and has collaborated with the actor Maxine Peake in the Eccentronic Research Council, there’s also a musical element attached to the book.
In Honer’s home studio in Sheffield he and Ridley, who is also a musician, were not simply content with writing their book on hot sauces but they decided to make an accompanying hot sauce concept record, which is available as an EP on 10” vinyl. “We had this idea of soundtracking the journey that you go on when you eat hot sauce,” says Ridley. “Capturing the rising burn where we created a heartbeat made from a synth sound that gets progressively faster as the madness unfolds, to the terror and torment of it, and then to when the heat subsides and it's more chilled and blissed out.”
When not in the studio experimenting with synthesisers to soundtrack the experience of eating chilli sauce, the pair spent a lot of time visiting hot sauce fairs and festivals and visiting sauce makers. They have noticed a huge boom in production because it’s a fairly accessible hobby that can be scaled up without major financial backing. “It's not prohibitively expensive to start your own source brand,” says Honer. “You see people down at the local craft markets making their own sauces and selling them but then it's not such a big step to actually get them into shops and set up a little website.”
Honer points out one local success story as an example: Yoyo Laos ginger chilli sauce. Yoyo moved to Halifax from Laos in 2015 and everyone loved her traditional sauces that she would make for barbecues and parties, so in 2020 she set up a business producing and selling them. Three years later her sauces have won multiple awards at national level. Also, ten pence from every bottle sold goes to a charity to help clear landmines in Laos.
The breadth and variety of sauces in the book is deeply impressive, featuring everything from a cacao and lime fermented sauce to a Welsh hot sauce specifically designed to accompany desserts. “People are really knocking it out of the park in terms of creativity at the moment,” says Ridley. “There are so many more that we would have loved to put in the book and if we're lucky enough to get to do another edition then we could do a set of completely different sauces.”
For Ridley, he views hot sauce as being a growing artisanal craze that could be on a par with the craft beer boom. “We're really on the cusp of this exploding into a global phenomenon,” he says. “Because it's being led by genuinely passionate, creative people who can have that crazy idea on the Sunday and have it into production by the Monday.”
Where to start with local hot sauces.
Of the 101 sauces featured in the book, three are based here in Yorkshire.
Khoo’s Hot Sauce
With multiple Great Taste awards, this Sheffield-based outfit – which grows its own peppers – offers up a variety of sauces, relishes, spices and syrups. The Northern Beacon is the sauce included in the book.
Born during lockdown in Leeds, Thiccc Sauce is known for its collaborations; be it local Indian restaurant Bundobust or the craft beer company Vocation. However, it’s their partnership with Maker's Mark whiskey that gets them included in the book here with their rich, thick and gooey bourbon BBQ sriracha.
Yoyo Laos Sauce
The incredibly bright, punchy and fruity ginger chilli sauce is what gets included from the Halifax sauce company in the book. It’s a sauce that’s racked up multiple stars and awards and every bottle sold also helps clear landmines back in the founder’s home country of Laos.