Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Photo Essay: Sriracha's Choke-Inducing, Lung-Burning Chili Grinding Season (Updated for 2015)

[Ed: Updated 10/24/15]

There's been a lot of local controversy over the odor given off by the factory that makes and packages Sriracha, the chili hot sauce whose popularity has risen to epic proportions only matched by bacon and pumpkin spice.



Because of those community complaints, Huy Fong Foods, the maker of Sriracha, has been struggling to keep their operations running in Irwindale, a little more than 20 miles east of Downtown LA.



To address the concerns, they've launched a public tour program – and after I failed to get on one of the regular tours (which last an hour, and involve them driving you around on one of their little busses, Hot 1 or Hot 2)...



...I finally managed to get in during one of their abbreviated, self-guided tours...



...being conducted now during their chili grinding season.



It's an exciting time to visit...



...because you get to see the fresh chili peppers arriving by the truckload...



...and being deposited and funneled into the grinder.



This is where it gets really intense.



They hand you a tissue "just in case," and I spent the whole time coughing into it...



...as the ground-up chili pieces were getting triple-washed...



...and spat out.



The peppers then go into tanks, where they are mixed with the ingredients that make the three different sauce flavors (Sriracha, Chili Garlic, and Sambal Oelek).



Those ingredients include salt, vinegar, sodium phosphate...



...and other preservatives.



The whole process is monitored closely on giant surveillance screens and computers...



...as blue barrels are lined up...



...to receive the finished sauce mixture.



As the filled barrels move down the assembly line, workers hammer lids onto them...



...and move the sauce along for bottling.



A waterfall of those iconic rooster sauce bottles, now empty, get ready for filling...



...and sealing with those bright green caps.



Honestly, I couldn't smell much of anything outside the Huy Fong Foods facility – much less elsewhere in the town of Irwindale –



...and once I got to the packing and shipping area of the facility, the back of my throat had recovered (mostly) from its choking.



These tours are downright celebratory now, bridging the gap from one Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb) to another...



...though it feels a bit like Christmas, with the long lines running out of the gift shop.



These tours are very much an "open house" experience, during which you can taste the Sriracha-flavored popcorn, sunflower seeds, and chocolate caramels that are also available for sale...



...and top your trip off with a free Sriracha-and-chocolate swirl soft-serve.

Since this was an abbreviated tour, I still had the sense that there was something missing that I didn't get to see (and therefore will have to go back), but what a treat to accost my respiratory passages a little bit in order to see the fresh chili process, which only happens this time of year!

Worth driving an hour out and an hour back just for a 20 minute tour? Yes!