Meet Ed Currie, the man behind the world’s hottest chili pepper

Ed Currie recently set a new Guinness World Record for hottest chili pepper, with Pepper X. In doing so, he broke his own record, set a decade ago with the Carolina Reaper. Currie, the owner of PuckerButt Pepper company, said his business has benefitted from both his fame and a growing predilection for hot foods among consumers. 

Currie started his commercial farming operation in earnest in 2003, and now employs about 100 people there and about 31 more through PuckerButt. A recovering addict himself, Currie likes to hire former drug addicts deemed unhireable by other employers. He spoke to CBS MoneyWatch about what drove him to grow the world’s hottest pepper and if he’ll ever sell seeds for others to grow the plant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ed Currie is presented with a certificate for hottest chili pepper from Guinness World Records.

Courtesy of Ed Currie

When did you first become interested in peppers? 

I have been studying peppers since the early ’80s when I went to college. I did a little bit of commercial work through the ’80s and ’90s, but I was a full-blown addict and alcoholic during that time period. It wasn’t until I got clean in ’99 that I really got serious about peppers. I started farming in South Carolina in 2001. My wife and I turned our backyard into a farming operation, and we started selling commercially in 2003.

When did you first set the Guinness World Record for the hottest pepper?

We got our first real farm in 2005, and in 2009 I started the process with Guinness for the Carolina Reaper. I won the record in 2013.

What drove you to beat your own record with Pepper X?

I am always trying to grow a hotter pepper for three reasons. One, because people keep saying it can’t be done, and I like a challenge. Two, it can be used medicinally for research for cancer, heart disease, obesity, addiction and more. Three, if I can get it hotter, the economies of scale are greater.

How so?

To make one of our Reaper Squeezins sauces with Carolina Reaper, I need to use more pepper. If I use Pepper X, I can use about 44% of the amount of Carolina Reaper I would need. So I’ve used less pepper to make it equal in heat. I have an increasing profit margin, which allows us to make more product.

Pepper X on display at the Guinness World Records awards ceremony. 

Courtesy of Ed Currie

Do manufacturers you sell to buy smaller quantities of hotter peppers, when you come out with them?

A major manufacturer in the U.S. used to use 11, 55-gallon drums of habanero mash for a batch of their wing sauce that they considered spicy. When they switched to the Carolina Reaper, they only needed to use one 5-gallon bucket of Carolina Reaper. That gave them the same heat profile they had before, so the economies of scale of using super hots for manufacturers and the money savings they have is very significant.

What are your best-selling products? 

At PuckerButt Pepper company, our best-selling product up until the last two weeks was Reaper Squeezins, which contains approximately 87% pepper, and is stupid hot. It’s very tasty; I recommend everybody use it in very small amounts and mix it with foods. That’s been our best selling product for eight years straight. Now, over the past two weeks, it’s been our Gator Sauce, which is our sauce with Pepper X in it.

The market for hot peppers is huge. Ten years after we won the record with the Carolina Reaper, we still sell about 30,000 to 40,000 packages of pepper seeds to individuals.

Can consumers buy Pepper X seeds? How long have you been selling products made with Pepper X?

We manufacture products with Pepper X in them that we’ve been selling to the public for seven years. It just wasn’t as widely known as it is now with the new record.

I gave the Carolina Reaper to the whole world and a lot of manufacturers of pepper products took advantage of that. With Pepper X, all the products are trademarked and we’re going through the process to patent the actual plant. As soon as that is done and the legal stuff is locked down, then I can release the seeds for all the pepper enthusiasts to be able to grow, and hopefully people won’t try to take advantage of me.

How have your records helped your business? 

They help distinguish the brand. There are a lot of people who say they want to buy from the guy who holds the world record for the hottest pepper. 

Do you grow any peppers that aren’t super hot?

We don’t just grow super hot peppers. The majority of what we grow, in weight, is mild stuff for other manufacturers and for ourselves. We grow Fresnos, Scotch bonnets, Jalapeños, because the majority of the consumer world — 99.9% of it — is not into the super hot stuff.

Can hot peppers be deadly?

You would have to eat your body weight in pure capsaicin for it to be lethal. They are not, unless you have a heart condition like an aneurism or an allergy.

Peppers can’t hurt you. They play a trick on your brain. You have nerve receptors that react with capsaicin that send a signal to your brain that says, ‘This is hot.’ When it says out there on the internet that it killed someone’s taste buds or burned a hole in their esophagus, it is medically impossible, because none of that stuff can happen from the pepper.

What do you think of spicy food competitions?

I think they’re absolutely stupid. These challenges are for people looking for their 15 minutes of fame on social media and they do stupid things to hurt themselves, and that’s who those challenges are made for.

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