How One Man Overcame Addiction by Growing the Hottest Peppers in the World
“I’m going to keep on working while we talk,” says Ed Currie, the founder and brains behind PuckerButt Pepper Company.
Currie is a busy man. He runs his entire company out of a small storefront in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and sells everything from seeds to pepper mash and hot sauce to more than 95 countries around the world. Currie -- who’s rightfully earned the nickname Smokin’ Ed -- is most famous for creating the Carolina Reaper, which is currently the spiciest commercially-available pepper. With an average of 1,641,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), it also holds the Guinness World Record for Hottest Chili Pepper in the world. For comparison, a jalapeño’s range tops out at a measly 8,000 SHU, and the previous record holder -- the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T -- has 1.46 million SHUs at its very hottest.
Currie has been into hot peppers for decades. The 55-year-old from West Bloomfield Township, Michigan first got into chiles when he went away to the University of Michigan for school, mostly as a way to stay healthy as raucous partying became a way of life.
“I was studying indigenous populations around the equator,” he says. “One of the things they all had in common is they don’t have heart disease or cancer. And one of the things they all had in common was capsicums at just about every meal and in their water. Originally, it was: How can I do something about cancer and heart disease? But really, it was: How could I keep on partying?”
Multiple studies have shown that capsaicin -- the active compound inside chile peppers that produces a burning sensation when it comes into contact with tissue -- does have anticancer properties. In very simple terms, capsaicin causes certain cancer cells to undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Basically, studies show that hot peppers have the power to make cancer cells self-destruct. But like many holistic remedies, the evidence behind the cancer-fighting properties of capsaicin isn’t solid enough to use it for actual medical treatment. But there’s definitely enough information there to strongly suggest that spicy food, is in fact, good for you.
Most people don’t get into super hot peppers for the health benefits. Some people indulge in peppers akin to the Reaper for the thrill. Others do it to one-up their friends, even if it makes them feel terrible afterward. Currie fits into a third group, one that he calls the addicts.
“Addicts don’t understand that they’re doing it for the buzz,” he says. “A lot of people in recovery do a lot of stupid hot stuff. They say ‘it makes my food better,’ but they’re getting high. They just don't realize it.”
We know that the human tongue is equipped with taste buds. These receptors identify the five elements of taste -- salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami -- and are responsible for making food taste either pleasant or offensive. Notice that there are no taste buds incidental to spice. Spiciness is a sensation rather than a flavor. The compounds in capsaicin sends a message to your brain and tricks it into thinking you’re being burned. In turn, the brain responds by releasing endorphins (the body’s natural way of relieving pain) and dopamine. Together, these create a euphoric feeling that many would describe as “high.”
“One of the coworkers who’s with me right now, Derrick, me and him made a tincture last Thursday,” Currie says. “And that was so frickin’ hot that when we tried it, both of us were miserable. But then we got a lot of work done because we were both high as kites for about two hours. And that’s just part of what happens.”
I can personally attest to the Carolina Reaper high. I first met Currie at The 7th Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, and he offered me a taste of one of his famous tinctures. This particular formula was a mix of Carolina Reaper, Chocolate Blue Bonnet, and Pepper X, which is currently the hottest chile in Currie’s lineup but not available for commercial sale. I immediately started sweating and tearing-up, and grabbed for a can of whipped cream (which was free-flowing at the event) to help dull some of the pain. But after about five minutes, the burning subsided and left a euphoric feeling in its wake. I felt light and energized, and those sensations lasted for the better part of the day.
For some, the pain that comes with the world’s hottest peppers isn’t worth the struggle. But for Currie and many people in his circle, chiles don’t just provide pleasure. “Pretty much all my team is in recovery in one form or another,” he says. “And I truly believe that being part of that fellowship, as well as the chile fellowship, is a support structure.”
Throughout college (he attended seven of them before graduating from Central Michigan University) and the decade following, Currie was addicted to drugs and alcohol. One night he had a revelation of sorts, and checked himself into a rehab facility where he completed a substance-abuse program. Shortly after in 2001, he moved to South Carolina to be close to his parents. That’s when his love for and knowledge of chiles flourished. He began growing his own peppers in the yard and experimenting with crossbreeds.
Interestingly enough, the Carolina Reaper wasn’t a product of some grand scheme to create the hottest pepper, but rather a happy accident of Currie’s botanic experiments.
“The hottest pepper wasn’t hot enough for me back in the '90s,” he says. “When I created the Carolina Reaper, I really wasn’t trying to make the hottest pepper in the world. I was just trying to make something that was good, and it just turned out hot. It turned out that all nine in that series were extremely hot.”
When crossbreeding produce to create something new, you can’t simply watch the experimental plant grow and call it a day. The process of getting a new species approved is a rigorous one that takes the better part of a decade. “It takes eight to 10 years to stabilize a cross breed -- if it works, most of them don’t,” Currie says. “You have to have a geneticist involved and a chemist involved, pretty much the whole time. We get them involved in year two, if things are looking good.” From there, a chemistry lab needs to verify a statistical average of the SHUs.
“Then you can apply to Guinness to get a world record or just get a certificate from the USDA that says it’s a stable crossbreed,” he says. “It takes anywhere from eight to 10 more years for it to become a cultivar, which is what you see for sale at stores.”
Chiles also brought Currie and his wife together. He first spotted her at an AA meeting, but she didn’t pay him any mind. At the next meeting, Currie gave her a jar of homemade peach mango salsa, and the rest is history.
“We got married like nine months later,” he says. “And she is 15 years more clean than me, so being together with her helped me stay clean. All my friends that are in recovery who also participate in my chile madness help me stay clean.”
Currie isn’t here to tell you that peppers are the overarching answer to beating addiction. But for him, obsessing over chiles and PuckerButt has helped him stay away from drugs and alcohol for 20 years.
“Twelve-step recovery is the base of all of it,” he says. “You become a productive member of society, and you learn to look up to your responsibility instead of trucking off and doing stupid shit, excuse my language,” he says.
Currie’s pepper operation was merely a hobby, until his wife convinced him to start a business. When she realized how much hot sauce and salsa they were giving away for free, she encouraged Currie to sell it instead.
“We went to a farmer’s market, and the first weekend we sold like $800 bucks worth,” he says. “When I saw that we could offset some of the costs by doing all of this, I decided to start a business.”
PuckerButt currently brings in more than $1 million in annual revenue and is the biggest organic pepper farm in the United States.
Like anyone who starts a business, Currie admits to making “every mistake there could be” as an entrepreneur. But for him, the drive to make PuckerButt successful was motivated by more than money and world titles. “When I got clean, I figured I really gotta get serious about something, and that [peppers] was one of the things I got serious about,” he says.
Now, Currie’s product is everywhere. The company’s main focus is making and selling pepper mash to manufacturers for things like hot sauce and salsa. If you buy something spicy in the grocery store, chances are the peppers responsible for that heat came from PuckerButt. Enthusiastic as can be, Currie sees a bright future for the company, so long as people remain interested in spice.
“I couldn’t make this up with my very worst lies as a drunk,” he laughs. “I couldn’t! Amazing things keep on happening.”