What It's Like to Make Hot Sauce for a Living
Queen Majesty's Erica Diehl talks flavor inspiration and USDA regulations
Erica Diehl has an unquestionably cool job. Under the name Queen Majesty, she is a hot sauce maven and a reggae DJ. She got serious about making hot sauce in April 2013 and now churns out three different flavors with the help of a few assistants. Queen Majesty’s hot sauce prioritizes complex flavor over heat, and all three are sugar free, gluten free, and all natural, using fresh and local ingredients when in season. The focus on taste has paid off: Her Scotch Bonnet & Ginger and Jalapeño Tequila & Lime hot sauces both won gold medals at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo in 2015.
Queen Majesty hot sauces currently sell at Dean & Deluca, Whole Foods, and select specialty shops as far away as Japan. You'll recognize them by their colorfully illustrated labels, which Diehl also designed. (A graphic design background comes in handy in the hot sauce biz.) I visited Diehl at the commercial kitchen in Red Hook, Brooklyn, she shares with an ice cream and sweets business to find out what it’s like to be a veritable queen of hot sauce.
Extra Crispy: How did you initially get into making hot sauce?
Erica Diehl: Just [from] being a fan of it. I was working in an advertising company with other hot sauce fans. We would make our own and all bring it in for lunch, and then it just kind of kicked off from there and turned into a yearly contest, which turned into me making it all the time for myself and my friends.
Did you win all the contests?
I won quite a few. It was fun. We were really into the packaging and stuff, too. I was laid off from the graphic design job about four years ago and then decided to use the opportunity to start making [hot sauce] full time.
What was the first hot sauce you made to sell?
That one was the Scotch Bonnet & Ginger, because that was pretty different from other things that I had seen on the market. Plus, it tasted so fresh and we don’t use any sugar, so it had this very handmade quality and healthy quality, and a lot of people liked it. I put it on everything. I always feel like if you’re searching for something there’s gotta be other people searching for the same thing, so that’s the one I started with.
What inspired you to put those flavors in that first sauce?
My name Queen Majesty comes from a reggae song, and it’s also my DJ name. I’m a reggae DJ. I have been for 15 years. So I found myself eating a lot of Caribbean food, and the Scotch Bonnet & Ginger was very influenced by that as a hot sauce that would be good on Caribbean food. Not necessarily to compete with it, but it was inspired by a jerk recipe and to go with those kinds of flavors. It can go in soup, it can go in anything.
And since then what flavor profiles have you been inspired by?
So then I wanted something a little milder than that. I’m a big fan of jalapeño tequila margaritas— spicy margaritas—so taking that and turning it into a sauce that would be good on Mexican food. I’m also a big fan of Mexican food. [The Jalapeño Tequila & Lime hot sauce] is just something that you could just mix with avocado and that’s all you need.
For the third sauce, I actually wanted something hotter than what we had, and not citrus based. So just something completely different. We ended up going with the Red Habanero & Black Coffee. That process was more about trying to figure out what’s a good, strong flavor that could be something interesting that could compete with the really intense red habanero taste. Trying to figure out how to get the coffee in there was interesting. We figured out how to basically brew coffee using vinegar instead of water and then used that as the base.
Do all your hot sauces start with a vinegar base and then you layer flavors on top of that?
Yes. That’s what we do. I kind of really only know how to make it my way and that would be everything fresh, all together, blended, and then cooked. Some people of course ferment theirs or do roasted things or, you know, cook it first and then blend it. But we blend everything fresh and then cook it.
When you first started, did you need to read up on how to make hot sauce?
Oh yeah. Just to make sure that it was safe, that I was doing it right. You can’t really find, I don’t think, enough information online, but Cornell University and the USDA are super helpful if you reach out to them to explain to you what you need to do to keep it safe.
What do you mean by safe?
Shelf stable. Just to make sure that it can sit on a shelf somewhere before people buy it. Those regulations are a whole other world I didn’t really think about when I was like, “Oh, it would be fun to sell hot sauce.” And then you’re like, "No, no, no. It’s like a whole world of food regulations." But it’s good. I’m impressed by how strict and on top of it the USDA and FDA are with even small companies like me.
Did you go through iterations of hot sauce that were too spicy or just not good before you hit on something successful?
Yeah, I did. For example, the habanero one, I was working with a pomegranate flavor at first, and it was just too sweet and it seemed even weirder. Like, what are you going to put this on, you know? I feel like all hot sauce should be good on an egg sandwich. You know what I mean? As long as it tastes good on an egg sandwich, you’re onto something. So when they get a little too fruity, it doesn’t really do it for me. I definitely have thrown out recipes that I experimented with before.
What is the production process like for making the hot sauce?
We’re in the kitchen anywhere from two days to four days a week, depending on deliveries and things like that. It’s a little flexible. Say we’ll get here at 6 p.m., we’ll be here until maybe 1 a.m. We try to do one day as a prep day and that makes the other days go a lot faster. So the first day we don’t get as much done as far as bottling sauce, but the next few days are very productive as far as getting it bottled. And then another day we’ll do the labeling and packing it up and things like that. But as far as making it, we probably spend about 30 hours a week making it. Like just making it.
Do you have plans for a fourth hot sauce?
I think right now I’d just like to do some limited editions and not really commit to a fourth sauce just because it’s just nice to have an odd number. And I haven’t decided what other color I would want yet. But we just did a little custom sauce for Blue Point Brewery. We made a hot sauce with beer in it for them to go with oysters. Things like that I think are really fun, so maybe we’ll do more one-off sauces for this year.
You mentioned color. Is that a big consideration when making a new sauce?
Yeah, for me it is. I’m like, “Hm, how can we make a purple hot sauce?” Yeah, that’s definitely part of the fun side for me.
Do have go-to hot sauces for specific foods?
Pretty much. I like soups. Scotch Bonnet & Ginger for me for soups is just—I don’t know what it does but it just makes every soup better to me. The Jalapeño Tequila & Lime, I like mixing with avocado. I call it a lazy guacamole. I’m a big fan of that with eggs and avocado. And then the Red Habanero & Black Coffee is really good with heavier things, so falafel, fried foods, pizza, sauces, things like that. But I’ll also mix it up, depending on the day.
Do you have a go-to big hot sauce brand, or do you tend to stick to your own stuff?
I have so much of it so I just end up [using my own], but I have friends who make hot sauce, which is good. As far as the big name brands, Cholula is kind of a go-to. If I go somewhere to eat and they bring me Cholula, I’m not mad at that. Even Tabasco, there’s just no other flavor like it. I don’t mind that. Sriracha, I burned myself out on that years ago. And before I started making this full time I was using that one a lot, and it’s a little too sweet for me now. But there are some good ones out there.
Did anything surprise you after getting into the hot sauce business?
I wasn’t expecting necessarily to consider myself a manufacturer, you know what I mean? I didn’t really realize how much work was going to be going into it. And if you’re starting out small, by yourself, it’s like you’re the graphic designer, the buyer, the salesperson, the chef—you know, the everything. It’s a lot of hats.