Q&A with Marcus McCauley, Picaflor’s Live, Fermented Hot Sauce

/ / Business

When Marcus McCauley started fermented hot sauce brand Picaflor, he knew he wanted to go beyond the organic label. The 40-acre McCauley Family Farm in Longmont, Colorado where McCauley grows thousands of pounds of red peppers a year for the hot sauce is fully regenerative. 

“When I started, l knew all the best foods are fermented,” McCauley says. “My favorite hot sauces were fermented, but they are pasteurized and filled with preservatives. I thought it would be great to have one that was alive and full of probiotics.”

McCauley began selling Picaflor in 2014 at farmers markets in Colorado. Today, the hot sauce is sold in 400 stores in 12 states. The farm where McCauley, his wife and their 7-year-old son Hawk live, is central to Picaflor’s mission to heal bodies and the earth. 

Check out our Q&A with McCauley, whose live culture hot sauce won a coveted Nexty Award at ExpoWest for best new condiment.

Q: How did Picaflor first get started.

Picaflor started as we faced this age old dilemma as farmers and growers of food — what do we do with the things that we don’t sell or how do we preserve the harvest for the winter?

A Farmer friend of mine had a couple thousand pounds of peppers that he wasn’t selling because they were past the time to sell and he said if you can do something with them you can have them. I immediately thought fermentation because All the best foods are fermented

I didn’t have to have a lot of equipment, I could do it with limited resources and low energy input. Just add salt and wait.

Q: Tell me about McCauley Family Farms.

We started seven years ago — we have a vision to be ecologically and economically sustainable for generations. We realized that very early on we needed to be regenerative. So a farm where it’s is a whole farm system — a place where animals, perennials, ruminants, birds, insects, fungi, humans all play a part and a roll together to create something more than the sum of the parts.

We’re trying to create a functioning whole farm ecology here.

We have a volunteer program on the farm too, for people who want to get involved who are inspired by regenerative farming and want to give more. They want to feel a part of a community that’s a part of the land and nourished by the land. We have a lot of programs — we host local culinary students each week, sponsor farm yoga Fridays and just had some of the Google here for a team build experience. They all work with us on the farm, then have a meal with us. The give back to us. It’s all about the reciprocity, reciprocity with people and reciprocity with the land.

Q: You have so many different people coming to the farm. What are people most surprised about when they come to the farm? 

People are very surprised that the chicken that they eat at the store that is organic and free range is not required to be outside at all, let alone on a functioning pasture. They are surprised to learn that organic, free range chickens are 30,000 birds in a barn. I think people are surprised to learn that their organic, free range chickens live their life in a cramped barn.

We utilize a rotation of sheep and chickens to regenerate fragile front range pasture land. We call it carbon farming. That’s also what helps fertilize our  pepper fields. We use some of the extra pepper mash and stems that goes back to the soil, so we’re creating these loops, these cycles, just like how our ecosystem works. But part of that is creating this fertility from living, thriving animals. 

And I think people are surprised to learn that their plants, their organic plants, are basically fertilized from fish emulsion primarily. The fertility for organic agricultural is based off fish emulsion, so that bycatch from our ocean. 

That’s where I’m talking about this living, whole farm functioning ecology that we have. Our whole farm system, the output for one part of the system is the input for another part of the system. Rather than having it shipped in from other parts of the world and screw up those parts of the world.

Q: So you are reusing your food waste?

There’s a number of our ferments that are based off of capturing waste streams and producing amazing food from it. We do a beet green kimchi, for example. Local farmers often top off the beets and compost it. Which beet greens are my favorite green to cook with. Another thing is radishes. Once spring starts to turn into the summer, radishes start to molt and farmers have to get them out of the field, so we come in and provide them cash for that lost yield of radishes that would normally get turned under and go into the compost pile. We make a radish kimchi out of it. 

That’s how our pepper flakes came into being too. We kind of upcycled something we didn’t plan on having. It turned into the product that won the best new condiment at ExpoWest this year.

Q: Where did the name Picaflor come from?

I had a real vision to do the live fermented hot sauce, after I had already experimented with it when I was in Colombia on a vision quest in South America. That’s where it came really, really clear. The hummingbird in that tradition and culture is important as the bringer of life.

Picaflor means hummingbird in Spanish. But “pica” means picante like spicy in spanish and also “flor” is like gut flora. 

Q: Your logo is so distinctive, people remember that. How did the logo come about?

That was Andrea at Moxie Soso, she did that. They’re a  local design company here in Boulder. I said to them “I don’t know how you do your design process, but I want to tell you two things then do your thing.” One is how I kind of had the vision for the farm what I wanted it to be, about my mission is to heal people with delicious food. And I told them the history of peppers. Peppers want to be bird food. They co-evolve with birds to spread their seed. That’s why they’re colorful and they’re spicy spicy to deter mammals, but then humans came along very late in the game after that defense had been working for tens of thousand of years and we fall in love with the spice. We start to spread those seeds, much further than the birds ever did. In that process we start to change the pepper and the pepper starts to change us and becomes part of our culture. That co-evolution between birds, peppers and humans continues. The love of peppers and birds is reflected in our logo.

A lot of our food crops come from this long, long thousands and thousands of years free border crossing, migration, cultural exchange of movement of people and seeds. We are recognizing that, honoring that  history.

Q: How did you learn to ferment?

I learned how to ferment by reading Sandor Katz, through trial and error, being self taught and experimenting.

We were doing a lot of experimentation on the farm, we had tried a lot of different things, and it wasn’t clear to me exactly what we were going to do, what our focus was, what our path forward was. There are a lot of farms in this area that don’t make it — there are farms all over that don’t make it. We knew It was a pivotal time and I was really thinking about where we should focus. That’s what I was holding in my heart and on my shoulders when I went on this vision quest. That was the first I had done a vision quest, it’s a long time commitment for me. It actually led me into farming and my family, all of that came from that vision quest. My farm, my family, my mission in life to serve the earth — it all came from this trip, I felt it strongly and wanted to give back. To give back to the earth and serve.

Q: What are the growing conditions like for your pepper seeds in Longmont.

We’re north of the historical range of the chili trail — as people and seeds moved north gradually away from the crop origin from Mexico and Central and South America, that migration didn’t quite make it here to Colorado. The horticultural culture wasn’t established in Boulder County. So we’re on the edge of it. We select seeds to be at home here, but high altitude, a shorter growing season, alkaline soils. It’s difficult to reliably get peppers to go red, to ripen all the way to red here. So green chili is here in Colorado for a reason, we love our green chili. So we’ve had to carefully select heirloom varieties that will grow red here in this part of Colorado. And We select seeds every year to help us do that.

Q: How important was it to you to become a certified organic brand?

I think it was important to at least do that. To give the consumer — we’re one step removed from our consumer than what we’re used to because we have a lot of connections with our neighbors and our local community in providing food. They know us. They know were beyond organic. They know organic is the bare minimum, and that standard is getting watered down all the time. It was important to at least start with that as a certification, but we really hang our hat and pride ourselves on being beyond organic.

Q: What do you mean by going beyond organic?

In whole farm systems, to truly walk that talk and to be regenerative. We are dedicated to improving soil fertility over time, increasing soil carbon over time.

Q: Tell me about the fermentation process for your sauce.

We add salt and let the microbes do the magic. They’re our coworkers. In a sense I think of myself as a microbe farmer or rancher. I’m a microbe rancher. We add some salt, we use real salt. We’re happy to be working with Redmond Salt and utilizing them, it’s our local pink sea salt from the Utah desert. We inoculate with a couple super star strains. So we use lactobacillus plantarum and locatobasiliam rhamnosus. We don’t go through a kill step, so there’s also the diversity of wild microbes included as well.

Q: How long are the peppers fermenting before bottled?

Because we do a blend and we’ve had bumper crops and less than bumper crops at different times. So It dependents – it be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, sometimes even longer. We have a fermentation facility in Boulder, we call it a fermentarium.

Q: Why was it important to Picaflor to be a fermented hot sauce? 

It gives you flavor you cannot get any other way. And we need more probiotics in our diet as Americans. We need a lot more live, fermented floods. Knowing that the popular Srirachas are fermented, but then it’s pasteurized and filled with preservatives. You’re taking this thing that could be inoculating and boosting the gut biome, but you’re adding preservatives to it and potentially harming it. We thought it ought to be alive. Plus it tastes better if it’s a raw ferment rather than a pasteurized ferment.

Q: Where do you see the future of Picalor and McCauley Family Farms?

I see us being a national brand and continuing to get delicious, live probiotic foods into people’s diets, I see us continuing to give people a compelling reason to choose to ingest more probiotics because they’re so delicious. We’re wanting to bring life back to people’s daily meal while bringing life back to the soil. While we’re doing that, getting this out there, we want to heal more land. We want to have a bigger impact on more acreage and bring more regenerative farm systems to the earth.

Q: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs starting their own fermentation business?

I would say that really try to find a way to get started with the least amount of overhead as possible, that’s No. 1. And trial and error, start small, if you have a cottage food law in your state and you can operate under that, great, do it. If you don’t, move to a state that does. We didn’t have that, so we had to start a big fermentation facility at the beginning. It cost a lot of overhead. We had to get into distribution and sell a lot more just to be able to do that. It can be hard to find a commissary kitchen that will let you ferment because of the smell fermenting generates. Try to start with small overhead so you can keep iterating and improving your formulation, your packing, your labeling, your bottling processes. Build relationships through farmers market or small retailers locally, too.

Fermentation is a small food business community generally, and there are a lot of people who are very very helpful, it’s a supportive community. If you can join a networking group locally or even online, and just ask questions, meet people, go to a company and transparently tell them what you’re up to and maybe you can learn from them. We’ve had a lot of people come and stagiaire — which is common in restaurants — and they come and help and learn.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry going?

The trend is going to continue, that people are going to continue to eat more fermented foods, that they’re going to eat more diverse and types of fermented foods that will be in the American diet. I think people are going to start caring more about where their food comes from. Fermented foods that come from farmers and soil that is improving and helping climate change rather than contributing to it. We only have about 12 more years to figure that out. People are going to really start to understand that and make choices based on that. 

Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?

One of the main things is just like an uncertainty in the food safety, health department world around fermented foods and how to deal with it. Some think that you have to have a hazardous plan and others think it’s not even a hazard. You could have your state thinks one thing, but your local municipality thinks another. 

Q: Most food brands I interview mention food safety and regulation as a challenge. Will the government continue to regulate it more? What’s going to happen?

It’s interesting because it’s one of the easier ones. There’s never been a case of a foodborne illness from a live fermented foods. It’s been in the human diet for thousands of years. Not only is it safe — we need it. It is an incredibly easy and safe food, but one of the challenges is just to deal with the different, the degrading of knowledge  in the public health sector.

Q: What unique strengths do fermented producers bring to the food industry?

Maybe we learn this from microbes, but our community ethic and cooperative ethic to help each other out. And so I think that’s the no. 1 thing. And our willingness to experiment and try new things out and our commitment to quality. The fermenters that I meet, they’re all obsessed with creating the best — the most nutritious and delicious food that they possibly can. There’s this aspect to bringing something back that we really need.

Q: Do you think consumer’s awareness of fermented foods is increasing?

Oh definitely. Our knowledge is increasing, we’ve waged an all out war on microbes for decades, which has had some benefits, but it’s had some drawbacks. We only sequenced the human microbiome in 2011, that was the first time we got a little peek into the diversity that’s in our gut. And that was just a small glimpse on the map. What does it do? We have no clue, but we’re finding out more and more everyday. And that is seeping into public awareness and mainstream consciousness. People are realizing “On my God, I’m not just a me, I’m a we.” All of that has a role to play in our health, our vitality, our wholeness.

Q: What myths do you hear the public still believing about fermented foods?

I think people are afraid that it’s going to make them sick and its rotting. I think there’s still a lot of fear around foodborne illness. I think that people are kind of confused when is food good and when is it bad.

Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?

First of all, we’re doing a great job. But we need to work together. It’s not competitive, it’s not fighting over one piece of the pie but growing the pie. There’s so much we still have yet to do in educating the public about the role of fermented foods and why they’re important. How do we do that? I’m doing it one person at a time at the farmers market every single Saturday, sparking up a conversation about it. But there’s still a lot of people that don’t know and there’s a great opportunity for us to educate people. Of course the  old channels of doing that aren’t as effective as they used to be. The most effective way for me is to connect with people one-on-one through farmers market, in-store demos, classes.

I think another thing, one of the things that really lights me up, working with schools and getting these kind of foods in schools. The literature is overwhelming about the benefits of probiotic foods in kid’s diets, for brain development and immune systems, there are such better health outcomes for kids who have that in their diet. I want to work with schools to provide them with these foods and also educate them on why it’s important. No one told me why it’s so important at my age. Let’s start a school program.