Product of the Pepper: Inside Cholula’s Chapala Factory

The flavors of traditional Mexico translated for an international audience

Set on the northwestern bend of Lake Chapala, in the town the lake is aptly named after, is Cholula Hot Sauce‘s only production facility, SANE—a place they’ve inhabited for more than three generations. Their sauces aren’t the hottest, per the Scoville scale, but they boast the prideful and ritualistic flavors of Mexico‘s matriarchy (in fact, the woman adorning their bottles is an abuelita in the founding family, known fondly as La Chila). The bottling and selling of this sauce is the translation of generational, rooted-in-heritage methods, many of which were passed down from La Chila.

The sauce is named after the 2,500-year-old city in the southeastern state of Puebla. As the Americas’ oldest still-inhabited city, it is regarded as a root for Mexican tradition and culture, including artisanal work and craftsmanship—which is still represented in the iconic Mexican Beachwood caps. Akin sauces to Cholula’s are still made universally in Mexico. Familial traditions render a lot of commercial sauces unmarketable in the country, hence why Cholula has such a prominence in the United States and Canada. But, Cholula regards theirs as best. Their recipe has never changed, despite numerous portfolio expansions. The original sauce tastes nearly identical to how it did generations ago.

Cholula’s original sauce is made from the Árbol and Pequin peppers—both of which grow at approximately 1,500 to 1,700 feet above sea level in various pockets of the Mexican countryside. The combination gives the sauce its vibrant red color, rich fiery flavor and balanced consistency.

“The name of the Árbol pepper means it’s taller than other plants. It’s this one because there’s something special about the smell and color,” Plant Manager Miguel Padilla says. “The pepper comes from Jalisco, in the southern part of the state. The process of harvesting is generational; It’s about heritage, and it is not an industrial harvest—everything is done by hand. For the sauce, small fields mean better peppers. It’s important too, all of their water is drawn from wells that they have in their fields.” Ensuring this means that harmful metals and materials never reach the pepper.

Here in Chapala, they produce millions of bottles each month. But the process of getting from seed to sauce takes many months (from planting to packaging, it takes seven). The seed is planted; the plant grows; the harvest occurs; the pepper is transported to Chapala; the pepper is dried (a process that is done under the sun in about three days), and then it is turned into Cholula.

At what is now the end of the harvest season, peppers are dropped off daily. In one room, situated up a set of stairs from the factory floor, peppers are washed in boiling hot water and transferred from one giant bin to another.

The air in the room is thick and uninhabitable for anyone not outfitted with proper gear—those visiting are shielded by surgical masks, but those working wear the FDA-approved equivalent of a HAZMAT suit. Using stainless steel tools, the peppers are scooped from one worker to another. From this perched position, peppers are ground into paste and dumped into vessels. Then, they’re blended and spiced and combined with an all-natural elixir—comprised mostly of vinegar and dehydrated carrot powder—prior to bottling.

“90% of the recipe is about the pepper,” a biochemist with the brand explains. The recipes are formulated to remain as true to the unique flavors of the pepper as they are designed to taste universally good and appropriately spicy. With 80% of the brand’s production devoted to the original flavor—consumers’ second favorite flavor, Chipotle trails by a great distance—there’s proof that tradition can be sustained with careful (and good-hearted) preservation.

Images by Evan Malachosky