Jeff Stevenson of Crazy Uncle Jester’s is a wanted man. That is, what he does obviously makes his products wanted to a larger and larger market share in the industry. With proof that perseverance can pay off, Crazy Uncle Jester’s is now a train rolling downhill and gathering steam. With a slough of awards from the Scovies, as well as Golden Chile awards, it shows that Jeff’s products are now getting quite a bit of critical acclaim. We caught up with Jeff for the first time with his crew at the 2009 Jungle Jim’s Weekend of Fire. After being besieged with a load of really yummy products to try, we just had to ask him to tell us about himself and the hopeful ongoing prosperity of his growing business:
So who is Crazy Uncle Jester anyway? Is he the character head from your graphics or is there more to it than that?
Crazy Uncle Jester® is my alter ego. In college, my online poker name was The Jester. My brother is very straight-laced, so his sons call me the “crazy uncle”. I was trying to create something memorable by putting the two together. I think I succeeded.
At what point when you first made a batch of salsa did you have the inspiration that you could turn it into a business?
I had been manufacturing salsa and hot sauce for nearly 10 years before I realized that there was a real market for my products. I always made it for myself. Friends would invite me to cookouts and parties with requests for salsa. You can only hear “you should sell this stuff” for so long before you listen.or in my case, 10 years.
Which product is your favorite and why?
Jamaican HellfireT is my favorite sauce. I eat it on everything from scrambled eggs to buffalo burgers. Aunt Jester and I spent our honeymoon in Jamaica. This sauce was our attempt at reliving that culinary experience at home.
What do envision to be the secret to maintaining some longevity in an industry which seemingly has a lot of turnover?
When you put the needs of your customers ahead of your own, you are doing things correctly. If you always do things correctly, you will be taken care of automatically. We use only the finest ingredients available, manufacture our gourmet products with the utmost of care, we treat our employees and customers like family, and we give 10% of profits to charity.
Your Afterburner Sauces is one of the best spicy chocolate sauces we’ve yet tried. How did you come up with the combination of chocolate and heat that didn’t compromise the overall flavor of the product?
I start with fresh, wholesome ingredients. I tinker with the base recipe until I get things exactly where I want them. Only then do we concern ourselves with heat. Anyone can manufacture “hot”. I can make ice water that is hot. We focus on flavor. We manufacture flavorful heat.
Your product line features very few actual hot sauces. Do you have future plans to add some new ones?
We intend to under-promise and over-deliver. We would prefer to do a few things well rather than a lot of mediocre things. There are some new sauces in R&D. We will have some new additions to the Crazy Uncle Jester’s ® brand soon.
Are you pro-Buckeyes or do you favor other Ohio-based collegiate sports?
I am a graduate of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences and a Life Member to the OSU Alumni Society. I bleed Scarlet and Gray.
In general, how has the consumer’s feedback been towards your company and products thus far?
When consumers taste our products, they become PepperHeadsT. The feedback we’ve received this year has been amazing, almost embarrassing at times. Whether from individual consumers, family and friends, award shows, magazine editors, or celebrity endorsement, we have made a lot of new friends this year. And, the PepperHeadT fan club is growing faster than ever.
Aside from your own products, what other brands or types of hot & spicy stuff do you like?
I love Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian food. I am a hot sauce and salsa junkie. I have hundreds of hot sauces and dozens of salsas in my research kitchen. Hot and spicy beef jerky is the bomb. I prefer sweet heat. I crave adventure, I love to eat, and I seem to be good at it. I am always up for a challenge…bring it on. If it doesn’t eat me first…I’m on it.
Is there anything new coming down the pipeline from CUJ that you want us to know about?
Crazy Uncle Jester’s ® is unveiling our new online experience this month. We have worked with our Creative Department to develop a world-class online shopping and entertainment experience rivaled nowhere. There will be a YouTube Channel with entertaining and viral videos, social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn), convenient and entertaining shopping experiences, recipes, informative news content, and special promotions for our PepperHeadT friends and fans.
This Fall, Crazy Uncle Jester’s ® is also kicking off the 2009 – 2010 Burn and Blister TourT, a series of NASCAR, Indy Race League, NCAA, NFL, and media appearances designed to introduce consumers to Uncle Jester, our brand, and our products. The schedule will be online.look to see when we’re in your neighborhood this season.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Jamaican Hellfire: vinegar, pears (pears, water corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup), onion, bell pepper, brown sugar, sugar, jalapenos, serranos, habaneros, honey, mustard, garlic, spices
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Spontaneous Combustion: vinegar, habaneros, serranos, jalapenos, salt, spices, capsicum
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Select Reserve: vinegar, pears (pears, water corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup), onion, bell pepper, brown sugar, sugar, jalapenos, serranos, habaneros, honey, mustard, garlic, spices
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Brush Fire BBQ: onion, vinegar, ketchup, bell pepper, Worcester sauce (vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, salt, caramel color, sugar, spices, anchovy paste, natural flavor, soy, tamarind), honey, lime juice, garlic, pectin, jalapenos, serranos, tomato paste (tomato paste, salt, spice, natural flavor, citric acid), liquid smoke, salt, spices
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Blazing Hot Mustard: vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, flour, turmeric, sugar, pectin, bell peppers, jalapenos, serranos, habaneros
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Inferno Jelly: sugar, vinegar, pectin, bell pepper, jalapenos, serranos, habaneros
Crazy Uncle Jester’s AfterBurner Sauce: sugar, evaporated milk, water, brown sugar, cocoa, flour, butter, jalapeno, habanero, vanilla, marshmallow (corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, corn starch, gelatin)
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Jamaican Hellfire: This is the mildest of the hot sauces we tasted from CUJ, and even this one bears a respectable amount of heat…perhaps 6/10 or so. For a sauce which has a fair amount of sweetness in it with pears, brown sugar, and honey, it balances our rather nicely. It’s not great with everything, but we were surprised to find that it was a respectable accompaniment with a fairly wide variety of foods. Another nice thing is that it’s a fairly aromatic sauce. Yes, you can’t escape the vinegary overtones, but you definitely get a whiff of the underlying fruit and spices that are part of the sauce. This sauce has great utility overall, and we admit to even enjoying it straight out of the bottle. We have to ding CUJ for their use of high fructose corn syrup, though, so we encourage them to find a source of pears that doesn’t have that in it. Still, a definite winner!
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Spontaneous Combustion: This is the CUJ version of a Louisiana-style sauce…but this one’s on steroids. Take a regular cayenne-style vinegary hot sauce and substitute in a mega-hot mixture of habaneros, serranos, and jalapenos, and that gives you a sauce that hits your tongue like a ton of bricks with its dominant heat…perhaps 8/10 overall. It does have some capsicum in it for extra heat, but it seems like a superfluous extra addition given the other peppers that are in this sauce. It’s flavor is a little lost in all the heat, but it’s a good add to soups, sauces, chili, etc. It’s a very thin sauce, so beware as you pour it from the bottle or you’ll end up doing what we need…having a big puddle of it on your plate. It’s a decent sauce to be sure, but it could use a few tweaks to make it better.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Select Reserve: For those of you who are wondering, this hot sauce is one of those you eat with a toothpick. A little goes a long damn way, and this sauce has a potency that usually reserved for extract sauces. Truth be known, you do get a burst of pear-ish flavor, but as the flavor works its way to back of your palate you get a sense of enveloping heat that just heats up like you’re suckling a blowtorch. Definitely a sauce that most of use would use a couple of drops at a time. For those of you who can’t get enough heat, then you need to own a bottle of this sauce. One of the hottest non-extract sauces we’ve ever tried, and those are in relatively short supply. Amaze your friends! Hurt your enemies! Pour a teaspoon of this into a pot of chili and sit back and enjoy the burn.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Brush Fire BBQ: A couple of things stood out about this BBQ sauce. For one, it has a really, really nice aroma. Not sure if it’s the spices, the peppers, or what, but it just smells spicy-good. The other thing is that it’s a very thin sauce. Like a little too thin. It pours so easily from the jar that we wondered how much cling factor it could have with food. It’s a little odd that the number one ingredient in this sauce is onion, as most BBQ sauces usually are heavy with either tomato paste/sauce or ketchup. In fact, onion is the single most dominant flavor in this sauce…so if you’re not a really big fan of onions, then this product is not for you. It does have some decent heat, though…about 6/10 or so. We cooked some chicken breasts on the grill with this BBQ sauce and the flavor mellows a lot with cooking. Despite our reservations about the thinness of the sauce, it actually had decent cling to food. For us, not a everyday BBQ sauce and it could use a little better balance with its flavor, but still a decent sauce. Worth trying, for sure.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Blazing Hot Mustard: We’ve tried a lot of mustards lately, some of which fall into the kinda-sweet category and some kinda spicy. This one manages to do a little bit of both, although admittedly this one has more heat than expected. It has that same ubiquitous mixture of habanero-serrano-jalapeno that seems to be in a lot of the CUJ products, and that is the source of the heat which builds with each bite of this. It does have a bit of sweetness to it, which gives credence to the maker’s assertion that you could use it as a dipping sauce. However, we used it pretty standardly like you would use mustard…as a condiment. It’s plenty thick enough to cling to food and tasty enough to mix into recipes such as egg & chicken salads. It’s not the spiciest mustard we’ve tried, but it’s spicy enough to please the average chilehead…and we would buy it if we saw it in our local store. Yum, yum, and yum.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s Inferno Jelly: In general, we’re not a fan of pepper jellies. It’s not that we dislike them, but we don’t use a lot of jellies in general…certainly for nothing more exotic than a PB&J sandwich. We tend to like those pepper jellies that manage to keep a lot of the seeds out of the jelly, because it simply adds a level of “grittiness” than is undesirable. To this product’s credit, it avoids that and manages to make a thin, spreadable jelly that is both mildly spicy and very tasty. We used this with some crackers & cream cheese for hors d’oeuvrs. Being a good sweet heat sorta product, this bears some good usage possibilities in baking such as in cookies, cakes, and pies. Nothing quite so satisfying as turning something sweet into something spicy AND sweet.
Crazy Uncle Jester’s AfterBurner Sauce: I can’t say that I’ve had too much experience with spicy chocolate sauces, but this one makes me think I may not ever want to eat another one besides this one. For one thing, it’s damn tasty…and everything you would want from a chocolate sauce. For another thing, it’s stupifyingly hot for a sweet sauce. We first tried this on ice cream at the Jungle Jim’s show and we were astounded at how spicy it made something sweet like ordinary ice cream. Quite possibly their best overall product in terms of mixture of sweetness, heat, and flavor. If you want a chilehead ice cream sundae, then this sauce is for you. Actually, we didn’t even explore too many other uses with it…but suffice to say that anything you might use a chocolate sauce for would work great. Spicy milkshakes, anyone?
Links on the web
The Crazy Uncle Jester blog
Scott Roberts reviews the Blazing Hot Mustard
Taste the Fear reviews the Afterburner Sauce
Brush Fire BBQ on BBQ Sauce Reviews
Scott Roberts reviews Spontaneous Combustion sauce
Our overall recommendation
Doing a set of reviews on so many products at once always risks overgeneralizing too much and risks missing something. However, we were sufficiently pleased enough with these products that we would dare say that you can’t go wrong with any of them. Quality ingredients, great label graphics, and enough heat in ALL of them to go around make these a chilehead’s delight.