The Chilli Alchemist: October ’15
It’s sometimes said that Communism started with four people in a room. The word ‘Communism’ is actually derived from the French word ‘communisme’ which developed out of the Latin words ‘communis’ and ‘isme’, and was in use as a word designating various social situations before it came to be associated with more modern conceptions of an economic and political organization. ‘Communis’ can be translated to “of or for the community” while ‘isme’ is a suffix that indicates the abstraction into a state, condition or action, so ‘communism’ may be interpreted as “the state of being of or for the community”. Now, I’d never describe the UK’s largest free chilli club as a Communist organization in modern terms, far from it, but it did start with four people in a room (by ‘room’, I mean ‘bar’) & it’s definitely “for the community”.
Around 6 years ago, four guys were drinking together in their local bar & looking for something to do on the weekend. After a little discussion & online browsing, they decided to attend an open day at a local nursery that specialized in chilli plants. Within minutes of their arrival, they were smitten with the sheer variety on offer. Up until this point, they had only known of the more common chilli varieties so their trip became an eye-opener & inspiration. The journey back was full of ideas and conversation. It was during this time that the idea for the Clifton Chilli Club was born.
The concept was simple: create an open club that would bring fellow chilli enthusiasts together and help educate those looking to dip their toe into the exciting, fiery world of chillies. However, a concept is only as good as its execution and a lot of work needed to be done in order to create an organization that could not only educate but also help show the fun, dangers, benefits & possibilities of working with chillies. It helped that the co-founders all had a keen interest in chillies, but boys being boys, they couldn’t help but test their mettle with some of the hotter varieties!
It didn’t take long for one of the core members to enter a chilli eating competition at a local festival held on a chilli farm. Ultimately winning but suffering the consequences due to the final round being made up of a chilli extract, the first ever Clifton Chilli Club video was born. It didn’t take long before a YouTube channel was created and more videos were produced. To begin with, the videos were mainly comprised of stupidity & bravery combined. Snorting chilli powder, eating the world’s hottest chillies, eating chilli extract, consuming a larger number of chillies in one go; it may not have been particularly clever but the videos drew attention & got people interested. Part of the club ethos was to help educate & help showcase the world of chillies yet undiscovered by many. With this in mind, the club focused on providing video reviews of chilli based products. These were predominantly sauces that were purchased at festivals or in stores but, as the reputation grew, more & more producers started looking to the club for respected opinions that would help showcase or develop a product. As time went on, more educational videos were produced that gave the viewers insights into growing techniques, cooking with chillies, deseeding methods, troubleshooting and more. The YouTube channel became one of variety for the chilli enthusiast.
The internet was a great place for the club, but people wanted to be more involved. Watching a video wasn’t enough for some so the club reached out for more people to become involved. That’s where I come in. I joined in the mayhem around 5 months after the club had launched. Having recently moved back to my home town of Bristol, I was looking for like-minded individuals who could understand my addition to the fiery fruit. I was looking for an outlet & it didn’t take me long to discover the Clifton Chilli Club. Within no time, I was joining in with the video reviews, writing blogs and helping provide answers to anyone with a question! However, this article isn’t about me so I’ll move on…
Throughout the summer season, many of the core members of the club would frequent chilli festivals across the UK. We’d rock up with our branded polo shirts & check out what was on offer from the various vendors. Life became a little strange for us during this time as we were starting to get recognized by strangers! None of us had ever shot a single video in hope of stardom & fame; we did it for the love of it. However, as the viewership & number of videos increased, I guess it was likely that we may occasionally be recognized whilst at chilli themed events. There were even occasions when we were asked to sign posters or bottles of hot sauce; it was all very surreal for a while. Vendors were also recognizing us, handing us products & asking if we’ll provide a video review as they respected us & felt that a positive review could help them. We’d always offer to pay our way but the amount of free products became extensive & we soon had a backlog of items to taste. The vendors knew there was a risk in handing us products as we prided ourselves on our honesty rather than pay lip service. However, we worked hard to provide video reviews for practically every product we were given or had purchased.
We also got to know the event organizers at many of the chilli festivals and it wasn’t long before we were asked to run & host chilli eating competitions. Of course, we accepted the invitations and it was a great opportunity to get other chilli enthusiasts involved with the club’s work. Running these competitions required a number of people so we reached out for volunteers & were not disappointed. Our first competitions were small in attendance but, over time, we have become involved in some very high profile events. Only two weeks ago we were running a chilli eating competition in front of 20,000 people!
As our knowledge & membership broadened, event organizers started asking us for additional services. “Would you guys be willing to give a talk about chillies in our demonstration marquee?” asked one organizer. “We love your videos & you clearly know your stuff. Our punters would love to hear more and, if you are willing, a Q&A session would also be great.” We were honored to have been asked & willingly accepted. After all, we were immersing ourselves in the chilli world and had picked up a lot of information we were wanting to share.
It wasn’t long before the club started to earn a little money for the services supplied. However, none of the members wanted to earn from the club & felt that it should be a not-for-profit organization. Therefore, ideas were thrown about on how to best utilize the money earned so that our members would benefit. A tradition was quickly developed where, at the end of each year, we would throw a party for anyone wanting to come. The club would cover the cost and provide some spicy foods for those in attendance. We were also able to start purchasing some branded clothing for our members to own.
Over the years, the Clifton Chilli Club has truly grown in size but it was bothering us that our reach was predominantly within the UK. Whilst we would often receive emails & messages from people across the globe, none of us had every traveled to a chilli event outside of our motherland. Upon recognizing this a couple of years ago some of the members took a trip to Italy to experience the Pepperoncino Festival. Running since 1992, this was a massive chilli festival in southern Italy & provided the club with some great ideas & insights for events in the UK.
Just last year some of us took a trip to the New York Hot Sauce Expo in Manhattan. We went as punters & enthusiasts who were looking to see how our friends in the US ran a show. We were blown away by the variety, quality and culture. It was still strange that we should be recognized by people we had never met. However, we embraced the love & got stuck into the expo in our usual manner of controlled chaos! I have no shame in saying that I spent a fair amount of time on my hands & knees at the expo. 9.1 million SHU extract should never be ingested yet I tried (& ultimately failed). There is a video on YouTube if you are interested in witnessing my pain!
There were several great things to come out of our visit to New York. The first was our discovery of Lucky Dog sauces. We instantly fell in love with the product, purchased a lot of them to take back home & handed over the UK’s largest hot sauce provider with a note saying ‘You gotta try these!’. We’re pleased to say that this resulted in Lucky Dog sauces being brought to the UK & we’re still enjoying them on a regular basis. The second great thing to come from our visit to the NYC expo was an invitation to return the following year (2015) and become more involved. We’re rarely ones to turn down an invitation and the organizer’s proposal was mouth-watering: run a live feed from the expo so the world can watch! So, in April 2015, we ran our first ever live feed via YouTube so that anyone watching could see the awesomeness of the NYC Hot Sauce Expo! Each day we broadcast for 6 hours in a ‘news desk’ style program that included special guests, live chat questions, live product reviews, footage of the expo, World Record attempts & more! It was another string to the chilli club bow &, more importantly, a great way to give the world wide chilli community something new to experience.
We’re honoured to have been involved with or visited a number of chilli-related events around the world over the past couple of years. We can now include Germany, Holland, USA, Canary Islands and Italy in our portfolio. We’ll be adding Belgium to this mix next year.
So, what next? As a club, we want to give to the chilli community. We want to remain a not-for-profit organization where none of the members take any money for themselves. Our social media presence continues to grow (we have over 400 videos now on YouTube, c10,000 subscribers and over 3,000,000 views) and more videos are on the way. In the UK, we’re at the end of our festival season so we’ll soon be focusing on our free ‘end of year’ party for our members & followers. As stated at the start of this article, the Clifton Chilli Club is “for the community” and openly invite anyone with an idea or question to get in touch: www.facebook.com/cliftonchilliclub or cl***********@ya***.uk.