AVERY ISLAND , LOUISIANA, USA -- Avery Island, Louisiana is a magical place where, not surprisingly, tourists flock to for a variety of reasons.
Covered with lush gardens interspersed with aviaries housing beautiful exotic birds, and surrounded by nature, the island's biggest attraction, nonetheless, is man made (with a big helping hand from mother nature) -- Tabasco Sauce.
Enjoyed the world over -- you can find Tabasco sauce labels printed in 21 languages and dialects -- the condiment is regularly shipped to over 100 countries.
Despite these impressive statistics, you may be surprised to learn that the entire globe's supply of Tabasco sauce is produced right here, on this 2300 acre stretch of Louisiana land called Avery Island (more a peninsula than an actual island). Even more surprising, the company is still a family owned enterprise, as it has been since the McIlheney family began producing Tabasco sauce in 1868. Today, the Avery Island plant produces about 700,000 bottles of Tabasco sauce a day.
While the general public can get an abbreviated tour of the Tabasco sauce bottling plant on Avery Island, we went behind the scenes to explore how Tabasco sauce is made -- from the garden to the bottle. The process is complex and time consuming. It takes a whopping 3 1/2 years from picking the peppers to bottling the sauce for consumers!
It's In The Peppers
What makes Tabasco Sauce Tabasco Sauce? The peppers of course. While other hot sauce brands use Tabasco peppers in their blends, Tabasco is the only hot sauce to use 100% Tabasco peppers.
Peppers are grown in central and south America, as well as on Avery Island. It's a painstaking process. In order to harvest peppers at the correct degree of ripeness that the McIlheney family demands for their sauce, each pepper must be plucked by hand -- no machines. Pickers carry a small red stick -- known as a Baton Rouge -- with them while working. Only when the color of the pepper matches the color of the baton is the pepper is ready to be picked.
Peppers are first pureed and ferment for two to three weeks before being shipped to Louisiana. Pepper crops from all the family's farms are carefully blended together at Avery Island, much like grapes are blended when making wine, in order to achieve the perfect taste and balance.
The puree will continue to ferment for two hundred and three weeks at Avery Island, before it begins its long barrel fermentation process.
Cooper Hamilton Polk (pictured at left) has worked at the Tabasco plant for 34 years (as of this writing in 2006). He's one of several full time coopers employed to take care of the over 50,000 white oak barrels in the Tabasco warehouse.
Tabasco acquires their barrels from bourbon distilleries like Jack Daniels, Early Times and others. While the distilleries use the barrels only once, Tabasco will reuse them for as many as 19 years.
When the barrels arrive at Avery Island from (usually) Kentucky, their insides are charred black -- the element that gives bourbon its smoky flavor. Coopers like Hamilton Polk must first sand off the charred wood from the inside before the barrel can be used to ferment the Tabasco pepper puree.
After its initial fermentation process, the ultra hot pepper puree is ready to be barreled. Polk uses his senses of sight and taste to determine the pepper's readiness. While Polk allowed us to taste the puree, he cautioned us not to swallow the unbelievably hot paste. In fact the tiny drop on our tongues continue to burn for at least an hour later. There is little flavor at this stage -- only heat.
It takes three years of barrel fermenting for the puree to achieve the desired color and taste. When this occurs, the mash goes into vats and is drained. It will be mixed with distilled white vinegar before going back into oak for another twenty-eight to thirty days.
Throughout the fermentation processes, Polk regularly checks the barrels for leaks and seal problems. Barrel explosions are not uncommon in the warehouse.
After the second fermentation with vinegar, the mash is run through screens to sift out seeds and pulp. Everything is used -- dried pepper seeds are sold for their oils, and used in pain relief liniments and candies like cinnamon Red Hots.
Now the sauce is ready for bottling. While the employees here are used to the intense sensory stimulation of their product, newcomers can't walk through the bottling plant without burning eyes and throats. A coughing fit is soon to follow as the amount of capsacin in the air makes staying inside the plant for long nearly impossible. Long time workers chuckle as us "wimps" need to be escorted outside within minutes (some within seconds!).
Luckily the bottling plant tours offered to the public are behind a protective glass wall, so there's no need to worry.
Tours of the Tabasco Sauce bottling plant only are offered between 9 AM and 4 PM, Monday through Friday, and are free of charge (although there is a $1.00 per vehicle charge to go onto Avery Island). The average tour takes 10-15 minutes.
There is no bottling going on on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but you will be a able to view of film of the process.
The visitor's center houses a wonderful store filled with souvenirs, Tabasco sauce products, and collectibles. You can even try some jalapeño ice cream!
The McIlheney Tabasco Sauce Factory is located at Highway 329, Factory Road in Avery Island, Louisiana . Call 1-800 634-9599 (toll free) or (337) or visit www.tabasco.com for more information.