Owner Dan Stevens, son Nate Stevens and son-in-law Michael Chickering.
HOT! HOT! HOT!
Meet the Faces of Captain Mowatt's Hot Sauce
words Kathryn Williams
photography Douglas Merriam
Heat can do funny things to a person. At tastings,
owner Dan Stevens and his family look out for the “owls”
“WHOO WHOO THAT’S HOT!” and the HICCUPERS.
Before you ask, as many do, Dan Stevens is not Captain Mowatt. He will, however, answer to the name. After 20 years at the helm of the eponymous Portland-based hot sauce company, he has earned the title.
The real Captain Mowatt was a Revolutionary War–era British naval officer responsible for the burning of Portland in 1775. Of naming his sauce after a limey, Stevens says it wasn’t necessarily his first choice. “Burn Your Fingers, Burn Your Mouth, Burn Your Ass … everything [else] was taken!”
For years Stevens was a boat captain, though not of a British war sloop. Raised on Little Diamond Island, the Mainer grew up to pilot tugboats and ferries on Casco Bay. It was this maritime calling that took him to Louisiana in 1978, where Stevens discovered a love of hot sauce while driving a crew boat back and forth from oil rigs in the Gulf. To his memory, it was the first time he tasted the real stuff.
“Everything had hot sauce on it,” he recalls, even, luckily, the turkey the rig’s cook once boiled for him.
It was many years later, in the late ’90s, and back home in Maine, that Stevens turned a hobby into a business. Now the father to two young daughters and a son, Stevens wanted to teach his kids “what $10 was worth” (in this case, hours blending, simmering and bottling hot peppers). He recalls the day he sent his children into Becky’s Diner on Commercial Street in Portland with a few jars of homemade hot sauce and an invoice. They came out with a check and a smile. A week later, Becky’s was calling for another delivery. “You don’t understand,” the woman told him. “People are asking and we need more sauce.”
In its DNA, Captain Mowatt’s is a family business. Stevens hid the kids’ birthdays (as well as the family dog’s) in the UPC used to ring up bottles at the cash register. In the good old days, the kids hand-colored labels at the family’s kitchen table; today, 29-year-old Nate designs them. Alexandra, who lives in California, helps with marketing; while Hillary, a local nurse, and her husband assist with cooking, sales and labeling. With the aid of a wooden contraption Stevens designed, Hillary, who’s been at the job since she was 12, can now label 38 to 40 cases an hour. (By comparison, her father can do 16.)
That same pride of origin is visible in the ingredients that go into all Captain Mowatt’s products. Besides 20 varieties of hot sauce, they also make barbecue sauces, dressings, condiments, jerky, nuts, rubs and seasonings.
“Anything that we can, we do [local],” says Stevens, which is why, although the Red Savina habaneros come from Peru and the cayennes from Arizona, it’s Shipyard Export Ale in their Beer-B-Que, Maine dark amber maple syrup in their Crapple sauce and real Maine seaweed—yes, seaweed—in every bottle. “It’s a little bit of Portland we’re spreading around the country.”
Tears in its eyes, the country is begging for more. Captain Mowatt’s now sells tens of thousands of bottles a year, in addition to the gallons and growlers it distributes to restaurants. Stevens ships coast to coast, as well as to the already-hot-sauce-drenched states of Louisiana and Texas. (His Canceaux sauce has beaten hometown favorite Tabasco multiple times at the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.) Captain Mowatt’s has been to Germany and the Marshall Islands and sent to soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, at the World Hot Sauce Awards, Canceaux took home first place in the Pepper Blend category and Bar Harbor-Que won third place in Fruit BBQ Sauce, competing against 14 countries and 34 states.
As for his favorite, “I bounce around,” says Stevens. Greenie, a salsa verde with jalapeños and avocado, is his on-again, off-again sweetheart. He likes it on eggs, sometimes paired with the lemon- and lime-kissed Scurvy Dog sauce. The sweet and spicy Canceaux, a Captain Mowatt’s bestseller similar to Thai chili sauce, is delicious blended with cream cheese. Dip coconut shrimp in Cocoloco, or be adventurous and sprinkle Fireberry on cheesecake for a snappy dessert. One can bet the Stevens clan has tried all of these pairings.
It’s certain that when Stevens blended his first three-gallon batch of Louisiana-style hot sauce (today he uses five-gallon buckets), he did not foresee that his life, and his family’s, would change forever.
“I feel so lucky,” he says, looking around the tiny warehouse and production facility that his business is clearly outgrowing. “I wake up in the morning and literally cannot wait to get to work.” He smiles. One has to wonder if the original Captain Mowatt could have said such a thing.