So God Made the World's Hottest Pepper

Searching for a winner in the cutthroat world of competitive chili pepper growing

Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters

Meet the Carolina Reaper. It is an evil looking pepper—a gnarled, lumpy pod with a sucked-up belly and a small tail reminiscent of wasp’s stinger. When ripe it is a luscious Crayola red. Its looks are a carefully crafted marketing scheme that screams “Danger: Do Not Eat.” But it was those looks that immediately drew Ed Currie, a South Carolina chili pepper grower, to the Carolina Reaper, the latest and most controversial contender for the crown of world’s hottest pepper.

Like any human endeavor involving pride and money, the competition for the world’s hottest pepper, especially in the United States, is cutthroat and, to make matters worse, there currently is no undisputed champion.

“It is highly competitive and there is a lot of infighting,” says Ted Barrus, a well-known reviewer of superhots—peppers reaching over one million Scoville heat units (at least three times as hot as a typical habanero)—famous for his YouTube videos under the moniker Fire Breathing Idiot. “It’s a big money thing to have the world record.”

Which pepper currently reigns supreme depends on who you ask. There are four different camps.

According to the folks at Guinness World Records, the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T,” a Trinidad Scorpion chili pepper variant developed by The Chilli Factory in Australia, is the world’s hottest at more than1.4 million Scoville units. But the majority of American chiliheads believe that pepper has been usurped by the Reaper, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, or any number of other peppers concocted by hobbyist growers.

Two decades ago the Red Savina Habanero, then the world’s hottest pepper, only topped out at around half a million Scoville heat units. Many thought that that was as hot as peppers would ever get.

Then the Indian Bhut Jolokia, the first superhot pepper, was discovered by researchers in the West. Better known in the West as the Ghost Pepper, the Bhut Jolokia more than doubled the Red Savina’s Scoville rating.

The Ghost Pepper was crowned in 2007, but after the Butch T won in 2011, the title had changed hands three times in a little more than a year. Since then the title has remained static.

Many think that Guinness simply can’t keep up with the number of applicants, or is unwilling to crown a new champion because having so many changes so rapidly dilutes the value of the prize. With no other official source willing to evaluate the explosion of superhots, the last few years have turned into a free-for-all.

Compared to England and Australia, two other chilihead hot beds, there is a lot of negativity and fighting among American growers, says Barrus.

More and more small growers are vying for the title of hottest pepper, often without any evidence to support their claims, says Jim Duffy, a prominent chili grower from Southern California.

“(There are) lots of upstarts who are claiming they have the hottest and are getting people to buy their seeds without having any proof. So hobbyist growers are getting cheated out of 30 bucks or so when the seeds they bought don’t come out how they were supposed to.”

Duffy has good reason to be upset, as a big name in superhots.  The Chile Pepper Institute, a non-profit educational outreach and research center located at New Mexico State University, used his seeds for all the peppers in a comparative study of heat levels for several different strains of superhots. It was during that study that a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pod unexpectedly broke two million Scoville heat units, the highest Scoville level currently on record.

It was into this fray that Currie and his Carolina Reaper entered unaware, and he immediately made enemies including, at first, Jim Duffy.

Currie was not part of the chilihead community, and he certainly didn’t hang out on the community’s message boards. He just ran a small seed shop and grew peppers mostly for use in cancer research. So it came as a shock when he received a call from Barrus, whom he didn’t know, telling him that people were attacking him and his pepper on the Internet. Barrus told him he needed to defend himself.

Currie’s family has a history of heart disease and cancer. In college he decided he needed to figure out a way to avoid that fate and began researching which populations had the lowest rates of those diseases. He found they had several things in common, but what stuck him was that they all ate hot chilis with every meal. That is when he started growing peppers.

It was by trying to grow a sweet pepper that Currie claims he accidentally created the world’s hottest. Because chemotherapy patients often lose the ability to taste anything but “sweet,” Currie hoped that patients could still taste a sweet pepper. They could.  “It is the sweetest superhot out there,” says Currie.

Currie knew he had something special as soon as he laid eyes on the Reaper—it was the first pepper he’d even seen with a stinger. Then when Currie’s friend ate one on a dare he threw up from the heat.

It was during this growing process that a grad student working for him posted some data on the Internet and claimed that the Reaper was the new record holder.

Duffy initially thought Currie was just another fly-by-night operation that couldn’t back up its claims. But Duffy and Currie eventually became friends and business partners, in part united by their Christian faith.

“That is where all this came from, and God blessed me with a pepper that is just really, really, really hot,” says Currie. “I think that is another thing that pisses people off, because I say, ‘It’s not me, it’s God.’”

There are a few other things that piss people off about Ed Currie.

There are vitriolic claims all over the chilihead community’s message boards that the Carolina Reaper is unstable. As with any crossbreed, it takes generations of careful cultivation until its heirs consistently exhibit its desired traits. At best, critics accuse Currie of selling the Carolina Reaper before it was stable enough to produce a consistent crop, and at worst, they believe the pepper is inherently genetically unstable and incapable of ever producing a uniform crop.

“Some of us call it a witch burning party,” says Barrus, who believes the Reaper is stable, “because it was getting out of control the way they were attacking Ed Currie. I think it is human nature, this mob mentality to jump on it.”

Others accuse Currie of selling Reaper seeds and then retroactively declaring only authorized growers could use his pepper for commercial purposes.

In one notorious incident, a grower named Robert Richard posted photos of the Carolina Reaper plants he was growing to sell on a Facebook group for chiliheads. The thread soon turned into a discussion about whether he was allowed to sell the peppers or not. Currie chimed in and asked for Richard’s contact information so Currie’s lawyers could contact him. Richard did not respond to interview requests.

“I have a whole legal team that takes care of that. I just like to grow peppers and let other people take care of that,” says Currie.

Currie is certainly protective of his creation.

He won’t send pods out to reviewers in case they decide to keep the seeds to grow, and when CBS did a piece on him he would not let them take any pods.

“People are pretty much backstabbers. People are always trying to get a new seed. They think if they tell me something [I want to hear] they can get one of my new [crossbreeds],” he says.

But overall his motivation seems more altruistic than capitalistic. He gives away far more peppers to causes like cancer research than he sells, and he has yet to accept any money from the people he has allowed to use his peppers. Instead he just asks that they use the peppers for a good cause like he does.

“Give it back to the kingdom. Give it back to someone who needs it. It isn’t about making money. It is about helping people,” he says. “It was a gift to me. I don’t know why it can’t be a gift to everyone else, but we have to pay the bills I guess.”

Controversies aside, the Reaper faces another problem. Depending on how you measure it, the Reaper may still not be the hottest pepper. While it does have the hottest documented average, it does not have the hottest single pod.

“Ed has studies saying he has the highest average, and that is a good thing to have,” says Duffy. “But when you are going for records and you want to grab the media attention, you don’t run around saying, ‘I have the highest average.’ If you did that in sports people would turn off the TV. You want to see the fastest ever, not the average fastest runner.”

Currie not only disagrees that the average doesn’t matter, but says he’s seen Reaper pods that have far surpassed the Moruga’s record.

“We have been showing an average of 1.5 (million Scoville units) for the last couple of years,” he says. “I can show you data of one pepper in the 3 millions, but I don’t even publish that stuff because it is a fluke.”

As far as Duffy is concerned, there is room for two kings.

“Record high, record average—one is American League, one is National League,” he says.