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Demon seeds: Searching for the planet's hottest pepper

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  • Behind marijuana, Superhot chile peppers have the potential to become the second- or third highest money per acre crop.

The top of the Superhot pepper pile is a lonely perch, and in the ruthless world of hellfire chiles, nobody stays at the top for long. For now, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T is the world's hottest pepper, according to the supreme judge of rankings — Guinness World Records.

The past five years have seen a subculture of contenders make claims and counterclaims for the hottest chile title: Trinidad Scorpion, Moruga Scorpion, Ghost Pepper, HP22B, Naga Viper, and others. The creators of the various peppers are not after a shiny trophy or blue ribbon — there is a tremendous amount of money at stake. Establish a bonafide hell pepper line and the hot sauce companies will come knocking. As described in Modern Farmer: "'The Superhot peppers are an extremely valuable commodity,' says Dave Dewitt, an author and chile expert who runs the industry's biggest event, The National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show in Albuqurque, New Mexico. A typical Scorpion pepper pod at a farmers' market will go for one dollar, notes Dewitt. 'Think if you had an acre of these things; think how much money you could generate. Behind marijuana, they have the potential to become the second- or third highest yielding crop per acre monetarily.'"

For the pepper creators — a possible financial windfall. For the subculture of followers and chilehead devotees — the cult of the hell pepper. "Cult of the hell pepper" might seem a bit strong; it is not. For the uninitiated, the realm of hot peppers is often assumed as a ballpark measurement of heat — slightly above a spicy jalapeno or a nasty habanero. Such an assumption might not be fatal, but for the unsuspecting fool that bites down on a Trinidad Scorpion, he may wish it was. Think Hiroshima in a pod.

Chile pepper heat is measured in Scoville units. Most jalapenos fall in the 3,000 to 8,000 Scoville range. Classic Tabasco sauce reaches the 5,000 Scoville range. Trinidad Scorpion Butch T? 1.464 million Scovilles. Naga Viper? 1.382 million Scovilles. That's well over 200 times hotter than most jalapenos. Alex de Wit, a part owner of Butch T, told the Wall Street Journal: "After 800,000 Scoville units, you've got to be careful. You'll pay the consequences — you'll be on the floor for hours. We've had people go to the hospital." (With little surprise, de Wit says his next generation of Butch T's will be 10 percent stronger.)

According to the Journal, Paul Bosland, director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute, is behind a great deal of the Superhot chile culture. In 1994, a hybrid pepper hit 570,000 Scovilles and most researchers thought the heat ceiling had been reached. But Bosland heard rumors of a "ghost chile" in India, managed to get some seeds, and the rest is history.  The ghost chile (used in Indian tear gas grenades) registered at over 1 million Scoville units, but the measurement might as well have been on the Richter scale: "Once we did that, it kind of opened the floodgates." (In 2012, Bosland's Trinidad Moruga Scorpion may have broken the 2-million Scoville mark; he hasn't submitted the findings to Guinness yet.)

What is the Scoville ceiling for peppers? The cult of the hell pepper hopes there isn't one. When the human body encounters capsaicin, the chemical heat component of peppers, it releases a wave of endorphins to fight the pain. Eating a pepper with over 1 million Scovilles will gin up a massive flow of endorphins. The chileheads will endure it all, some for glory and some for the endorphins.  The torment from a single pepper can often last for hours: tsunamis of scorching pain, shakes and tremors, temporary loss of speech, death-sweats, and waves of vomiting.

If devotees of the cult of the hell pepper ever tire of the Superhots, they can always move on to even more daring heights. According to Guinness, "Blair's 16 Million Reserve" is the most wicked hot sauce on Earth — 16 million Scovilles. Bon appetit.

Twitter: @CBennett71

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