The heat was oppressive as we walked around William DeLong Park.
In a cruel twist, Mother Nature had brought on a late-summer heat wave just in time for the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival. Just in case the peppers weren’t hot enough, the midday sun ensured that we were feeling the heat, and I cursed myself for forgetting to bring drinks.
The Bowers Chile Pepper Festival is billed as the largest in the nation, attracting tens of thousands of people to the eastern Berks County village of about 300 people.
Vendor tents snaked around the park, each one more crowded than the last. I realized early on that I would never be able to squeeze to the front of every stand, let alone taste everything.
My first stop of the day was to Torchbearer Sauces where their product line ranged from sweet to hot to Zombie Apocalypse. I decided to stay to the milder end of the table because Zombie Apocalypse sauce sounded scarier than an actual zombie apocalypse. And luckily for me, that’s where I found my only take-home item of the day, Torchbearer’s Pineapple Papaya sauce.
Papaya is one of my favorite fruit flavors, and this sauce did not disappoint. It has a nice fruity flavor, sweet but not too sweet. The label said it was a test run flavor, but I’m hoping it sticks because one bottle is not going to last me through next September.
With my sweet tooth piqued, the next stop of note was Swarmbustin’ Honey. With too many flavors available to sample them all, I honed in on hot and sweet, tasting the hot garlic honey and raspberry honey flavors. The hot garlic was milder than I was expecting, though there was no ignoring the garlic. The raspberry honey was amazing. Though it just looked like a darker shade of honey, the berry flavor was strong and delicious, and I regretted not taking a bottle home with me.
Chile peppers add flavor to any condiment, and mustard is no exception. Miller’s Mustard offered three levels of heat, and though I’m not a huge mustard fan, I did enjoy the mild and sweet. Though I didn’t enjoy it as much as my friend Josh who took a few jars home with him.
One of the more unique items at the festival came from Pappardelle’s, who is infusing heat into their pasta with flavors like green jalapeno fettuccine, chipotle blackbean tagliatelle and orange Szechuan linguine. I only wish they would have been serving some at one of the hot food stands.
Piper’s Peck was one of the companies serving unique pepper jellies. I tasted the raspberry chipotle preserves and was struck hard by the chipotle. Thankfully, there was some sweet pepper jelly there to help calm my taste buds. It tasted just like a green sweet pepper, just in an unexpected form.
Barbecue sauces are always popular with pepper fans, and Aunt Caroline’s had plenty of options to choose from, including their blue flame hot BBQ sauce, which lived up to its name (and then some) as one of the hottest items I dared to taste.
As for the hottest thing I tried all day, that came from a cup of ice cream.
Jacky’s Jams and Jellies was offering cups of Cherry’s hot raspberry ice cream. On a sweltering day, ice cream sounded like a great idea. Besides, how hot could raspberry ice cream actually be?
Pretty damn hot.
At first, it was like any other raspberry ice cream. It was creamy with a nice raspberry flavor. But it wasn’t long after the first spoonful that the heat arrived. That made me want to eat more ice cream to cool off, which only made it hotter. It was a vicious, delicious cycle of sweet, heat, repeat.
Many of the stands in the field were ones I recognized from my trip to the Kempton Pepper Jam in May, including the Penn Werner Hotel, which was serving their fresh-made jambalaya. Sloppy 2nds BBQ, Cactus Pete’s Jerky and Saint Lucipher spice rub were among the many familiar names on the booths.
Even hotter than the peppers though was the sun, and after an hour of walking around in 90-degree heat eating hot pepper-infused delicacies, I was ready to call it a day.
Hopefully the weather is a little more seasonable next year. Either way, I know where I will be the first weekend in September.