Inside The Fermentary, the South Shore’s first tasting room for craft hot sauce.
By Jennifer H. McInerney Photography by Kjeld Mahoney
On their very first date, Shannon and Kevin Burke shared enough ghost chili peppers to bring an ordinary mortal to their knees. For those who may not know: the three-inch ghost chili pepper, which has a red and wrinkly-looking skin, is one of the hottest peppers in the world, ranking high above jalapenos and habaneros. While the ghost pepper date brought their relationship to a new level, the experience remains scorched in Shannon’s memory.
“I was in pain for hours afterward,” says Shannon, but with a smile. That initial encounter brought them together as a couple and ultimately planted the seeds of their homegrown hot sauce business, Burke’s Hot Sauce. The Burkes’ latest venture, The Fermentary, is a one-of-a-kind tasting and tap room that opened in September..
The Burkes, who both had full-time careers and a young daughter to care for, took advantage of the pandemic shutdown to pause and plant a garden full of hot pepper plants, mostly habanero. Kevin, a practiced homebrewer of beer, turned his attention to a hot sauce-making kit. The original recipe called for red habanero with red onion, red bell pepper, carrots and garlic.
“The first few batches were way too hot,” he recalls. “So I learned not to go overboard with the habaneros and the scotch bonnet.” He now uses a specially designed software to track the ratio of herbs and spices to control the heat level of the six varieties of Burke’s Hot Sauce: Original Habanero, Verde Serrano, Pineapple Habanero, Mango Scotch Bonnet, Thai Chili Habanero, and Ginger Habanero. “We’ve tamed it a bit from the original, but it’s still hot,” says Shannon. “If you think it’s hot now, you can only imagine how hot it was before.”
Having majored in biology in college, Kevin sought to elevate their namesake hot sauce by creating a long-lasting fermented version, rather than a fresh blend that would have a short shelf life. Each handcrafted batch of hot sauce is covered with a salt brine that prevents penetration from outside bacteria, while enhancing the natural flavors.
The Burkes presented their perfected product to their trusted taste-testers and received rave reviews. Fueled by encouragement from friends, they decided to take their hot sauce public for the first time at the Hanover Farmers Market in May of 2021. Just two hours later, they were sold out of their supply of 150 bottles of hot sauce.
At that point, Kevin and Shannon could have continued making small batches of hot sauce in their home kitchen to sell at weekly farmers markets—but they began to realize that things were really heating up for Burke’s Hot Sauce. “People kept telling us how good the sauce was and that we should turn it into a business,” Shannon recalls. “We realized we didn’t want to sacrifice all of our weekends at markets for a hobby, so we decided to see how far we could go with it.”
To that end, Shannon enrolled in an accelerated business planning course at Bridgewater State University and worked around the clock on a five-year business plan for their burgeoning hot sauce enterprise. The couple secured a space in a shared commissary kitchen in Norwell so they could boost production to meet ever-increasing demand. When the commissary kitchen eventually closed, they realized they needed a larger space for sauce-making to bring their product to a broader market.
Room to Grow
Shannon’s business-planning efforts yielded the concept of The Fermentary, a noun which has several fitting definitions: 1) The chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat; 2) The process of fermentation involved in the making of beer, wine and liquor, in which sugars are converted to ethyl alcohol; and 3) A communal gathering place with fermented foods. The couple envisioned a communal gathering space on the South Shore where hot sauce enthusiasts could come to enjoy beer, wine, light fare and each other’s company.
After searching for over a year and nearly settling on a different location, the storefront at 200 Webster Street in Hanover became available. The former site of Burke’s Alewerks (no relation to Shannon and Kevin) featured a brewing area in the back and a tap room with a long L-shaped bar and seating area out front. “When we saw this space, it just made sense,” says Shannon. “It’s such a unique and specific application, with the taps and the bar, and the layout is ideal.”
Now, instead of beer being brewed in the back room, the area is set up for hot sauce-making with an industrial-sized kettle, blender and bottle-filler, as well as plenty of shelving for storing finished products. Visitors to The Fermentary will be able to peer through a pair of windows into the hot-sauce making process.
With beer taps and a cold room already in place, the Burkes have plans to pour local craft beers alongside their hot sauce. To start, they’ll serve brews from Untold Brewing in Scituate, Vitamin Sea Brewing in Weymouth, Trillium Brewing Company in Canton, and Widowmaker Brewing Co. in Braintree. In addition, they’ll offer a selection of natural wines as well as snacks and small plates for visitors to enjoy while relaxing on the couch, in front of the fireplace, or at one of the many tables at the Fermentary.
Burke’s Hot Sauce Heat Index
One of the questions the Burkes get asked most frequently about their hot sauce is: “How hot is it?” Kevin’s response: “Well, it’s hot sauce, so let’s start there. For most people who really enjoy hot sauce, it will hit that niche for them. It’s not extreme.” Ranging from mild to moderate to hot, the six varieties of Burke’s Hot Sauce offer a healthy dose of heat, which can be utilized as a key ingredient in a zesty dish or a spicy condiment atop tacos or hot dogs.
Verde Serrano ♦♦
Combining a hit of heat upfront with the cool, refreshing taste of tomatillos, the Verde Serrano sauce delivers a smooth, fresh finish and is considered the mildest of the bunch. Shannon recommends Verde Serrano on pizza—her pizza is not complete without it!
Original Habanero ♦♦♦
This classic sauce is billed as the everyday, go-to hot sauce—ideal for unlimited applications, from wings and chili to tacos, eggs and beyond.
Pineapple Habanero ♦♦♦♦
On the heat index, this tropical blend of pineapple and habanero scores in the medium-to-hot range. The Burkes like this fruity sauce as a marinade, especially on grilled chicken.
Mango Scotch Bonnet ♦♦
With its tamed heat and well-balanced mango flavor, this sauce serves up a sultry Caribbean vibe. Shannon loves to add this sauce to mac and cheese.
Ginger Habanero ♦♦♦♦♦
Considered the spiciest of Burke’s Hot Sauces, this blend features upfront notes of garlic and a subtle ginger flavor on the back end. It’s also Shannon’s favorite, and she likes to use it liberally in chicken dishes and soups.
Thai Chili Habanero ♦♦♦♦
Kevin’s personal favorite, this sauce has a savory flavor reminiscent of Sriracha with a medium-to-hot heat and a sweet red bell pepper finish. Kevin enjoys dressing his sandwiches with Thai Chili Habanero.