You won't find Neil Bergenstein giving out Dixie cups at Whole Foods. Instead, he may approach you at a bar and ask if you'd like to sample something spicy, pulling a small bottle of hot sauce from his pocket. "It's sort of a trench-coat operation," he says.
Intimate with hot peppers, Bergenstein grows, harvests, and cooks several varieties to make his signature Tree Frog Hot Sauce. He's comfortable with spice, able to handle even the most hellish of sauces. But the pepper is a tenacious thing-as anyone who has bitten into a habanero can attest-and it lingers long after you think it is gone. "I've had times where I thought I washed my hands good enough," he says. "Then I'm hanging out with my girlfriend, one thing leads to another . . . ." Bergenstein trails off, leaving the uncomfortable details to the imagination. He knows that the potency of a pepper can be used for good or evil. That's why Tree Frog says "this is not an ego trip sauce!" right on the bottle. "A bunch of hot sauces out there are dedicated to 'my dick is bigger than yours,'" he says. "That's no fun. The spice isn't the problem for me. I just don't think it has that much flavor."
Bergenstein grew up in Roland Park and later Windsor Hills, where he still lives. He never thought he would end up a hot-sauce brewer, though he has always been interested in plants. One of his first jobs was at Wilson's, a now-defunct garden store near the Inner Harbor. "There were the flower girls and the plant boys," says Bergenstein. He attended CCBC, UMD, and UMBC for a degree in horticulture, though he switched majors when he hit the "math wall," ultimately earning a degree in English.
At 19, he got a job as a roadie. "I think my first tour was the '89 Steel Wheels Tour with the Stones," he says. From there, he toured with Paul McCartney, the Grateful Dead, and Dave Matthews. "That was my last one. Best catering ever," he says.
In the mid-'90s, Bergenstein worked as the manager of an orchid warehouse in Florida, where he became familiar with the little creature that graces the label of his hot sauce. "I've always liked amphibians," he says. "When I lived in Florida, those frogs flocked to me." Though he doesn't believe in anything spiritual, he says he identifies with the frogs. "You know how every dude has his totem creature? Like a lone wolf or something?" he says. "Well, I'm small and I like to climb things, so mine is a tree frog."
Eventually, the orchid warehouse was closed and razed to make a housing development, and Bergenstein moved back to Baltimore and worked as a motorcycle salesman. When the recession hit and people stopped buying motorcycles, Bergenstein was laid off. Around this time, a friend gave him a bunch of seedlings. These included a wide variety of peppers running the whole spice spectrum. He made a small plot in his yard and planted them. "You can usually judge the hotness of a pepper by its color, from green to orange to red," he says, "I use them all." Though the bulk of the sauce is made up from what Bergenstein calls the "dancing fairy pepper"-a specimen of medium spice level-he also uses habaneros, ghost peppers, and a tormented little thing called a Butch T Scorpion. "Tree Frog gets just four of those per gallon," Bergenstein says.
These spicier peppers are no joke. Though all hot peppers originate from South and Central America, they were quickly spread across the world, and some of the spiciest varieties were created on the Indian subcontinent. That's the case with the ghost pepper, properly known as the Buht Jolokia. These elongated, shriveled peppers can rack up somewhere over 1 million heat units on the Scoville scale, the spice measurement system used by chili growers (to compare, jalapeños average about 5,000). "There is an interesting story behind those," Bergenstein says. "A guy ends up at this rural farm in India. He sees these peppers and tries one and he's totally blown over. He goes to the farmer and says, 'You really have something there, what do you eat those with?'" Bergenstein's eyes get wide. "The farmer says, 'Eat those with?! We dry them out, wrap them in leaves, and throw them at elephants to scare them off!'"
The ghost pepper is no longer among the hottest, having been supplanted by a slew of designer peppers (like the Butch T) intended to set world records. Growers have to use gloves and masks when handling these super-chilies. Bergenstein isn't too interested in all that. "I'm sure a scientist could tell you the difference when you get that spicy, but to me it's like falling this close to hell versus falling that close to hell."
The first batch of peppers he grew yielded more than expected, and Bergenstein didn't know what else to do but make some sauce. "I wanted to make something I liked," he says. Tree Frog has a kick, but isn't overpowering. The fruitiness of the peppers is highlighted by the fresh pineapple and papaya Bergenstein adds. He began to sell his hot sauce around town, mostly at bars, though it is also available at the Mill Valley general store (and in the future, farmers markets). He prefers having total control over the way his sauce is sold, and he appreciates the opportunity to interact with his customers. "This hot sauce is all me," he says, "I'm proud of it."
Bergenstein has big plans for the future. He's getting involved in the Open Plow project, an urban farming education program. "I'm on the board," he says. "I'm 44 years old, I shouldn't be shocked to be on a board, but I am." Open Plow is still in development, but Bergenstein says it should start its programs next year, which include outreach and classes in the city. Open Plow eventually hopes to supply Liam Flynn's with farm-to-table food. Bergenstein also hopes to teach classes on growing peppers and bottling sauce.
As for Tree Frog, he's upping production and expanding his garden to include his dad's yard in Mount Airy. "I'm going to triple my yield," Bergenstein says. "It took me most of my life to figure out what my thing was. I've finally got it. This stuff is going to put my daughter through college."
Bergenstein's daughter has a nickname too: Chili Pepper.