Portland has vape bars, pingpong bars, arcade bars, board game bars and juice bars. One thing it did not have, until recently, was a hot sauce bar.
Fanning the flames of all things fermented, AleFire hot sauce shop and beer bar recently opened in the former Tin Bucket space on North Williams Avenue, offering a selection of 250-plus bottles of sauce next to 100 or so beers and ciders.
AleFire is headed by a consortium that includes Sam Kelly, owner of Portland's Show Hot Sauce Co. (formerly Smoke Show Hot Sauce), and beertender and hot sauce aficionado Drew Salmi. Salmi was one of the first bartenders at Tin Bucket and has a résumé that includes stints at a number of notable Oregon beer-geek havens. As a fan of both fermented malt sugar and fermented chiles, Salmi felt Portland was overdue for a shop dedicated entirely to hot sauce. And combining it with beer just made sense: Both are foods in which the pH plays an important role, and the overcarbonation of the beer spreads out the flavor of the sauce while providing a naturally refreshing element. Salmi also has plans to release regular brewery and hot sauce maker collaborations, starting with a new hot sauce from Culmination Brewing and the Show using black garlic and sour beer.
In addition to the selections available to go, AleFire features 20 rotating draft lines, with an additional four drafts for special brewer events. And each day, the shop opens four or five bottles of exotic or local hot sauce for customers to sample. That inspired us to line up a tasting of our own. Salmi obliged by selecting five beers (and one mead) to pair with some of his favorites, ranging in heat from mild to explosive. We put a team of experts—and one newb—to the challenge of reviewing them. Oh, and we filmed it, too:
Video by Wesley Lapointe.
Bigfat’s 7o8 Optimus Primo
Paired with: Hot Nectar Creek Sting Ginger Mead
Our pairings started strong with a citrusy and balanced hot sauce out of Illinois. The orange juice used in the sauce helps cut the heat before it delves into a zesty medley of spices perfect for wings. (Salmi loves it with carnitas.) Corvallis' Nectar Creek specializes in lightly carbonated, lower alcohol meads made from fermented honey. Its Sting ginger mead was just the ticket here—the light sweetness and bubbles washed around the chiles but were complemented by the ginger rather than accentuating the heat.
Overall heat level: Sweetly stinging.
Aidan’s Atomic Pickles
Paired with: Occidental Pilsner
North Portland's Occidental Brewing specializes in German-style beers, while Aidan's is a new Portland pickle company that specializes in melting your face off, Raiders of the Lost Ark style. Occidental's Pilsner is its standout beer, but its light, bready malt flavors did not mesh well with Aidan's Atomic Pickles. It did, however, serve as a great counterpoint to the heat, as the light sweetness of the malt, low hops and gentle carbonation soothed the tongue between sips.
Overall heat level: A mouthful of Mace.
Bravado’s Ghost Pepper & Blueberry
Paired with: Hair of the Dog's Adam
Not long ago, ghost peppers were considered the hottest peppers in the world. Bravado's ghost pepper sauce is also rash-inducingly hot, but it's balanced by the sweet jamminess of blueberries. Portland brewery Hair of the Dog's legendary Adam is a bourbon brownie with a smoky scotch back—it makes you want to put on a smoking jacket while sipping it. When combined with the beer, the sauce is like a talented dominatrix: punishing but leaves you begging for more. This pairing was a favorite at the table.
Overall heat level: Like eating a molten marshmallow from the fire before it cools.
SeaFire Gourmet’s Scorpion Pepper Sauce
Paired with: Orval
Classic Belgian beer meets deadly desert hot sauce. Scorpion peppers are considered the second-hottest in the world, so it'd be fair to say we were a bit anxious about trying this one. Orval is a magnificent beer, but it's dryness coupled with light, funky hoppiness is not going to soothe any of this heat. Luckily, SeaFire Gourmet has laced the Scorpion's bite with pineapple, giving a lovely exotic Caribbean note to the sauce, which, in the end, was not as overpowering as we worried it would be.
Overall heat level: Painfully delicious.
The Show’s Habashow
Paired with: Block 15 Sticky Hands IPA
Hoppy beer is delicious, but when paired with hot spices, it's like throwing water on a grease fire. Sticky Hands is one of Oregon's most popular IPAs and well-known for its dankness, with Habashow looking like habanero puree in a bottle. Pungent, sweet and fruity, it was a welcome relief from the sensation of being bitten by a venomous snake. The flavor is as bright as the color, and though the beer accentuated the heat, it was still tameable.
Overall heat level: Like post-Indian buffet cold sweats.
PuckerButt’s the Reaper
Paired with: Fort George 3-Way IPA.
Each year, Fort George Brewery teams with two other hop-forward brewers to create a new version of its 3-Way IPA, and this year's merges hazy tropical styles and classic West Coast. PuckerButt Pepper Company's the Reaper is about the purest showcase of a pepper as any hot sauce can be—too bad that pepper comes straight from hell. The appropriately named Carolina Reaper is considered the world's hottest pepper, and the only other ingredient listed on the bottle is vinegar. The bitter hops and scrubbing bubbles were useless here—the equivalent of trying to blow out a summer brush fire with your mouth.
Overall heat level: Like wiping your eyes after cutting habanero peppers.
Da’ Bomb Beyond Insanity Hot Sauce
Paired with: Dairy, and lots of it.
Though it's made with just habanero peppers, Da' Bomb was still, by far, the hottest sauce on the table, so fiery and unflavorful that we didn't even attempt to pair it with anything except almond milk to help wash out the heat. The sauce is so dark, earthy and tongue-blistering that we could only try it by placing a small dab on a toothpick.
Overall heat level: A punishment from God.
GO: AleFire, 3520 N Williams Ave., 541-207-8691, alefirepdx.com. Noon-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, noon-11 pm Friday-Saturday.