Pepper Festival returned to Chapel Hill for 11th annual event

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By Dathan Kazsuk

It was all about the peppers. Spicy peppers. Mild peppers. There’s the Jalapeno peppers for that nice heat. Serrano peppers are great when cooking. Poblano peppers are for fixing up a batch of Chile Rellenos. And you’ll always have someone go crazy with Habanero heat. Or downright insane with Carolina Reapers. I tend to like the heat and flavor that stems from peppers such as the Fresno or Hatch. It really comes down to your palate and where you like your Scoville scale to lean towards.

Peppers are something I enjoy in my food – spice it up – kick it up a notch – all of that. However, at home, I have to be mindful of the better half of Triangle Around Town, who doesn’t prefer intense heat. So, when we got the invite to be two-thirds of the judges in the beverage department for the 11th annual Pepper Festival in Chapel Hill on September 23 – we were thrilled.

It was an afternoon of sampling pepper-themed drinks and food crafted by dozens of local chefs, brewers, distillers and artisans. All of this brought to life by Abundance North Carolina – an organization that brings people together to cultivate and celebrate community resilience in our Piedmont-region of our state. We were anxious to begin.

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Once signed in, we made our way around to the vendors. After a quick pass around the lot to get our bearings and away we go! As soon as they started letting people in, it was just like an old ‘60s movie where flocks of men would surround a beautiful girl – that’s how it was with long lines starting to grow around some of the more popular restaurants and breweries. On the south side of the lawn you’d think that Mystery Brewing, The Brothers Vilglays and Heirloom were the Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot of the festival. But instead of blowing kisses and batting an eyelash, they were serving up pepper beers, spicy mojitos and pulled chicken sliders with homemade pickles.

Tracking our way slowly, so we’d have time to take in all the vendors, we made a pit stop at Chatham Cider Works to taste the guava pepper mimosa, which was brilliant – as well as buy a full pour of the bourbon barrel-aged dry cider. The cider, which had just a hint of sweet wood and peaty aroma paired well with some of the other pepper treats we tried. Come to think of it, a lot of the chefs that afternoon were keen on blended soup-based elements as well as experimenting on various forms of succotash.

Around the north side of the lawn, we found Diane Currier, owner of Honeygirl Mead in Durham. We were happy to see her at the pepper festival, knowing the last time we visited her meadery we sampled a few meads that weren’t quite ready at the time – but thought would be perfect for this festival. “I made those meads just for this event,” she said as she poured her first mead for us to try. So now we got to try the finished products – a mango habanero and a strawberry habanero mead.

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Bidding adieu, we continued on our journey – to judge. And by God, judge is what we were going to do. But with just about an hour to hit up 10 different places, it was going to be a drink and dash sort of afternoon – at least until we were done tallying up our scores. Jen points out the first of my list of vendors, and that was Chapel Hill’s TOPO Distillery. Pulling up to the tent, TOPO was quick to see the clipboard in hand and started pouring samples of all three drinks they were offering that afternoon. From there between the two of us we hit up local-area businesses such as Brothers Vilglays, Vencino Brewing, Fair Game Beverage and Fullsteam Brewing to name a few.

While pulling up shop at a wooden table, sampling around 6 different beverages on the table, we were greeted by Dave Tollefson of NC Beer Guys fame. He, along with his wife, Linda, thought it was funny that the ‘beer guy’ didn’t have any beers to judge this time around. Which was quite funny, I have to admit. However, he raved about Honeygirl’s habanero meads, as I told him about some of our favorites that afternoon.

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So let’s mention the judges for this year’s Pepper Festival. Judging the food were Nancy Thapa (Yelp NC Triangle); Ashley Freeman and Andrew Keravuor (Raleigh Food Pics); Lisa Jeffries (Raleighwood Media Group). Judging the beverages were Dave Tollefson (NC Beer Guys); Dathan Kazsuk and Jennifer Primrose (Triangle Around Town).

And without further ado, we present to you, the winners of the 11th annual Pepper Festival.

  • Feeling Spirited, Best Spirit: Fairgame Distillery

  • Ale Drink to That, Best Beer/Cider/Mead: Honeygirl Meadery

  • Most Loved Libation, Best in Show Drink: HomeBucha

  • The Savory Stunner, Best Savory Dish: Little River Eco Farm

  • My Sweet Heat, Best Sweet Dish: Big Spoon Roasters

  • The Double Take, Most Creative Dish: Fusion Fish

  • The Platinum Pepper, Best in Show: The Food Fairy

  • The Staff Sweetheart, Most Local: Angelina’s Kitchen