Making It: The Flavorful Fermentation Behind Killik Hot Sauce

Maker: Michael Killik         
Killik Hot Sauce, Cleveland, sold online and at many local retail shops

The path that brought you to starting your own company has a lot to do with love and loss. What’s the background story?

Anthony Bourdain said, ‘Don't treat your body as a temple, treat it as an amusement park.’ And that's exactly what I did for 50 years. What he didn't tell us is what happens when the wheels start falling off the rides. Six years ago, my dad and I both had heart attacks a week apart. I survived. He didn't. They had to put a stint in my heart, and I had to change how I ate – I had to cut down on the sodium. The problem was I loved hot sauce, and some brands have 8-10 percent sodium. Some are even more. So I started experimenting with fermentation. I found this recipe and I tried to make fermented Fresno vinegar and I totally screwed it up. But this tremendous hot sauce came out of it. I sent it to the lab, it came back and only had one percent sodium in it, which is fantastic. And it lacks none of the flavor.

Michael Killik with his father, John. [Michael Killik]

Several years since you first experimented, you’ve perfected your process. What goes into making a batch of your sauce?

How we make it is, we start off with huge 55-gallon drums, and once we chop all the vegetables we mix them with the salt and vinegar and water. Then we cover it up, put a bubbler on it so it can ferment, and we let it sit. At the end of that time, we blend it up and bottle it. So, it's a very simple process, but it takes time. With the fermentation, all those microbes that happen underneath the surface is what gives you that fantastic flavor.

The fermentation process, which takes about a month, gives Killik Hot Sauce its rich and unique flavor. [Michael Killik]

And you ended up with three different flavors, what are they?

The Delta is the mild, just Fresno chilies. There's a little bit of heat at the end, but I like to call it a clean heat. It comes and goes quickly. It's a flavor sauce; it's supposed to accentuate food, not mask it over. Our middle flavor is our Eta, it’s a verde, and it’s poblanos and jalapeños. It's a little bit funkier, there's a little more heat to it. And then our hottest one is called Zeta. I took the Delta, and right before we bottle it, we add habaneros to it to make the Zeta. And it has habanero heat in it for those people that like more heat. All of our hot sauces only have five ingredients: chilies, onions, garlic, kosher salt and vinegar. That's it. We don't use any thickeners, there's no emulsifiers. Sometimes people say it's a cross between a hot sauce and a salsa, and that's how we want it.

Killik's three flavors are vegan, gluten free, and low sodium. [Michael Killik]

Describe your experiences starting a business within Cleveland’s community of entrepreneurs.

When I started trying out the products before we were selling them, I gave out samples to a lot of chefs. Luckily, I know a lot of chefs in town from being in the restaurant industry. I've had a ton of support. That's why you need the community support to keep going. And plus, I've met a lot of fantastic entrepreneurs and small businesses since I started this. Those are the best people you can talk to you when you're starting a business and running a business, because some days you're like, ‘This is the best job I’ve had. I can run my own schedule. I don't listen to anybody else.’ Then other days it's ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?!’

Killik Hot Sauce on the shelf at a Dave's Supermarket. [Michael Killik]

How has suffering a stroke and a heart attack changed your perspective not just on owning your own business, but on life in general?

So probably the best thing I learned from suffering a stroke and then 15 years later suffering a heart attack was that every day is special. We're only promised today, so make the most out of it. And I tell everybody, ‘Be kind to everybody that you come across because they're fighting their own battle. And take care of each other.’ I try and promote other products whenever I can. I try to promote the restaurants that my friends own. And to me, that makes the most sense.

Putting the finishing touches on labels for a batch of Eta, Killik's verde sauce. [Michael Killik]

While Killik Hot Sauce is typically made at Central Kitchen Cleveland, Voodoo Tuna in Lakewood provided a filming location for the video above.

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