Denver, Colorado

Owner Cameron Ayers has been building his brand of flavor-forward hot sauces through sales at farmers markets, store placements, and collaborations with noted breweries.

The motto at Oso Rojo Hot Sauce is “Flavor before spice.” As Ayers says, “A lot of sauces out there just concentrate on the heat. It’s all about the spice level. But I want them to taste good!”

Ayers went to culinary school at The Art Institutes in Denver and has a background as a chef. He’s worked at Jax Fish House in Fort Collins, as well as food cart The Tramp About and other eateries. As Ayers was testing batches of his hot sauces, he’d throw parties, so restaurant colleagues could sample his latest developments and offer their feedback.

That input helped Ayers decide on the final recipes for his four main hot sauces: Orange Ginger, made with ingredients like fresno and habanero peppers, orange, ginger and garlic, and paprika; Jalapeno Garlic, made with jalapenos, serranos, and onions, which have been grilled over oak- and mesquite-fortified charcoal; Umami Bomb, with chipotles plus “dried mushroom, tamari, a bunch of roasted vegetables” — flavors which, when combined, lend themselves to the use of the word umami; and, last but not least (especially in terms of heat), Habanero Mustard hot sauce.

As for what people can expect from the latter, Ayers says, “It’s not going to be thick like squeezing your French’s yellow mustard out of a bottle, but it definitely has a mustard tang to it. I put some yellow mustard in there — just enough to get that mustardy taste — but it’s definitely a hot sauce. That’s the spiciest one, too.”

The hot sauces are sold online at Oso Rojo’s website. But they can also be purchased at about 15 locations, spread across the Front Range. And at farmers markets, as well. “It has definitely grown a lot this year,” says Ayers of sales volume, thanks to repeat customers at those markets. “People will say, ‘Yeah, I came here just for the sauce!'”

But some Oso Rojo products can only be found at breweries. When he worked on the food truck, Odell Brewing Co. and WeldWerks Brewing were locations where The Tramp About would sell its food, so Ayers knew people at those breweries. He first approached Odell about a collaboration. The result: Ayers combined Odell’s sour beer, Sippin’ Pretty, with ginger and habanero for a co-branded hot sauce. It can be purchased at Odell tap rooms, including the one in Denver.

That’s where someone at Cerebral Brewing discovered Ayers’ work — before he’d even had the opportunity to sample a beer from Cerebral himself. Ayers met with the brewery and agreed to develop a hot sauce using their Rare Trait IPA, which he combined with grilled habaneros, onions, and pineapple.

Most recently, Oso Rojo collaborated with WeldWerks, combining their barrel-aged Medianoche Reserve with dried morita peppers, coconut milk, coffee beans. For each collaboration, Ayers says it’s a culinary balancing act: “We want the beer to work together with the flavors of the hot sauce.”

Ayers first began making hot sauces together with his fiance, Kirby Reed (now a dietitian), to give away as Christmas gifts to family and friends. Soon he was taking orders for more. Ayers’ first commercial preparations were made at the commissary belonging to the Fort Collins company Horsetooth Hot Sauce, which Ayers says was “super-helpful” when it came to offering him advice. After moving to Denver, Ayers began utilizing the Rocky Mountain Commissary in Arvada.

When reached by CompanyWeek, Ayers was graduating from using a pot, which holds enough for around 400 bottles per batch, to a kettle, which he expected would yield 700 bottles. Ayers’ father, Duane (now retired from the world of car finance) assists him with the weekly production: the pressing of onions and peppers, the combining of ingredients, and the cooking of the sauces over gas burners. Ayers’ mom, Katherine, does the accounting. And Ayer’s fiance, Kirby, executes the label design, which features a red bear — an “oso rojo” in Spanish. Ayers explains, “My favorite animal is a bear and my hair is red.”

Photos courtesy Oso Rojo Hot Sauce

Ayers also likes to explain to customers the different uses for his hot sauces, pointing them towards recipes on his website — for example, gumbo, collard greens, and BBQ shrimp — which incorporate different Oso Rojo flavors.

He tells folks there’s more to hot sauce than just pouring it over tacos or chicken wings — “You know, your basic hot sauce things.” Ayers — a maker of unique hot sauces — adds, “Usually, the response is, ‘Oh wow, I would never even have thought of doing that!'”

Challenges: “Keeping up with the amount of sauce that we need every week for the farmers markets,” says Ayers. “Because, right now, it’s just me and my dad going in, making the sauce and bottling it, putting all the labels on.”

Opportunities: “Working with a distributor,” says Ayers. “They help a lot with getting you into multiple stores, and help expand your reach with the brand. That is going to be super-helpful.”

Ayers also says he’s developing a salsa, which he hopes will be offered at Odell’s taprooms.

Needs: Ayers says it’s people: “Some help on the production side. Or the sales side.”