‘The pandemic made people want to grow stuff’: How a Berlin balcony project led to a chili revolution

'The pandemic made people want to grow stuff': How a Berlin balcony project led to a chili revolution
Jonathan O'Reilly and Neil Numb collecting ingredients for the Berlin hot sauce. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb
The pandemic helped fuel an interest in homegrown products – and has resulted in hundreds of chili farmers across Berlin. Now a new festival is shining a light on locally-sourced products and the chili revolution.

Edinburgh-born Neil Numb is a long-time comedian, show producer and promoter in Berlin. And now he's also a chili farmer.

The 47-year-old has always had plant culture in his blood – both his parents are botanists – so he's been curious about growing chilis for years.

“When we were growing up we always had chores in the garden, so I’ve always been good at growing things,” he says. 

Last summer he decided to buy chili seeds online, and quickly found himself sharing his flat with massive plants.

“I didn't expect them to do so well,” he says.

At the same time, Numb had always been thinking about how Berlin's balcony space could be utilised better to grow more food.

He began discussing ideas with Jonathan O'Reilly, who runs hot sauce firm Crazy Bastard Sauce in Berlin.

The pair are both supporters of locally-grown produce, and decided they could sell the chili plants at market stalls.

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“And then things just escalated when coronavirus happened,” says Numb.

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Neil Numb in amongst his chili plants. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb

They were no longer able to sell the plants at markets, such as the popular Sunday Mauerpark flea market, due to the coronavirus shutdown.

“I had 600 chili plants in my house at this point, there were 1,200 in total,” says Numb.

“Suddenly we couldn't sell them at the market because of coronavirus. I couldn't do my job at Cosmic Comedy. I had all this time and my OCD insists I have to have something to promote or my brain will fry. So I decided to sell these plants anyway.”

'I was the postman of chilis'

The pair wanted to get people growing the plants and then O'Reilly could buy back the chilis and he'd have local produce.

“Jono has to buy chilis from all over Europe, there's no local chilis,” says Numb. “Jono’s problem and my project collided.”

The Berlin Super Hot Chili Project was born at the perfect time.

People were stuck at home with nothing to do..so what better time to tend to chili plants?

“The whole thing went mad,” says Numb. “People were stuck at home and they said: 'let's grow things'. People were buying compost because there was nothing else to do.”

Numb found himself delivering plants all over Berlin.

“At the beginning we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “I was just churning out chili plants. I was the postman of chilis, going out and delivering them all over Berlin. I was leaving them at their doorstep. Chatting to people three or four metres away with social distancing.”

Word of mouth even stretched across Germany. “People in Hamburg were asking if I could send them there,” says Numb.

File picture swhos a Carolina Reaper chili. Photo: DPA

Community of chili growers

In total about 450 people are now looking after 1,200 plants on balconies, allotments and in gardens across the German capital.

Seedlings cost €4 each and a packet of seeds is €3. O'Reilly has been buying up the chili peppers from individual growers (although not every plant gets fruit) for about €20 per kilo cash or €30 in Crazy Bastard credit.

The seeds in question are Carolina Reapers, officially the world’s hottest pepper plant.

A whole community has grown around the project, online through the Berlin Chili Growers Group and in real life.

“I was at my local pub on Saturday night and 10 people were sitting round the bar talking about chilis and showing each other photos of their chilis,” Numb says. “I thought: 'What have we created?'”

And why has it captured the imagination so much? Numb things there's a few reasons behind it.

“Chilis tap into something in people’s brains,” he says. “You get emotionally attached to it. There’s a payoff at the end. It's also a bit dangerous – you need gloves to touch the Carolina Reapers. Berliners love a bit of danger.

“They’re beautiful plants to grow and people are into hot food. Especially in Berlin where it’s quite hard to get good spicy food.”

Then there's the pandemic, which Numb compares to the feeling of a Zombie apocalypse at the beginning “when no one knew what was going on”.

“Growing food is one of the tribal things in our brain we do for survival,” says Numb. “When we are pushed into a serious situation, people are worried, it makes people want to grow stuff.”

'You're into chili for life'

On Saturday September 26th, the project will be celebrated with the first Berlin Chili Festival being held at Jöckel Biergarten in Neukölln.

There will be competitions, including one to find the best homemade sauce, and live acts. The aim is to bring people together to drink beer, talk chilis, and try hot sauce.

The first batch of the '100 percent Berlin Grown Hotsauce' will be released at the festival, costing around €6. It is literally the fruits of Berliners' labour.

Hot off the press – the first batch of the Berlin hot sauce. Photo courtesy of Neil Numb

Ireland-born O'Reilly, who set up Crazy Bastard Sauce in 2013, says the interest in hot sauce and growing chilis will only increase.

The people with chili plants now will be able to grow more with the seeds they get.

“If you’re into chili, you’re into chili for life,” he says. “It’s not something you get into and out of. It’s a lifelong thing. Chili lovers only increase – and in Berlin there’s so many.

“There’s tons of chili festivals around Europe, even in German cities like Hanover. Berlin needs a chili festival and has done for years.”

Numb is now eyeing up places where he can build a chili farm in Berlin. He's also set up an online shop selling chili and vegetable seeds as well as other super hot-themed products.

“For me it’s always about a conversation about local food production,” Numb says. “The hot sauce project starts a conversation about localising food.

“Making a few bottles of hot sauce isn’t going to solve anything about what we have to deal with as humans with climate change. But it’s good to talk about it.”


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