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

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.

'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

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.

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

READ ALSO: 10 mouth-watering foods you have to try while visiting Germany

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 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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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.