Blue Flame is not like other hot sauces in the Captain Mowatt’s repertoire. It has the signature tongue-tingling heat that has popularized the Portland-based brand but it is coupled with an unexpected juiciness, sweetness and slight pulpiness that almost makes you want to spread it on toast or eat it with a spoon. Perhaps that is because, unlike the other hot sauces, Blue Flame is made with wild blueberries — 10 pounds of wild blueberries for 48 eight-ounce bottles, to be exact.
“Blueberries don’t weigh much,” Dan Stevens, owner of Captain Mowatt’s, said. “Ten pounds of blueberries is a lot of blueberries.”
Although Blue Flame is often edged out of Captain Mowatt’s top sellers list by other popular favorites, Stevens has incorporated wild blueberries into one of the brand’s barbecue sauces — the Bar Harbor-que — that is “probably [their] best selling barbecue sauce.” Stevens recommends slow cooking pulled pork in the blueberry-barbecue blend.
Increasingly, food brands in Maine have been moving away from sweet wild blueberry products in favor of savory and spicy products. Instead of traditional jams and jellies, more companies are offering chutneys and barbecue sauces.
Even well-established Maine brands are turning toward the trend. Worcester’s Wild Blueberry Products in Orneville Township has been growing and selling wild blueberries for 50 years, but they started making value-added wild blueberry products about 15 years ago.
“I would say after the first five years, then we started branching out into being more than jams and jellies,” Lee Worcester, owner of Worcester’s Wild Blueberry Products, said. “That was because of customer requests.”
Over the past few years, Worcester’s Wild Blueberry Products started selling wild blueberry chutney, vinaigrette, and barbecue sauce. Last year, they also developed a blueberry salsa.
Part of the increased customer demand could be because of health trends. Since the 1990s, antioxidants have been promoted as a way to promote cell health and ward off disease. Wild blueberries contain double the antioxidants of their plumper, high-bush counterparts. Cheryl Wixson, owner of Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen in Stonington and self-proclaimed “biggest cheerleader for Maine fruit,” says that wild blueberries also fill the need for a “blue food” in the color spectrum of our diets.
“If you eat a fruit and vegetable from every color every day, you’ll be very healthy,” Wixson explained. “Blue is one of those difficult colors, and wild blueberries can fulfill that.”
After the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $16 million purchase of wild blueberries for food nutrition programs in 2012, Wixson worked with schools, many of which were unfamiliar with the product, to incorporate wild blueberries into cafeteria menus and “get more children to eat wild blueberries instead of Cocoa Puffs.” She helped develop a savory wild blueberry sauce akin to ketchup, with the added benefit of an antioxidant-packed fruit serving.
“[Wild blueberry] happens to be one of the largest crops we have in the state of Maine but it’s tremendously underutilized,” Wixson explained. “I really want to make a factory that makes wild blueberry dipping sauce so every kid eats that instead of ketchup.”
Though Wixson’s factory is still a dream — her brand Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen does make and sell its own organic wild blueberry ketchup, though Wixson has not made a batch to put up on her website recently — she has noticed that Maine-based brands have taken an interest in such savory wild blueberry products. Wixson has been teaching kitchen licensing classes for more than a decade. In the past five or six years, she said, there has been an uptick in attendees interested in incorporating wild blueberries into non-sweet products. “The whole state of Maine sort of picked it up,” Wixson said. “We’re a state of very creative people and it’s sort of bubbling to the surface more.”
David Yarborough, wild blueberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has noticed the trend, too. “I have seen that there are a lot more diverse products now,” he said. “It’s a very healthy product, so getting it away from some of the sugars in jams and into the other products to spice up your life and your food is a great trend.”
Market forces — namely, cheap berries — may have also catalyzed these explorations into the wild blueberry flavor profile. The USDA’s 2012 multimillion-dollar purchase of wild blueberries was, in part, to bolster floundering growers in Maine (which is the only state that produces wild blueberries). Growers were suffering from, in the words of then-Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Edward Avalos, “domestic oversupply,” “declining prices,” and “international competition” from Canadian wild blueberry producers. On top of that, Yarborough said that the Maine wild blueberry industry experienced a string of bumper crops with harvests above 100 million pounds between 2014 and 2016 that exacerbated the issues of oversupply and brought prices down even further.
“When there’s crisis, there’s opportunity,” Yarborough said. “When you lower the price of a product, you create more markets.” Brands who would not have considered using blueberries in their products before because they were too expensive, he reasoned, were probably more motivated to experiment when the prices lowered.
Yarborough is hopeful about the positive impact of the new products on the wild blueberry industry. Even if the low prices are “painful” for growers in the short-term, “once the new products are out there, that increases the demand, and that brings the price back up,” he explained. “I think it’s a promising trend and it shall continue,” Yarborough said. “The more people we get eating blueberries, the better for our growers.”