New Austin-Based Chip Brand Tingles Tastebuds With Truly Hot Snacks

Hand picking up a chip from a bowl in front of bags of chips

Spice is subjective. After all, one person’s jalapeño is another person’s ghost pepper. Chileheads have long lamented the hollow claims of large snack brands that market supposedly spicy chips with shock value verbiage and goofy imagery, only to discover the seasoning borders on bland. New Austin-based brand Krakatoa Hot Chips hones in on consumers seeking some actual tongue-tingling torture. It offers a unique blend of education, transparency and most importantly honest and accurate interpretations of exceptional, spice-packed flavors. The name pays homage to Mount Krakatoa, a volcano on Rakata Island, Indonesia that erupted violently in 1883.

If tongue-tingling torture sounds like actual torture to you, it’s okay to pass on these. Jeff Day, Head of Brand Innovation at Amplify Snacks Brands and creator of Krakatoa Hot Chips, is unapologetic about his goal to fill a gap in the spicy snacks category. “There’s this level of frustration when a product claims to use a certain pepper, for example, and then the experience you get is completely different than what you were expecting,” he says. “We are really trying to attract spice lovers. We don’t have a plain sea salt flavor and we won’t in the future. So if you aren’t into spicy foods, no problem! There are plenty of times when I want a plain chip too, but it’s just in those instances Krakatoa is not going to be the brand for you.” 

There are five flavors in the initial launch, which hit Texas Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in mid-February 2020. They are Sour King, Hot Hot Honey Pot, Mustard’s Revenge, Kung Pow! and Black Magic. Day and his “Chile Council” of friends, colleagues, food scientists, flavor/spice specialists, chefs and international consultants began developing the brand a year before. They started with about 25 potential combinations and ended up with five flavors that reflect specific tasting notes and heat profiles. Expect more flavors to launch in the future. One possibility is a Caribbean-inspired chip that gets its heat with scotch bonnets. The heat is represented in Scoville Heat Units, or SHU, which is the measurement of heat levels in peppers represented on the Scoville Scale. For baseline reference: a typical bell pepper has zero SHU. More information about  peppers and associated SHU level is available online

Potato chips are an ideal neutral palette for spice. Experiment with the Krakatoa Hot Chips one heat level at a time to find your tolerance.

Hands holding up five flavors of chip bags
Krakatoa Hot Chips are available in five flavors, each with specific tasting and heat notes.Photo by Jane Kim

I tried each Krakatoa Hot Chips flavor and found the descriptions accurate and the heat refreshing. It’s worth noting that I have a high tolerance for spice, but I appreciate the full range of heat levels in chiles, from mild to superhot. These include serrano, habanero, ghost peppers and Carolina Reapers. The Sour King (5,840 SHU) features lime and serrano, both of which come through clearly and potently. At first, the intensity of the lime was almost too much for me but as the tartness grew I found myself reaching for more. It was bright, clean and somehow both dry and juicy. It even evoked a salt and vinegar dill pickle-type flavor. 

Although the Krakatoa Hot Chips brand is still very new, Day says the unexpected hit so far with consumers is Hot Hot Honey Pot (6,630 SHU). It is also my favorite. The honey is just sweet enough to cut through the savory hit of scorpion chiles and the combined effect is exceptional for those who like a balance of sweet and spicy notes. 

Snackers can clear out their sinuses with Mustard’s Revenge (9,490 SHU). The Dijon mustard hits hard with a horseradish-y kick followed by the warmth of cayenne. Imagine spicy mustard at a Chinese restaurant but in chip form. 

Arguably, the most impressive player on the team in terms of flavor complexity is Kung Pow! (14,500 SHU). Even from the earliest moments of development, Day intended to use this name and introduce Szechuan peppercorns into the spice mix. Frankly, the aroma rocks: a quick whiff conjures images of a steaming bowl of ramen. There is ginger for warmth and brightness, Thai chili peppers for heat, Szechuan peppercorns for zing and an impressive hit of savory umami. 

Finally, Black Magic is the heat-heavy hitter of the bunch at 38,700 SHU. The spice blend does a great job of highlighting its posse of peppers: ghost, habanero, cayenne and chipotle. Each bite is akin to having little fangs sink into your tongue, which  makes this a home run for chileheads like me. The Creole spice mix is earthy and robust without being too salty or pungent, which allows each pepper to break through independently and reflects mastery of the elusive super-hot and flavorful target. All of the chips have a beautiful crunch, and the spice mixtures stick to the chips instead of becoming a powdery mess in the bag or on your fingers: two more wins for the brand.

Fans of Krakatoa Hot Chips can join the online Ring of Fire Club, which entitles members to exclusive perks that may include special flavors, experiences, merchandise, product drops, etc. There might even be collaborations with other spice companies for co-branded product partnerships, but for now Day says the focus is on promoting and building an audience for the existing lineup. 

Nutrition and heat descriptions on back of chip bags
Each bag of Krakatoa Hot Chips includes detailed tasting notes including build, intensity and location of heat. Pictured here L-R are Sour King and Kung Pow! Photo Credit Amplify Snack Brands

Krakatoa’s packaging is akin to taking a mini chile lesson in a science class, which is helpful for the consumer who knows what they want — or what they want to avoid. “It always stuck out to me that there’s this guesswork when people talk about spicy [for example] when you go to buy salsa in the store and it says mild, medium or hot,” explains Day. “There’s always this guesswork of ‘Well, how spicy is this going to be?’ And I always found that to be really frustrating because the reality is you can measure that [and] you can test it. Even if today someone goes and buys a bag and they don’t really know what the Scoville Unit means, what they do know is that 15,000 is twice as hot as 7,000 in terms of relative intensity. Part of our goal is that we will help consumers learn what their heat tolerance or desire is.” 

Each bag clearly indicates the timing (instant heat or delayed burn), intensity (concentration of capsaicinoids in the pepper) and location (lips, tip of tongue, throat, etc.) of the heat and flavor experience a consumer can expect. They are also certified gluten-free and Non-GMO Project verified. The brand partnered with Austin-based design shop Helms Workshop to develop the brand look and feel.

Spicy snacks have been trending for a few years, which makes it critical to stand out if a brand wants to attract and retain consumers. “I think that we’re truly helping lead the charge in doing something disruptive and different than what is commonly done in snacking and specifically with spicy snacking,” says Day. “There’s been a lot of copycat work being done [in the snacking industry]. And what I’m most proud about with Krakatoa is that I think that we have taken a different path with a different knowledge base that has informed that path. I’m proud of the fact that we had a specific target consumer in mind – someone who loves spice – and that we developed a product specifically for them and that we did not feel pressured to have to come off of that vision to have it be more broadly appealing.” 

Though the days are early, consumer feedback thus far points to a slam dunk. “My favorite piece of feedback is when someone says ‘Thank you. Thank you for making a chip that uses ghost pepper that’s as hot as it should be’,” says Day. Visit the website for more information on Krakatoa Hot Chips and to find a store.

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