A spread for morning toast is a perfectly delicious application for jam, but Alexa Hesse hopes to broaden your horizons by helping you see the fruit-based condiments in a new light. Hesse is the brains behind Yummy Lotus, a Denver-based company that specializes in vegan, gluten-free pepper jams. With flavors like jalapeño chipotle, mango habanero, strawberry ghost pepper, and kiwi poblano, Hesse’s jams provide the perfect savory-sweet kick to vinaigrettes and salad dressings, charcuterie boards, marinades, glazes, and cocktails. (Hesse even says her blackberry serrano lime jam makes a unique addition to cheesecake.)
“They’re delicious on toast and I absolutely recommend that, but it’s just nice to know that you can cook with them and there’s so much you can do to elevate your meals,” says Hesse, who is 31.
Hesse has been working in the food industry since she was in high school, with an array of front-of-house jobs and a stint in catering. During her tenure in catering, she began experimenting with different flavors and textures while writing menus and making cupcakes and wedding cakes. She decided to branch out on her own and launched Yummy Lotus in 2016, and began selling her products at local markets in 2019.
“It derived from wanting to create something that made cooking easier,” she says. “When I was making cupcakes and different fillings, I was curious about how you could really make a unique flavor. Or, when you’re cooking, there are seasonings, but when you want to glaze something or marinate something, how do you make that process a little bit quicker but still have all the flavor in there?”
While researching jam recipes and techniques, Hesse noticed a common, somewhat disconcerting theme. Many recipes called for the addition of butter to help reduce or eliminate the foam that rises to the top of the jam during the cooking process. As someone who tries to eat clean, whole foods, she was surprised by this ingredient and wondered how many people— particularly those eating a vegan, plant-based diet—had unknowingly eaten jams made with an animal product. That’s why Hesse decided to make her jams without butter and clearly label them as vegan. “It’s an unnecessary additive,” she says. “I love that I can actually cater to that other world. I have a lot of friends who are vegan and there are a lot of options out there, but at the same time, there’s not.”
Other than fruits, peppers, and pure cane sugar, the only ingredient Hesse adds is pectin, a naturally occurring substance extracted from ripe fruits that helps the jams set. To make her products, Hesse starts by hand-mashing or lightly puréeing whole fruits and blending whole peppers (she also sometimes uses dehydrated peppers for the extra-spicy varieties). She combines the fruit and pepper purée into a kettle, then adds the pectin and sugar before bringing the mixture to a rapid boil. She transfers the jam to sterilized jars, then uses a hot water bath to seal the jars.
Hesse’s rotating flavors are inspired by whatever fruits are in season; but for her eight flagship offerings, she drew back on flavor combinations she always loved and experimented with some she’d never tasted anywhere else, like kiwi poblano. “I love to use poblanos on literally everything,” she says. “I make them for stuffed peppers or on salads and just eat them by themselves, honestly. I’d never seen a kiwi jam, so it was just taking flavors that I love but then trying to twist them in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
She makes her blueberry reaper jam with Carolina Reaper peppers, which currently hold the title for the world’s hottest pepper. But don’t worry: Hesse’s jam won’t make you go running for a glass of milk. It’s spicy for sure, but also well-balanced and enriched with rich blueberry flavor. She recommends using the blueberry reaper flavor in creamy coleslaw atop a pulled pork sandwich. “Hot peppers have a really nice fruit flavor before they kick your butt, and so it complements the fruit really well,” she says.
When she’s not making jam or selling at local markets, Hesse spends much of her time being a mom; she and her husband Joshua have a three-year-old son and a 10-month-old daughter. She’s still trying to navigate the murky waters of being an entrepreneur and a parent—especially during the coronavirus pandemic—but so far, so good. In 2020, Hesse initially planned to participate in more than 37 pop-ups, markets, events, and bridal shows, but they were all canceled because of the pandemic; she also lost much of her wholesale business with restaurants. Hesse pivoted and began growing her online presence. The result? A record-breaking holiday season. In recent months, she’s been able to rebuild some of her whole sale business and start vending at markets and events again.
“It’s important to fill your own cup and make sure that you’re doing the things that add value to your life so you can give back to your kids and the people around you, and show them you can achieve your dreams through working hard,” she says.