Meet The Maker: Onima's Tyler Morgan Mains

Meet The Maker: Onima's Tyler Morgan Mains

Tyler Morgan Mains is making artful hot sauce—in more ways than one.

The founder of Onima—a Barcelona-based hot sauce producer, and the first brand to be part of Acid League’s new Maker Series—is on the crest of a new wave in the historically over-the-top, more-is-more world of capsaicin-based condiments.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, Tyler followed his fascination with fermentation into the beer industry—but after moving to Belgium and back, he began experimenting with vinegars, kombuchas, aminos, koji, and pickling.

A move to Barcelona—and a passionate deep dive into the Iberian peninsula’s history—led Tyler to create recipes based on the historical spice trades that brought new ingredients, cultures and practices into Spain. From there, Onima was born.

True to the brand’s mission statement, the heart of each sauce—peppers and the salt used to ferment them—are sourced within Spain, with carefully-chosen ingredients from around the globe used to amplify their flavor.

Like the rest of us at Acid League, he also takes acidity very seriously—and opts to use kombucha instead of vinegar in many of his sauces for a different flavor dimension. The result: Rich, multilayered and nuanced, hitting at a variety of heat levels to suit any dish and diner.

His passion for art also extends to the brand’s uniquely surreal sauce labels, which Tyler creates himself using a combination of AI generation, oil painting and digital editing.

To mark his first Acid League drop, we sat down with Tyler to talk about breaking away from the hot sauce world’s over-the-top branding, making hot sauce for a new kind of consumer, and how he turned an early-2000s emo song into a hot sauce.

First off: Why hot sauce?

There are two sides of the coin, I guess.

For the last 15 years or so, I’d been working in craft beer. For a long time, everything was super hoppy, incredibly sour, mega-alcohol-heavy, all these super strong flavors. Over time, the industry kind of toned itself down—people get bored with too much information and they want simple things.

The same thing’s happening in hot sauce—people making the hottest sauce you can have, the fruitiest sauce you can fruit—just 15 years apart. So I’m trying to get into this industry and dial it down.

But personally, I grew up with hot sauce in Kentucky. There’s just hot sauce always on the table. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe over the last 10-ish years, and I’ve noticed it’s not on the table. The level of heat people can tolerate is lower than it is in America. At the same time, I’m noticing a growing interest in it. To me, that shows a gap in the market.

Anywhere I go, I read as far back into history about the area as I can. Spain, and the Iberian peninsula in general, was at one point arguably the most important transit hub in the world. It’s kind of where east met west in the middle of the world, and Africa butts up against it too. You have all these spice trades and chili trades, and before the expulsion of the Moors—the Muslim population—you had a rich chili-growing tradition, and spicy food was very much a thing until the Catholic Church said “no more”.

So it’s kind of like reaching back into history a bit, and being informed that these spices came from India or South America, these chilis came from Morocco. They all landed in this spot, and they do well here. 

 


What gave you the idea to draw from Spain’s history for your recipes?

Whenever I started making hot sauce here, I started asking, “What’s gonna be my reasoning for pulling things together?” I decided to look back on history. All these port cities brought things into Spain and Portugal — let’s use those as our ingredient pools, and then you can be creative with mixing them with indigenous ingredients.

The further that you look back into history, the meaning of “indigenous” ingredients changes. For example: Carrots came from Afghanistan in, I think, the 14th century. But there’s plenty of parts of the world that are making “traditional” carrot dishes, and they’ve been doing it for 500 years.

If you look at the Nordic manifesto for cooking, they only want to use ingredients from the Nordic countries. But on the other hand, you have the Internet, so you can buy anything from anywhere. I want to find that middle ground. A lot of the good ingredients here exist because they were brought from outside, and it would be stupid to say that they’re not “from” around here.

So none of our sauces are based on one particular place in the world. It’s definitely more about understanding that hubs and trade port cities, metropolitan areas, they are melting pots—places where things combine.

What are the most important ingredients in Onima’s sauces, from your perspective?

We’ll start with kombucha. I don’t exclusively use kombucha to add acid to our sauces, but I like it because I can control the acidity—I can find more complex acidity, more soft acidity. I can use the same percentage of kombucha as most producers use vinegar, but it doesn’t taste as punchy and aggressive. It also lets me infuse herbs, flowers, seeds, juices—whatever flavors I want. It’s an opportunity to add another layer of flavor.

Next is the salt we use. It’s from Añanako Gatz Harana in Basque country—it’s this ancient ocean that existed over what is modern-day Spain, when all of Earth was still in Pangaea. As the continents broke up, it evaporated, and there’s these solid salt deposits left underground. The reason it’s so important for Onima is that it’s isolated from oceans, so it’s isolated from microplastics. It hasn’t touched humanity at all until it comes out of the ground.

I also think it’s really important that this salt comes from the same land the peppers are grown in. It’s a fermented hot sauce, so the salt and peppers are the two most important aspects—and I think it adds a sense of time and place to the sauce that the salt fermenting the peppers is from the same place.

The peppers are from Parlavà, a little east of Girona. We get them from a small, third-generation farmer named Ferran, who’s growing these fantastic peppers in the middle of his family estate. He lives in this ancient castle. That ties into what I was talking about earlier with the spice trade—the peppers he grows aren’t indigenous to here. They’re from Bolivia, but his family’s been growing it however long.

We do have another pepper farmer—Carlos Carvajal—that we get supply from Grenada. I shop local when I can, but I think you do fall into some traps if you’re 100% devoted to that, because the products you get aren’t always the best.


The hot sauce market is shifting away from being super-intense — what’s it been like addressing those changing tastes?

Fifteen years ago I would have also been interested in the spiciest spicy, the strongest strong—that sort of thing. I think it just comes with maturing or getting older. There’s this concept of, as the pendulum swings, right? You see it in so many industries. In cuisine, everyone was craving Osteria Francescana, Noma. The shift away was already happening, but the pandemic sent it into overdrive: Now, all I crave is burgers and chicken wings. You see the same thing over and over again. I reach into my hot sauce cabinet and I don’t want these fancy things anymore—I want something that fucking tastes good.

But at the same time, I want something with intention, and something that can hit all these animalistic notes, but I want it to be made with thought, made with care. My brain’s like, I can do this crazy thing, that crazy thing, go down 12 rabbit holes. But at the end of the day, it’s too complicated. Wouldn’t it be better to let something shine, let the quality do the talking?

I can’t exist to hurt people. Novelty and gag sauces are not interesting to me at all - it needs to be interesting. If it’s too spicy for you, I want that person to still recognize that there’s flavor under it, some sort of integrity.

Were you just selling in Europe before this?

Europe was the first. When we moved over here to Barcelona, I was hustling in my kitchen, pop-up style. I did make an effort to sell to the U.S. for a bit, and people took a liking to it, but I quickly learned I was losing money on U.S. sales.

France, Netherlands, Germany and Belgium have been the biggest. France specifically — they go crazy for it. I don’t know why that is. But literally my only market research into hot sauce is who buys Onima, and it seems French people really like hot sauce.

What does Europe want in a hot sauce?

Generally speaking, I think buyers in Europe are young people that are looking to change things up. Whether it’s good or bad, it seems that food and drink trends here, at least, very much come from North America. I think that there’s this concept of ‘the grass is greener’—each is looking at the other side constantly.

I think the people interested in my product view it as a little bit niche. It seems like the people interested are more and more “cool”—blue checkmarks on Instagram, that sort of thing. I see people a decade younger than me that are appreciating it, which I think is sick. It’s great. 

 

 

How did you link up with Acid League?

I slid into Scott’s DMs—literally. I follow Lindera Farms on Instagram because I used to use their vinegar a lot, and saw that their vinegar was used in a Proxies blend with Sean Brock. I was impressed that Acid League, despite being a vinegar company, was using a vinegar from a “competitor” in one of their blends, because the chef desired it. I commented on it and said, basically, thumbs up, that’s super cool.

I got a direct DM from Scott a few hours later, we talked and hit it off and decided we had to work together—and then the idea came up to create a whole platform for Maker Series.

The like-mindedness really intrigued me. It was the first time I’d talked to anybody on a business level that felt like everybody involved was also of a similar mindset when it came to tastemaking and what they care about, which was fantastic. It also provides me the platform to showcase what I do on a larger scale and really, fully realize the potential of the project.

Tell us about the three sauces in the kit.

Malson, in Catalan, literally means “nightmare”. It’s dedicated to the expulsion of Moors in the late 15th century by the Catholic church. It uses a lot of ingredients used by both African Muslims and Muslims from the Middle East. It’s carrot-based with a lot of flowers, seeds, pollens and roots from those regions: Ginger, turmeric, eight or nine different herbs. What a nightmare situation, that these people came (to Spain) out of necessity, and all of a sudden, kings and queens and whoever are drawing lines in the sand, saying, “Our God is better than your God, get out.” What happens when you kick the people out? They’re going to take all the stuff they made with them, and the food that they brought with them.

Il Mig is, conceptually, the middle child in the series. These are designed to fit between Malson and Cry Baby. Il Mig translates to “The Middle” in Lingua Franca, which is a language that was never officially written. It was a mixture of Portuguese, English, Italian, Spanish, a little African languages, some Hindi. It was spoken by people on the boats trading goods, because they had to find words that meant something to each other.

It kind of came to me when I was listening to an old song that I liked when I was 15 years old—“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. The song has this tension—it’s structured just like any pop-rock song, 4/4 beat, simple key, but the riffs are off kilter a bit, so there’s always this push and pull. I wanted the sauce to emulate this tough spot—like you’re being pulled in two directions. 

There’s a reason I used all oil and acid, because oil and acid are fighting—two ends of the spectrum —and I wanted to bring them together. Instead of kombucha, I used sherry vinegar, and then shallot and koji are the comforting middle ground that kind of tie together this acidic vinegar and smooth oil.

Cry Baby was maybe the first or second sauce I made in Barcelona. The spices are Indian and Pakistani. At first I thought about curry, but then was like, how does curry fit into Iberia? Sure enough, it does—through trade routes. So I built a spice blend based on what was coming over here through South Asia. It’s counterbalancing the bhut jolokia pepper. It’s used as tear gas for riots. It’s pretty hardcore. It’s pretty rough when we process it—burning arms, I’m crying.

For Cry Baby, I think I just wanted to take the seriousness of the name and the art down a bit, because the sauce itself is so serious. It’s deep, smoky, rich, very intense. It’s a bit poking fun—breaking the fourth wall, laughing at whoever’s eating and crying.. I wanted a bit of levity at the end of the three sauces. I didn’t want you thinking about life, like “Oh man, what am I doing, I’m crying.”

 

Your bottle labels are really unique—can you talk about the design process?

Each label is very different. Generally speaking, I like to generate hyper-realistic faces using an AI program, DALL-E 2. It uses text prompts to generate images, so I’m basically inputting text that has to do with the mood I’m going for for each sauce.

But I think a lot of AI art gets a little too “type in something, print it out”, so beyond that, I alter the image even further: I like to take the image, print it out, oil paint over it, chop it up, put it through a second AI, feed it to the cat—something. Then I polish it digitally afterward. So my process is basically to use physical media and digital media to create a unique character for each sauce.

What’s next for your AL partnership?

We have some ideas. There’s this drop now, and on the European side, there’s going to be a whole line of products, including some seasonal ones. As production allows there will be multiple drops of Onima in the US. Those are going to happen sporadically.

For the Maker Series, we’re going to bring on more makers—we’ve got more in talks right now, so all of those are going to be part of Maker Series in North America. 

Order your Onima Hot Sauce Kit now.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Read more

An Ode To Fish Sauce

An Ode To Fish Sauce