If you’ve ever been to Southern Colorado, you know locals obsess over their Pueblo chile.
Whether it’s infused in wine, stuffed into tortillas folded into baked goods, frozen and stored for pots of green chile, or smothered on famous sloppers, the spicy pepper is embedded in the town’s culture and economy.
There’s even an entire festival dedicated to celebrating the harvest of one of Pueblo’s most-loved crops. The Pueblo Chile & Frijoles Festival has been running on the third weekend after Labor Day for 24 years.
For three days, local farmers and vendors along with thousands of people flock to downtown Pueblo to sell and stock up on chile and pinto beans.
In 2017, farmers sold about $50,000 worth of peppers, according to the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. The festival has grown over the years and the city expects to see 140,000 attendees in 2018, said Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.
“We roast thousands of bushels of chiles at this festival,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for (farmers) to not only sell their chiles that they grow, but all of the produce that’s grown here. The ag industry in Pueblo County is either number one or number two in our economic engines. So it has a huge impact on Pueblo.”
DiTomaso Farms, found just east of Pueblo, is one of seven farms that have been participating in the Chile Fest since its birth, and has been in business since 1915, said Kasey Hund, manager of the farm. The farm has been family-owned and operated for four generations, so they know that the fest is the best time to get your chile on.
“It’s one of our busiest weekends out of the year, where we sell the most chile. We sell about 2,000 bushels.”
The Pueblo chile is known as mirasol — “facing the sun” — and is different from others since it grows reaching for the light, rather than hanging down. And compared to New Mexico’s famous Hatch chile? Well, a Pueblo chile is “really big, meaty” and hotter than our southern neighbors’ variety, Hund said.
The Pueblo is about 3 to 5 inches in length and a little under an inch around. It’s best when roasted, blackened, giving off a distinct and deliciously spicy aroma.
“Green chile is like a staple in Pueblo. Everybody uses it. Everybody gets it. It’s just normal for people to have Pueblo chile in their freezer all year,” she said.
The first year of the fest was nothing like it is now, thanks to folks as close as Colorado Springs and as far as Texas, Arizona and Wyoming who want their fix. Chiles are “probably our biggest crop that we grow and sell,” Hund said. “And we’ve been growing more and more every year since we’ve gotten busier.”
It’s more visible, too. Colorado drivers now see billboards, semi-trailers or street signs promoting Pueblo chile because of the paid efforts of the Pueblo Chile Growers Association on behalf of their distinctive namesake produce.
Despite more people learning about Pueblo chile, New Mexico’s Hatch is still the biggest player in the regional market, Chamber president Slyhoff said. Farms there are bigger and the state also has large food processing facilities.
“That’s why you see hatch chile in the frozen food sections and in cans. We don’t have that capability,” he said.
Hund said she’s never tried Hatch chile and said the rivalry between the two has been around since “the beginning.” DiTomaso Farms is also working on getting a food processor to produce Pueblo chile in larger quantities — but for now they only sell at their roadside stand and the Chile Fest.
Colorado and New Mexico even raced to be the first to have a chile-themed license plate and New Mexico won. But Slyhoff said the competition is all in good fun.
“We think it’s a great little rivalry that we have going on and, you know, it just brings attention to the whole ag industry,” he said. “I would say they probably grow more than we grow, but ours are better.”
If You Go:
What: Pueblo Chile & Frijoles Festival
Where: Union Avenue Historic District, Pueblo, CO 81003
When: Friday– 3 p.m. to Midnight | Saturday – 10 a.m. to Midnight | Sunday – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost: $5 daily single admission, children 12 and under free