Serious Eats

The Mad Mad Mad Mad World of Competition Barbecue

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[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

I've been doing the backyard barbecue thing for ten years now, and being at that thirty-something age where I feel like I need to start making things count, it was time to take my ever-expanding hobby to the next level.

Figuring out what that should be was no easy task. I thought about a cookbook, but that seemed daunting considering I barely have time to fulfill my blogging duties as it is. A restaurant would be the ultimate, but I'm not quite at that crisis point where leaving the comforts of a full-time job sounds like a reasonable life-choice. So I settled on competition barbecue. Heck, it's only a few weekends a year as I see fit, and I already have a bank of recipes and skill to rely on, so it seemed like a no-brainer. How little did I know how encompassing this decision would be.

While my experience of building a team and competing in three events was as exhausting as it was rewarding, the reality is that even though I ended the year with five trophies and some cash winnings to brag about, I'm going to need to do a whole lot more to actually support myself in the years to come.

So when an email dropped into my inbox from my friends at Kingsford, inviting me down to Decatur, Alabama, to learn the ins-and-out of competition barbecue with none other than 12-time Memphis In May winner Chris Lilly, I could not have responded with a resounding "yes" quickly enough.

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Over four days, a team of writers united under the moniker "Pig and the Pen," and together we went through each step of the competition process, culminating in pitting our new smoking skills against 80 other professional barbecue competition teams in the 18th Annual Riverfest. The insights gleaned were invaluable to my personal future in the competition world, but moreover, a great glimpse into the maddening world of competition barbecue.

Day 1: Why You Won't Like Your Own Barbecue

First, to make competition barbecue, we had to learn what it is. While there are many sanctioning bodies of barbecue, the most prevalent is the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), and that's what we would be competing in. A KCBS contest always consists of the same four categories—chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket. Each entry is blind judged—meaning the judges don't know the pitmaster behind barbecue they're tasting—and after only one or two bites, scored for appearance, taste, and tenderness, with taste being weighted most heavily in the overall score.

In this environment, your food is everything, and as pitmasters see what's winning, they tend to follow the same road in attempts of replicating their brethren's success. Today, that trend is packing as much sickly sweet flavor into that one bite as possible, which has many teams creating barbecue with such an over-the-top sugary flavor that most will tell you they would never serve it in their backyards or restaurants.

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So we started with a rib sample from Chris Lilly that was kind of a hybrid between his restaurant and competition ribs, having the glistening sweet sheen that's winning competitions, but dialing it back a little so we could actually enjoy a few racks for lunch.

From there, we were let loose to develop our own rub, liquid seasoning, and sauce combo to wow the judges. The challenge was to find a combo that worked harmoniously, with each different component building complimentary flavor off the last, so the end rack was as fully realized as possible.

As with any situation that throws a bunch of cooks in the kitchen, there were competing viewpoints, so we developed two different rubs and sauces to try out, and just one liquid seasoning as a constant.

Day 2: Ribs Test Run

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With our seasonings all ready to go, we woke up the next morning to start smoking. As the boys from Pitmaker fired up their insulated, reverse-flow smoker for us, we got down to the task of peeling—removing the membrane from the underside of ribs—and coating about two dozen racks of baby back ribs with our different rubs.

Once the smoker hit 225 degrees, we loaded all the racks in, and created detailed schematics to later locate which rack had which rub and sauce. After two hours of smoking, the ribs were a beautiful mahogany color. At this point they were wrapped along with our liquid seasoning—a mixture of pineapple juice, jalapeƱo jelly, Worcestershire, and honey—and placed back into the smoker until they reached a consistency where they were tender enough that two adjacent bones would give way to a slight twist when pulled in opposite directions, but not so tender that they would fall apart (barbecue ribs should not "fall of the bone").

Finally, the ribs were sauced with our honey-spiked Big Bob Gibson's Red sauce, and placed back into the smoker until the sauce set. A final coating of sauce for extra sweetness and a glossy sheen was applied before the ribs were sliced and boxed for a test run at judging.

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Unlike in a real competition, we were able to watch as all of the accomplished barbecue aficionados work their way through our four different rib variations. Expressions meant little as we attempted to read results off of the judges' faces before they scribbled down their "official" scores. In the end, the judges were kind to us and had an almost unanimous favorite, making our recipe for the final competition ribs crystal clear.

By now night had fallen and all of the teams had arrived at the competition site, turning a vast open field into a sea of pop-up canopies and smokers with 130 teams—80 professional, 50 backyard. While each team was certainly busy preparing their meats and starting smokers, the general merriment of the festival took over from the seriousness of recipe development early that day. This is the time when friendships are born, and I was happy to be able to sit down and talk barbecue with our accomplished neighbors: Clint from Smoke in da Eye, Eric from Mr. Bobo's Traveling BBQ All-stars (who was cooking with Smoke in da Eye), and Danielle from Diva Q.

In a normal competition, I'm generally up all night, but I took the unique offer to return to my hotel this time around just after 2 a.m.

Day 3: Competition Time

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I was once told the most common mistake of a new barbecue competitor is hitting the sauce too heavily. I consciously avoided this during my first three competitions, but this time around, I fell victim. Stumbling into my hotel room with massive heartburn from a day of barbecue and booze, I made the poor decision of popping an Ambien to ensure all these physical distractions didn't get in the way of at least a few hours of sleep. I got my wish and then some, sleeping through two alarms, the television, and five phone calls. As I finally arose and realized the situation, the guilt of not being there for my team weighed heavily as I made a shameful walk, half-awake, to the competition site.

When I arrived the ribs were all rubbed and on the smoker. The Pitmaker boys were cooking the other three categories, and their chicken, brisket, and pork butts were all well on their way to being done, with the pit holding a steady temp on just seven pounds of charcoal for the entire cook.

At about the time I finally righted myself, the ribs were ready to be pulled from the smoker, foiled along with our liquid seasoning, and placed back in.

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In the next hour that passed, we collectively suffered through the next maddening trend in competition barbecue, making parsley boxes. KCBS rules state nothing can be in the 9x9-inch white styrofoam box provided to house your meat except green leaf lettuce or parsley. Someone along the way found that parsley was generating higher appearance scores, even if garnish is technically not supposed to factor into the score at all. Now many teams sit and painstakingly pick through individual pieces of parsley to create an even and visually harmonious bed for the barbecue to later rest atop.

Boxes done, we moved back to the ribs, removing them from the foil and saucing them while our other team members prepared the first turn-in, chicken.

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With those shiny, sweet, and spicy chicken thighs off to the judges, everyone's attention switched to ribs. In the half hour between the two turn-ins, we had to go through each rack, determine which were best, then find the best of the best to get six perfect bones to present to the judges. While we cooked four racks total, two had depressingly dried out, while the two others were juicy, but lacked the right tenderness desired. With no time to keep cooking, we chose one of the juicier racks, sliced off six ribs, then spent another five to ten minutes fixing any imperfections in appearance. With just five minutes left, the ribs were boxed and taken on the three-minute walk to the turn-in table, getting them in with only minutes to spare.

The Pitmaker boys finished up the next two categories—first pork shoulder, then wrapping up with an incredibly flavorful and moist brisket that I was sure would be in the top five, if not first place.

The next four hours were an excruciating wait to the awards, but any boredom that may have set in was quickly forgotten as the announcement of winners began.

Ten places were called out in each category, with places ten through six garnering just name recognition (a call), and places five through one awarding cash prizes and trophies or ribbons (a walk). With 80 teams, nothing is guaranteed, so everyone was attentively listening as teams were called, with gracious claps and congratulations to our winning brethren.

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Chicken, ribs, and pork all came and went without a call for "Pig and the Pen," but I was positive we killed it on brisket. As the names were called down, I knew it was just inevitably leading up to our first place finish, but alas, it was not to be. For all the days of work, our team did not hear their name called once.

What's worse is knowing this outcome could have easily been the result of the table of judges we landed on, since each entry is only evaluated by six judges, not the entire lot, and that arbitrary aspect can keep you in a constant state of second-guessing.

So you take what you can get, and we landed right in the middle, taking 40th place overall. Our best showing was chicken, at 18th place, followed by brisket at 20th place, ribs at 55th, and finally pork at 56th.

Not coming in dead ass last is a nice feeling, but when I'm out competing by myself again next year, I'll need to find a consistency to place in the tops of each category and have a fighting chance at the money-making grand champion (the team with the highest collective score across all four categories). It's a quest that will likely take years to achieve, but inevitably be impossible to master. In my opinion, this makes the people who come out again and again to compete completely insane, but it's also why they're some of the best company you'll ever have, which is the true drive in the mad mad mad mad world of competition barbecue.

About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment each Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.

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