I was in Kansas City over the weekend and visited the 29th Annual American Royal Barbecue Contest. The barbecue contest (held October 3 to 5 this year) is one of the most popular events at the Royal, a two-month long series of events that showcases agricultural and livestock excellence. (Think horse shows, cattle judging, rodeo shows, etc.)
The barbecue contest at the Royal essentially comprises two competitions that bring in a total of about 500 smoking teams. There's the invitational (open only to teams that have won a state-level grand championship in a 'cue cook-off or have won a recognized cook-off of 50 teams or more) and the open (open to teams on a first-come basis). With my friend Andy Graham acting as guide (he's done the open a couple times), I walked the 20 acres of smokin' action on Saturday and visited a team in each division as they queued their 'cue. A photo gallery, after the jump.
Above, a vendor cooks a ten-foot-long sausage for sale to contest visitors. As a visitor to the contest, you should know right off that you're free to wander among the hundreds of competition tents and through the Barbecue Expo Center, but there's not really anything to sample from the teams. Invitational and open teams cook primarily for the judges and also for nightly parties (many of which are private). If you're a regular Joe or Jane, noncompeting vendors might be your only option for 'cue—unless a competitor also holds a vendor's license, in which case they can sell to the public. Luckily, the crazy sausage here was up to snuff.
Invitational Team: 3 Guys with Wood
We started with a visit to an invitational team, 3 Guys with Wood. Three Guys won the Great Lenexa BBQ Battle in 2006 and thus qualified for a slot at the Royal this year.
We came just in time to see 3 Guys pull their ribs out of the smoker for "turn-in." It was about noon on Saturday, and at this point, they had been on-site smoking since Friday. Teams arrive, set up, and stay up all night cooking their meat in anticipation of this moment. Some of the encampments are quite elaborate, with trailer-mounted smokers, support RVs, vans, trucks, and kitchen trailers. Three Guys had a trailer-mounted smoker and a kitchen trailer equipped with aircon, a stereo, plenty of counter space, and a little TV playing the University of Kansas football game.
Turn-in happens in stages, with Chicken starting at noon this year, followed by Ribs, Pork, Brisket, Sides (vegetable, baked beans, potato), and Dessert in roughly half-hour increments. It's a stressful time for teams, as they choose their best meat (or sides) for judging, typically cooking several pieces to choose among. There are six judges for each item, so teams provide six samples of each dish. You're only allowed to garnish with parsley and/or lettuce. Three Guys took advantage and used both.
Three Guys have been smoking in competitions since 2002 and have developed their own sauce line, Rufus Teague, which they use in various flavors on all the meat they smoke. They were going with their sweet sauce for the Royal, as there was general consensus among the teams I chatted with that judges seemed to lean toward a sweeter flavor profile rather than spicy.
Three Guys use a Good One smoker, which my friend Andy referred to as his "dream smoker," for various reasons—the fire box is situated below the meat chamber, and in this trailer-based version (above), you can see that the fire box is in back, so when you go to futz with your meat, you don't get blasted with heat.
Temperature is, of course, crucial in smoking meat. Three Guys had at least three standard thermometers on their smoker as well as this electronic monitor watching meat and fire temperatures.
The evidence of hardcore meat-smoking lies on the ground in front of the smoker.
Barbecue Innovation Expo
Inside Hale Arena was the Barbecue Innovation Expo. The building was filled with all sorts of 'cue accoutrements—from smokers, to sauces, to a knife-sharpening booth and more. Andy said that you could even buy meat in there if you ran out—though I didn't see any meat booths while I browsed.
There was also some funny business going on.
Here Come the Judges
Kansas City Barbeque Society–certified judges line up to get their judging assignments for the invitational turn-ins. Judging was done behind the blue curtains. The interesting thing about seeing the throng of judges is that they're just ordinary folks who became KCBS-certified for barbecue judging. There were folks of all stripes in the line.
A judge peeks behind the veil.
A candid moment.
I don't know why they're wheeling 'cue away from the judging area, but mysterious are the ways of the Royal.
We poked our lenses through the curtain corner to see what was going on. Here, they're judging desserts. (Personally, I'd rather judge pork or brisket, but you can't always get what you want.)
Open Division Team: Maximum Loin
After the Barbecue Innovation Expo, we visited the Maximum Loin, a team of more than eight 'cue hounds cooking in the open division.
Andy had told me about his previous experience in the open division, and it sounds like a trip. Teams pay for varying amounts of space in the parking lots surrounding the Kemper and Hale arenas in the West Bottoms area. Some teams go bare bones with just a space for their smokers, and others go hog wild, with cooking space and square footage to hold a Friday night party—with tables, tents, and stages for bands to play. Cooking and "living" space can get fairly elaborate, as far as temporary outdoor living goes, and Maximum Loin was somewhere between pup tent and RV, with copious couches, satellite TV, and an internet connection.
Maximum Loin wasn't cooking for competition on Saturday afternoon, as open turn-ins were scheduled for Sunday this year. Until this year, in fact, Royal barbecues were on Friday and Saturday only but were extended to Sunday for 2008—in what many people I talked to cynically referred to as an attempt by the Royal to get more money from participants who have to pay for competition space.
Maximum Loin had these great wolverine-like claws they used to tear apart the pork.
Above is a typical sleeping arrangement for some teams in the competition.
The team members on hand as we left them, after a long night of smoking and partying—and before another such night.
"Are you taking a photo of the hot ash bin?" Andy asked me. "Those are all over the place. Sometimes people get drunk and pee in them."
Plenty of different smoker styles were on the scene. Here's one with some serious wood.
A good space to have in the event of rain, but luckily the weather was beautiful over the weekend.
A smoker proudly flying the red, white, and blue—and the Kansas state flag. Sunflower State represent!
The Bull Wall outside Kemper Arena. Andy says that on opening night of the contest they light fires between the two steel walls here, flames visible in the bull cutouts.
Rows of tents in the shadow of Kemper Arena.
IMHO, this was the coolest logo of the day! Transformer BBQ: "More than meats the eye."
Special thanks to Andy Graham (left) for the guided tour and Matt McCaffree (right) for helping arrange the visits with 3 Guys and Maximum Loin. And, of course, many thanks to 3 Guys and Maximum Loin for the hospitality!
American Royal 2008 Competition Results
Full results are available on the Royal's website, but here are the big-time winners culled from those lists, for your convenience.
Grand Champion: Joey Mac's Smoke Stax
Runner Up: Buffalo's BBQ
Second Runner Up: Parrothead Smokers
Chicken: I Smell Smoke!!!, Massachusetts
Ribs: Wild Bunch Butt Burners
Pork: Pork Pullin' Plowboys
Brisket: Iowa's Smokey D's BBQ
Grand Champion: Four Men and a Pig
Runner Up: Smoke on Wheels
Second Runner Up: 4 Mile Smokin' Crew
Chicken: Little Pig Town
Ribs: Iowa's Smokey D's BBQ
Pork: Hang 'em High
Brisket: Where's the Smoke?
Sausage: Boyle's Corned Beef Co.
Sides, Beans: Juggy's Juicers
Sides, Vegetables: Pancho, Cicso, and the Kid
Sides, Potato: Prime Time BBQ
Sides, Dessert: Triple A Cookers
Bonus: Photographic Outtakes from the Day
Enjoy the entire gallery of the photos from Saturday:
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.