Learning the Ropes

If you cook some awesome barbecue, no doubt you’ve had friends, family and neighbors urge you to enter a barbecue competition. They’re quite sure you could win awards with your fantastic ribs and melt-in-your mouth brisket. The thought has crossed your mind, hasn’t it? If you have been thinking about giving competitions a try, you aren’t alone. Barbecue competitions are springing up everywhere these days – and with good reason. They are fun and exciting events and most are family-friendly. You won’t have to travel far to find one in the United States either. My family and I have been competing in professionally sanctioned barbecue contests for nine years and have enjoyed some pretty positive results. With eight grand championship titles since 2009, numerous category wins, two perfect scores and an invitation to the Jack Daniel’s World BBQ Championship in Lynchburg, Tennessee, I can safely say we have done well. But back in 2004, I was where you might be right now – my friends loved my barbecue and often said I should enter contests. I decided this was a great idea but didn’t know where to start. It took me awhile to find all the details I needed to get involved. The goal of this blog post is to help you to shorten that learning curve about how to get started in competition barbecue.

Before you start buying equipment and perfecting recipes, I highly recommend that you find a sanctioned contest near you and go visit. You can locate one in most states by going to www.kcbs.us. Click on the “Events” tab and start searching. Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctions over 400 contests across the United States each year. You’re very likely to find a contest fairly close to you. Use some caution about when you actually go. You most definitely do not want to approach teams during the window of time when they’re finalizing their entries and getting them to the judges. This could be Saturday or Sunday, depending on the contest, and is most commonly from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. If you’re there during these times, watch from a distance but do not approach and ask teams any questions. This is a highly stressful time and all teams are extremely busy as the contest reaches its culmination. Instead, I recommend you visit on Friday afternoon and evening (or Saturday if the contest is judged on Sunday). Don’t hesitate to approach a team during this time and introduce yourself. Let them know that you’re considering getting into competition barbecue yourself and would like to ask a few questions. Most barbecue competitors are extremely friendly and more than happy to talk to new teams or people wanting to find out how to get started. You may even be offered a few samples and a cold beverage. If you’re lucky, you might even be invited to come back during the turn-in time to watch what goes on. If you are, go and watch and listen and be as out of the way as possible. I recommend offering to help the team clean up and tear down their site in return for their hospitality and shared information. You’re likely to learn something more during this time. Most teams discuss their entries with each other and friends on other teams who stop by. Then go to the awards ceremony and see how your new friends do. The excitement you observe among those who win will no doubt spur your desire to start even sooner.

Now what? Well, there are many places to learn barbecue techniques but fewer places to learn how to compete. That’s the big thing – you already know how to cook pretty good food. Now you need to learn things like what judges are looking for, flavor profiles to impress them and how to turn in your food. I recommend taking a class in your area or even traveling to another location to take a good class from a successful pitmaster. Most of the people who hold classes have enjoyed multiple championships in barbecue and know their stuff. They’re “figured it out” and now share what they know for multiple reasons. One of the bigger reasons is to fund their continued participation in this addiction we all have. Most people – ok NO ONE gets rich competing in barbecue events. And it’s not cheap. Depending on where you live, between fuel to get there, meats, seasonings, entry fees, etc., you may spend $500 to $750 per contest. Some pitmasters cook over 20 per year with some of the busier teams cooking in excess of 30 contests!

In addition to taking classes, I recommend getting into some of the online barbecue communities out there. When I first started thinking about competing, I joined the forum known as the BBQ Brethren. This is a very popular forum. You’re likely to see some of the teams out there who participate at the Brethren site and you’ll know them by their banners containing the smoking pig from the website. This is a great place to learn and ask questions. Just be forewarned – you will love the place and once you learn the ropes of competition barbecue, you should return the favor and answer questions from other new folks too.

While you do not have to be a member to compete in the sanctioned contests, I highly recommend becoming a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). The site lists several member benefits and discounts and you’ll be supporting an organization that provides certified judges, a consistent scoring system and a fair and level playing field for all competitors. In short, regardless of where you are in the country, you’ll know what to expect when it comes to the rules for the contest you’re cooking.

When you’ve come this far and still want to compete, it’s time to start purchasing your equipment. There are many items you’ll see that really aren’t necessary. Others are, at least in my opinion, essential to a successful contest. Some of these are a good quality smoker; instant pop-up canopies (I use two 10′ x 10′ EZ Up brand canopies and recommend the heavier ones – it gets windy and sometimes stormy out there!); two or three 6′ plastic tables (and cut some PVC pipe to put on the legs to raise them to counter height – it’ll save your back!); insulated coolers with old towels to keep food hot (if your budget permits, consider a Cambro or a Carlisle instead); a Coleman Hot Water Heater; a Thermapen (I have literally turned around to go home and get it when I have forgotten this item) and a good quality meat slicer knife. I like the Wüstof 12 inch slicers. There are numerous places online where teams have published their lists of contest equipment. Some are over the top and others may skimp on some things. Just Google it – you’ll find plenty of suggestions. I would be less than honest if I did not recommend purchasing a quality vacuum packaging machine as well. I carry the portable VacMaster VP112 chamber machine. This unit uses chamber technology that enables you to vacuum package all foods, including liquids. This makes marinating easier and packaging meat leftovers after a competition is a breeze.

Finally, you’ll need to practice – a LOT. Perfect your methods and recipes for each meat and then put it all together in your driveway. Set up like you were at a competition and work through it all on your timetable. See where you’re lacking. Find out of there was anything else you needed. What did you not use that you can leave home when you go compete? I have found that competing in barbecue requires precise timing for everything. The better you get that down, the more successful you’ll be. So if you’re considering competing in barbecue, give it a shot – but be prepared first – then step up to the plate and hit it out of the park! Believe it or not, there are teams who have done their homework well and won contests their first time out. Maybe that’ll be you. Let me know if it is … I want to take a lesson from you!

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