Behind the Scenes at a Backyard BBQ Contest

by Ross Bowen, Tastemaker in Residence

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On May 13th, the 12th annual “Minnesota in May” BBQ contest was held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. There were 73 “pro” teams who arrived on Friday, and 21 “backyard” teams that came in Saturday morning. Pro teams compete for larger cash prizes, and have to cook 4 meats – chicken, ribs, pork butt, and brisket. The pork butt and brisket are cooked overnight, which is why they arrive on Friday. The backyard teams only cook chicken and ribs, and compete for a small cash prize but for tremendous trophies. Long after the money has been spent on beer and ribs, the trophy will survive.

At 6 AM the fairgrounds gates were opened. Several teams had already lined up for entry. It was cold, 34 degrees, but worse, it was windy and gusty. The teams were here so early so that they could begin marinating and seasoning their entries. Chicken and ribs are inspected, and they must be unseasoned and unbrined or otherwise flavored, although they can be pre-trimmed.  

After the inspections the competitors fired up their smokers. There were a number of different types of cookers – Green Eggs, offset smokers, and even Webers. We saw briquettes, hardwood charcoal, and whole logs of apple and oak.  

Chicken must be turned in between 1:25 and 1:35, and ribs from 2:25 to 2:35. There is a hard and fast rule against accepting any late entries, even by a second. Fortunately in this contest, no one was disqualified.  

Each team is given two clamshell containers, similar to a take out container at a restaurant. Once turned in, a “table captain” opens each container and shows the meat to the judges. They score the meats on appearance from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Appearance is the least important criteria in the final score, but can easily make the difference between first and second places. Each judge then takes one piece of chicken or one rib from the box. It is not considered rude to take the best looking remaining piece. Then the meat is scored on taste (most important) and texture (second most important).  

The scores are recorded, then entered into a computer scoring system, which spits out the scores and places. Prizes are awarded immediately before the pro results are announced, so the trophies are awarded in front of several hundred people. This year’s winner was Puppy Town BBQ, two young guys who had been coached by their older brother, who cooked pro. They were enthusiastic as was the crowd, bringing a tear into this reporter’s eye. We will watch for them in the future as they (likely) move into the pro division,