Blues, Brews and Barbecue returns with a pitmaster showdown, beer exhibition.
By Melanie Wong
Beaver Creek’s annual barbecue-and-beer festival has been a Memorial Day weekend staple for eight years, but this year, the state-of-summer event will be taking the concept of finger-licking, smoked meat to a new level.
Pitmasters from all over the state will compete for bragging rights and a large cash prize in a contest to come up with the best barbecue pork on Saturday, May 26, and Sunday, May 27, in Beaver Creek Village.
The ninth-annual festival includes barbecue from a variety of Colorado restaurants, a beer festival, golf tournament and live blues music. This year, the festival will also get competitive, with two barbecue contests. The general public will judge one competition, and the other will be a more formal affair judged by a panel of professional barbecue judges.
“Having all certified judges speaks highly towards the credibility of the event and chosen winners, making the competition more prestigious,” says judging coordinator Brad Austin, a local barbecue connoisseur better known to most as “Barbecue Brad.” “Beaver Creek Resort Company is definitely committed to having the Blues, Brews and Barbecue become one of the premiere barbecue vending and competition events throughout the Rocky Mountain region.”
The competitor with the “best smoked pork” as decided by the panel will walk away with a $3,000 cash prize, and the winner of the “People’s Choice” award will get $1,000.
Between the barbecue competitions, charity golf event, an expanded microbrew exhibition, musical acts and an opening reception to kick it all off, organizers say the goal is the raise the bar on what was already a popular public event.
“We have the opportunity to make this such a unique event,” Austin says. “This is not your mainstream barbecue contest.”
Pitmasters face off
Competitors of the barbecue contest will include some local favorites, such as Minturn’s Kirby Cosmo’s BBQ Bar, Moe’s Original Barbecue in Eagle and Vail, and Beaver Creek’s Coyote Café. Pitmasters and their crews also hail from other mountain areas, such as Bonnie Q BBQ from Dillon.
“I know many of (these competitors), and there are some ‘big hogs’ coming to vend and compete this year,” Austin says. “The caliber of these teams will surely escalate the quality of barbecue for both judges and the public attending.”
While some barbecue places are regulars on the competition circuit, others cooks, such as Mark Tamberino of Kirby Cosmo’s, specialize in serving customers, not judges. Joining a competition gives restaurants like his a fun outlet for their craft and a chance to get new ideas.
“We serve barbecue seven days a week (at the restaurant) and we do it really well,” says Tamberino, who has been part of Blues, Brews and Barbecue as a vendor for five years now. “Something like this comes around, and it’s a chance tweak your product a little and really make it great.”
Tamberino says he’s not revealing what he’s cooking for the competition, but that it’s a popular new item on the Kirby Cosmo’s menu. It’s fun to mingle with other barbecuers as well and be a part of an event devoted to barbecue, he says.
“It’s a lot of fun for me to go there and drink really good beer, eat really good barbecue from different barbecuers, and see different things I might not have seen before,” Tamberino says.
Doug Pierce, “pit boss” at Dillon’s Bonnie Q BBQ and Arapahoe Café, on the other hand, has competed at the Dillon and Frisco barbecue competitions for years, and will also be competing at Beaver Creek. The restaurant was voted “best barbecue” by local newspaper readers last year.
Pierce and his team will be making “mocha-java rubbed pork chops with a grilled pineapple salsa” for the competition.
“I was torn between making our ribs – which are really good – but I figure a lot of people will come with ribs,” Pierce says. “But these pork chops… it’ll make your toe wiggle.”
An art or a science?
Contestants’ entries will be judged by appearance, tenderness/texture and taste. A panel of six experienced judges will be all business when it comes to choosing Beaver Creek’s barbecue champion – the taste tests are done blind, and judges consume nothing but water and crackers in between bites as not to hinder the taste.
There are all kinds of techniques and methods chefs can use to make their barbecue unique or to gain an edge in competition, from secret sauces and rubs (as well as the order and application of said sauce and rubs), to the kind of wood and charcoal used.
Austin says that the past decade has brought an evolution in barbecuing techniques. For example, many pitmasters are now using “pellet smokers,” which flavor the meat with different types of aromatic fruit and nut woods in pellet form. Austin says that in some competitions, he’s seen cooks use Kobe beef or other high-end cuts for their brisket to really “wow” judges.
The cooker used can make a difference as well, and according to Austin, new smokers have revolutionized some of the contests.
“Cookers are evolving technology-wise to make them more efficient and easier to barbecue in general,” says Austin, describing “convection cooker” type smokers that insulate and seal the meat, leading to decreased cooking times and better results.
Then there’s the style of barbecue, which can range from the smoky, mesquite flavor of Texas barbecue, to the hickory-heavy style of Tennessee. Coloradans favor a hybrid of the southern styles, using a variety of flavors such as cherry wood, pecan, apple and peach, says Austin.
“It is an art, but there’s a method to it,” he says. “It’s all about the chemical reaction between heat, sauce and meat. It’s science in action.”
As most at this weekend’s festival attendees will probably agree, science lab never tasted so good.