- Author: Jess Harter
- Category: Valley News
- Issue: Sep 2012
Competitive barbecue is becoming a big deal in the Valley. And there’s the rub.
Move over, mixed martial arts. Take a hike, lacrosse. The fastest-growing sport in Arizona just might be barbecue. Before you start raising the inevitable objections – how could the smoking of meat constitute a sport? – consider that competitive barbecue requires endurance, constant practice and a well-devised game plan. “I’d say it’s a sport,” Michael Reimann says. “It involves training and strategy. But like any sport, it’s also an art. You have to perfect your art.”
Reimann is one of the founding fathers of Arizona barbecue contests, having organized a 2006 event to raise money for a friend with an autistic daughter. “There were no sanctioned barbecue contests west of the Mississippi at that time,” the Scottsdale real estate agent says. “That first event drew 52 teams and raised $22,000, making it the largest in the West back then.”
The sport grew slowly, then exploded with the debut of reality TV show BBQ Pitmasters in December 2009. Since then, Arizona has hosted 32 events. Reimann’s website, AZBarbecue.com – a smorgasbord of recipes, tips and event listings – has grown from 800 monthly hits to 3.5 million and boasts 2,000 active members.
Scott Holmes is a regular commenter on the site’s discussion boards. The environmental-services project manager was roped into participating in the inaugural Chandler BBQ Festival in 2010 by his boss, a huge BBQ Pitmasters fan. His boss quickly lost interest, but Holmes and his wife, Bekke, were hooked. The 30-something Phoenix couple enter 13 to 15 contests a year under the team name Little Miss BBQ. Like many competitors, they practice every week and obsessively keep records – including graphs, spreadsheets and photos – detailing every piece of meat they smoke. They competed right up to the birth of their first child, Vivian, in May, and were back at a contest less than three weeks later.
The sport’s allure is part social, part competitive, the Holmses say. “The people are what draw me,” Bekke says. “Everyone just gets along and has so much fun.” Aside from a few family members, fellow competitors were the first to learn of the couple’s pregnancy – tipped off when Bekke couldn’t participate in a traditional pre-competition shot of booze.
U.S. competitions are governed by a confusing array of sanctioning bodies, each with its own set of rules. The largest is the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which holds sway in much of the Midwest and West. Most Arizona contests are governed by KCBS rules (or a relaxed version) that require competitors to submit four meats – chicken, pork ribs, pork and beef brisket – to a six-judge panel for evaluation of appearance, tenderness and taste.
Winners can earn up to $1,000 for first place in a meat category and as much as $10,000 for an overall crown at a large contest, but the costs also are steep. Entry fees typically run $250 per contest, and teams have to fork over another $300 for their meat and cooking supplies. Some competitors use popular home smokers like the ubiquitous Weber Smokey Mountain, but others shell out as much as $20,000 for top-of-the-line units.
Rick Phillips, who helped launch the Arizona Barbecue Festival in Scottsdale in 2010 and the Surprise Barbecue Festival earlier this year, worries about the effect of ever-increasing prize money. “There was a sense of community and fun; that’s why we loved it,” says Phillips, who saw the Scottsdale event grow to 83 teams this year and draw 18,000 fans. “People can get a little seduced by the money; they get more serious and the fun can go out of it.”
Top AZ BBQ Teams
Loot N’ Booty
Don’t accuse head chef Sterling Smith and Co. of lacking theatrical flair. The Scottsdale team donned pirate outfits while taking first place overall at the 2012
Havasu Landing competition.
Little Miss BBQ
With little more than two years of competition under their belts, Phoenix’s Scott and Bekke Holmes had two overall crowns and two runner-up finishes in the first half of this year.
Tom Glenn of Chandler and Paul Drews of Gilbert started competing in 2009 and were named the 2011 Barbecue Championship Series Team of the Year.
Bam Bam’s BBQ
Utah native Cameron Treu had a busy 2011, moving to Gilbert, winning the pork category in his first KCBS contest and going on to be named 2011 Arizona Rookie of the Year.
Hog Pit Smokehouse
Mark Smith, who works for the Tucson Unified School District, opened his Tucson barbecue restaurant in 2009 but still competes regularly.