Published: April 10, 2012
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This is a special guest post from Heath Hall, Pitmaster of Pork Barrel BBQ. Not only is Heath a master at this craft, he and Brett have become one of our great friends in the barbecue community, we at Grilling with Rich love all things Pork Barrel BBQ!!
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Pork Barrel BBQ took 3rd place overall at the 2012 ACM BBQ Throwdown in Las Vegas, NV, and we want to hear all about his great barbecue competition adventure in Vegas, so making his Grilling with Rich article debut, here is Heath Hall, Pitmaster of Pork Barrel BBQ.
Pork Barrel BBQ at the 2012 ACM BBQ Throwdown
In DC the Rent is High and the Food is Bad? Go West, Young Man!
By: Heath Hall, Pitmaster of Pork Barrel BBQ
Famed American newspaper editor Horace Greeley once said, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” Rent is still high in Washington, but is the food still bad?
Our competition barbecue team, Pork Barrel BBQ, decided to kick the 2012 competition barbecue season off by taking Greeley’s advice and going west. We weren’t going west to grow with the country. We were going west to listen to country music and convince a group of certified barbecue judges that the food, at least the barbecue, being turned out by Washingtonians these days isn’t bad, but in fact quite good.
Our westward journey which began in Washington, D.C. ended in the parking lot of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada – the site of the inaugural Academy of Country Music (ACM) BBQ Throwdown. If we were going to turn Greeley’s perception of food in Washington around we would have to bring our A game as we’d be cooking against 112 of the best competition barbecue teams from across the United States (and one team from Britain) including Pellet Envy, Lotta Bull, Slap Yo Daddy BBQ, The Smoking Hills, Big Poppa Smokers, Whiskey Bent BBQ and Smokin’ Triggers.
The ACM BBQ Throwdown, organized by Ronnie Cates of Smoke on the Water Productions, wasn’t your average barbecue contest. In addition to a lineup of great teams cooking together at such an early contest, kind of like if the NFL held the Superbowl in September, many of the biggest acts and notable rising stars in country music including the Zac Brown Band, Craig Morgan and Gloriana participated in ACM activities at Mandalay Bay.
After we got our meat inspected early Friday morning we began the process of mixing our sauces and rubs, trimming and prepping our meats and building our boxes before heading out to meet a number of the west coast teams that we only get to interact with via social media. It was great getting to meet teams like Left Coast Q and Slap Yo Daddy BBQ for the first time and connect with old friends like Jason Day from Burnt Finger BBQ and Rod Gray of Pellet Envy. We also had the chance to catch up with our friends Mike and Chris Peters of the Great American BBQ Tour and Dr. BBQ, Ray Lampe, who was running a number of celebrity grilling events for Creekstone Farms.
In addition to meeting and reconnecting with barbecue friends we had the chance to spend some time with Chef Rusty Hamlin, the executive chef for the Zac Brown Band. Chef Rusty is the heart and soul behind the Zac Brown Band Eat and Greets. His passion for Southern Food and support of local farms is unparalleled. If you get a chance to meet him and eat some of his food keep your fingers crossed that jambalaya and peanut butter chocolate biscuit bread pudding are on the menu!! They are killer!!
After a great meal at Boarder Grill, Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s great Mexican grill in the Mandalay Bay, we headed back to our cook site to prepare for the long night and day ahead. We had been refined our cooking method over the winter and spring, had nice meat to work with and had a stack of amazing oak, hickory and cherry to smoke with from our awesome sponsor Fruita Wood Chunks. It was just about show time for Pork Barrel BBQ.
After a couple hours of sleep we lit our first fire of the 2012 competition season and set our sites on the $50,000 prize purse, one of the season’s richest contests, being offered at the 2012 ACM BBQ Throwdown. I imagine the butterflies in our stomachs were akin to what a baseball player feels on opening day from the excitement generated at the dawn of a new season filled with hope and promise.
After a long night of cooking turn-in time had arrived. At 11:45 a.m. we began the process of finishing and tasting our chicken and we were pretty certain we had a product that had a chance to compete for a call. Thirty minutes later we pulled our ribs off the smoker and they looked great with some great bone pull and a nice mahogany hue. We had struggled with ribs all of last season, but we felt like there was a chance we had exercised our ribs demons and would start the new season with a rib box that would woo the judges. Halfway through and we were looking good, but that quickly changed with pork. We had to pork butts that we felt were overcooked and two that we felt were undercooked. They both had good flavor and looked fit for a magazine cover, but we were pretty sure they weren’t going to get us on stage with a call. In the homestretch we pulled our briskets from the Cambro and within minutes knew we had a chance with either one, but one stood out as being more flavorful. The burnt ends were slightly overcooked, but had a great flavor so we rolled the dice and included them in the box, after all it was Vegas and it was time to go big or go home.
After a few minutes of relaxing we began to tear our cook site down and wait for the awards. It was the first cook of the year and we felt like we had a chance for a couple calls, but knew that there was a stacked field and our food was going to be going up against the best pitmasters in the world. At 6:00 p.m. it was time to see if we had convinced the judges that Greeley’s assessment of Washington food was no longer accurate.
As Ronnie picked up the microphone the butterflies began floating around our stomach and as he began rattling off team from 20th place on they got bigger and bigger until he called 6th place, Pork Barrel BBQ. A solid start to the 2012 season and we’d be heading home to DC with a call from the first contest of the year making the trip to Las Vegas worth the investment. As he began to call ribs we thought we had a chance. We thought we’d shaken the rib demons away, but that would not be the case as our ribs finished 32nd. Then came pork, a category we thought we had blown and as the calls got closer and closer to 1st place we knew we were out of the running. Then, with as much surprise as seeing the Jackpot light of a slot machine turn on he called 1st place pork, Pork Barrel BBQ. A Vegas miracle had just happened. As soon as we got back from the stage Ronnie was calling brisket and we heard 20th place brisket, Pork Barrel BBQ. With three calls and overall standings still to come we were ecstatic to know that we’d be leaving Vegas in the black!
As the overall calls began to be read we thought we had a good chance at a top 10 finish, but there were a number of great teams with multiple calls and we still didn’t know how our ribs had faired. We’ve lost out on a number of calls in overall the past couple years thanks to a weak showing in ribs. No Pork Barrel BBQ in calls 10 through 6. It was nail biting time as 5th place and 4th place were called. Did we have a shot at this thing or were our ribs so bad that we didn’t even finish in the top 10? Then we heard those sweet words, 3rd place, Pork Barrel BBQ.
Our first cook out west couldn’t have ended any better. We met a lot of great teams and were thrilled to walk away with four calls. We also were able to confirm that Horace Greeley’s assessment of Washington food had lost its validity.
A big thanks to Bert from Fruita Wood Chunks for providing us with the best wood on the market and Ronnie Cates with Smoke on the Water Productions for putting together a great contest!
We’ll see everyone on the barbecue trail in 2012. Our next cook will be in Middletown, DE at the Middletown BBQ Cook-Off. Be sure to stop by and say hi if you happen to be cooking in Middletown and stop in at our Pork Barrel BBQ Restaurant if you find yourself in the Washington, D.C. area. That invites even open to you Mr. Greeley!