From RE Magazine
Through the haze of sweet-smelling smoke, Sean Sherwin tends to the brisket on his gravity-fed charcoal smoker, a contraption that resembles a refrigerator on wheels. All through the night, the apron-clad Sherwin watches the fire and babysits the meat that, some 14 hours later, he will carve into mouth-watering slices for a team of judges. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s a lot of fun,” Sherwin says.
Welcome to the world of competitive barbecue.
Sherwin, geographic information system coordinator at Bridger Valley Electric Association in Mountain View, Wyo., is a pit master and competitive barbecuer. He’s serious enough about it that he plans his vacation time around the barbecue circuit in the Rocky Mountain region, each summer hitching a camper to his pickup truck and heading out with his wife and two kids, who make up the Guppa D’s BBQ team.
A casual summer grill-off this isn’t. “With grilling, you light some coals and throw on some burgers,” Sherwin says. “Barbecue is not quite that simple.”
In fact, it’s serious business, with the big competitions carrying purses that top $100,000. The meat itself―brisket, pork butt, ribs, chicken―can easily cost hundreds of dollars per event. Rubs, injections, and cooking temperatures are jealously guarded secrets, and pulling all-nighters while cooking outdoors is common.
“I go old school: low and slow,” Sherwin says of his preferred cooking temperature. “My wife and kids go off to sleep in the camper, but I get the joy of staying up all night with the cooker.”
Mornings on judging day get a bit frenetic, as Sherwin finishes and slices each meat and signals to his wife, Kristine, to prepare it for the judges. “You’re allowed five minutes before and after the designated turn-in times,” Sherwin says. “After that, there is no latitude.”
Although the Rocky Mountain region isn’t known as a barbecue mecca, as Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and the Carolinas are, it’s still loaded with passionate pit masters. Sherwin got hooked 10 years ago after his parents gave him a small smoker for Christmas. The avid cook―a skill he picked up during his stint in the Navy―began experimenting in his backyard, initially with less-than-stellar results. “My family has eaten some really bad barbecue,” Sherwin says. “The first thing I tried smoking was chicken thighs. They were horrible―undercooked, over-smoked, rubbery.”
Rather than give up, Sherwin began devouring barbecue tips and techniques. Internet searches piqued his interest in the competitive side of this savory summer sport. Taking a bit of an unorthodox approach, he traveled to Utah to attend a Kansas City Barbecue Society seminar and become a certified judge. “Judging is the best place to learn,” he says. “Sitting down in the judging tent eating competition-grade barbecue is about as good as it gets.”
Sampling the entries as a judge gave Sherwin confidence that his own meats could compete. In the beginning, his goals were simply to get everything turned in on time and not finish in last place. By the third year, he was winning awards. Today, he consistently places toward the top in most categories―chicken is still his Achilles’ heel. He also continues to judge a few competitions each year.
Aficionados attest that the best barbecue is found at the competitions, where people like Sherwin pour their hearts and souls into their dishes. With its regional differences, barbecue remains highly personal. For Sherwin, though, it’s simple. “You know how to tell really good barbecue? Eat some,” he says. “If you put some in your mouth and you think it’s pretty darn good, that’s good barbecue.”
Good food aside, Sherwin has learned some life lessons through his hobby. “There is a lot of humility in barbecue,” he says. “There is nothing like babysitting a brisket for 14 hours, doing everything right, and then when you sit down and eat it, it’s horrible. Those things happen.”
The misses are rare these days, and Sherwin has even branched out into a bit of catering, including the smoked pork he served to co-workers at the co-op’s Christmas party. “Thankfully, they enjoyed it,” he says. “I’ve been doing it long enough now that I’m confident in my cooking.”