ARCADIA VALLEY — John Yeast loves taking part in barbecue contests. That’s the reason why he came down from St. Louis over the weekend, set up his grill at the AV Bar-B-Que Battle on the Iron County Courthouse grounds and commenced to cooking.
Yeast barbecues under the team name of “Heroes Choice” and said he’s been attending events like the one in Ironton for quite a while.
“I’ve been competing for about six years now,” he said. “I made the mistake of watching the show ‘BBQ Pitmasters’ and it got me hooked. It was all downhill from there.”
Yeast said his interest in barbecuing turned into a “post-divorce hobby” that became “addicting” and led to his growing participation in barbecue contests.
“The last two years I’ve really picked up a lot,” he said. “I’ve done about 20 contests and traveled to about six or eight states.”
Yeast has gotten so involved with barbecue, in fact, that he’s now an official media spokesman for the craft.
“I co-host a barbecue radio talk show out of St. Louis on KTRS 550 called ‘BBQ Pitmasters Radio Network,’” he explained. “We broadcast every Sunday from 4 to 5 and it’s been going on for about eight months. Barbecue is really big right now and it’s not getting any smaller.”
And how did Yeast make the move from watching a TV show about barbecue pitmasters to entering competitions himself?
“I have never considered myself to be competitive,” he admits. “About three or four months after I started watching the TV show, St. Louis did a backyard contest and I thought ‘Why not give it a shot?’ And so I went to a backyard contest and I was hooked. After that I just thought ‘This is fun and competitive.’”
Yeast says there’s no doubt that the best part of barbecue contests is the people.
“Barbecue competition is a very unique environment,” he explained. “Whether you call it a craft, a sport or a hobby, I would challenge anybody to find the same quality of people that are in the barbecue community to anybody in any other sport, craft or hobby.
While cook-offs are most definitely competitive in nature, Yeast said there’s a comradery that exists between the contestants.
“There are a number of us who know one another who travel the circuit,” he said. “I know that if I run out of charcoal, I can go to five guys and get it. If I’m running out of butter, I’m running out of something, I can go borrow it. Although we all want to win, we’re also going to help each other. It’s very unique.”
Yeast uses hardwood lump charcoal to barbecue his meats and considers his specialty to be wet ribs. At the Arcadia event, however, he took a leap of faith and tried something different.
“I entered the category of pork steaks last night,” he said. “It was the first time I’ve ever cooked pork steak in my life and I took third, so, I was pretty happy with that.”
Yeast said he’s participated in barbecue contests large and small, but remembers the biggest competition he’s been in so far.
“It was down in Miami, Okla., last year,” he recalled. “It was a great contest with about 90 teams — several of the teams that were on BBQ Pitmasters were there. I had three top five calls and among a field of competitors of that caliber I felt pretty good.”
Weekend judge Andy Wise of Creve Coeur said the Arcadia Valley event was impressive.
“This is a real nice competition,” he said. “On the town square like this is nice. I drove 100 miles to be here. To make a 200-mile drive and see something like this is great.”
Strictly a judge and not a competitor, Wise knows his barbecue and that’s why he’s called on to provide his expertise at contests.
“The hardest meat to do right is brisket,” he said. “My wife and I did a barbecue crawl through Texas last November. We did 10 places in four days in a line from Dallas to San Antonio. About 30 miles either side of the line has got probably 10 or 15 of the best barbecue places in the state — right in that little section. So we just took a few days and my wife, sister and I just drove and did them all.”
He explained what barbecue contest judges are looking for.
“When judging meats the first thing you do is take a look at the appearance of it,” he explained. “Does it color properly? Is it pleasingly placed in the box? Is it properly smoked?
“Once you take a look at the appearance, the next thing you do is judge it for taste and tenderness. You’re looking for ribs that don’t fall off the bone. That when you bite into it they come off cleanly.
“We’re looking for brisket that’s not so tender that it falls apart and not so tough that it challenges your dentures,” he continued. “In pulled pork you’re looking for a smoky taste but not anything that’s overwhelming. Kind of a combination of heat and sweet all at the same time. There’s a variety of things we look for. Chicken that’s done, but still moist, which is hard to do sometimes. You give a score and take it to all the judges. You add up their scores and the top score wins.”
One event co-coordinator said that, while it would have been nice to see more teams come out, his planning committee was very happy with the results.
“We ended up with 15 teams this year, but were actually hoping for 20,” he said. “We’re with the St. Louis Barbecue Society and they had another competition in St. Louis this weekend that pulled some of the potential teams from here to up there.
“We had a heck of a crowd Friday night with 500 people there at one time. It was packed. We’re hoping to be bigger and better next year with a lot more teams. From talking to the contestants, some are definitely planning to come back and bring some of their friends.”
Be watching in Tuesday’s Daily Journal and online at www.dailyjournalonline.com for the results of the competition.
“We’re looking for brisket that’s not so tender that it falls apart and not so tough that it challenges your dentures.” Andy Wise, barbecue contest judge
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or email@example.com