Smoke Freaks are excited to welcome Master Certified BBQ Judge candidate Karl to the team for this weekend’s “Best of the Midwest” competition in Union Grove, WI.
A Certified BBQ Judge (CBJ) can apply for Master CBJ status after judging 30 contests, cooking with a team and passing a knowledge test. CBJs are required to cook with a team so they can gain a more intimate view of what it’s like to cook on the pro BBQ circuit. We think it’s also a great way to build relationships between judges and cooks, and hopefully our judge can draw from this experience and become an even better judge.
Smoke Freaks had always planned to host a judge one of these days. It’s the right thing to do as part of the broader KCBS community.
But to be honest, we had some other business we needed to take care of first.
Selfishly, we wanted to preserve as much of our focus for the task at hand -- winning our first Grand Championship.
Plus we wanted to make sure we had something worthwhile to offer our first MCBJ candidate. Our mission is to deliver Freakishly great BBQ experiences, whether we’re cooking, entertaining or coaching and consulting. So if a judge was going to cook with us, “Freakishly great” is the bar we’re aiming for.
We’d been approached a few times before but hadn’t yet welcomed a judge to the team.
Fast forward to the “Harbor Que” competition in Winthrop Harbor, IL. A guy named Karl shows up at our cook site after judging is complete and introduces himself as a MCBJ candidate looking for a team to cook with.
Here we go again.
We explained that we’re not feeling ready to have a judge join us just yet. But the more we got to talking to Karl, the more we thought he was pretty cool. He seemed like he could roll along with our Freak Force, which is really important to us.
Plus, he was wearing a tie-dye, so we got his contact info and promised to let him know one way or the other by Monday.
Well, the awards ceremony ended with a whole lot of howling as we are called up for Grand Champion! We finally did it!
Our thoughts went almost immediately to Karl, and we laughed because even though we’d all but decided to welcome him to the team, we knew there was no way of saying “no” now. Besides, he’s a good luck charm as far as we’re concerned.
But how do we go about making it a Freakishly great experience for him? We got to work on that right away:
And of course, we’re planning to tap into all of his experience when we make decisions on what goes in the turn-in boxes. We can already tell he’ll have some great feedback for us.
I know we’ll learn a lot from the experience, as will Karl. I’m so thankful our paths crossed.
Do you have any thoughts on other ways we can make it Freakishly great for our MCBJ candidate? Drop us a comment and Freak ON!
It's National Pulled P❤rk Day, what else would I blog about?!?
1. The road to victory goes through p❤rk
2. It's all in your head
3. Cook with love, never with rage
4. Attitude is everything
5. Trust your gut
6. Unleash your inner Freak
7. Don't forget to have fun
8. If you want something badly enough, you'll figure it out
9. Some details matter more than others
10. Be a wolf
How crazy is it that 5 or 6 words on a bright yellow card can be so devastating? At least that’s what I used to think, back when I would dread getting one of those bad boys tucked into our scores.
Turns out I had it all wrong. Comment cards are a gift, which I came to understand over the course of this season as we received three of those little presents so far.
Comment Card #1: Brisket, CCS Fest; Indianapolis, IN: Our first brisket turn-in of the year, and we were still experimenting. It came out terrible -- tough as leather and tasting like a salt lick. We salvaged burnt ends, which somehow still tasted kinda like beef, but the box was sub-par and we knew the judges were going to hate it.
And they did, to the tune of 139 points (which might actually have been generous). When I saw a little yellow slip sticking out in the score sheets, I knew it was about to get real.
It wasn’t easy seeing the words “almost impossible to chew.” If I’m being honest, we needed a few minutes to get past our initial reaction and shake off the sting.
But this was one of the best comment cards we’d ever seen because it was descriptive, clear and didn’t leave much to the imagination.
Our scores alone were perfectly clear on the fact that our brisket sucked, but what if we were new or just struggling to figure out what the judges were looking for? Was the texture weird? Was there an unfortunate glob of fat? Was it rubbery, chewy, tough or maybe dry?
This judge’s comments shed light on the situation. “Chewy,” “rubbery” and “fatty” gave us immediate hints on what went wrong. Sure sounds pretty gross.
I guarantee, we haven’t messed up a brisket like that again.
Comment Card #2: Ribs, Mankato Cookout; Mankato, MN: This one really ticked off Mr. Freak at first: “Remove the back membrane.” He’s thinking, “I bet you didn’t eat a rib all day without the membrane peeled, and you sure as heck didn’t get one from us!”
Comments that try to solve problems are especially loathsome to cooks. There was no membrane on those ribs, and none of the other judges beat us up. But instead of throwing our scores into the fire, we decided to diagnose what the judge was actually telling us: something was clearly unpleasant about our tenderness.
(Since then, we’ve figured out what it probably was and came up with a way to mitigate it.)
Comment Card #3: Chicken, Sam’s Club Pro BBQ Tour; Madison, WI: We needed to be in the top 10 to advance to finals. It was a great cook, but we only managed 19th out of 30.
My mind was drifting from, “What are we even doing here?” to “This is just too expensive, too time consuming, too physically taxing and too hard,” to “Is it even worth it?”
Deep, introspective, thought provoking questions that had been brewing for awhile. It was going to be a pretty miserable drive home.
That’s when I saw the comment card. Great, more insult to injury.
“Excellent smoke flavor. Thank you.”
And at that moment, it all changed. The struggle that felt futile just moments before was replaced with a reignited fire in my belly.
On an emotional level, Judge #1 helped me get my fighting spirit back.
On a rational level, Judge #1 had given me perspective to see that it was a stacked field of 29 other teams who had earned their way into the Regionals. 29 great teams. My chicken was on point and the field was tough. It happens. Maybe I’d forgotten that?
Judge #1 gave me something else. I’d had some great calls throughout the season, including 1st place at Green Bay against another stacked field of 58 teams. Getting 1st was great and all, but I didn’t really know why. What was working with my 1st place chicken and how so? What aspects contributed to our top score?
These comments gave me some insight to something I’d already been wondering, what were the components of our flavor profile beyond the obvious seasonings and sauces?
This is super helpful feedback.
Sure, the scores in and of themselves are incredibly helpful data points. But scores alone don’t answer the “why” or “how so” that’s needed to understand the judges’ reaction to your cook.
At The Neale Group, our consulting business, we would never let our clients make important decisions without taking the time to understand both the “quantitative” and “qualitative” side of the story.
Quantitative data is easy to come by for BBQ cooks. That’s our scores, and we get tons of this data every weekend. It’s incredible to be able to see how your individual score compares to a given judge’s average.
But how often do we get the qualitative kind … some indication from a judge to help us understand what they did or didn’t like? It doesn’t matter what I think about our food, or what our friends or even fellow competitors think about it. All that matters is what the 6 judges who evaluated it think about it.
Comment cards don’t need to be lengthy or complex. Just a few checked boxes and a couple of words can add immense context to the story compared to just scores alone.
Every weekend, virtually every cook gives their all to present judges with the very best and most impressive experience we can pull off under the rules.
Every weekend, each judge is on the receiving end of something to the tune of 12-18 full days worth of human effort, delivered to them via 9x9 boxes.
For all the judges who do take the time to write a card or two most of the time, thank you!
For all you judges who never or rarely write comment cards, please consider spending 30 seconds to check a few boxes and write just one or two cards every comp. Make it constructive or make it a compliment. Make it brutal for all we care, just tell us why you scored what scored.
And for all you cooks, keep an open mind when you get one of those "dreaded" yellow cards.
Feedback is a gift, and the right card at the right time might just make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling or thinking about throwing in the towel out of frustration.
Special guest blogger appearance by Mr. Freak...
I’m not going to lie. We wanted nothing more than to be at the American Royal doubleheader in Kansas City over Labor Day weekend.
But we didn’t make it into the “Invitational” part of the event, which is only open to teams that won a Grand Championship at a qualifying state championship BBQ competition in the months leading up to the event.
Although we could have competed in the American Royal “Open,” which is held in conjunction with the Invitational, Smoke Freaks made a decision at the beginning of our cooking careers that we’re not really ready for the big show in KC until we qualify for the Invitational.
So we did the next best thing with our weekend, with a starring role at the Greek Royale in Hobart, IN.
The Greek Royale takes place every 2-3 years and is attended by a lively pack of Greeks and assorted Hellenophiles who come in from as far away as New York to take part in one of the oldest forms of BBQ known to man -- lamb on a spit.
Over the past 5 Greek Royals, Mr. Freak has learned the nuances required to master this ancient form of pitmastering from one of the Freakiest Greeks in The Region, Mr. George Logothetis, father of Ms. Freak.
My first lesson commenced in 2003, when I was given the unglamorous but important task of sewing up the body cavity of my first lamb. Once the insides had a sufficient coat of salt and pepper with a few lemon halves thrown in to steam the ribs and loins with citrone goodness, it was my job to stitch up the belly.
Being a bit of a perfectionist, I took great care to make it look awesome and symmetrical, like the laces on a Chuck Taylor hi-top. No mean feat at 5 am.
Mr. Logothetis was pleased. So over the years, he gradually imparted upon me the knowledge and wisdom required to cook at the Greek Royale:
This year, it was my turn to put it all together and lead the cook, with massive assists from Mr. Logothetis and his eldest son, Drago. So I brought a secret weapon never before observed at the Greek Royale -- a Thermapen.
By injecting this little technology tool into the ancient tradition, we were able to get our lamb perfectly done from end-to-end after 7 hours and 60 lbs of charcoal. We got 9-9-9s from most judges, including the most important one -- Mrs. Logothetis -- who threatened to strip my pitmaster credentials if I sent anything to the table that wasn’t AT LEAST well-done.
In between basting strokes, we were able to watch some of our friends getting it done at the American Royal. It was so cool to see guys we compete against week in and week out getting some of the biggest calls of their lives.
Our next shot to qualify for the 2018 American Royal is this weekend at Silver Lake, our first foray into Michigan. All we have to do is win the whole shooting match among a field of hungry teams with the exact same idea.
And oh how I love p❤rk. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you’ve seen me yammer on about all those moments of doubt and disappointment, anger and frustration, confusion and concern. But you see, those moments actually helped us sharpen our p❤rk game and finally… to break out of our 15-competition p❤rk slump!
That’s right, we got a 6th place p❤rk call at Day 1 of Death’s Door BBQ!! Out of 40!
It was incredible.
And I’d love to tell you how it happened.
Step 1: Diagnose the Problem
A friend, who is also an experienced Certified BBQ Judge, was in touch to make sure we understood how big of a p❤rk problem we really had. It was hard to hear, but that reinforcement helped put even more fire in our belly.
Step 2: Narrow in on Solutions
There are lots of levers to pull, so it helps to have some discipline on what to focus on. One day we were talking shop with some fellow cooks and we took away some new ideas. Namely, to go back to basics and look for ways to simplify things.
Step 3: Perfect the Technique
With a clear solution in mind, it was time to improve some techniques. Again, we did more research and found some new inspiration for our cooking and boxing. More practice, practice, practice.
Step 4: No More Head Games
This one’s great. It was at the welcome reception for the Death’s Door BBQ when my all time BBQ hero told me flat out, “You know what your problem with p❤rk is? It’s all up here,” as he tapped the side of my head. (And it was true. Before we even got to Washington Island, I knew we were getting a p❤rk call. I absolutely believed we would get the job done.)
Step 5: Freak ON!
So on competition day, it was as simple as putting it all together and cooking some p❤rk.
And we did!
We had to do some serious pitmaster gymnastics to adjust to a cook that was somehow running an hour behind schedule and craaahing into our Chicken cook. As our friends from Second Hand Smoke SLV pointed out, it was a 30-40 degree temperature drop from our last several outings, so that probably affected things.
But we figured it out, because we were cooking with love.
When we sliced those money muscles, we knew. I was literally beaming with pride and love for p❤rk when I turned in that box. It seemed criminal to set it on the turn-in table and just walk away.
At that point it was out of our hands. And with some time to kill before awards, we returned to beautiful Schoolhouse Beach to soak up some Island time. There’s good energy there.
That's where I found that beautiful heart shaped rock, my p❤rk rock.
At awards they called Smoke Freaks for 6th place and we lost our minds. The best part was sharing that moment with our BBQ family. These guys knew of our struggles, they felt our pain and they celebrated our success. But more than anything, it was a community celebration of the joy we all feel when one of us finally turns some BBQ corner.
(And then there was the time we all motorboated our p❤rk for good luck, but that’s a story for another time…)
With 15 competitions and an incredible 2-week break behind us, we’re headed into the last 10 competitions of The American Freakage Tour. And depending on how we score, every single one of these comps could count toward Team of the Year points.
As it stands right now, we’ve had nine Top-10 chicken calls, nine Top-10 brisket calls, seven Top-10 rib calls and one lonely Top-10 p❤rk call. In the mix were three First Place calls (two for Ribs and one in Chicken) and 1 RGC.
As of this writing, we’re #78 out of 2,482 in the international KCBS standings. But still, we can do better.
So as we head into the second half of our season, I’m feeling a strange blend of both urgency and zen. Urgency in that we’ve got to get points on the board with all 4 meats, especially our dear p❤rk. And zen in the sense that we just need to run our playbook and focus, because we totally got this!
I think the two-week break from competition BBQ will end up helping our game. Competition BBQ just wasn’t at the forefront of my brain, despite the 18 racks of ribs and 50 pieces of chicken that we trimmed for upcoming contests and the 1,036 pounds of charcoal we stacked up for the rest of the year. I really needed that mental break.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t take a vacation from BBQ altogether. In fact, we busted out Big Earl -- our Jambo Backyard -- for our Block Party After Party and served up some killer brisket burgers. I’d forgotten what a completely different cooking experience an offset is, not to mention the capacity. Plus that Jambo is badass. It just looks cool sitting in the front yard surrounded by friends and family.
And then we watched a friend of ours smoke some ribs for the first time ever, using Ugly Betty, our Pit Barrel Cooker. It’s satisfying to know that you helped turn someone on to the way of the smoke and to see them get into it. But the bigger surprise? It was literally the first time in a long while that I not only ate several ribs but actually took my time to savor them. (I’m the rib taste tester during competitions, so I’m pretty well sick of ribs after testing multiple bones off each rack week in and week out. Cry me a river, I know.)
But back to being zen…
I have to admit there was something nice about catching up on sleep, advancing a big consulting project for our client, enjoying the first tomatoes from our garden, surviving our epic neighborhood 4-day block party, doing a bunch of home improvement stuff plus squeezing in a drive-in movie and blissing out on our 14th wedding anniversary.
I’m feeling accomplished, yet refreshed. 100% ready to step back in and do what we do.
Next up: Ribberfest in Madison, IN, this weekend, where 60+ teams battle for BBQ glory. Freak ON!
Hi Pork. It’s me, Ann. I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot, and I’d like to start over.
I’ve been thinking about our relationship, and can see how I’ve hurt you.
When I said I was a bit reluctant to become the pork cook, I should have also mentioned that I was super excited to learn a new skill. In fact, I try to live my life by the motto “always be learning” -- especially in BBQ. I should have told you that.
I know there have been times when I have been less-than-enthusiastic in digging through steamy butts to find the best muscles to put in the box. I should have also let you know that that moment is actually a pure adrenaline rush. That moment when I’m pulling back your sooty foil and see your yummy, porky goodness. Delish.
It was probably pretty offensive to see me so unkempt and groggy at 4:30 in the morning when lighting your pit. You didn’t know it, but in reality, I just couldn’t wait to get the fire burning so we could embark on our approximately 4 hour, 30 minute journey together.
And Pork, perhaps worst of all… I can see how upset you probably were when we switched your pit from Fatboy to Clownfish, who joined our family back in April and was totally untested on the competition trail. I should have at least given you a heads up about the change so you could have warmed up to the idea. I totally suck for springing that surprise on you like that.
I am so sorry for all of this. The pain and suffering. The doubt, the frustration, the feelings of being unloved and unwanted. It doesn’t have to be this way…
I love you, Pork. I really do.
I’m your biggest fan, your most tenacious pitmaster and I am so Freakishly determined to transform your delicious offerings into Freakage the judges can’t turn their backs on.
I hope you can forgive me. Ideally before the Effingham Jam this weekend.
We're just back from the doubleheader Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Fest in Green Bay. What a weekend it was! It’s great to have a good cook and even better when you have one on both days, especially when you’re up against 58 other teams.
I scored my very first 1st place in Chicken on Day 1 which helped us land 9th overall. And we took 5th overall on Day 2 thanks to 3rd in Chicken, 11th in Ribs and 2nd in Brisket.
Let’s just say Pork continues to be an “opportunity” for us.
Here’s my Top 10 of all the Freakiest moments:
10. The Freak Force is real, and it was palpable before we even arrived in Green Bay
9. It’s never good to look out the window and see one of your 40-pound canopy anchors levitating from yet another freak storm
8. We were only 100 feet from a liquor store, but 1000 feet from turn-in
7. I ran into my wolf doppelgänger and her hat was WAY cooler than mine
6. I lost my wolf hat temporarily at awards when an adorable little boy borrowed it
5. We took a gamble and it paid off
4. The new Smoke Freaks lighters are battle-tested and proven to bring out the Freakage
3. I loved that chicken from the moment I first laid eyes on it
2. I was determined not to drop that 18-pound trophy when they presented it to me
1. Our pork was serenaded each morning for good luck - click here to see the video!!
Special guest blogger appearance by Mr. Freak...
We’ve always considered Brisket the Kilimanjaro of KCBS barbecue. It’s hard for a lot of cooks to conquer, not so much because it’s technically difficult, but rather because of the sheer expense involved in making the journey.
Most of us have to cook more than a few cases of those big, beautiful, budget-busting slabs of beef before we even get a glimpse of the summit. And that costs a crapload of money, even if you’re cooking CABs from Costco.
Fortunately we found a shortcut early this year that helped us make our run at the top of the mountain. We’re not there yet, but we got pretty close last weekend at Sam’s Club with a 178-point-whatever, having missed our first 180 by a tenderness point.
The shortcut? It’s called Mystery Beef.
This all started at our first comp of the year, CCS Fest in Indy. After a long winter off, we came out guns blazing with strong calls in Chicken, Ribs and Pork. But we finished in the bottom half of the pack overall, thanks to terrible Brisket that deserved every one of the 5s it got at the judges table.
We made the bonehead move of trying a hot new ingredient without even doing a test cook. Matter of fact, we didn’t even taste it before Mr. Freak went injecting that stuff into a $180 Wagyu brisket.
It turned out to be a lethal mistake, but from the ashes of that 139.92 box of horrors, Mystery Beef was born.
What is Mystery Beef?
Don’t ask Mr. Freak, he doesn’t know. And Ms. Freak doesn’t know either. All we know is the stuff evidently works pretty well on Brisket, and it was first perfected the night before Day 2 of Masters in May, where we RGCed thanks, in part, to the magical qualities of Mystery Beef.
Masters Day 1 had been pretty ugly for us, and Brisket had again proven to be our nemesis. We were still tuning our recipe in real-time on competition day, and it bit us in the ass AGAIN!
Confident the problem had something to do with the fancy new injection, Ms. Freak decided to do something about it. She changed the formula of the injection mix, trying something completely different than prescribed on the package. The end result: Smoke Freaks Full-Strength Beef mix.
Meanwhile, Mr. Freak had his own ideas, so he doctored the base injection as supplied by Ms. Freak, not knowing that she had already thrown the original recipe out the window.
By the time we pumped the new concoction into our Day 2 SRF Black Label, we realized neither of us had any idea what was actually in the stuff.
Mr. Freak was pretty bent out of shape about it, but Ms. Freak remained sanguine and simply labeled the remaining injection “??? Beef ???”
A few hours later we were driving home, smiling ear-to-ear the way BBQ teams do after a killer day. We’d not only RGCed, but we got a nice call in Brisket -- our first of the year!
Mr. Freak tried to take credit for fixing the brisket injection. And so did Ms. Freak.
That’s when we realized, not only did we not know what Mystery Beef is, neither of us knew exactly what we did to make it. So we spent the rest of the drive back-tracking every step until we were each pretty sure we’d figured out our respective parts of the formula.
I’d tell you what goes into my half of the injection, but Ms. Freak doesn’t even know that secret. Some things are best left a Mystery, and as long as our Brisket recipe is working, that’s what it will remain.
Next stop: Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Fest in Green Bay, our 4th double-header of the season. Freak ON!
We just wrapped up a much needed week off from the BBQ trail. The highlight of our week “off” was a 3-way pork test where we went back to basics for inspiration.
Pork has been our nemesis all year, and despite working on it constantly, we just haven’t been able to turn things around in the judges’ tent. Oh what I would give for my first pork call! But like the song goes, “you can’t always get what you want.” And true to the song, I guess I did get what I needed - some pork help from our BBQ family.
Yep, these are the folks that we go up against each weekend, and they’re also the same people who would lend you a hand and give you the shirt off their back. Their advice was much appreciated and it gave us the inspiration to do yet another test cook, this time with simplification in mind.
We tested our go-to pork recipe (T1) against an early 2017 recipe (T3) that earned us our only pork award of the year … and a new recipe (T2) created just this week. While we were at it, we tried our hand at some new trimming methods that seem promising and way more efficient.
(Truth be told, I’m feeling some pressure to get some pork points on the board as we head into our first appearance at the Qualifiers for the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour. The top 6 teams advance to Regionals so we really need pork to be working for us vs. crushing our dreams.
We thought T2 was the clear winner on appearance, taste and tenderness. By a lot. The funny thing is all aspects of the recipe - trimming, injection, rubbing, wrapping, carving, saucing and boxing -- are super simple.
So it was decided, we’ll put it to the test at Sam’s Club this weekend!
Now we just gotta nail our entire cook, starting now.
I really needed this week off from the BBQ competition trail. After 10 contests, including a string of 3 doubles and a 1,000 mile journey for a Minnesota comp, it was time to take a break. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-by-day excitement and flurry of BBQ-related activities and for me, not so easy to take a pause, rest and recharge.
We had one of our toughest cooks recently in Kewanee, IL, which I attribute partially to not being rested from the previous week’s double and the 1,000 miles of driving our Wolf Wagon. I definitely didn’t see it coming even though I thought I was taking pretty good care of myself.
When we’re competing, I get a lot less sleep and average about 15,000 steps a day. What I hadn’t really paid too much attention to is the impact of walking up and down the RV steps hundreds of times in a weekend. Our Wolf Wagon setup is a vast improvement over where we started with a tent in the street, but it still forces us to haul a lot of stuff in and out and up and down. And at the end of the day, we’re still cooking out in the street under a tent.
It all starts to take a toll.
It’s been a great week off so far. We’ve surrounded ourselves with fresh vegetables and fruit, have hung out with family and friends and have been able to tackle plenty of other life priorities that were stacking up.
BBQ is still on my mind though.
Like today. It’s Wednesday which means it’s meat trimming day… but not today! Hooray!
And then last night when we had neighbors over for Taco Tuesday featuring last week’s competition leftovers. It was great to hear people rave about the pork, especially since the judges don’t seem to like it.
Although we’re laying low this this weekend, we’re another A/B/C test to dial in our pork recipe before Sam’s Club in Indianapolis next weekend.
One of my BBQ friends recently announced that he “wasn’t gonna change anything” after a disappointing showing at the Westmont Red, White & BBQ competition. Smoke Freaks were equally perplexed with our results from that event, as we had one of our best ever cooks, only to be nearly shut out at awards.
When something that’s always worked stops working, it really starts to get under your skin.
It makes you stop and think about whether it’s time to make an adjustment or whether to just hang in there through the rough patch, knowing (hoping) it will eventually turn around. It’s hard to know exactly when to make that pivot since judging has inherent subjective aspects (like “taste”) and you hit new judges each week.
And how do you ever know what the right answer is?
I’ve heard of a general rule to give it at least 3 cooks before you make changes, and then start with one change at a time. Others stay the course and continue to do what they do best. And some take on bigger risks with larger scale changes.
We’re facing that crossroads with pork this year. We had an early call at the beginning of the season and are cooking better than ever before, yet our scores aren’t what we want them to be. And that’s true even since before I became the pork cook.
We’re getting pretty tired of the status quo, so we’ve started to make some adjustments to pork. The first was a flavor element last weekend that carries into this weekend’s debut of some new Freakage at the Heritage Days BBQ Showdown in Belvidere, IL.
Last Saturday, in the middle of our chicken cook, I had a complete freak out. I couldn’t remember if I had actually made the turn-in boxes or not. All 4 boxes were ready to go, of course, but it really struck me that this momentary uncertainty could have gotten under my skin to the point of interfering with a cook that was going very, very well.
(Worst case scenario, we would have gone commando on the boxes. But shaking off that feeling of dread was not so easy, at least for me.)
The Smoke Freaks method of competition BBQ is a series of hundreds and hundreds of little tasks that are all really important. Many things have to happen in a very specific way, and so many tasks are completely dependent on other tasks. When you’re having a great cook, all of those things happen in perfect harmony. It all just flows and the right things happen at exactly the right time.
But in order to pull this off, you’ve got to have your game face on -- AND -- you have to be ready to deal with the unexpected. Because something will usually happen that could knock you off course.
Supplies: Do you bring all the right stuff needed to execute your cook? What if you accidentally left the injections at home? Can you figure out a way to deal with it or are you SOL?
(Wo)Manning the Pit: Are you focused enough to keep an eye on your pit temps for the duration of the cook even when you have to multitask? If you had to crank open the exhaust to bring up the temp, did you remember to adjust it back down at just the right time so it doesn’t run away from you?
Boxing: Are you observant enough to find anything weird, like a worm in your kale? Because even a microscopic piece of foil will get you DQ’d. It could have happened to us in a brisket box last year in Indiana, but fortunately we discovered it in time and walked away with an RGC instead of a DQ.
Weather: Can you deal with 35 MPH winds or a huge downpour right as you’re getting ribs on? It’s no sweat for the teams who basically cook indoors, but those of us under popups have to batten down the hatches.
Equipment & Fuel: Can your cooker deal with these weather conditions and still run steady? (Our Hunsaker Smokers ran perfectly during two days of crazy weather.) Did you put the charcoal and wood somewhere where it won’t get wet?
Transportation: What if the lock on your RV door malfunctions and you can’t open it? Will you have time to find an RV store, locate the right part and be able to install a new lock? (Been there, done that.)
The Enemy Within: Can you deal with ever-changing conditions and all the logistics that are needed to pull off a winning cook? Can you handle all the uncertainty? Do you believe in yourself enough to rise above whatever comes your way? Do you want it bad enough?
Next up on the American Freakage Tour is stop #9, the Hog Capital Challenge in Kewanee, IL. Freak ON!
A week off from the American Freakage Tour 2017 has given me lots of time to reflect on our season after the 6 competition mark. As we prepare for a 1,000 mile road trip this weekend, Smoke Freaks have seen new achievements and even came close to BBQ glory… and we’ve been plenty disappointed.
Sometimes it comes from within. Like that nagging realization of not being on top of your game, when your focus was off and you knew you blew it. Yeah, that stinks. And other times, it’s a result of cranking out one of your best cooks ever, only for the judges to have other ideas.
The data illustrates that Smoke Freaks have clearly had more ups and downs this year than we did in our first season, despite the additional competition experience we’ve gained. I think we’re competing at a higher level this year, and when our scores tank, we’re sometimes left scratching our heads.
I’ve come to believe that the best and most consistent measure of success in competition BBQ is your own assessment of your performance. I think you return from the day’s last turn in with a very clear sense of how you did, if you’re brutally honest with yourself -- at least we do. In two recent competitions, I summed it up like this, “I don’t care what happens at awards, I’m proud of this cook and wouldn’t change a thing.”
Now in one of those competitions, we walked away as Reserve Grand Champions in a field of 59. And in the other, we got totally, and I mean totally smoked. So what gives? In the long run, I think a lot comes down to skill. But in the short term, there’s a whole lot of luck involved.
Sometimes, all you get is the personal satisfaction of knowing it was a cook to be proud of. Even if it was an amazing cook, the kind where everything comes together splendidly… that might be all you get. It doesn’t matter how hard you tried or how much money you spent or how many miles you drove to get there. Sometimes, that’s all you get.
And then sometimes, that makes you even more determined to hit the jackpot like we’re planning to do up at the Mankato Cookoff on June 10th and 11th. It’s our first competition in Minnesota so we’re excited to deliver the Freakage!
I never dreamed of being the pork cook, but I am always up for a new challenge. So it seemed like the perfect time to take on another meat in our quest for BBQ glory. I’ve been our chicken cook since last July so adding pork gives me control of half our cook, which makes sense, as Mr. Freak and I have always been equal partners.
But this is pork. I’ll admit that meat feels a little daunting since it’s such a different cook. With chicken, each thigh is an individual piece that may or may not go into the turn-in box. We cook plenty of extras, so if I screw up a thigh or two or four, I’ve still got plenty to consider for boxing. Pork is different. It’s a big meat, so it takes longer to cook, meaning there’s more effort to make sure everything runs smoothly.
And that big hunk of meat consists of a bunch of different muscles, which all cook differently. Timing is everything in the tenderness game. And for me, boxing pork is intrinsically more difficult, because you may have one type of pork meat to box with, or two, or three if you’re lucky. And it changes from cook to cook.
Fortunately, I don’t need to learn a new pit. We’re already using Clownfish, our newest Hunsaker Smokers cooking machine for chicken, so I’ve got that down. Our plan is to continue to use Clownfish for pork in the early morning and then for chicken when pork comes off. That leaves Redrum and Pam for the rib and brisket cooks, respectively. It’s a massive advantage to be able to have three different pits running at three different temperatures as needed.
To prepare for this weekend’s doubleheader competition, we did a two-variate A/B test, consisting of 4 separate butt sections. We sampled a lot of pork that day, focusing primarily on taste. I won’t give away all the juicy details, but will say that we’re feeling good about the flavor profile we landed on. We hope the judges agree as they Taste the Freakage.
And as stubborn as I am to do the cook independently, I can’t deny the comfort that comes from having Mr. Freak as my pork mentor. We got this!
We’ll be putting Operation Pork to the test this weekend in Westmont, IL at the “Red, White & BBQ” competition in Ty Warner Park. Freak ON!
Smoke Freaks had a wild ride at our first appearance at the Masters in May doubleheader last weekend. We ended up 45th out of 56 teams on Day 1 -- aka totally smoked. We were disappointed, upset, distressed and pretty shaken up.
But somehow, we had to shake it off to have any chance of a good cook on Day 2. It took a lot of serious focus but we managed to pull it off. We danced and howled our way to the Reserve Grand Championship on Day 2 and our very first 1st place award (Ribs)!!
Here's what I learned from that experience:
10. Lock in 4WD before you drag an 8,000 pound trailer into the mud
9. The BBQ family takes care of each other
8. Get to "Walking Biscuits & Gravy" early
7. Mary makes the best Bloody Marys
6. Don't be downwind when Mr. Freak applies the Freakage Rub
5. Darren is the nicest guy in BBQ
4. The Matrix of Freakage works
3. Ask for advice and you'll probably get it
2. Be resilient no matter how badly you get smoked
1. Never give up on the box
We'll be back on the BBQ trail Memorial Day weekend at the "Red, White & BBQ" Competition in Westmont, IL. Until then, Freak ON!
There you have it -- the words that no BBQ competition team ever wants to see on a comment card. BURN!
How did this happen? What could we have done differently? And most importantly, what have we learned?
It all started 3 weeks ago at our first of 25 competitions this year, CCS Fest in Indianapolis.
After a long off-season, we were finally back on the BBQ trail, cooking and reuniting with our BBQ family. Despite a nagging feeling that we had forgotten something, everything was going well.
On cook day, the weather was still a little windy, but nothing our pits from Hunsaker Smokers couldn’t handle. The sun was coming out and it turned into a lovely crisp spring day. And we had a good cook. Things fell into place, and we worked well together as a team. It felt good to be back.
And then finally, it’s time for awards. Such anticipation… HERE WE GO! Chicken. 9th place. Alright, we’re off to a good start. 6th place ribs, also nice. Ribs have always been our specialty, and we were pretty sure we’d placed. And then pork. Smoke Freaks for 7th place!!
That means 3 of 3 calls, a fantastic place to be sitting in, especially for your first cook of the season! People around us were starting to chatter and consider the possibilities… and for a very brief moment, I allowed my brain to drift over into the land of BBQ glory. BUT WAIT. We knew something no one else knew … our brisket was a fail.
(And when I say “fail,” I mean it sucked. The slices were like leather, so imagine the fun I had boxing up an anemic looking collection of burnt ends.)
But maybe, just maybe, by some miracle, we hit 11th in brisket and that might be good enough for something, right? NOPE. 42nd in brisket. Out of 45 teams. That dragged our overall score from top-3 to 25th. OUCH.
When the winners were announced, everyone around us was perplexed, asking how we managed to get 3 good calls but miss the overall top-10?
Well, this comment card sums it up pretty well...
We used our laminator to preserve that comment card, which memorializes the worst score we’ve ever received. It now hangs on the wall of the Wolf Wagon. Between that haunting reminder and our own Freaky efforts to diagnose and fix our our brisket problem, I can promise you we will never let that happen again.
What else did we learn? Work hard and play to win, but never take yourself too seriously. Own your mistakes and move on. Be humble. Stay Freaky.
We’re putting those lessons to the test this weekend at the Great Wisconsin Tune-Up in Manawa, WI. Freak ON!
Smoke Freaks are all packed up and ready for our first competition of the year at CCS Fest this weekend in Indianapolis. CCS Fest is the first stop on our American Freakage Tour 2017, where we will cover 5 states, 10,000 miles, 1,500 pounds of meat and 25 competitions for 1 goal -- BBQ glory.
It’s been a long, long off-season. During our time off, we put a lot of time into other parts of our BBQ operation.
Practice, practice, practice. I lost track of the total number of test cooks we did over the winter and spring, but it was a freaking lot. So many pieces of chicken to prep… so many slabs of ribs… countless flavor profiles for pork… brisket, brisket, brisket…
Freak Rub development and final testing. Over the fall, we did a “BBQ Rub Taste Test” with about 50 people to get their reactions to things like saltiness, sweetness, spice heat level, what types of food they would envision it on and how much they liked it. Then we spent the winter applying that feedback to our final recipe tweaks with more test cooks. Coming soon!
Supercharging the Smoke Freaks brand. It’s so cool to apply your professional brand marketing experience to your own brand. I’ve done this kind of work many times in my career but it’s so much more personal and the stakes are so much higher because it is YOUR brand. I tell you, in all of my years in Corporate America, I’ve never worked so hard on a brand or had as much fun as I did with this one. It’s great to have a solid foundation in place that will help us tell the story of our Smoke Freaks brand… Freak ON!
Sprucing up the Wolf Wagon. Our BBQ war machine, aka The Wolf Wagon, has finally been fully repaired from last year’s accident… it only took 10 months. We also added a new set of tires just this week to get totally roadworthy.
Securing sponsors for 2017. We started working on our sponsorship plan back in the fall by asking ourselves how WE could deliver value to sponsors, not the other way around. We did lots of brainstorming on potential partners and the specific offerings that would make up each sponsorship level. In the end, we focused on brands where we already had strong relationships and natural synergies.
Drum roll please… our American Freakage Tour 2017 is sponsored by Wichita Packing Company (provider of our premium BBQ meats), Hunsaker Smokers (builder of our amazing drum smokers) and Windy City Wood Products (purveyor of everything we burn in BBQ). We’re so appreciative of their support!
So after all that, we’re finally ready to jump back into the competition circuit this weekend. Good luck to everyone competing at CCS Fest this weekend in Indianapolis!
It all comes down to this. Smoke Freaks have one more shot at BBQ glory this weekend at our 10th and final competition of 2016, the "Central Illinois Bragging Rights" in Arthur, IL.
Right now we're sitting on #25 in Ribs in the nationwide standings for teams that have cooked up to 10 events, and we're hoping a great rib cook at Arthur will push us into the Top 10.
There's nothing like a little extra pressure to go along with all the cobwebs that have accumulated in the 9 weeks since our last competition. Yikes.
Mr. Freak says "don't worry; it's just like riding a bike."
And you know, he's right. Our bike might be rusty, but no guts, no glory baby! We'll just have to activate our Freak Force Powers (aka howl) to get the job done.
We're about to call our 2016 competition season a wrap, but will soon have plenty of exciting news on our new line of Smoke Freaks BBQ rubs and seasonings. That's right, you'll soon be able to Taste the Freakage right in the comfort of your own home.
Stay tuned to our website and Facebook page for all the latest updates.
Until then, howl whenever you can, stay freaky and SMOKE ON!
We always get a little uncomfortable whenever we take time off of the competition BBQ trail. Sure, the extra time is nice, but we start to get antsy and ask ourselves, “just what have we done lately?” Well that moment started to present itself as I sat down to write this blog post. Turns out, we did quite a lot.
First we watched two of our friends get drawn for The Jack! The Jack Daniel’s World Championship BBQ Invitational contest is the Superbowl of BBQ and at the very top of every pro team’s list of dreams.
Teams make The Jack either with an automatic entry (such as by winning 7 Grand Championships at qualifying events) or by being lucky enough to have their “bung” (barrel stopper) drawn.
Last Friday was “Draw Day” and Smoke Freaks was stoked to see that two of our friends got in! We’re so proud of our friends Bill (Thunder Hog BBQ) and Mark (Smokin Aces at thebbqsuperstore.com) who are headed to Lynchburg in October. Wishing you all the best!
We think our friend Mark from Smokin Aces at thebbqsuperstore.com said it best:
"A journey that began in 2009 with my good friend Scott.... Since that journey began I had 1 goal, to make The Jack. Well after almost 175 contests, 15 Reserve Grand Champions and 8 Grand Champions, tens of thousands of miles and dollars spent chasing a dream, that dream finally came true!"
(The Jack. One of our goals for Smoke Freaks in 2017.)
And then we started a business. Smoke Freaks, LLC. It's real. We're going to make something of Smoke Freaks. We're on our way with several business paths that we're working on.
Coincidentally, our business became official on the 39th anniversary of Elvis’ passing. And so, I leave you with an Elvis quote that sums up our drive to build Smoke Freaks into something that matters.
"You only pass through this life once, you don't come back for an encore."
Stay tuned for our next freaky chapter of Smoke Freaks...
It was a glorious weekend with absolutely perfect BBQ weather. Highs in the 70s with clear skies and sunshine. And no rain!! After a long drive, we pulled up at a local campground for a quick overnight before arriving at the Manitowoc County Expo and Fairgrounds on Friday monrning.
With 26 other teams competing, we got to see old friends and make new ones. We even slipped away on Friday night to catch a few races at the Speedway, which was right next to the competition area.
Saturday got off to a great start, thanks our wake up song, Werewolves of London…
... and a killer biscuits and gravy breakfast from Tim’s Full Belli Deli!
Saturday’s cook went really well and we had many laughs (and howls) throughout the day, including many at the awards ceremony. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment we got 2nd place in chicken, our best chicken score to date. I was beaming with pride over that that chicken score, which combined with 5th in ribs and 4th in brisket was good enough for 4th overall!
But no rest for the weary as we had to do it all over again on Sunday. Another beautiful day and man, Smoke Freaks were totally in synch and our cook followed our timeline almost to the minute. We scored 7th in chicken, 3rd in ribs and 5th in pork, giving us another 4th overall! (We missed 3rd overall by .6 points!)
We were thrilled with our consistency over the last few competitions, but now need to get all 4 meats scoring well within the same cook.
Thanks for reading our blog for a little Taste of the Freakage!
Smoke Freaks took last weekend off for some much needed R&R at home. It was our first weekend off after 7 contests in 6 weeks and we didn’t really appreciate just how much we needed that recharger.
Of course we were busy during our week off. Lots of time with our nieces and nephews mixed in with everyday life stuff that can get away from you when you’re so busy: oil changes, cleaning and laundry! We even picked our first beets from the garden!
It was a nice week… but… we didn’t expect to be haunted by BBQ the entire time. BBQ was always there, always on our minds and even taking over our dreams. Lots of BBQ dreams. Most of them were BBQ nightmares, which was too damn freaky for us:
We’re ready to shake that mojo off and hit the road for the Badger Brew & Que this weekend. We’ll be in Manitowoc, WI for another double-header and lots of freakiness.
If you’re in Manitowoc on 8/6 and 8/7, stop by to Taste the Freakage!
Smoke Freaks survived the brutal heat of the Effingham BBQ Jam last weekend. It was a weekend of blood, sweat and…. brisket!!
There’s nothing better than standing over a hot cooker all day, except snagging 4th place pork and 3rd place brisket! Our best brisket result EVER!!
We were happy to get our Freak Streak back on track and seriously stoked about our brisket performance. Our brisket is back, but now our chicken needs some work. Turns out we missed another Reserve Grand Championship by less than a point, due to my 19th place chicken!?!
The Effingham competition was staged on the streets around the town square, which was a pretty cool set up. We even got to turn in our meats to the judges at the Effingham county jail building!
So we're taking our first weekend off after 7 competitions in 6 weeks to enjoy the comforts of home. It does feels a little strange not to be loading up for a competition and we’ve both had BBQ nightmares about forgetting to cook a meat or bring one of the smokers.
(Oh, and you better believe that I’ll be practicing my chicken cook to get that back on track. Game on.)
If you’re in Manitowoc on August 6th and 7th, come out to Taste the Freakage!
Here are a few Freaky moments from Effingham…
We arrived at the New Palestine Wine, Brew & BBQ Too competition with a simple mission: cook our #@%&s off. Smoke Freaks rose to the occasion and snagged our first RGC, or Reserve Grand Championship!
It was a fierce battle facing 38 teams on Day 1 of the double-header, including 5 of the top 25 teams in the nation. We cooked this double-header weekend as a 2-man team, for only the second time. Much of our success that day should be attributed to our level of organization and planning, both of which we needed to lean on heavily.
When it was all said and done, I got my second-ever chicken call (9th place) and we also snagged 4th in Ribs. We couldn’t believe our ears when they called Smoke Freaks again for 4th in Pork. And we lost our minds when we were named Reserve Grand Champions!
And just like that, they wiped our names off that great big check and wrote in our friends Thunder Hog BBQ as RGC for Day 2. We, on the other hand, got totally shut out. We cooked exactly as we had the day prior, but it just wasn’t our day. Those judges scored some killer BBQ, that’s for sure.
Here are a few Freaky moments from New Palestine...
We cooked our first double-header at the Gold Ribbin' BBQ Fest at Lambeau Field this past weekend. Not only did we survive, but we kept the Smoke Freak streak alive!
From that moment on it was a constant blur of activity. A blend of focus and fun. Smoke Freaks are totally serious about serving a great product to the judges, but we're Freaks, so we like to have a good time. Take for example, our team rally cry: "Smoke Freaks. Arrrrrrrgh. Hooooooowl. SMOKE FREAKS!" (That's because we're part pirate, part wolf and 100% freak.)
So how did we do? We wrapped up Day 1 with 10th in Chicken, 14th in Ribs and 17th overall out of 66 teams. We were thrilled.
But no time to celebrate as we had to turn around and do it all over day on Day 2. Except this time we were down a Freak. Our Chicken Specialist couldn't join us so not only we were down to two Freaks, but I had to do the chicken cook on my own. No small task... just my first KCBS competition cook EVER.
Things got pretty hairy on Day 2 with that chicken cook. But we ended up with a 9th place call in Chicken, 12th in Pork and 23rd overall out of 55 teams. Yep, I got a chicken call! I couldn't believe it when they called for Smoke Freaks to come on up and get an award. I froze on stage and then was prompted to say or do something... so apparently I let out a very enthusiastic howl!!
Here a few Freaky moments in Green Bay...
Ann is Co-Founder and Pitmaster for Smoke Freaks. She loves being the Chicken cook and has fallen head over heels in love with P❤rk.