BBQ festivals across Texas
Texas BBQ festivals have been growing along with the popularity boom of BBQ itself. The Houston BBQ Fest launched in 2013 and the Red Dirt BBQ Fest had its first event this year in Tyler, Texas. The big daddy is Texas Monthly’s festival in Austin which began in 2010. Some people are confused about exactly what a BBQ festival is. First and foremost it is not a competition. There are no trophies and no judges. It is a celebration of BBQ for the eater, who gets to sample the food offered up by local and guest BBQ enterprises. Beer is usually available for a fee as well as desserts. Other vendors participate and live music is usually a part of a fest as it is part of any true Texas party.
The Gettin’ Sauced fest is a bit of a hybrid. The festival is centered on a BBQ sauce contest featuring a bottled sauce and an on-site sauce contest. In addition however, the festival includes a number of BBQ joints offering up free samples of their BBQ, and usually a live band or two as well.
I have not yet been to the Texas Monthly festival in Austin. From the pictures I have seen the lines are long, and the entry fee had me considering how much BBQ I could purchase on a non-event weekend in comparison. After visiting the other festivals though I am considering jumping into Austin’s festival this year.
The three pure BBQ festivals have a two tier primary entry fee. The general admission provides entry to the festival and samples from as many of the BBQ vendors as you wish throughout the day. A VIP option provides entry an hour prior to the general admission. This helps VIP ticket owners to sample some of the most popular joints without the big lines. In addition, the VIP option usually includes a free Tshirt and a drink ticket or two. The 2014 Tyler festival had the lowest entry cost of the pure BBQ fests; $45 for regular entry and $90 for VIP. The Houston festival ran $50 for general admission and $90 for VIP. The Texas Monthly festival’s standard admission ran $75 while VIP was a whopping $135 per person. They did offer a $35 walkup value ticket for entry at 3pm, 3 hours after the VIP entry time. The Texas Monthly fest was the only one to include Franklin BBQ and included the most BBQ joints. However both of the other events included a great range of well-known BBQ joints and plenty of delicious BBQ. One of the reasons I passed on the Austin event is I felt like the VIP option was the best way to avoid major lines, but at $270 for a pair of VIP tickets for Leslye and me we could fund a weekend trip to several different joints.
Gettin’ Sauced offered a great value with free entry if you didn’t want to sample the BBQ vendors, and BBQ passes starting at only $8. While there were fewer BBQ joints represented than the bigger fests, the value belied the fact that some of the best BBQ in Texas would be available, including Louie Mueller, Black’s, Opies, Freedmen’s Bar, and more.
One of the great reasons to come to a BBQ festival is the ability to sample multiple BBQ joints in a single day. For those who haven’t already eaten at the represented places it makes for a day of new BBQ experiences. Luckily for us even though we had eaten BBQ over 120 times in the last year, each of the festivals we attended provided us with some new experiences.
I highly recommend attending any of the festivals mentioned. If the entry fees seem high, consider the additional costs you would need to incur in order to visit several of the joints in a single day or even long weekend. If you still balk, then check out Gettin’ Sauced in order to get a bit of a feel for what the others have in store.
Gettin’ Sauced 9-28-2013
Leslye and I rolled out on the BMW motorcycle at a reasonable hour. We had purchased VIP tickets and had signed up to be official judges of the bottled sauce contest along with my nephew Cory. While the gate opened at 3 and VIP entrance opened at 2:30, we had to get there a little earlier in order to get set up for the judging. This still gave us plenty of time to ride in from Houston without having to get up at the crack of dawn.
A chance of rain was in the forecast but we rode the bike anyway. Coming into Burton, Texas my music mix began playing “It’s raining again” by Supertramp. While the song is about more than just rain, I began to nervously laugh to myself. That is, until it really did start raining. In over 25 years of motorcycle riding I have only ridden in the rain essentially by accident, and both Leslye and I were woefully unprepared to handle rain events. I did have a pair of waterproof boots, but I didn’t have a rainsuit. The rain let up before we rolled into Austin though, so our spirits lifted.
When we arrived it was a little confusing getting set up for judging. The bottle sauce judging was indoors away from the main festival activities. There were a number of different categories so we each signed up for different ones. While some categories didn’t have a huge number of entries, Leslye’s had 38. I had about half of that but each of us had both good and some pretty bizarre sauces in our batch. It was also a bit hard to judge a sauce without trying it on its intended meat. Some sauces mix just right with the meat, but I don’t think we would have been able to eat so much if it was set up that way. The people’s choice live sauce contest was indeed set up that way, with the contestants and BBQ joints including it as part of the sample. Regardless, we enjoyed the judging activity immensely.
Once the judging was complete we joined the main festival. Walking through the vendors we sampled a good amount of BBQ and checked out the other participants as well. In fact we ate until we were stuffed with great BBQ. My friend Robert Bassett joined us as well as my sister and her husband Ernest. Then the rain came back with a vengeance. The festival, as all others I am aware of, is held outdoors. The rain fell hard and fast, with the wind kicking up as well. We finally retreated to a restaurant bar that was located in the same complex as the festival grounds.
We enjoyed camaraderie and drinks until the rain finally let up. We didn’t leave the festival for two reasons; first we were on the motorcycle so there wasn’t much reason to get out in the weather, and secondly there was a raffle with a grand prize we were interested in. BBQ photographer Robert J Lerma had created an amazing piece of art – A photo signed by the best pit masters in Texas.
Robert had traversed Texas and obtained the signatures himself. The photo includes:
Aaron Franklin – Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX
Bert Bunte – Zimmerhanzel’s – Smithville, TX
Dirk Miller – Miller’s Smokehouse – Belton, TX
Dustin Blackwell – Hutchin’s BBQ – McKinney, TX
Emilio “Emo” Soliz – Two Bros. BBQ Market – San Antonio, TX
Evan LeRoy – Freedmen’s Bar – Austin, TX
Gary Prause – Prause Meat Market – La Grange, TX
Gerald Birkelbach – City Meat Market – Giddings, TX
Harold “Buzzie” Hughes – Buzzie’s Bar-B-Que – Kerville, TX
Jack Perkins – The Slow Bone – Dallas, TX
Joe Capello – City Market – Luling, TX
John August Fullilove – Smitty’s Market – Lockhart, TX
John Lewis – La Barbecue – Austin, TX
John Mueller – John Mueller Meat Co. – Austin, TX
Jonathan Shaw – Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q – Tyler, TX
Justin Fourton – Pecan Lodge – Dallas, TX
Kerry Bexley – Snow’s BBQ – Lexington, TX
Lance Kirkpatrick – Stiles Switch BBQ – Austin, TX
Marco Oglesby – Opie’s BBQ – Spicewood, TX
Mark Prause – Prause Meat Market – La Grange, TX
Michael Hernandez – Hays Co. Bar-B-Que – San Marcos, TX
Monroe Schubert – Prause Meat Market – La Grange, TX
Nick Pencis – Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q – Tyler, TX
Robert Sierra – S&S Pit Crew – San Marcos, TX
Roy Perez – Kreuz Market – Lockhart, TX
Stephen Joseph – Joseph’s Riverport Barbecue – Jefferson, TX
Tim Hutchins – Hutchin’s BBQ – McKinney, TX
Tim Rattray – The Granary ‘Cue and Brew – San Antonio, TX
Tom Micklethwait – Micklethwait Craft Meats – Austin, TX
Tootsie Tomanetz – Snow’s BBQ – Lexington, TX
Vencil Mares – Taylor Café – Taylor, TX
Wayne Mueller – Louie Mueller Barbecue – Taylor, TX
Will Fleischman – Lockhart Smokehouse – Dallas, TX
This is essentially the Holy Grail for a BBQ fanatic, and we wanted our shot at it. Even if we missed out there were a huge number of door prizes available so we waited out the storm.
We walked back to the main festival area and tracked down Drew Thornley, the main behind the fest. Leslye asked him about the photo, and by chance, it was ours! That same moment Robert Lerma walked up and showed it to us. We were overwhelmed and thankful. Even without the photo we had a great time but this was nothing short of amazing. To put it in perspective, after the event an identical signed copy of the photo was auctioned off for $1,000, with proceeds benefiting the Warrior Dog foundation. That auction winner, Jack Perkins of Slow Bone BBQ, has it on display at their location in Dallas.
We left the photo in the care of my nephew because of the potential for more rain and we would meet up at Snow’s BBQ a few weeks later to retrieve it.
We headed back towards Houston and came across the same storm for the second time. It had passed through Austin and was headed in the same direction we were. It wasn’t so bad at first. As long as we kept the speed up the rain was mostly diverted over the windshield. But as the rain came down harder, traffic began slowing. Eventually we were only moving at 20mph. The rain soaked us completely and even began filling my boots up. Then the lightning began to get frightfully close. As we neared Chappell Hill, Texas there was a lightning strike so close to us that I felt a tingle of electricity in my fingers. It was time to take cover. We pulled into a gas station and waited long enough for the storm to pass. We tried to dry out a bit using the restroom hand dryer but really it was futile so we hopped back on the bike and finished the trip back home.
Houston BBQ Fest
The Houston BBQ Fest celebrated its second year on April 6, 2014. The heat in a Texas Summer can be oppressive and the Spring date had the potential for great weather. Unfortunately it, too would be a rain-drenched event.
Eighteen BBQ establishments would participate, including Louie Mueller which was planning on expanding into the Houston area, and Morgan’s Texas Barbecue which hailed from New York. The event is a means to allow a wide variety of BBQ joint’s fare to a city of residents who in the past have had only a few choices for great BBQ. The festival was a success and there was a lot of great BBQ served up.
We had purchased general admission tickets rather than buck up for the VIP but a few weeks prior to the event the founders created a contest with the winning prize to be a pair of VIP tickets. For each Twitter post with a photo of someone visiting one of the featured BBQ joints, their name would be entered into the drawing.
Leslye and I decided to try and hit as many of the joints as possible before the fest. For three weekends we drove, ate, and twittered ourselves in an attempt to have the most entries. We hit up 9 of the 18 participants including three that we had never been to before. We won the drawing! Adding up our receipts and not counting gas, we had spent $184 to win tickets worth $180, but did get to eat a lot of great BBQ and visit some new places in the process.
Since we had an extra pair of tickets we invited friends Brandon Griffin and Liz Rogers along. Leslye and I headed up to gates for the early VIP entrance while drizzle fell. Organizers Chris Reid and Michael arranged for additional covered areas but it was going to be a messy day. We got our VIP freebies and headed straight for Pappa Charlie’s. Pitmaster Wesley Jurena cranks out some of the best brisket in Texas and we wanted to start our day there. He did not disappoint, the brisket was flavorful and moist and carried my favorite style of rub which is pepper and salt based. Next up was Patrick Fege’s BBQ. Keep that name handy as he is rising quickly. Then it was over to Killen’s. Ronnie Killen’s new joint in Pearland is a jewel of a BBQ joint and features a killer selection of Texas BBQ. He stacked the deck by providing samples of Wagyu Beef ribs along with his brisket. I’ve had a lot of beef ribs, but those were absolutely insanely good.
We hit probably five more vendors before the general admission gate opened. I walked over and checked out the line. I was surprised; even in the disappointing weather the crowd was in full force. We walked Brandon and Liz over to Pappa Charlie’s then to the long line that had formed at Killen’s. They had run out of brisket and were waiting more to arrive so we bounced to some of the other spots. Ray’s BBQ Shack went all out with side dishes and even a cardboard tray. They also sported the longest line of any of the joints all day.
We tried to check out the band a couple of times as I was enjoying their music but just couldn’t get into the groove with the weather. We did have a great time though, and it was very cool seeing all the Houston joints getting their day in the sun rain. We can’t wait for next year as there are already new joints that I believe would participate. One of the only downsides was that the entire festival was essentially in a giant parking lot which didn’t lend itself to relaxing in the grass, or in the shade of a tree.
Red Dirt BBQ Fest 5-3-2014
Our decision to visit Red Dirt was made only a few weeks before the event. With less than a month between the Houston fest and Red Dirt we didn’t originally have it in our plans. It is held in Tyler, Texas and would pretty much require an overnight stay. Between the distance, timing and the associated costs we had originally written it off.
Red Dirt billed itself as a BBQ Party and featured some of the biggest names in BBQ as well as five different bands. The location was ideal, in the shade of trees in a grassy park in downtown Tyler. While East Texas only has a handful of great joints this fest was able to pull in a great list of BBQ vendors from a wide swath of Texas. These included Louie Mueller, Black’s, Labbq, and many more top quality purveyors of smoked meats.
Robert Lerma convinced me to reconsider and we mapped out a weekend that would include a visit to Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for lions and tigers, before the event. We took the Miata and enjoyed some of the off-highway roads on our way up
We got in line for our general admission ticket gate and the smoky aromas drifted past us. When we got through the gate we hit it fast and furious, quickly loading up on great BBQ. We spent a lot of time visiting and chatting with folks, including Jess AKA burgermary who was on one of her many visits to the Lone Star State from her homeland of Australia.
Shiner was their beer sponsor and the price was very low for such an event; $4. They did require tickets to be purchased at a separate booth (cue Ron White), but the overall value at the fest was great. Free ice cold sodas were being handed out by Brookshire’s food and pharmacy, and plenty of swag was handed out including free key chains from Shiner.
One of the highlights of the day was talking to Harold “Buzzie” Hughes of Buzzie’s BBQ. I was getting a shot of his hit when he invited me onto his trailer to show me around. He hand built the pit and it was a different design than any I have seen. The tall rectangular pit was the shape of a large dresser, but made of hand hammered steel and brass rivets. The firebox is in the middle and directly above it he has vented the smoke away so fresh pies can be baked while finishing off the meats. Harold was a great guy and I have been out to his place once before and will go again. Located in Kerrville it’s a nice place to stop in one of the great scenic areas of Texas.
Another highlight was chatting with Barrett Black, a fourth generation pit master from the legendary Black’s BBQ in Lockhart. The line at Black’s was the longest we noticed all day, but late into the day Barrett was working the line and signing up people for a BBQ giveaway contest. He’s a great guy and keeping the Black’s name and quality at the top of the pile. It was our last BBQ sample of the day, and even though it was hours after the festival had started it was still moist and flavorful.
We listened to a couple of the bands and the music was great but we began to tire out. We had gotten up very early in order to hit the big cat sanctuary before making our way to the festival and had simply run out of energy. We decided to leave, grab something sweet, and call it an early evening.
That was a mistake. John Brotherton and his wife had taken a power nap after sampling the BBQ early and had returned to the festival. He had brought some chocolate dipped brisket that he had done at Fried&True in Austin. We missed out and I can’t wait to try that after seeing the pictures and hearing others speak of it.
All in all, each festival provided something different, and we enjoyed each one we visited. All of them featured great BBQ and more. Gettin’ Sauced had the lowest entry fee by far and offered a large array of door prizes. The Houston fest had a large number of BBQ offerings. Red Dirt had the feel of a true party and had the cheapest drink prices. I recommend any of them if you want to enjoy great BBQ and sample from a variety of different styles while enjoying music and more.