Friday, February 1, 2013


As I watch the fog roll off the ice I am amazed that it is mid January in New England; it feels like an early spring day. As dusk falls upon me it is still around 55 degrees outside. The barrel aged stout I'm drinking seems a bit out of place. By 8PM, I'm cleaning my brewing equipment still just wearing a t-shirt. It was a great day to brew... In a few months when this beer I brewed is ready to drink, I'll remember this day. I'll remember the grains in my hands, I'll remember smelling the mash, I'll remember  every hop addition, and I'll remember tasting the wort. That sweet and bitter wort that will gradually transform into a wonderful elixir. It will mature into something tangible, something that can be shared, and something that can be enjoyed by many. The art of brewing I do for me. The fact that I get to share the fruits with others is just a wonderful bonus.

When I drink a beer I savor it; I want all my senses to experience it. I like to try and imagine what was the brewer thinking when he brewed this beer. What was he feeling? Was he just punching a time clock? Going through the motions? Or was he truly inspired? Was he reaching inward to create the best beer that he could? Is he able to flourish in a favorable environment to perfect his craft? Or is he brewing in an environment where the Marketing Department dictates what he should brew? Is it all about the money, or is it all about the beer?

For me it's all about the beer. It has always been, all about the beer. I have been homebrewing for over 20 years now; I have been enjoying Craft Beer for much longer. No matter what else I'm doing in my life, great beer has always been there. There have been many changes in the Beer World over those 20 plus years. Up and downs, trends and fads. I've seen small, local breweries grow into major players in the Beer Industry. I've watched homebrewers become Titans. I've also seen it go horribly wrong. Breweries  and Brewpubs sprouting up everywhere only because it's a growing market. I've watched Giants of The Beer Industry try to retain their market share, to no avail. I've seen them all jump on the - insert the flavor of the month here - bandwagon. It never works... well, it sometimes works in the short term, but rarely has staying power. Why? That's easy: because they try and put the money first, the beer second... or even third. Because somewhere a Marketing Department is telling a brewer that he must brew a Double Rye IPA infused with lemon and aged in a bourbon barrel. They have done the Market Research, and the Graphics Department have already made the labels... so, hurry up and brew it! Clueless, ridiculous, and very insulting to beer lovers everywhere.

The good news for us beer lovers is that Craft Beer is exploding right now. There is an astonishing amount of great beer to choose from. Creative, delicious beers from all around the country. Small, local breweries supplying beer for their neighborhood. Regional beers, state only beers, beers that you can only get at the brewery where it's brewed. It is truly a great time for us beer geeks. At no other time has it been easier for us to enjoy great beers than now. So the next time you're reaching for that 6-pack of the usual, stop and break the habit. Spend a few minutes to find out where your beer comes from. Find out who's making your beer. And are they making beer for the love of money, or for the love of beer?

Sunday, November 25, 2012


My alarm sounded at 5:15AM, not that I needed it, I had been wide awake for the past hour. In the darkness I find my way to the door, a brisk wind welcomes me as I step outside. It's cold, and is a drastic change from the weather that we've had over the past few days. Everything is damp and dreary. I struggle in the murkiness to finish my final packing before we hit the road. About a half an hour later I'm behind the wheel pulling out of Wiseman Park, driving through Lynchburg Square, and heading down Route 55. In the early dusk's glow I can see the Lynchburg Welcomes You! sign in my rear view mirror. As we move forward the sign gets smaller and smaller...and then it's gone... I get a little sad because I know that that's the last time that I will ever see that sign again. It would be the last time in The Hollow, the last time up on The Hill, and it will be the last time competing at The Jack. And as I drive forward I become content and even at peace with our decision. I smile to myself thinking about the amazing times I've had in Lynchburg over the past four years. Times and memories that I'll always have, forever. And as the daylight struggles to break through the clouds, we press on. Moving forward with limited stops as fast as we can. Because driving directly into the path of a hurricane was not only a great idea, but it made perfect sense.

To do well at a BBQ competition you need two things: you need to cook real good BBQ and you need just a little luck. Over the past few years Lakeside Smokers has definitely received our fair share of luck. But, fortunately, at this years Jack, we were saving our luck for much bigger things. As we drove up route 81 through Virginia, a storm front from the west was closing in and a hurricane to the east was racing us up the coast. Stopping only to gas up, we drove 20 hours straight home. Barely in enough time to watch the two storms collide into what we now know as Super Storm Sandy. From the comforts of my home I watched as Sandy pulverized the East Coast. The New Jersey Shore one of the hardest hit. Where I live in New England had minimal damage and we lost power for a few hours. Very, very lucky. We made it home safe, and had a slight inconvenience. Others, not so lucky.

A day after the storm, the sun was out and we we're cleaning up the RV. I thought to myself just how lucky we were...but I had no idea. I went to work the next day only to find out that we didn't get the job that I had planned to go to that week. Seriously, how lucky am I? I now had plenty of time to relax and recharge. I had visions of chilling Lakeside and maybe brewing up some beer later that week. And then I turned on the news...everything changed. The reports out of New Jersey and Coastal New York was terrible. Facebook was blowing up with pics of the devastation. People, friends, were sharing pics of their homes. Homes that were flooded, hit with trees, or completely gone. Heartbreaking indeed.

A few days go by, a few phone calls were made, and I was on my way to Jersey. Operation BBQ Relief was mobilizing and the the BBQ Community came together to help. Friends, family, and neighbors helped the efforts by donating money and supplies. When Eric and Cindi Mitchell picked me up, their truck was pack with more supplies. We could barley fit it all in. We hit the road, not really knowing what to expect, but just wanting to help. The 7 hour trip to Forked River, NJ turned into 10 because we had to search for gas...I don't think any of us knew just how bad it was.

I spent 2 days on the New Jersey Shore, doing what ever I could do to help. Given the magnitude of the devastation, it seemed insignificant...not enough. I though: some of these people just lost their homes, and I'm giving them a pulled pork sandwich? But, hopefully, it helps. On some level, on a humane level... I hope it helps. On the way home my thoughts were still with the people I had just left. The people I met, the faces of those that lost so much, I soon won't forget. I also thought about just how lucky I really am. I felt fortunate that I even had the chance to offer any assistance, in any way. So many things had to fall into place to allow me this opportunity. I used to think that I was lucky because I've done well at BBQ competitions. But somewhere between Tennessee and New Jersey, I realized just how small that sounds, and I should consider myself lucky for so much more.

Monday, October 22, 2012

So, Where's My Gold Watch?

As our seventh year of competing comes to a close I reflect on how many great times I have had. The friends, the laughs, the whole experience. This experience that just belongs to us, the Competitive BBQer. We can enjoy things that no other person understands. We can say things that would be lost on everyone outside this circle of ours. And we certainly do things that have others questioning our sanity. We've had a lot of you had to be there moments on The Circuit. Moments that can't be duplicated, moments that can't be explained, and moments that put a smile on my face weeks after they've happened. Moments that I'll remember for a lifetime.

As summer gives way to autumn you can feel the change in the air. It is the best time of the year. Comfortable days and cool, crisp nights; perfect weather for anything. It's a perfect time to end the BBQ season. You hit your groove in the spring, you work hard in the summer, and you hope to qualify before autumn hits...because after's too late. It's reminiscent of life, isn't it? Find what you're good at in your 20's, work hard at it through your midlife, and hopefully reap the benefits as you get older. Although I like to think that I am still in the summer of my life, I can see the leaves starting to change their colors. I can feel Autumn's wind at my back; it's cool and crisp... It is a perfect time in life.

In the midst of packing for our 4th Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, I'm writing this. We leave in a few days. It is always an exciting time of year. A time to reflect on the past season but also a time to look ahead. What will next year hold for us? Will there even be a next year for Lakeside Smokers? Before the leaves start to fall from the tree...I think it might be time for a change. It might be time to readjust, rethink, and refocus on why we compete. Over these past seven years competition BBQ has given Kris and I so much. We have added lifelong friends and made some amazing memories along the way. We have been to places that we would have never gone to before. We've cooked at The American Royal, The Jack, and at The James Beard House because of BBQ. It has even made us a better couple. Getting to work side by side with my wife with one common goal at hand has been incredible. Competition BBQ has given us that. So, why change anything? Just keep on doing the same thing, right? They say doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results defines insanity. But that's exactly what this hobby is. We didn't win at our last comp, but I plan on doing exactly the same thing at our next comp and hope for different results, and for that, this hobby is the most positive way possible. I think at some point, everything must go through a change. I think it's healthy to break up the monotony... Maybe just postpone the insanity for a little while.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Same as it Ever Was

This weekend we are off to compete at The Rock 'N Ribfest in Merrimack, NH. This will be our seventh year competing there; it was the first comp that we ever did. I can remember packing for that competition vividly: nervous, butterflies, and nausea. I remember thinking 'when do these feelings go away?' Apparently, it's more than seven years. At every comp that I get ready for I get those same feelings in my gut. Nervousness, anxiety, but eager. Over the years the actual work of getting ready for a comp has gotten a lot easier. But those apprehensive feelings are still there. Competing at that first comp seven years ago we just didn't want to embarrass ourselves. This's the same thing.

They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. I never really put much thought into that saying before. But, it kind of works here. Things have absolutely, unequivocally changed for Lakeside Smokers over the past seven years. And yet, my thoughts and feelings are the same as they were getting ready for that first comp. I still don't want to embarrass myself. Sure, what I consider embarrassing now differs greatly from seven years ago. But still, it's the same feeling. I want to go there, compete, put up the best food that I can, and try to do well. At every contest over the past seven years that is all that I wanted to do. That's stayed the same. But what's changed are the goals we have set for ourselves. When you first start competing you just don't want to come in Dead Ass Last. After a few comps you just want a call to the stage. Once you get that, you just want a better call to the stage. After that happens you set your sights on a first place in a category. Once achieved, you start thinking...'can I win a contest?' Yes, yes you can. Then when you finally win your first contest the stupidest thing happens: you want to win every contest! But that's not realistic. In fact it's impossible. But's always on your mind.

The Rock 'N Ribfest has been a special comp for Lakeside Smokers over the years. It was our first comp. It was our first call to the stage. And, in 2009, it was our first Grand Championship; and the ticket to our first Jack Daniel's World Invitational. It's only 30 minutes from our home and we have hosted many parties there for our friends and family over the years. Like every year in the past, I'm looking forward to getting up there early Friday morning and setting up our site. I like to watch as new teams show up to their first comp. It's like looking into the past. That was us once: wide-eyed, curious, a little scared. And on some level, that is still us. Things have certainly changed for us over the years, but most things have stayed exactly the same.

Lakeside Smoker's First Trophy
Merrimack, NH 2006

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trying Not to Suck

May has been a busy month for Lakeside Smokers. A few last minute practices, a new sponsor, and back to back comps. The month started off with some great news: a new sponsor. I had been talking with BJ's Wholesale Club since last year about a sponsorship. The whole thing started because of the great relationships I have with the butchers at BJ's. I visit 2 (sometimes 3) clubs on a regular basis. The butchers know me, we talk, they're invested in my hobby. When I ask them to 'bring out every case of pork butts you have, so I can look through them,' they don't mind. They know I'm serious. When I see them the following week and they ask me how did we do at the comp, they seem genuinely happy when I tell them that we did good. They feel connected on some level; they helped. So, from those friendships was born a sponsorship. It was a great way to start off the season.

After a few more chicken practices it was off to Green Lane, PA for a beautiful Spring weekend. The Smoke in The Valley competition just gets it right. As a competitor you really can not ask for any better. The volunteers, led by Shawn Tucker, are focused on the teams. They are there for us. Power, water, big sites, trash removal, ice delivery, grey water removal, and an extremely relaxed attitude towards everything. I know all this sounds like the basics, but you would be surprised on how many comp organizers get these things wrong. But not Green Lane, they get it right.

We had a good cook and everything seemed to go well. I never feel confident when that happens. Usually it never ends great. Most real good Competition BBQ stories never start with 'we had a good cook and everything seemed to go well...' So we went to the awards hopeful, but realistic. It was a good day, not a great day. We took 3rd in ribs, 5th in pork, and 6th in brisket. We tanked chicken (glad we practiced) but ended up 3rd overall. Good, not great. But what was great was getting back down to Green Lane, drinking with friends new and old, and getting a little redemption from our 2010 results.

Unpack, clean, repack, work, off to Lexington, MA. Back to back comps has advantages and disadvantages. Some disadvantages are the time on the road, the time away from home, and the feeling that all you do is competition BBQ. For me the biggest advantage is that you stay sharp. You just cooked a comp 6 days ago; you just did this. Set up, cook, break down, go home. It almost becomes robotic. Do what you did last weekend, only try to do it better. Or, in the words of Brendan Burek: 'try not to suck today.' So we set up at the Lexington Battle-Green BBQ Festival and took his advice. This second year event was put on by Steve Eastridge of Meat@Slims fame. Working with limited space and resources Steve was able to provide the basics to all the teams there. The event also had some great bands and BBQ vendors for the large crowds. But more importantly Steve was able to raise a ton of money for the LABBB Collaborative Program. A great charity indeed. Nice job, Steve!

Saturday night was spent visiting and drinking with a few teams. Beers and a few shots of Jack at our site, tequila at Team Agave's site, and way too much Honey Jack at Saucehound's site. I somehow managed to hit all my triggers and stay on schedule. I found the back seat of my car by 2AM and set my alarm for 5:15AM. Three hours might not sound like enough sleep, but on the circuit it's fine. I usually can't sleep when I compete anyway so just to lay down and stop drinking for three hours is probably a good thing. Sunday morning I was a little foggy. Thankfully, we have a solid timeline and do not change anything during a comp. Like I said: it's kinda robotic. Kris and I both thought the food came out much better the week before in Green Lane. This weekend the food tasted good, not great. And on some level, deep inside, that makes me happy. If you compete long enough, you'll start to understand why. The more you like something, the more the judges will hate it, guaranteed. So, I've stopped liking our food... or at least I've psychologically stopped liking our food. Anyway, I guess my mind games worked and the judges seemed to like our food that day. Lakeside took 9th in chicken, 2nd in ribs, 3rd in pork, 1st in brisket, and we were named Grand Champions for the overall. I'd like to thank Brendan for his words of wisdom, and also congratulate him for 'not sucking' either. Congrats on Reserve, man!

June starts with a few weeks off from competing and then we have another back to back. I know it's a few weeks away, but I'm ready. The gear is cleaned and packed in the trailer ready to go. All my supplies are ordered. The butchers at BJ's know the dates and will bring in a few extra cases for me to look through. The practicing is over, and in my mind I'm setting up my site at our next event. I'll follow our timeline, keep our schedule, and try not to suck.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

An Old Flame

In 2010 Lakeside Smokers headed out to the Smoke in The Valley BBQ Competition in Green Lane, Pennsylvania. This was on the heels of a great 2009 season. We had a fantastic time at this comp, but the judges hated our food...really, really hated our food. It hurt. The year before we were dialed in. We were cooking good, developed a great system, and, of course, getting a little lucky. (Always important with competition BBQ). Our last comp before Green Lane was the 2009 Jack. We took 3rd in brisket and 7th overall; a nice finish to a great season. Over the 2009-2010 offseason we rested on our laurels. I remember packing for Green Lane that year: As I emptied out our trailer to take inventory I recall that there was hay everywhere. Tennessee hay, to be specific. It dawned on me that I had not even lit my smoker once since October of 2009; it was now May of 2010...6 months. 2010 was a rough year for us. Over the 2010-2011 offseason we did a lot of practice. Yeah, a lot...

We skipped Green lane in 2011. I kept on saying that the judges there hated our food, so why go back and get our asses kicked again. It was a decision that I always regretted. We had fun there in 2010, the people that run that comp are great, and maybe, just maybe, the judges hated our food because it sucked. I dusted off the notes from that comp, looked at the pictures of our turn-in boxes and started to understand why we didn't do so well in Green Lane. It was us, not them. It was kind of like when you break up with someone and say 'it's not you, it's me.' Well, in 2010 it was all me. This year I would like to rekindle that flame with Green Lane, Pennsylvania. So we're crawling back to them next weekend.

This year, much like 2010, Lakeside Smokers are on the heels of a great season. Last year was the best season we've ever had. Although I know we will never even come close to having another season like that again. I am not resting on my laurels this year. During the off season we practiced, we experimented, and we talked at length (nauseating at times) about BBQ. I think if I mention 'our chicken timeline' to Kris one more time she might divorce me. I'm also heading into Green Lane this year with a different state of mind. I'm calling it: an expensive practice. The first full BBQ comp of the season is always tough. You need to shake off the rust. You can practice in your driveway, with all the comforts of your home, everyday of the year. But, nothing, nothing, is like an actual comp; it can not be duplicated. So, we're headed to Green Lane for a little more practice and we're just hoping not to embarrass ourselves again. And if we do tank again this year, so what. I just can't wait to get back out there. I can't wait for the BBQ season to start up again. I can't wait to meet up with some old friends, drink beers, and rekindle that flame.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back to Lynchburg

Kris and I headed out for the 23rd Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue on Tuesday morning. Along for the ride again this year were Al and Phylis Eastman, Ted Lorson, and Maggie. Joining us for the first time was our Nephew Zack Healy. We decided to drive straight through to Lynchburg, TN again this year. This decision puts us in Tullahoma, TN by 4AM. Great, we're here!! But nothings open. Well, except the Awful Waffle. So, while we wait for Budget to open, and the hotel to let us check in, we go get breakfast. The Waffle House at 4AM is an interesting place to say the least. We had so much fun in fact, we went back at 7:30AM for breakfast number two. A few hours later the Eastman's were checked-in, they had their car, and the rest of us were making our way down Route 55. I love that 12 mile drive into Lynchburg. Passing the Motlow State Community College, the road winds down the hill as we pass the beautiful grounds of Moore County High School. Then I see the sign: Lynchburg Welcomes You! we're here; we've made it. As we pass the Jack Daniel's Distillery I can feel it. When we take that left and drive through Lynchburg Town Square, pass the Hardware Store, and pull onto Wiseman Park I can't help but smile. We pass Moorhead Pavilion on the way to our spot. All I can think of is what will happen in there on Saturday night. Who's going to win? Will we get a call? Will we bomb? I have to break my thoughts and remember why we're here. I'm not going to worry about these things right now. It's only Wednesday afternoon and I have two days before I need to think about cooking. Lets go have some fun.

Thursday is a great day in the Hollow. I love to relax and watch all the teams roll in. Watching teams pull giant trailers in to small spots confirms my decision of arriving early. We make coffee, nurse small hangovers, and enjoy as the misty weather turns into partly sunny. On tap for Thursday was the distillery tour, shopping in the square, and later on that night a great dinner with friends. Late night included much laughter, spirits, and visiting with teams that we don't see often enough. It was great catching up with everyone, talking about The BBQ Circuit, and staying warm with a bottle of Jack. We partied into the night without a single care of turn-in times, trimming meats, or staying focused. That sort of thing just didn't seem to fit into that night. Somehow it wasn't even relevant. Sure, we're at one of the most revered contest of the year, but worrying about it seems, oddly, stupid. We walked around all night, found people to hang with, and made memories. And that's all I really cared about that night.

Friday morning greeted me with a wonderful cocktail of coffee and Ibuprofen. After a hot shower we were off to our annual trip to Miss Mary Bobo's. Thanks to Steph for making these arrangements once again this year and including us in them. Miss Mary Bobo's is one of the highlights from the trip. It's something that I hope I'll never miss. Like all great meals in your life it usually has little to do with the food. For me it's the big communal table, the Host telling stories of Lynchburg, the passing of food family-style, and sharing this with my wife and my friends. In that intimate setting you can really feel the happiness. Oh, and as a bonus, the food rocks!

Friday afternoon we did a little prep, then got ready for the Parade of Teams, then off to the party up on The Hill. Also two things that I hope I'll never miss or get tired of. Back from The Hill I fired up the pit and started to get focused. The good news is that that didn't last too long. We were set up adjacent to I Smell Smoke!!! and the area was dubbed 'NEBSville'. Needless to say we had a revolving cast of characters to hang out by the fire with. Great beers were consumed, everyone was laughing, and if the fire or Jack Daniel's didn't warm you up, the company sure did. I did what I could do to hit all my 'triggers'. I think I missed one or two, but that's okay. I wouldn't change a thing about that night. That day was one of the best I've ever had down in the Hollow.

Saturday morning was cold and crisp, perfect weather for cooking BBQ. Besides the usual 4 categories we were also doing a Chef's Choice, sauce, and a dessert. So, it was going to be a busy day. But, we had a plan and a lot of help from our extended team. The cook went great and we were pleased with everything...except the ribs. This didn't surprise me too much, they have been our worst category all year long. We've tweaked them over the past few comps but it might be 'back to the drawing board' with our ribs over the off-season. Oh well. Our best bet I thought was with our pork or one of the ancillary categories. I know I've been saying over the last few posts that I'm just there to have fun. As factual as that may be, I really, really, want to hear our name called. To me that would be a lot of fun! So, we breakdown, clean up, and head to the awards.

The level of anticipation, excitement, and nerves are off the charts. It's like every other award ceremony X 1000. Surrounded by our friends, family, and our peers, we anxiously wait for the awards to start. After the usual 'achievement' awards they got on with the categories. Sauce was first - nothing. Next was the Chef's Choice. They started to announce top three only. This happens at The Jack a lot. Sometimes they call top 10, sometimes top 5, this time top 3. Oh well, no calls for Chef's Choice. On to BBQ. Chicken - nothing. Ribs were up next and we didn't expect much. But at least they were calling top 10 in the BBQ categories, so you never know. In the back of my head, maybe, just maybe, we could squeak out a 9th or 10th place in a category. As they announced ribs, and they got closer to the top, my hope was fleeting. I start thinking ahead towards pork, or brisket. Just then the Emcee hands the microphone to Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett, to announce the 1st place winner in the rib category. And in his thick Southern drawl Mr. Arnett said "Lakesiiide SmokERRs." A moment that I will never forget. That walk up to the stage is one of the best feelings a competitive BBQer can have. It's a whirlwind. People cheer, cameras flash, and in that 30 seconds your anxiety melts away. We walk back to where we were sitting and open up the bottle of Jack that we just won. Our friends congratulate us and all together we quickly kill that bottle. The rest of the awards are kind of a blur. But at the end of the day all 6 teams from Massachusetts got up to that stage. And one Massachusetts team made that final walk as World Champions. Huge congrats to Smokin' Hoggz on their win. We finish Saturday off in the Hollow by parting late into the night. It's cold, the fires are extinguished, and the crowd is thinning, but I don't want that day to ever end. Because I know tomorrow we start our journey back.

The long ride home gives me a chance to think. I'm tired; it's a lot of work to have this much fun. I reflect on this past season. I realize that chances are I'll never be able to have a better season than this one. So what do you do? What's the end game? The phrase 'quit while you're ahead' keeps on echoing in my head. It's brief, but still, it's there. But what dominates my thoughts are the laughter and smiles of my friends. The great food and drinks we've had. The late night partying with strangers. Sharing this with my wife and family. And all the great times I've had on the BBQ Trail over the years. By the time we get home I'm thinking more clearly. The thoughts of quitting are left on the road. I start to get excited for next year. I don't need to have a better season than this one, I just need to get back to Lynchburg.