When the sun rises over the Johnson County fairgrounds today, the thick smell of hardwood smoke and roasting meat will drift like a delicious fog.
And while the neighborhoods around the fairgrounds are stirring to life, the competitors of the Hoosier BBQ Classic will have been hard at work for hours.
“When you start to cook, that’s when it gets brutal. Some teammates will stay up until 1 a.m., then go to bed. Usually, I’m up early in the morning to do ribs and stuff,” said Jeff Yater, owner of Squealer’s Award Winning Barbecue in Mooresville. “You’re not getting a lot of rest. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun.”
The Hoosier BBQ Classic is back in Franklin, returning after the inaugural event in 2020. Around 50 teams have hauled their smoking rigs, secret sauces, handmade rubs, and pounds and pounds of beef brisket, pork shoulder, chicken thighs and ribs to town.
Competitors will spend hours tending their pits, with the hope of taking home some of the $12,000 pot of prize money offered by the Kansas City Barbecue Society for this officially sanctioned event.
And at the same time, the tight-knit barbecue community will have a chance to cook together after a long, strange pause.
“We’ve met a ton of friends over the years, who we’ve met through the contest circuit. It’s always good to see those people when you haven’t seen them in a while,” Yater said. “Most of these people we haven’t been around for a year and a half.”
The event — which is not open to the public — came to life last year, among the pandemic-inspired uncertainty. Dan Skaggs, organizer of the event, had done a number of barbecue competitions in Jeffersonville over the years. He had noticed that more and more places around Indiana and beyond were creating similar contests.
But in 2020, many of them cancelled their events. A number of teams were still interested in competing, if local health departments would give the OK. When Skaggs approached Jeffersonville officials, they declined to host the event. As organizers reached out to other locations, Johnson County and the fairgrounds welcomed them in.
They worked closely with the Johnson County Health Department, and in the end, about 75 teams signed up. They called their masked, distanced competition “COVID-Que.”
“Once word got out that there was going to be one, and that area being almost central in Indiana, people were very interested. We got teams from North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas. They were just happy that there was an event they could compete in,” Skaggs said. “Because of the success, the fairgrounds wanted us to come back. Moving away from the COVID thing, we came up with the name ‘Hoosier BBQ Classic.’”
The competition has categories for chicken, ribs, pork and brisket, which means that participating teams have to be flexible and skilled at a variety of different meats.
For Yater, this summer is a return to some sense of normalcy. He has been taking part in barbecue competitions for nearly 30 years, starting out with his father before carrying on the tradition himself.
Squealer’s Barbecue has been a mainstay on the circuit for decades, taking part in national, world and Rib Fest events throughout the South, East and Midwest. The team earned a spot in the prestigious 2015 American Royal Invitational, stacking their barbecue know-how against more than 600 teams. Squealer’s is also the only team from Indiana to compete twice at the invitation-only Jack Daniel’s World Championship in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Even with two brick-and-mortar restaurants — one in Mooresville, the other on the northside of Indianapolis — Yater likes to hit the road with their rig and compete against the best barbecuers in the country.
“We usually do between five to six, maybe seven depending on how our season’s going,” he said.
Teammates Brent Kouns, Jim Coldren and dessert specialist Jennifer Buck, along with family members who pitch in, spend the weekends camping out and preparing, cooking and finishing entries into the competitions.
After sitting out the 2020 season due to COVID-19, the team is ready to sharpen their knives — and their skills — this weekend.
“Usually we fare pretty well. Not doing a lot of contests over the last year, it can be hard to get your rhythm down. We’re knocking off the dust with this one, and see how we do,” Yater said.
The Hoosier BBQ Classic is a doubleheader — not only was a steak contest held Friday, but the barbecue competition spans today and Sunday.
That adds a level of difficulty to the weekend, Yater said.
“It’ll be pretty brutal. When you do a double, you cook a lot,” he said.
After arriving on Thursday, it was time for the teams to get ready for the weekend. Squealer’s spent the afternoon setting up camp and making sure their sauces and rubs were ready to go. The meat was trimmed as well.
Judges also needed to inspect their meat to ensure it met competition requirements, so they had to hold off on seasoning or marinating their beef, pork, chicken and ribs until they’d been given the thumbs-up.
“Once that meat is inspected, we’ll start marinating some of that meat, such as our brisket,” Yater said.
The next three days are dominated by cooking. The fires go around the clock, with some teammates manning the pit well into the night, then others spelling them early in the morning. With enough people helping out, the work gets spread around equally, Yater said.
Then, when it’s time to turn in submissions, the meat comes off the fire and goes to the judges in 30-minute intervals.
“When you’re cooking meats, they aren’t all the same — your ribs are taking about 4 1/2 hours total, your chicken about 2 hours, your brisket can take anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, and pork butts run around 10 hours,” Yater said. “It’s quite time consuming. You’re worn out by the end of the day. But it’s fun.”