The Drinks Business: Melbourne Barbecue Festival

Rewritten for The Drinks Business 18 February 2015

We’re in Melbourne Australia at the inaugural Melbourne Barbecue Festival and the first Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned event in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s February 1 and the competitors who have been up all through the cold and wet night are gearing up for the final leg of the competition. The “turning-in” or submission of competition entries according to the strict timing and rules of the KCBS is about to begin.

KCBS logo

Nearly 30 years in existence, the KCBS is the world’s largest organisation of barbecue enthusiasts and sanctions over 450 barbecue competitions each year. With 19,000 members globally they are also the officiating body for The Jack, the World Food Championships and the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Competition.

There are four compulsory meat categories in a KCBS competition for entrants to turn in for judging; chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket. Each dish must be served in a sanctioned container with only meat and specific types of garnish allowed in the box. Competitions may, as Melbourne did, elect to include a “Chef’s Choice” category, where participants create their own unique dish for judging. Each entry is judged blind and marked on appearance, taste and tenderness.

judging table with crowd

Tasting and scoring at the judges table. Image by Florio Skratulja

The Melbourne Barbecue Festival organisers are Matt and Margaret Vitale of Southside Smokers. As part of the prize package for their win at the 2014 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival barbecue competition Southside Smokers attended the 25th Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg Tennessee, known in the barbecue world as The Jack. During that competition Matt and Margaret met KCBS representatives and it was from there the relationship between the Melbourne Barbecue Festival and KCBS developed.

I was lucky enough to spend the day with the Southern Boys, a team of three American expats now living in Melbourne, who showed me what it took to compete in a barbecue competition.


L-R: Matt Payne, Mark Evans, Anthony Swoboda

Anthony Swoboda, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, is the most experienced member of the Southern Boys team. Memphis barbecue style is usually focused on pork ribs or shoulders, and includes a style of wet ribs where the ribs are brushed with sauce before, during and after slow cooking in a pit or smoker.

Anthony getting the smoker going

Anthony getting the smoker started late Saturday evening. Image by Frank Tai

For a number of years Anthony and his friends would spend full days barbecuing different meats and perfecting recipes which eventually led to competing in the Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue Cooking. Fortunately for Anthony, not long after he moved to Melbourne, the concept came to Australia in 2012 with the first Barbecue Competition in St Kilda running in conjunction with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. The 2014 BBQ Championships in Port Macquarie organised by the Australasian Barbecue Alliance and more competitions in Melbourne have seen Anthony gather the current team around him – Matt Payne from Alabama and newest member, Mark Evans from Kansas, each representing two significant regions for barbecue in the United States.

To prepare for the 2015 Melbourne Barbecue Festival competition the team start practicing around 4 months prior to the competition date, discussing ideas, trialling recipes and techniques and looking for opportunities to practice.

tools of the trade

Tools of the trade. Image by Florio Skratulja

Anthony tells me the highest stress during the competition is the lead up to the first turn-in which is the chicken. Once the clock starts counting down each turn-in flies by. The main challenge is managing how long each piece of meat cooks for, how long it rests, when to sauce it and how much time is needed to prep the box – attention to detail is crucial especially as marks are awarded for presentation.

Southern Boys were the winners in the Pork Ribs Category and I’m told by Anthony that the recipe is a trusted crowd pleaser that was “only tinkered with a little bit to try and hit the flavour profile we think the Melbourne judges wanted to taste”.

Anthony porkribs in smoker   assembling the pork ribs

The pork ribs were juicy and tender, coming of the bone easily but still maintaining some form without disintegrating. The sauce was delicious showing sweetness that led through to a burst of spicy heat on the finish – a delectable combination and one that made it hard to stop at just one rib! Perhaps unsurprisingly as the Happy Wine Woman I was thinking about what wine I would enjoy drinking alongside these ribs. A fairly robust red wine would work perfectly and most certainly a good Aussie Shiraz!

In addition to the pork ribs win the Southern Boys placed fourth overall from 17 teams and picked up third place for the Chef’s Choice Category with a dish led by Matt Payne.

oysters pre-smoke   oysters in smoker   Matt dressing the oysters

Chef’s Choice affords each team the opportunity to freestyle and show off their talents. Entries were diverse and ranged from brownies to mussels. The Southern Boys entry of oysters was the perfect end to a meat feast. The oysters had been freshly shucked and were presented on a half shell, lightly smoked and dressed with a sauce containing butter, garlic, green onions, white wine and crushed red pepper to name but a few ingredients. They were heavenly and particularly delicious when enjoyed with a glass of young, very lightly oaked Chardonnay – the wine bringing the saline notes of the oysters to the fore.

So what would Anthony advise a first time competitor? Know your cooker and the meat you are using, don’t be intimidated by the massive smokers next door and “have some trusted friends that can help out and provide support or even new ideas”. And last but not least, “do a few test runs with cooking through the night, I mean all night, to better understand the work you need to do without sleep!”

4th overall cropped

Sleep deprived but very happy with 4th Overall, 1st in Pork Ribs and 3rd in Chef’s Choice. L-R: Mark Evans, Matt Payne, Anthony Swoboda

In addition to the competition, members of the public and competitors were treated to a range of masterclasses including butchery and cooking with Jim Johnson. A KCBS master barbecue teacher, and highly decorated barbecue Pitmaster, Jim has won 76 Grand Championships during his 28-year competition career.

BBQ cooking masterclass with JJ

Pitmaster Jim Johnson during the cooking masterclass. Source: Melbourne Barbecue Festival

By 4.30pm on Sunday after a sleepless night the teams were done and it was time to wait for results. Each category is awarded followed by the overall winner of the competition, which this year was Eureka Smoke. Husband and wife, Jesse and Rachel have some great experience behind them including competing at the American Royal Open Contest in Kansas City – clearly their experience, hard work and dedication has paid off.

BBQ overall 1st place

Rachel and Jesse collecting their Overall Winners prize. Source: Melbourne Barbecue Festival

The challenge for organisers, as is often the case with an inaugural event, is to manage the expectations of vendors, competitors and members of the public. The Melbourne crowds turned out in full and far exceeded the predictions and planning of the organisers, who acknowledge this on their Facebook page. This created a number of challenges for vendors managing people waiting upwards of 1.5 hours for food and for competitors who were forced to negotiate their way to the submissions table every 30 minutes through endless queues of people. Nonetheless the event clearly demonstrates American style barbecue is a welcome addition to the Melbourne food scene with its resounding support from the public and those involved in the event – here’s looking forward to next year’s competition and many more to come!

Happy Barbecuing!


Melbourne Barbecue Festival

Kansas City Barbecue Society

Australasian Barbecue Association

Published by Happy Wine Woman

Wine consultant currently based in Melbourne, Australia.

2 thoughts on “The Drinks Business: Melbourne Barbecue Festival

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