It would be downright un-American to think of barbecue without beer. And we won’t be accused of that. So here is a barbecue primer as the summer season gets underway, with thanks to Randy Moser, a beer writer and BBQ aficionado, who clued us into a few barbecue basics.
First of all, barbecue is NOT grilling. Flipping burgers on the backyard grill doesn’t fit the definition. Barbecue is slow cooking over fire. For many, it’s a way of life. It’s deeply universal. It taps into human memory of thousands of years ago, of people huddled around the fire while the day’s catch slowly cooked. And barbecue is a convivial, people-friendly activity. You no more want to barbecue alone than you want to drink a great beer alone or eat alone. You want to share these great things in life with friends and family.
Barbecue in the United States varies according to where you live. The Great Triangle of Barbecue, with as many as a dozen competitions any given weekend, can be roughly drawn from Texas, north to Chicago and east to the Carolinas. Home BBQers become addicted to the hobby and competition circuit in much the same way that homebrewers approach their passion. Equipment is acquired. Smokers and gadgets are built. Recipes developed: sauces, rubs and dips.
Texas is brisket country, a 24-hour process according to the old-timers, with southern and western Texans cooking over mesquite, central residents using oak and easterners burning hickory. Ribs are also big in the Lone Star State and barbecue shacks, grand or otherwise, are as ubiquitous as hot dog stands in other parts of the country.
Memphis is known for dry ribs. The raw meat is seasoned with a dry rub (a mixture of spices and herbs), cooked dry and served dry with sauces on the side.
Chicago is the northern edge of rib country, but, according to Moser, “Chicago don’t get no respect as a rib town.” Chicago is famous for rib tips, served dripping wet, the part of the rib that serious BBQers in other parts of the country throw away or feed to the dogs.
As to barbecue sauces, rubs and dips, the farther north you go, the sweeter and more tomato-based they are. Down south, barbecue becomes chili based. In the Carolinas, vinegar and mustard are kings.
Recipes are as individual as their makers, but—at least for the sweet sauces—it’s possible to sketch out general proportions to improvise around: however much ketchup is used, use half the volume with a sweet ingredient (molasses or maybe even un-hopped malt extract) and half the volume of that in lemon juice or vinegar.
There are two main sanctioning bodies on the barbecue competition circuit. One runs the Memphis in May competition, the big granddaddy of barbecue competitions, which is a weeklong event in mid-May. The other is the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
The love of barbecue, and the joy of sharing one’s creations with others in competition, draws people from all walks of life and experiences to a common activity and passion that allows them to interact unlike many other things in life, says Moser. The city dweller and rural resident; the college educated and not; white, black and brown. A beer-brewing friend of Moser has proposed the Million Man Barbecue for Racial Harmony, filling the Mall in D.C. with BBQ smokers. What a sight that would be.
An info-filled source of all things barbecue is on the web, of course: www.smokering.net