Pit Bosses by the Bay

Photo Courtesy of the Mill Casino, taken by Steven Michael

They come from around the west, pulling brightly painted trailers full of meat. Some do what they do for a living, some are ultra-passionate weekend warriors. Boasting names like Piggy D’s, Fat Dad’s BBQ and Son of Smoke, they circle up in the parking lot, set up shop with a view of the bay, tie on an apron and cook all night: slow, smoky and employing top-secret methods. They are the competitive barbecue teams of Brews, Blues and BBQ on the Bay, an event held each Memorial Day weekend at the Mill Casino on Coos Bay, Oregon. And they mean business.

For the cook teams, the weekend is a labor of love. Tom Dreyer of Camas, Washington, pit master of team Smoke324 BBQ, has competed on the bay for the last three years. “Our specialty is probably brisket,” he says. “Our biggest awards have been in that category.” But team Smoke324 (named for Dreyer’s wedding anniversary) doesn’t come for the awards. “It’s the people,” he explains. “We have met so many lifelong friends through BBQ. It’s like a big family no matter where you go.”

Blues, Brews and BBQ, along with many similar events held around the nation each year, is overseen by the officiating organization The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). To enter a barbecue contest, the teams must submit to a host of strict rules. For starters, no gas-powered cooking allowed. Meats must be presented with permitted garnishes only—kale, romaine or green leaf. Sauce is optional, but if used, must not be chunky. And there must be absolutely no fraternizing with the judges.

The event kicks off Saturday at noon and continues through Sunday. The competition hits its high mark on Sunday, when, promptly at noon, each team presents four perfectly prepared meats to a panel of certified, volunteer judges. Chicken, pork ribs, beef brisket and pork shoulder are judged double-blind, and assessed for appearance, taste and tenderness. For fun, a fourth category is judged: mac and cheese. During the few hours it takes to judge the entries from more than 30 cook teams, the event grounds are hushed, the participants silent as church mice, and the judges hunkered over plate after plate of meat, chewing, savoring and deciding the teams’ fate.

The rest of the weekend, however, is a frolic, a vibrant festival peopled by fun-loving, meat-abiding, beer-enjoying visitors. “Anytime you combine food, beer, music and the outdoors, people always have a great time,” explains Katherine Hoppe with the Mill Casino. The casino sits on Coos Bay, a great event backdrop with views across the water and of passing tugboats and cargo ships. The food is on par with the view. “Because this is a sanctioned KCBS event, we attract really seasoned pit masters, which in turn translates to amazing BBQ.”

Eventgoers can buy a pulled pork sandwich or a brisket hoagie, but most choose to stick with a variety of samples. A buck each buys BBQ Bucks, which can be swapped for two-ounce samples of each team’s best efforts. A beer-judging contest occurs concurrent to the barbecue contest, attracting more than 20 breweries from around the Pacific Northwest. “Our guests love the ability to sample from so many different pit masters and wander around at their leisure. There’s always great music and great beers to sample between their snacks,” says Hoppe. Even waiting in line can be fun. “Part of what makes the event so fun is sharing knowledge and getting tips from other enthusiasts.”

Wander around, sip a beer, taste the meats, listen to the blues bands. Repeat. Memorial Day Weekend has never been better. And when it’s over, Dreyer and Smoke324 will hit the road for home—or maybe another competition. “We’ve traveled as far east as Tennessee to compete and have been welcomed everywhere we go,” he says.

Learn more about Brews, Blues and BBQ at themillcasino.com/bbq-event.