CLAYTON -- The People's Choice, along with the biggest trophy and its highly desirous bragging rights, went to Meat Hustle pit master Sean Connors at the fourth annual Clayton Rib Cook-off.
"I didn't win anything. This is all Steve," said Connors, a Clayton resident, holding the massive winning trophy high in front of him and pointing to his partner Steve Rainwater, also of Clayton. "He is the best barbecuer this side of the Mississippi. He's won multiple times at national events."
First-place winner Glenn Carson of 3BBBQ competed the first two years, but had to skip last year because of scheduling conflicts. As he handed in his last boxes for the judges, he was confident.
"We won't know till its over," he said. "We always think we have a shot, but we don't know what the judges are looking for."
His rib cooking method is "absolutely low and slow." He uses pellets, but his mix ratio is as guarded as his secret sauce ingredients, which he says has taken 10 years to get just right.
Holy Smokes took home second place and pit master Justin Foreman said, "This is the first-ever competition we've entered. We were pretty surprised, I've only used the smoker three or four times."
But a return to the cook-off next year is in the plans.
Although about half the competitors were new, many had participated before, like the Greg Ferrell family, and Sam and Shan Ray. Both teams have competed since the inaugural cook-off in 2010 when Ferrell's team took home first and the Rays took second.
GPJ's Kickin' BBQ pit master Joe Laremore was back in the competition after a couple of years when the cook-off competed with his wedding anniversary celebrations. Like most of the amateur barbecue pit masters choosing to enter in what's become a niche "backyard grillers" event, Laremore makes sure his trusted critics like what he cooks.
"My grandkids love it," he says. "My friends love it, all my friends."
"I love 'em," says Laremore's 9-year-old grandson, Riley Maddox. "I think they're the best ever."
"I like how tender they are," says Laremore's 11-year-old grandson, Connor Maddox.
Harley Smoke pit master Kim Wood of Concord wasn't as happy with his second-year cooking results.
"I just didn't like the way my ribs turned out -- it's not as well as last year."
Team BSUBAS pit master Gabor Paulovitis and his mates Greg Byron and John Jurick, all from San Leandro, were sitting at the outdoor bar with a beer, confident of a win because as Paulovitis tells the story, "This morning at 10 a.m. a gentleman in his 60s with a grandchild, a little girl, 6, came by and the girl said, "These guys are going to win." Paulovitis had to ask the girl, "Why do you think that?" Her reply, "Because you have the biggest and best cooker."
The group laughed and then explained their home-designed and crafted cooker was the result of a failed hunting trip. They returned without a pig, so built a cooker, bought a pig and have been grilling, smoking and barbecuing ever since.
But it was Bad Dad's pit master Alan Bender who walked away with the purse and trophy for third place.
The winners never stopped smiling as family and friends crowded around to congratulate, touch the trophies, take photos and get comments.
While only eight contestants made it through the preliminary judging to reach the professional judges, all 26 contestants' ribs are tasted and judged by a four-person panel randomly selected from the crowd through a raffle. People may buy as many tickets as they want in an attempt to have the winning number and claim a coveted seat at the judging table.
"I keep trying each year to be a judge," said Tracy Keene of Clayton.
Despite missing out on the chance to taste each competitor's entry and judge the one she likes best, Keene and friends purchased the rib plates. When the judges complete their work, leftover ribs are offered to the public.
"We already feasted," she said looking at her empty plate. "My husband is back in line. If you are lucky, you get to purchase some of the competition ribs. It's amazing."
Raffle tickets sold out -- more than 300 -- attributed to the good weather and no competing events.
All judges are volunteers, and this year's judges divide the boxes between two groups who choose their favorites and then narrow the field to their final choices.
Once the finalists are selected, the celebrity judges make the last blind tasting. This year, Tim Ford of Armadillo Willy's in Dublin, Damon Owens, co-owner of Dickey's Barbecue in Concord; Skip Ipsen of Skipolini's Pizza in Clayton; and John Robles, chef at the Clayton Club Saloon in Clayton, took on the celebrity judging honors.
Each judge had eight boxes with assigned numbers. Owens slowly opened the lid of a box and stared in, not blinking, just looking. Then he picked up one of the ribs and studied it before biting into it.
Ford spent less time studying the box and its contents, but lingered over the rib in his hand before taking a bite.
Ribs are scored on a scale from 1-9 points -- "one being inedible," said Ford.
He said they don't discuss the ribs because opinions could sway another judge. And Owens pointed out they were not all tasting the same rib at the same time.
"I usually like ribs without sauce," said Ford. "I'm looking for flavor layers; tenderness, not fall off the bone and not can't chew it."
"I look for the smoke ring, and presentation is important," said Owens. "Overall, they did a great job."
He said, and the other judges agreed, "Everyone's palate is different."
Robles does all the barbecuing at the Clayton Club Saloon and has been part of the rib cook-off from the beginning, either cooking ribs for those attending or judging the entries.
"There was something for everybody," he said. "We are unique in our own way. Everybody is willing to try different things, they want to experiment."
It is that willingness to experiment that sets California barbecue apart from Kansas, Georgia, Carolina, Alabama and Texas, where traditional methods are kept and honed.
The judges were treated to it all.
First Place: 3BBBQ, Glenn Carson $300
Second Place: Holy Smokes, Justin Foreman $200
Third Place: Bad Dad's, Alan Bender $100
People's Choice: Meat Hustle, Sean Connors, trophy