CLAYTON -- The annual Rib Cook-off is becoming the city's most-anticipated backyard barbecue.
"What's better than family, barbecue and Clayton, Calif.? Nothing's better than that," said returning competitor Justin Foreman, captain of Holy Smoke.
Nearly half the contestants competing in the Clayton Business and Community Association's fifth annual event hail from Clayton. But others are from nearby cities and usually hear of the event through word-of-mouth as the Mendenhall brothers did.
Walnut Creek resident Colin Mendenhall, captain of Third Coast Smoke, is no stranger to amateur cook-offs. He and older brother Matthew often cook together and have won some prizes.
But this was his first time competing in the Clayton Rib Cook-off. It was also the first time he and his brother didn't team up. His brother was captain of Van Mac BBQ.
"We decided to go against each other for fun," said Matthew Mendenhall.
If he regretted that decision he wasn't saying. Third Coast Smoke walked away with first place and the $300 purse.
"I'm shaking I'm so excited," Colin Mendenhall said.
Is a return appearance likely? "For sure!"
Van Mac BBQ finished in fourth place.
Deciding on the second- and third-place finishers wasn't so easy. Half Fast with captain Suang Lim, tied with The Ferrell Family, captained by Greg Ferrell, who has competed every year and took first place last year.
Judges score ribs in categories of taste, appearance and texture. The categories scores are added, and the ribs with the total highest score wins. Ferrell and Lim both had total scores of 88 points, so a tiebreaker was necessary. Score cards were examined, and the points for each category totaled and compared. Lim edged out Ferrell with a score of 29 taste points to 26.
Half Fast took the $200 purse, and Ferrell went home with the $100 third-place prize.
A panel of judges selected randomly from a raffle drawing chooses the People's Choice winner. This year's winner was first-timer The Cunning Hams, with captain Tony Ucciferri walking away with the biggest trophy.
For most contestants, cook-off day begins around sun-up.
Keith Baker, captain of Full Boar BBQ -- and the 2011 winner -- was on site at 5:30 a.m.
"We have to do a lot of preparation on ribs to get them ready to cook," he explained.
Deep into the competition, Baker opened his cooker to look at his ribs and sauce them, pleased with what he was seeing.
"Turn in is in about 20 minutes," he said, allowing a bit of nervousness to show.
Many rib cooks were nervous. Although this year's judging hadn't changed, the makeup of the final judging panel had.
The judging is demanding, and all tasting is blind. Contestants are divided in groups of seven teams in four sections. In the first elimination round, two judges per section score their ribs and the top four contestants move to round two. Fresh judges repeat the process. The third round consisted of eight finalists and was judged by a panel of four volunteer Kansas City Barbeque Society-certified judges.
The KCBS nonprofit is dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbecue, and sanctions more that 450 contests worldwide.
Certified judge Tim Ford, owner of Armadillo Willy's in Dublin, was a returning judge, as well as Yvonne Erb, who recently became certified.
"I like a little tooth in it, not falling off the bone," said Erb, describing the texture of a great rib.
"I always look for layers -- a little bit of sweet, a little bit of spice," said Ford. "I don't like anything too spicy ... something that leaves a kick, but doesn't burn your mouth."
Certified judge Rob Zavatero is comfortable on the competitor's side of the table. A year ago he decided to try his luck at running a restaurant and bought Beaver Creek Smokehouse on Main Street in Martinez. He still keeps his grilling skills honed, and his advice is for backyard grillers to keep practicing.
Rounding out the panel was KCBS-certified judge Jeff Erb, owner of Back Forty Texas BBQ in Pleasant Hill.
"It was difficult. Definitely best year, " he said."It's so important when tasting to cleanse the palate, getting ready for the next (rib). I was happily impressed."
The crowd gathered to urge on their favorite teams and eat ribs prepared and sold for the occasion by Triple Threat of Manteca.
"Food is good ... great music ... weather is perfect," said Segundo Collazos of Peru, who was visiting with his Clayton family.
First Place: Third Coast Smoke, Colin Mendenhall
Second Place: Half Fast, Suang Lim
Third Place: Ferrell Family BBQ, Greg Ferrell
People's Choice: The Cunning Hams, Tony Ucciferri