COLUMBIA — Mark Hyman accepted his Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival grand champion award in the same shirt he wears to every barbecue awards ceremony.
"I'm pretty superstitious," said Hyman of Great Grills O' Fire, a husband and wife team that competed in 34 contests last year. "I was wearing this shirt when I won my first grand championship in Sedalia. I always have to have it with me."
1. Overall grand champion: Great Grills O' Fire
2. Best brisket: Tiger Dog BBQ
3. Best pork ribs: Belly Brothers
4. Best pork: Smoke This BBQ
5. Best chicken: Smoke This BBQ
6. Best dessert: Blazin' Butts
Whether through superstition, luck or just good barbecue, the contest winners took to the Flat Branch Park Community Stage. The trophies awarded were custom-made birdhouses designed to look like grills.
After paying the $250-300 entry fee, 55 teams set out their tents and lawn chairs early Friday afternoon and began to barbecue.
The smell of barbecue and smoke filled the air as teams lit their grills and offered tasty samples of their meat and signature dishes to friends, family and sponsors. Many teams even decorated their areas with special beads, lights, signs and barbecue paraphernalia — many of which served as good luck charms.
Great Grills O' Fire even set out their lucky ceramic pig early in the day.
"Her name is Piggy Sue," Hyman said. "She's our mascot."
Most teams started cooking meat for the competition around 10 p.m. on Friday. Many teams worked through the night to deliver their best meat to the judges.
"The guys stay up all night," said Steve Curry, 48, of Columbia, referring to his teammates on Team Q, which placed eighth in chicken and seventh in pork ribs. "But I go home and sleep."
The judging started at noon on Saturday, with entries turned in every 30 minutes. The judges, most certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, evaluated the meat's appearance, taste and tenderness. The process started with chicken and ended with dessert, a new category this year.
"I'm sure the judges are excited for the dessert," said Phil Schaefer, 30, of Natural Born Grillers.
Schaefer prepared a chocolate tart cake with special-ordered white chocolate guitars.
"Chocolate is the universal unifier," he said.
Many of this year's teams were unable to participate in the festival in the past because it landed on the same day as the American Royal Barbecue.
"The American Royal is like the Superbowl of barbecue," said John Berkbuegler, 44, of Belly Brothers, which won best pork ribs.
With new teams participating, many who won awards at the American Royal in years past, barbecue enthusiasts were looking forward to the added competition.
"Any one of these cooks can take it," Jay Curry of Team Q said.
Some teams relied on techniques that earned them awards in years past.
"It's about finding what works and doing it over and over," said Jim Morris, 47, of Moose Bros. BBQ.
Others experimented with new sauces, rubs or even teammates. Jamey Johnson, 49, joined forces with Schaefer this year to form Natural Born Grillers.
"We've both been doing it ourselves, but we decided to work together this year," Johnson said. "It's half the work, you still earn half the prize money and the liquor bill is way less."
For some teams, competing in a barbecue competition earns them bragging rights. But for others, the contest helps boost business. Steve Curry, co-owner of Spicewine Ironworks, sells the same smoker many other teams use in the competition.
"We don’t mind being beat by our own cookers," Curry said. "If our cookers win, we still win."
For most teams who stayed up late into the night on Friday swapping stories and enjoying tasty side dishes, the competition means more than winning or losing.
"This is a time for us to get together, cook and share our lives and libations," Belly Brothers' Gary Walkup said. "Then there's the orchestrated chaos to get it all turned in on time."
Missourian reporter Emmy Hayes contributed to this story.