Step into the lobby of Hess’s Barbecue Catering in Willow Street, just south of Lancaster, and you’ll immediately see that smoked meats are taken very seriously.
Hundreds of trophies, plaques and chalices line tables and shelves from floor to ceiling – evidence of past and current barbecue championships from around the country. There’s the third-place plaque from the 2011 Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational – one of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the world – and banners from five consecutive Pennsylvania State Barbecue championships from 2006-10.
Two different barbecue teams have amassed the awards – the “PA Midnite Smokers,” made up of the husband-and-wife combo of Paul and Brenda Hess, and the “Flying Porkers,” with father-and-son duo Lloyd and Eric Hess. There may be more than 400 awards in the lobby, but each one carries a distinct recollection for the Hess family.
“Even though it was eight or nine years ago, you can pick the exact memory of when and where you got each trophy,” Eric says.
Hess’s Barbecue has been a mainstay in Central Pennsylvania since 1978, when brothers Paul and Lloyd decided to turn the family’s butcher shop into a full-service catering operation specializing in roasting whole pigs. Today, the family business has entered its fourth generation of ownership, catering more than 70 events a month and running the barbecue pavilion for the Lancaster Barnstormers at Clipper Magazine Stadium for six seasons.
They’ve progressed from smoking meats in the shop’s nearly 100-year-old blockhouse to using five rotisserie and convection smokers – each of which can hold 1,600 pounds of meat and cost $45,000.
The brothers’ first foray into competitive barbecue came in 2000 with the inaugural New Holland Summer Fest, where they came away with a first-place award in the pulled-pork category. They started entering more competitions the next year, traveling everywhere from Connecticut to South Carolina for weekend barbecue outings.
“Being raised and brought up in a butcher shop gave us a lot of direction in what to look for and what to do with meat,” Lloyd says. “A lot of the competition is picking out the product that you want. We’ll have 500 racks of ribs to pick through any time we want.”
While Paul officially retired from competing last year, Lloyd and Eric have taken up the baton to continue the family’s barbecue dominance, entering seven to eight barbecue shows a year.
The duo does everything from smoking the meats to putting the final garnish on entrees, compared to other teams who travel with as many as 12 members. On top of competing, the Hess’s also serve as barbecue vendors at many of the competitions, selling up to 1,500 racks of ribs and 2,000 pounds of pulled pork at a show.
When they compete, the Hess’s bring along a small trailer with the Flying Porkers logo printed on the outside. Inside is a self-contained kitchen (complete with a checkerboard floor) with counter space for preparation and cabinets loaded with all their cooking needs. They even use the trailer as their sleeping quarters, with Lloyd sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag and Eric setting up a cot outside.
To smoke the meats, they use two competition cookers made by Backwoods Smoker of Dixie, LA. Each weighs more than 300 pounds and cost $5,000. It’s a big expense, but Lloyd says some teams will shell out upwards of $100,000 for a complete competition package of a smoker, trailer and a vehicle to haul everything.
“You could go to a competition every weekend if you wanted to,” Lloyd says. “But you’ve got to be dedicated to do it. And if you don’t win, it can get kind of expensive.”
The Hess’s have their competition routine down to a science – cooking the pork, beef brisket, chicken and ribs for the exact same amount of time and keeping the temperature within a two-degree range. They like to use fruitwoods – apple, cherry and peach – rather than the traditional hickory or mesquite. Lloyd says the fruitwoods produce a tamer smoky flavor.
They have also developed their own sauces with special ingredients to make the favors of their meats even more unique. And it’s a unique flavor that makes the difference between going home with a trophy or leaving empty-handed.
“When you don’t do well in a barbecue competition, you don’t know why,” Eric says. “It’s not like you went to kick or hit the ball and missed. There’s no immediate feedback. But once you hit, then you know you’re on to something.”
Catch the Competition
Now that you’re fully equipped with the knowledge and background on what it takes to become a barbecue champion, here are some upcoming local competitions where you can see the top local and regional grillers duke it out to find out who has the best barbecuing chops.
2014 SAM’S CLUB NATIONAL BBQ TOUR
August 16; free
6781 Grayson Road, Harrisburg
The Kansas City Barbeque Society is again teaming up with Sam’s Club for 30 local and regional competitions leading up to the Sam’s Club National BBQ Championship in Bentonville, AR, on September 27. The Central PA competition takes place in the parking lot of Sam’s Club in Harrisburg on August 16 and features 30 teams vying for the chance to move on in the national competition. Cooking starts in the morning, and the first round of entry turn-ins takes place at 12 p.m. The winners are announced at 3 p.m.
NEW HOLLAND SUMMER FEST
August 22 & 23; $1 adults/free children 8 and younger
400 East Jackson Street, New Holland
The 15th annual New Holland Summer Fest returns to the New Holland Community Park on August 22 and 23. Packed with food vendors, live music and more, the main event of the weekend is the PA State Championship BBQ Cook-Off on Saturday. More than 70 teams are on hand preparing pulled pork, brisket, ribs and chicken. Judging begins at 11:30 a.m., and awards are presented at 4:30 p.m. There is also a kid’s competition for younger chefs.
SOUTHERN YORK COUNTY BBQ COOK-OFF
September 5 & 6
12025 Susquehanna Trail, Glen Rock
The sixth annual Southern York County BBQ Cook-Off takes place at the Markets at Shrewsbury on September 5 from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and September 6 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The event – sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society – pits 40 teams against one another for more than $5,000 in prize money. The event also features food vendors, live music and more. Admission is free, but attendees are encouraged to bring a canned food item to donate to the York County Food Bank. Pork butts cooked in the competition will be donated to the York Rescue Mission.
Still hungry? Read our exclusive BBQ&As with award-winning grillmaster Tuffy Stone and master judge Andy Sawran.