BBQ like a pro

Sarah Kuta

Sitting in a folding chair in a renovated former tire shop on Federal Boulevard in Denver, I caught a mouth-watering whiff of the beef short ribs cooking in a smoker just outside the garage doors and tried not to let the tantalizing smell distract me from my studies.

On my lap, I held a clipboard with a course outline for taking notes. All around me at Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions, my fellow classmates chatted amiably, sipping drinks they brought in coolers as they waited for class to start. Colorful rows of spices, rubs, and sauces lined the shelves in front of us. On the wall above them, someone had painted the outline of a pig, a cow, and a chicken with lines demarking various cuts of meat.

When co-owners Tony Roberts and Dan Casey stepped up to the prep station in front of the makeshift classroom, we knew school was now in session—barbecue school, that is.

Getting schooled

Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions offers QU (Barbecue University) classes. © Sarah Kuta

This was “QU,” as in “Barbeque University,” and I was here to learn from some of Colorado’s best barbecue cooks.

What followed was an incredibly thorough lecture about ribs, starting with the importance of sourcing meat from reputable ranchers all the way through to trimming, dry-rubbing, wrapping, and, finally, smoking.

Once we were sufficiently knowledgeable and hungry, Roberts and Casey brought out a veritable feast: beef short ribs, pork spare ribs, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and fresh, homemade pickled cucumbers. We were finally able to taste all the tricks, tips, and principles Roberts and Casey have been honing through years of practice and competition.

Colorado’s barbecue scene may not be as well-known as some other regions of the country, but the state is home to a thriving community of skilled barbecue cooks, restaurants, and festivals.

Up for the challenge

Tony Roberts (left) and Dan Casey (right) are the co-owners of Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions in Denver. Photo by Sarah Kuta.

The annual Colorado BBQ Challenge has been a road trip-worthy Colorado summer staple since the early 1990s. The three-day festival, held each June on Frisco’s Main Street, brings together the best barbecue cooks around for an official Kansas City Barbeque Society competition. In between bites of smoked meats and sides, you can also listen to live music, watch pig races, participate in chef demos, and run or walk a 6K race, complete with a bacon aid station.

Roberts and Casey are fixtures at the Colorado BBQ Challenge, attending every year to compete and serve up their melt-in-your-mouth barbecue to hungry festival-goers.

The two friends, who have been competing since 2014, became so enamored with the world of barbecue they decided to quit their 9-to-5 jobs and open a shop selling smokers, dry rubs, sauces, and all the other tools you’d need to become a backyard pit boss. They opened Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions in October 2017.

Tips from the pros

Proud Souls BBQ & Provisions specializes in all things barbecue. © Sarah Kuta

Today, the shop is a haven for Coloradans and out-of-town visitors who love barbecue. The classes are especially popular, ranging from backyard basics to hyper-specific topics like making the perfect brisket.

The most important step barbecuers should take if they want to improve their cooking? Get to know their smoker or grill, inside and out. “Read the instruction manual, explore every nook and cranny, and observe how it operates in different conditions,” says Roberts.

Pro Tip: Understand every little detail about your particular cooking vessel—the hot and cool spots, how it operates in the summer, winter, or in windy conditions, and how much charcoal or wood to burn for the perfect amount of consistent heat and smoke flavor components.

After that, it’s all about the meat. Sure, you can create the perfect dry rub or slather your ribs in sweet sauce, but that’s really just a band-aid solution. Your barbecue will suffer until you learn more about meat and invest in top-notch cuts.

Pro Tip: The meat itself is always the star of the show, so make sure you’re using quality meats.

“Think of it as a canvas for you to trim and season to create the perfect results,” says Roberts. “Our job as BBQ cooks is to utilize our knowledge and tools to enhance the protein’s already wonderful flavors.”

Always keep a digital, instant-read thermometer nearby to ensure your meats are cooked to the perfect temperature—this removes all the guesswork from barbecue.

Pro Tip: Experiment with various layers of flavor. Consider combining flavors that complement each other—sweet with heat, for example. Remember, smoke is just one element of flavor.

Research samples

Theses scrumptious ribs are just some of the fare available at the annual Colorado BBQ Challenge. © Todd Powell Photography

Of course, another surefire way to improve your own barbecue is to conduct research—lots of it. Hands-on taste-testing is preferred, according to Jason Ganahl, founder of GQue Championship Barbecue.

When Ganahl first moved to Colorado 12 years ago, he began searching for a local barbecue joint to satisfy his cravings. In the end, he decided to become a local judge for the Kansas City Barbecue Society—this way, he could sample the best barbecue around.

Ganahl spent three years judging before entering his first competition. His team, GQue, quickly began racking up awards and honors.

“It’s just so much fun,” he says. “Every weekend, I look forward to seeing my friends. Everybody’s hanging out, having a good time, telling jokes, and sharing their food. It’s a tailgate without the game.”

Ganahl owned a recruiting consulting business when the idea of starting his own restaurant began to materialize. In 2018, he opened the first GQue Championship BBQ location in Westminster and has since expanded to locations in Lone Tree and at Empower Field at Mile High.

Beyond simply eating a lot of barbecue, Ganahl recommends picturing an orchestra when you’re planning the ingredients for your dry rub and sauce.

“All these different sounds come together to form this really great harmony,” he says. “No one particular sound sticks out and is more noticeable than the others. Start off with salt and sugar, then add different ‘notes’ of things you like. What you’re going for, more than anything else, is balance.”

Pro Tip: Practice, practice, practice!

“A lot of people get all worked up because they watch one Instagram video and think they’re going to get a perfect brisket,” Ganahl says. “You can’t be awesome overnight. Just keep cooking and practicing. Just be generally satisfied with the process of spending the time with your family and friends.”

Above all else, try not to get too hung up on your barbecue. Anyone who comes to your house for a day of eating, drinking, and socializing is not going to obsess over every detail of your ribs and brisket. They’ll just be happy you invited them.

Sarah Kuta is a Longmont-based travel and lifestyle journalist who loves to visit new places, explore the outdoors, and spend time with her Rhodesian Ridgeback, Daisy. Her work appears regularly in Food & Wine, The Denver Post, Simplemost, Livability, Fodors, and other publications.