BUCKHANNON — Saturday afternoon provided perfect weather as 16 different BBQ teams from across the country lined the lawn adjacent to the BiCentennial Inn with their canopies and smokers to compete in the first-ever Almost Heaven Rib Fest in downtown Buckhannon.
This single-meat competition, which was the prelude to the upcoming Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, consisted of two rounds, allowing each team the opportunity to submit their mouthwatering ribs for judging twice. Organizer Jody Light explained that teams could submit the same ribs twice or they could try something different in the second round—the choice was theirs. “If they’re doing the identical thing for both rounds, it is interesting to see what happens between the two rounds,” Light stated.
Teams traveled from as far away as Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee, as well as seven participants from “Almost Heaven” West Virginia. Two of the teams from West Virginia were from right here in Upshur County—Miss Piggies and BBQ Bums. Miss Piggies Pitmasters and local residents, Maggie and David Blonn, explained they wanted to come out and represent Buckhannon. When they first arrived, Maggie said she went around to say ‘Hi’ to everybody and welcome them to town, inquiring where everyone was from. The other local team, BBQ Bums, sported a one-of-a-kind smoker that had the iconic phrase West Virginia fans love to chant regarding their old-time rival “Pitt.” Pitmasters for BBQ Bums were local residents Scott Randall and Barrett Johnson.
Following their first round, some teams were extremely pleased with their submissions, while others expressed it wasn’t their “best.” The first-place winner for round one was Who Cares BBQ, traveling all the way from North Carolina. Pitmaster Donald Cook told The Record Delta following his win, “It feels great to win. It was a blast cooking at a great contest in a beautiful part of the country. Thanks for all the town’s hospitality!”
First-place winner of the second round was a previous Almost Heaven BBQ Bash champion—Rocky Top Barbecue from Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early in the competition, Pitmaster Walt Moulton told The Record Delta, “So far, it has been good. We turned in a good set of ribs.” Moulton’s wife Rebekah noted, “It’s the first one out of the gate in a long time.” According to the Moultons, it was their first time competing in approximately a year and a half due to the pandemic. Both winning teams placed within the top three in both rounds of the competition.
Long-time Pitmaster and another previous winner of the Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, Tommy Houston with team Checkered Pig, finished second during round two. Houston didn’t compete in the 2019 Almost Heaven BBQ Bash but he assisted Light with the event. Prior to the second round of the Rib Fest competition, Houston explained that he likely won’t be competing much longer. “I’m getting old and I just don’t have enough fire in my belly,” he joked. Regarding his first entry, Houston expressed, “I’m up here mainly to support Jody. We got a new sauce that I am running with and I’m thinking it needs to be a little bit sweeter for ribs.” Based on the results, the judges seemed to be impressed with Houston’s ribs and the new sauce.
Local First Responders were happy to taste test several of the teams’ smoked ribs and unanimously voted Redmule’s Bad Ass BBQ as their favorite of the day. Traveling the furthest, all the way from Corpus Christi, Texas, Pitmaster Lee Hickel explained that he’s in the middle of doing an East Coast tour and travels back home every two weeks for a couple of days, then onto the next competition. “I never miss a smoke-off,” he noted. Although not born in West Virginia, Hickel’s father is from Parkersburg and his parents met right here in Buckhannon at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Each team has a designated time to turn their ribs in, Light noted. “They've got the clock running and they’re watching it. I have seen people sprinting across the parking lot and if they don’t set it down before that clock turns, they know,” she explained. For this competition, Pitmasters had to get their ribs to a table located outside of the Buckhannon Fire Department before they were quickly moved inside for judging.
The Pitmasters and their families weren’t the only participants who traveled far and wide for the competition. Judges of the competition were from all over the country as well, with the furthest one traveling from Georgia. Other judges traveled from Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, with one local judge from Buckhannon.
Although this was strictly a competition, meals were available if pre-ordered ahead the event. Light expressed that their goal was 100 but they surprisingly exceeded that with a total of 150 pre-orders. Almost every team contributed to the meals, but Jim’s Smokin’ Que from Pittsburgh prepared the majority by smoking approximately 60 racks. He will be returning to compete and sell at the Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, West Virginia’s State Championship this June, along with several of the other teams that competed on Saturday.
Aside from the competition, Upshur residents and those from surrounding counties came to scope the national competition and enjoy treats from local vendors such as Sweet-A-Licious, Zul’s, and Hippie Dippie Donuts. Free activities were also provided by Buckhannon-Upshur Retail Merchants Association (BURMA) on the lawn of the BiCentennial Inn Saturday for a sunny, fun-filled afternoon.
Summing up the eventful Saturday, Light stated, “What started as a small rib contest, turned into a nationally sanctioned double rib competition with 16 teams from seven states. Once the Governor lifted restrictions on events, effective May 1st, other things fell into place, and it just evolved into a mini festival, perhaps a teaser for the bigger BBQ Bash June 18-19 at Stonewall (with 50 teams already registered). We’re grateful to the City of Buckhannon for their generous sponsorship, the BiCentennial Inn and Jim Hinkle for providing the venue, as well as BURMA, Zul’s, Hippie Dippie Donuts, Sweet-A-Licious, Jaws BBQ, Ringer’s, Jimmy Joe’s Smokin’ Que, and Shop-N-Save Express for their generous in-kind contributions. We just hope this was a nice way to kick off spring for the community.”
Want to get a taste of some of the best BBQ in the country? Come see the Pitmasters at work and taste their masterpieces in June at Stonewall Resort. For more information regarding the upcoming Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, visit their website at https://almostheavenbbqbash.com/.
The results from best to last of the first round were as follows: Who Cares BBQ, Rocky Top Barbecue, Chunky BBQ, Checkered Pig, Convicted Pigs BBQ, D’Qued Barbeque, Wolf’s Revenge BBQ, Lem’s Meat Varnish, Redmule’s Bad Ass BBQ, Brother-Uncle Barbecue, WV Loc-N-Loaded BBQ, Miss Piggies, Mason Jar BBQ, BBQ Bums, Jim’s Smokin’ Que BBQ, and BG’s Bad Ass BBQ.
The results from the second round, best to last, were as follows: Rocky Top Barbecue, Checkered Pig, Who Cares BBQ, WV Loc-N-Loaded BBQ, Redmule’s Bad Ass BBQ, D’Qued Barbeque, Brother-Uncle Barbecue, Wolf’s Revenge BBQ, Lem’s Meat Varnish, Chunky BBQ, Convicted Pigs BBQ, Mason Jar BBQ, BG’s Bad Ass BBQ, Jim’s Smokin’ Que BBQ, and BBQ Bums.