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For the 15th year, BBQ Bash in Bel Air was smokin'

Kansas City Barbecue Society judge Alan Sellers' personal preference, when it comes to barbecue, is chicken — "smoky and sweet" — but his personal tastes don't matter when he's reviewing submissions at barbecue competitions.

"It's not [about] personal likes," he said during the 15th annual Maryland State BBQ Bash in Bel Air Saturday. "It's what the criteria are."

The 2017 BBQ Bash, the 55th competition where Sellers has been a judge, happened Friday and Saturday in the parking lot of the Mary E. Risteau State Office Building at South Bond and Thomas Streets.

The Bash is put on by the Bel Air Downtown Alliance with support from multiple sponsors. The event includes live music, vendors and sales of barbecued chicken, pork, ribs and brisket, as well as beer and other beverages.

About 50 cooks — some from as far away as Kansas City, Mo. — participated in the KCBS-sanctioned professional competition. About 50 more local cooks took part in the Tailgate Challenge amateur competition.

Sellers, who lives in Ellicott City, said the judges consider appearance, taste and tenderness.

"It's a lot different than going to Mission BBQ and ordering ribs," he said.

Sellers talked with Paul Heath, of the cook team 3N1 Q, who won first place in chicken with a perfect score of 180 points.

Sellers noted it is "a rare event" to get a perfect 180.

Heath, who lives in Beaverdam, Va., said he has participated in 20 contests — this year was his first time competing in the Bel Air Bash.

"I like it; it's a good time," he said.

Heath said chicken, especially pulled chicken, is his favorite type of barbecue. Pizza is his favorite non-barbecue type of food.

"I'm simple, pepperoni pizza," he said.

Sellers said he is "a seafood kind of guy" when not eating barbecue.

James Vosters, Sean White and Brian Weimer, who are contractors at Aberdeen Proving Ground and all hail from different states, attended their first BBQ Bash in Bel Air Saturday.

Vosters is from Oshkosh, Wis., an area known more for dairy than barbecue.

"We eat a lot of cheese back in Wisconsin," Vosters said. "We don't eat a lot of barbecue."

He noted the macaroni and cheese on sale Saturday was "pretty good;" his favorite barbecue product was ribs.

"I got the spicy ones, nice and hot," he said.

White, who is from Broward County, Fla., has more access to Southern-style barbecue in his home state.

"The sandwiches, the brisket, that's pretty good," he said of what he sampled in Bel Air.

Weimer, who hails from West Virginia, said he had not sampled any barbecue yet. He was enjoying the beer, calling Yuengling beer "awesome."

"It's a nice little get-together they have here," he said.

Craig Ward, board president of the Downtown Alliance, founded the BBQ Bash 15 years ago.

He has tasted barbecue all over the country during vacations to locations known for their barbecue, such as North and South Carolina, Alabama, Texas and Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.

"I wanted to see if I could introduce good barbecue to Maryland," he said.

Ward said he usually cooks chicken when he is barbecuing at home and gets ribs when eating out.

"I've become a big brisket fan, too," he said.

Ward said the barbecue served during the Bash competition is "the best barbecue you'll ever eat anywhere."

"They just really know how to cook, and they'll turn in the best of the best that they cook," he said.

Ward praised the turnout at this year's Bash — the event has drawn up to 40,000 people to downtown Bel Air in prior years.

He said the turnout Friday was "tremendous" and "probably the largest Friday night crowd we've ever had."

Ward expected the crowd was drawn by good weather Friday evening, as well as a performance by Nashville recording artist Sam Grow.

Turnout was steady Saturday, even with more humid weather and the threat of rain.

Russell Dickerson, another popular Nashville artist, took to take the stage Saturday evening.

"Now, it's all about the music," Ward said following the announcement of the winners of the professional competition.

The Uncle Pig's BBQ Pit team, of Gibbstown, N.J., was named this year's Grand Champion. Old Virginia Smoke, of Bristow, Va. took home second place as the Reserve Grand Champion title.

"Bel Air is a great place — this is a special place for BBQ, especially in the Mid-Atlantic," Luke Darnell, one half of Old Virginia Smoke, said.

His wife, Kim, is the other half of the team. They go to barbecue competitions around the country nearly every weekend and have earned multiple prizes — they were named the 2016 World BBQ Champion during that year's World Food Championships, according to the team website.

"We love traveling together, meeting new people," Kim Darnell said. "We always talk about the barbecue family, and it's a very close-knit group of people."

Luke Darnell said chicken is his team's specialty, but he favors brisket when it comes to personal tastes.

"I love a great steak, brisket . . . those are the best," he said.

Kim Darnell said she favors brisket, "but I love chicken, too."

The Pavone Brothers, of Kent Island, won this year's Maryland Cup, best among the Maryland teams entered.

The team includes Dave Pavone, his friend and partner, Mike Rollins, as well as Pavone's wife, daughter and granddaughter.

"My family cooks together, so it just naturally fell into place," Pavone said,

His brother, Vince, was part of the team when it started in 2008, but he has since opened a restaurant, Mountainview BBQ in Orange, Va., Pavone said.

His 11-year-old granddaughter, Shelby, is studying to be part of Kids-Q, a KCBS youth cooking program.

"I want to go into cooking chicken, or something like that," Shelby said.

Shelby said she likes pulled pork barbecue, especially as part of an "Idaho pig."

"It's a potato with pulled pork, melted cheese and sour cream," she said. "It's really good, especially for a person who doesn't like potatoes."

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