It's hard to say what was most enticing about the weekend's "Bands, Brews & BBQ Throwdown" event hosted at Whitmore Park by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.
A). Was it the country and rock bands with smooth vocals and thumping base?
B). The smells of smoking meat juices sizzling inside of sprawling barbecuers and wafting through the air?
C). The tastes of the samples of barbecued ribs, chicken and pork?
D). The cold brews crafted by local breweries, a soothing remedy for the upper-90s temperatures that baked downtown Ceres?
E). All of the above.
Judging from all the finger licking, toes tapping, nostrils sniffing and cups of brew carried around, the answer might be E.
The event was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society and opened up 21 professional and 11 amateurs to compete for $7,300 in purse money as the top five finishers in three meat categories.
Those competing in the professional division were judged on how well they barbecued four meats barbecued - ribs, chicken, pork and brisket. The judges came up with the top five finishers as well as an overall grand champion and reserve champion. When it was over, seven-time grand champion Big Poppa Smokers of Ventura was named grand champion in the professional division. Big Poppa also achieved a perfect 180 score, a rare event in the sanctioned event.
Cynical BBQ of Tracy was the reserve champion with second place.
In the backyard or amateur division, only chicken and ribs were judged. The grand champion of the amateurs went to ZZ BBQ of Hollister, whose leader John Zaregoza is a former Ceres resident.
The Battle of the Champions fell between 2016 champion, Showoff Barbecue of Salinas, and 2014 champion Off the Hook BBQ of Clovis. Off the Hook was the replacement for Beer Belly BBQ which was unable to attend due to work conflicts. Showoff ended up winning the battle.
Hondo Hernandez of Showoff Barbecue said he loves the Ceres event.
"This is only my second year competing," said Hernandez. "I went first year amateur and then ended up going pro halfway through and decided to take it on. Once we started picking up national sponsors that's when we figured out we had something going."
He said sponsorships were offered after using certain products and letting the companies know their products were good.
"They approached us about a sponsorship and we said, yeah, we couldn't turn it down. We have a sauce sponsor, Daigle's, we have a cooking field sponsor, B&B Charcoal out of Texas and Dale's Sausages out of Louisiana."
Hernandez works full-time as a graphic designer and off spends every other weekend barbecuing with his brothers-in-law, friends and wife and daughter at events all over the country, including Texas, Alabama and Florida.
"It's nice that I get to do this on the weekends and then that during the week."
"I always tell people that barbecue just kind of resonates from my childhood because my Dad cooked all the time and then it just got to a point where it was a handing over the torch and ‘you do this better than me.' And then my wife's family said hey, why don't you do this in a contest, we'll sign you up.' After that we ended up getting fifth place out of 34 teams at our very first contest. Now it's full steam."
Full Barrel BBQ of Turlock, was named People's Choice based on public samplings.
The former "Smoke on the River" event has been rebranded since starting four years ago and has changed venues three times.
The event kicked off with a Friday Night Pre-Party from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Entertainment was provided by LaVonne & the Train Wreck while HardyAppetize was the barbecue food vendor. St. Stan's Brewery of Modesto was on hand to reintroduce its brand.
On Saturday the big event ran from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., offering the public a chance to buy samples of the meats barbecues for the judging, sample local beers, listen to bands like Voo Doo Killer Blues, Valley Fire and Kayla Just. Activities were also offered for the kids, such as games, a jumper, slide, mechanical bull riding, face painting and balloon twisters.
Members of the audience waiting to hear Journey tribute band "Faithfully" ended up disappointed and angry due to a late arrival on stage from the Sierra Music Festival in Oakdale. The band was contracted to play in Ceres from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. but did not take stage until 4:41 p.m., said Ledbetter.
"They played for about 19 minutes and then they were pulled because our contract with them was specific that they must end on time, and 5 o'clock was the time they were scheduled to be off the stage. So people were very upset with me at the end of the day because they came to see ‘Faithfully' and unfortunately because they were late and some equipment issues ... that put them behind even more."
Ledbetter apologized to the community "for not having the type of show we were expecting because of their tardiness and their equipment issues."
Sheila Brandt of Ceres won the event's rib eating contest against five men. She ate 10 complete ribs down to the bone. Two were tosses out because there was still meat on the bone.
"It was in my nose and everything," Brandt said after the event. "It was fun."
Renee Ledbetter, president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce who brought the event to Ceres, felt the Whitmore Park venue was a good one.
"I think the venue was really good in terms of accommodating a level ground for everyone but obviously if Fourth Street was open we could have spread out more and so we're definitely looking forward to having Fourth Street next year," said Ledbetter. "I think downtown worked well and I think it's going to give us an opportunity to space everyone out a little bit more. It was kind of tight."
Ledbetter said she appreciated the patience of Fourth Street businesses, especially Wells Fargo Bank and Ceres Drugs which had their parking lot impacted.
"Hopefully next year we will be able to provide a little bit more access for them."
The 34 teams were a mixture of local and out-of-the-region barbecuers. Local teams included ZZ BBQ, Badd-A-Bing BBQ of Riverbank, JnJ's Smoking BBQ of Modesto, Big 3 BBQ of Modesto. Hello BBQ of San Jose also participated again, having been with the Ceres barbecue event from the beginning.
Others were from out of the area, such as Smoke Barbecue Catering of San Jose, and Los Mexi-q-tioners BBQ of Hollister.
Over 30 vendors included local businesses like Cen-Cal Tactical, Iron Horse Rustic Designs and Classic Wine Vinegar of Ceres which had its copperkitchenfoods.com wares.
Other barbecuers on hand weren't competing but selling their products. They included Dan's BBQ of Modesto and Mama Webber's BBQ of Manteca. Maria's Tacos and Central Valley High Band Boosters also sold food.
Top professional teams
The top five over professional teams finishing in Ceres were: Big Poppa Smokers, first place; Cynical BBQ (Manteca), second place; Smokey Luv BBQ (Novato), third place; DG Firehouse BBQ (Brea), fourth; and Simply Marvelous BBQ (Ventura) at fifth place.
The top five pro teams in chicken were: DG Firehouse BBQ, first; Big Poppa Smokers, second place; RBQ (Gilroy), third place; Nutin2It But2Qit (Madera), fourth place; and Hello BBQ (San Jose), fifth place.
Tops in pork ribs were: Smoked Seduction (Tracy), first; Flame Thrower BBQ Co., (Stockton), second; Cynical BBQ, third; DG Firehouse BBQ, fourth; and Spitz Brothers BBQ (Concord), fifth place.
Finishing in the top five for pork were: Big Poppa Smokers, first place; Cynical BBQ, second place; Smokey Luv BBQ, third place; Flame Thrower BBQ Co., fourth; and Spitz Brothers BBQ, fifth place.
In brisket competition, the top five pro teams were: Big Poppa Smokers, first place; Smokey Luv BBQ, second place; Showoff BBQ, third place; Cynical BBQ, fourth; and Simply Marvelous BBQ, fifth place.
Top amateur finishers
The top overall amateur finishers were: ZZ BBQ, first place; Smokey Boys BBQ (Madera), second place; Smok'n T's Bar-B-Que (Waterford), third place; Full Barrel BBQ, fourth place; and Rib Shots BBQ (Turlock), fifth place.
The top five finishers in backyard ribs were: Smokey River Boys (Hughson), first place; ZZ BBQ, second; J n J's Smoking BBQ, third; Smokey Boys BBQ, fourth; and Smok'n T's Bar-B-Que, fifth.
Backyard chicken's top five were: Smokey Boys BBQ, first; ZZ BBQ, second; Rib Shots BBQ, third; Full Barrel BBQ, fourth; and Sparrow Lane Classic Vinegar BBQ (Ceres), fifth.