The sweet smell of mesquite hung heavy over Chiesa Plaza at MetraPark on Wednesday morning as smokers puffed away cooking beef, pork and chicken for judging at the Montana State Barbecue Championship.
Twenty-seven teams, which converged on Billings from as far as Canada and Louisiana, began cooking Tuesday evening to make sure their creations were ready for judging by noon Wednesday. Fifteen teams were from the Billings area.
"I started the grill a little before 5 last night," said Trebor Nedbalek, a competitor and owner of Do Ya Ugly BBQ and Catering from Billings. By about 6 a.m. he had already gone through six bags of charcoal.
This year's contest is his first competition, and it happened by accident.
Nedbalek had helped out a friend at the Montana BBQ Cook-Off in Absarokee. The friend had planned on making a run at the competition in Billings, but couldn't make it. He had already entered the event and offered Nedbalek his spot.
"He asked me if I wanted to replace him," he said.
Nedbalek obliged, and was excited to see how his barbecue sauce, made from a base of Dog Tag Lager beer, fared.
"It’s a good way to see how I stack up against everybody else."
Though the sauce did not place, Do Ya Ugly BBQ was seventh in the brisket category.
On the other side of the plaza, Jeff Petkevicius was getting ready for a quick prayer session before the day got under way.
"I do a church service at every competition," said the Louisianan who is the captain of team, Give it to God.
Barbecue competitions are part of his ministry, and he's attempting to compete in about 33 events before the end of 2014.
"This is a year where I’m real fortunate to travel all over the country making barbecue," he said. He said he most recently won a match three weeks ago in Arkansas.
He also was featured as a contestant in an episode of the TLC show "BBQ Pitmasters."
"We wowed them and zowed them with lamb nuggets wrapped in bacon," he said. But he fell short of victory, placing second.
As he travels around to barbecue competitions, Petkevicius is making sure he stays focused.
The Billings competition had $10,000 in prize money on the line and a berth to the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
"This is a Kansas City Barbecue Society event," he said. "It’s the NFL of barbecue."
The team was sixth in the pork ribs category, second in pork and finished seventh overall in the team standings.
Competing in the Jack Daniel's invitational is the pinnacle of many grillers' careers, said Rick Hamilton, superintendent of the championship at Metra.
The barbecue competition is in its third year, and Hamilton said staffers have worked hard to make the contest into a sanctioned event.
Previous versions of the contest were not overseen by Kansas City, and Hamilton made sure the event was the real deal when he was tapped to run the contest, he said, "If you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to do it right."
While the event attracts contestants that have made a career out of barbecue, the judges are impartial. A double-blind judging system makes sure there's no way they can tell whose meat was cooked by whom.
And that's what makes the contest so great, he said. "Any given day, a guy with a little Weber could get it."
The day's overall winner was the LoneStar Smoke Rangers, led by Tony Balay of Rapid City, S.D.