2023 Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Recap

2023 Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Recap

Another Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is in the books, and man, was it a good one! If you’ve never been to Memphis in May, I’d like to encourage you to come out! Whether you’re looking to compete on the circuit or take in the sights, you’re bound to have a good time. 

No matter how many times I compete at Memphis in May, there’s always something new. The contest has come far over the years and has easily become the world’s largest barbecue cooking contest! While nothing beats being there, I hope this recap gives you a taste of this year’s competition. 

The Festival

Memphis in May has been a Tennessee tradition since the late 1970s, beginning with the Beale Street Music Festival. By 1978, the Memphis in May committee added a BBQ cooking contest in an empty parking lot. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before they needed a larger venue! Within 12 years, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was taking over the world. 

I’ve been following Memphis in May since I was a kid and always dreamed of bringing home the gold. I started competing in 2008, and it’s one of my favorite events. I’ve met some of my best friends on the circuit, and every time we’re together, it’s like we never left!  There’s truly nothing like it out there! 

This year’s Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was held at the newly renovated Tom Lee Park by the riverfront. I couldn’t have chosen a better spot! It was a gorgeous venue that added to the overall experience. Though many teams were competing, the outdoor setup felt spacious. 

Memphis in May has something for everyone. There's never a dull moment from the Beale Street Music Festival to Ms. Piggie Idol! The festival's overall vibe is friendly and laid-back, with everyone there to have a good time. One of my favorite parts is meeting new people and running into old friends. No matter how seasoned you are, there’s always something to learn from other competitors. Great BBQ unites us all! 

The Entry

The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest has three primary categories: Whole Hog, Shoulder, and Ribs. They also have Hot Wings, Sauce, and “Anything But Pork” competitions. I love that this comp keeps it simple, giving you a chance to focus on your craft.

In 2022, I won 1st place in ribs, coming up just short of the Grand Championship. I dreamed big in 2023, competing once again in the rib category. Practice is key, and around here, practice begins as early as January! 

Over the past 6 months, I’ve cooked countless racks of Prairie Fresh ribs, experimenting with different flavor combinations. We’ve been eating good around here! I landed on a combination of Heath Riles BBQ Garlic Jalapeño Rub and Heath Riles BBQ Competition BBQ Rub. The ribs were slathered in Heath Riles BBQ Butter Bath & Wrap, giving them a little extra TLC. A glaze made with Heath Riles BBQ Sweet BBQ Sauce was the icing on top. 

This delicious fusion was bold yet mild enough to let the rib's natural flavor shine. Try this combination in your backyard or on the circuit. It’s bound to be a winner! 

My pit of choice was the Outlaw BFO Smoker, which allowed me to cook a crazy amount of ribs at once. I stoked the pit with Royal Oak Charcoal, giving the meat a deep, rich flavor. The ribs came off the Outlaw BFO Smoker dripping with moisture and emitting a mouth-watering aroma. 

Check out the video to see how we presented these luscious competition ribs. 

The Results

The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest has a unique way of judging things. I was judged on my food, the cleanliness of my area and the presentation played a part in my score. Each judge isn’t there long, so every second counts! 

After I gave it my all, it was time for the judges to deliberate. A few nail-biting hours later, I was elated to learn that the Heath Riles BBQ Team placed among the top 10 competitors in the Rib Division, a prestigious honor when you’re up against tough competition. My team placed 9th overall with a score of 1025.77 (1026 is a perfect score). We also got a perfect score in Beef Ribs, placing 6th AND 10th place Wings with a score of 482.97. This year was extremely tight, with a 6-way tie in Beef Ribs and a 5-way tie for 2nd place in Wings. 

There are a lot of factors that go into cooking ribs, including the weather. The 2023 Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest began with a moody rainstorm. Dreary weather can take a lot out of ribs, but we persisted, and it paid off. 

I’m more motivated than ever to return to the playing field and swing for the fences! With hard work and a little luck, anything is possible. 

The South is known for turning friends into family, and that’s what I experience each year. This year, I was overjoyed to meet some of the teams Heath Riles BBQ sponsored. There’s nothing better than welcoming new competitors into the circuit!   

 The Team

Behind every winning entry is a team of dynamic people working around the clock. I want to say an enormous thank you to BBQ Bob Trudnak, also known as Bobby T, Damn Yankee Texas BBQ Team, Kevlar BBQ, Tommy Houston with Checkered Pig BBQ Martinsville, my lovely wife Candace, and our in-house team. 

Their hard work didn’t go unnoticed! I couldn’t have done it without them. 

I also want to thank all our amazing partners: YETI, ThermoWorks, Royal Oak Charcoal, Outlaw BBQ Smokers, and Prairie Fresh. Having incredible partners makes all of this possible.

I was also blown away by the support I received from my fans. There were countless encouraging messages and even some incredible fans who flew in from all over the world to say hello! Your support means the world to me and motivates me to always go for the gold. 

Heath’s Highlights

This year was full of amazing memories that will stick with me for a lifetime. Here’s a little “highlight reel” of some of the best.  

  • My rubs and sauces were used throughout the competition, including teams that placed among the top 3 in their division AND the Grand Champion. It’s an honor to know the world loves these products as much as I do. 
  • On Thursday, Team Heath Riles BBQ held our first YETI cocktail hour. Our team served refreshing Mimosas and Bloody Marys. Coffee was also offered for those who needed a boost of caffeine. This cocktail hour meant a lot to me as it benefited Hogs For the Cause, a non-profit that helps families of pediatric brain cancer patients. It was an excellent opportunity to let loose and meet new people. This fun event embodied the heart of Memphis in May; connection, unity, and good food! 
  • My team pulled together and worked like a well-oiled machine. From pouring Heath Riles BBQ Butter Bath & Wrap to setting up the presentation, I couldn’t have done it without them. Plus, they kept the mood light during stressful moments. Teamwork makes the dream work! 
  • One of the coolest parts of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is the Cookers Caravan. This fun event allows visitors to learn from teams as they give a short presentation. Team Heath Riles BBQ sponsored the Cookers Caravan this year, giving away 16 mouth-watering rib bundles AND Heath Riles BBQ swag. 
  • The competition can get heated, but as usual, everyone came with a winning attitude. You’ll never meet a finer group of competitors! Good food has the power to unite everyone, including die-hard pitmasters. If you’re competing on the circuit, you’re family. 

Can’t wait to compete next year at the 2024 Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest!

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