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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Orange County team wins World's Bar-B-Que Championship


Last updated 3/15/2022 at 4:12pm

From left to right: Eric Nies, Tommy Martin, Cutter Brewer 

The Orange County team had practiced, consulted on a strategy, and was pumped to compete at NRG Park. The sweat, grease, smoke, and heat were rewarded. The Brew Crew Cookers has the best ribs in the world and the trophy to prove it.

The local group recently won first place ribs in the World's Bar-B-Que Championship at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. They placed sixth overall. Eric Nies, a founder of the team, said the group was only a couple of points from grand overall title.

If you are looking for some kind of special formula to competition barbecue, don't look for the obvious. The Brew Crew's secret is not in the sauce. "We come together as a team and collaborate," Nies said. That team work is magic for the meat.

The World's Bar-B-Que Championship at the rodeo this year had nearly 250 competitors from all over the world. Nies said the countries include Sweden, Japan, and England. Participants during the contest will stroll around with the rest of the crowd to visit other competitors and talk about the art of smoking.

"It's neat to see all the different cultures and all the different styles (of barbecue)," Nies said.

The public can buy tickets to attend the three-day barbecue cook-off, a festival that includes a carnival and live entertainment. Because the Brew Crew is from Orange County, the team likes to show off the border culture of Texas-Louisiana. Nies said the team likes to smoke a whole alligator and a whole big for the event.

The Brew Crew has been competing for several years and the Houston title is their most prestigious win. Nies said the team designated Tommy Martin to go on the stage for the awards. It felt like a beauty pageant.

Nies said ten finalists were on the stage lined up as a stadium-size TV is showing the awards ceremony. Winners are announced beginning at the bottom. After the third and second places are named, Martin realizes something amazing is coming. A Facebook video shows the screams and jumping when Brew Crew is named the champion for ribs.

"It was one of the most exciting events of my life," Nies said.

"To you, this is just one day, to us this is 14 years. 14 years of hard work killing ourself to put this on every year and it has finally paid off," Martin posted on Facebook after the win. He also praised the teamwork.

Even though the Bar-B-Que Championship is fun for the public, it's serious for the competitors. Nies said the first place came with a trophy only, no prize money. "It does solidify you in the barbecue competition world," he said. "People know who you are now."

Teams with big wins can get sponsorships from companies and corporations. Nies said some teams at the Houston competition had large "booths" resembling bars and had a variety of sponsors.

Texans take their barbecue seriously, even if it's in the backyard for a family get-together. But the Brew Crew and other teams in cook-offs compete. Nies said there's a strategy for choosing how to cook because the judges take only one bite. "You want something they're not used to," he said.

Brew Crew members besides Nies and Martin include Cutter Brewer, Jesse Romero, Shannon Buckley, Bennie Kroger, and Justin West. Nies said Brewer and Romero have been on the TV show "Master Chef." He said West and Kroger were brought onto the team because of their experience in competitions and knowledge of what judges look for. Judges check for things like presentation and the glaze on the ribs.

The team also added Craig Verhage, "The BBQ Ninja," because of his work with spices and seasonings.

Nies said he was introduced to competition barbecue through Ralph Caillier. When Nies was at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School, he was dating the daughter of Jackie Caillier, a celebrated Cajun musician and the brother of Ralph. The Caillier family is a mainstay in the Cove neighborhood and operates Veteran's Grocery.

Nies said the Caillier family often gathered with friends to cook, eat, and play music. Ralph Caillier had a competition barbecue team called Double Barrel. The team would get sponsors to help pay for the meat and supplies. Nies began helping Double Barrel. He got some friends to form Brew Crew Cookers and about 20 years ago the Double Barrel team "passed the torch onto us," Nies said.

Nies said he has been working barbecue pits since he was in the sixth grade. He, Martin, and others decided to take the competition route seriously in 2008 and have been working the cook-offs for 14 years.

His barbecue expertise has led to a career. He owns and operates "Choppy's Barbecue" catering. Before the Covid pandemic, he opened a Choppy's Restaurant in Bridge City. But he learned running a restaurant takes more than good food.

"You need a full, dependable staff," he said. A restaurant operator also needs to have enough food on hand to feed 100 people even if only 15 come in. Plus, it's a lot of work. "Early, early mornings and late, late nights," he said.

He got the name Choppy because he likes to put smoked chopped meat into everything. Beans get chopped brisket; breakfast tacos get chopped brisket with the eggs. Even his Texas-style cheesy chicken spaghetti is made with smoked chicken.

Currently, he is working on a food truck to go with his catering business. A food truck will allow him to travel to serve large groups and give him flexibility in scheduling. After all, a member of the World's Champion barbecue team needs time to travel and get new trophies.


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