If you asked where the best barbecue in the U.S. is found, Wisconsin would be missing from the list topped by Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kansas City, Missouri.
But you’d be surprised how far Wisconsin has come, says Aubrey Freeman III.
“Wisconsin has really exploded in the last few years as far as a kind of a hot spot for barbecue,” says Freeman, a Texas transplant who’s lived in the Madison area for 21 years.
Freeman and his brother Pete are the duo behind Freeman Brothers BBQ, a competition barbecue team and food truck vendor from Wisconsin helping to put the cheese state on the barbecue map. The two grew up in Texas, but they didn’t eat a ton of barbecue there. Their dad owned and managed steakhouses, but barbecue was not usually on the menu. What really launched the brothers into the world of competition barbecue 10 years ago was a bit of brotherly rivalry.
“My brother got a smoker,” says Aubrey. “He started messing around with it. Then I got a smoker because I wanted to be better than him.”
A competitive nature turned into a weekend-consuming hobby for the brothers, who each have full-time jobs. They started traveling to competitions around the area, and what started as a pop-up tent and tables has turned into a commercial-grade kitchen on wheels complete with two FEC100 smokers, a fridge, stainless steel tables and sinks and a four-burner range that runs on propane.
It took a few years for the brothers to reach the top 10 at Kansas City Barbeque Society competitions. In the past nine years, Aubrey and Pete have collected accolades at some highly competitive events. The two have scored 180 (a perfect score in competition barbecue) in three of the four KCBS categories—brisket, pork, ribs and chicken. They have two grand champion titles and have been invited to the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue held in Lynchburg, Tennessee, in which one team is picked from every state.
When the brothers started competing, there were probably about only five competitions hosted in the state of Wisconsin, Aubrey says. This year, he expects there to be 15 to 20 local competitions.
“The people that put on these competitions have done a really great job of attracting really high caliber teams from out of the state to come [to Wisconsin competitions],” he says. “But there are a lot of great teams out of Wisconsin.”
If you ask Aubrey what style of barbecue Freeman Brothers serves up, he’ll tell you it falls under Kansas City style. “It’s a little bit sweeter than what Texas does,” he says. When he first started barbecuing, he picked up a lot from a Texas barbecue cookbook his wife gave him. What many might not know is that the meat the brothers prepare for competitions is completely different from the meat they vend. “I wouldn’t want to eat a full competition barbecue meal because it would just destroy your mouth,” Aubrey says. “Your taste buds wouldn’t know what to do with themselves because they’ve just been overwhelmed.”
While all their meat is cooked low and slow, competition barbecue is stronger and spicier because a single bite needs to win over judges who are sampling six entries at a time.
“Good eating barbecue is a little bit sweet, a little bit of heat. There’s a little of that smoke flavor to it, there’s paprika, chili powder, salt and pepper. It has that great flavor but doesn’t overwhelm you,” he says.
You’ll likely see the Freeman Brothers’ bright yellow food truck vending at festivals or Dane County locations, most often at Hop Haus Brewing Co. in Verona. The brothers also have developed a barbecue sauce that is sold at Metcalfe’s Market, Orange Tree Imports, the Cinnamon Stick and UW Provision Co., in Middleton.
The brothers hope to compete in 10 to 12 competitions this year, Aubrey says. To them, it’s worth investing about $1,000 per competition and nearly 24 hours of careful cooking, especially when the competition is held at an interesting venue—like a competition in 2016 the brothers attended (and placed first out of 81 teams with a perfect score for their brisket) held in Lambeau Field’s parking lot in Green Bay.
And as the brothers travel, they’re elevating Wisconsin’s barbecue reputation.
There are a lot of great teams around [Kansas City],” Aubrey says. “If you ask them, ‘How about those guys from Wisconsin?’, they’re probably going to say ‘They’re from Wisconsin. They don’t know anything about barbecue.’ But if you talk to serious competitors, I think they definitely know Wisconsin is making its place on the map for competitive barbecue. We are putting together great competitions and we are producing teams that can go to other competitions and hang with, if not beat, those other top teams in the country.”
Freeman BBQ by the numbers
There are a lot of numbers involved when Aubrey Freeman III and Pete Freeman pack up for a weekend barbecue competition. Check them out.
A perfect score for a competition win—it’s every barbecuer’s dream. This means you’ve received nines from five of the six judges in four categories (the lowest score gets dropped).
3 of 4
The Freeman Brothers have scored a perfect 180 in three of four KCBS categories (brisket, pork and ribs). They’re gunning to add chicken to that list to make it a perfect four-for-four.
How many FEC100 smokers are mounted in the Freeman Brothers BBQ’s commercial-grade kitchen on wheels.
Aubrey’s estimated price tag for what a single competition costs between entree fees, supplies, meat and injections.
16 to 18
The number of hours the Freeman brothers leave the brisket and pork in the smoker. Low and slow, baby.
The year the Freeman brothers’ pork won at the Death’s Door BBQ competition.
The year the Freeman brothers’ brisket won the Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Fest held at Lambeau Field and their ribs won the World Food Championships.
The number of Kansas City Barbeque Society categories used to judge a barbecue entry: appearance, taste and tenderness.
How many times the bros get up between 2 and 5 a.m. to check and spritz the meat that’s cooking overnight.
Up to $2,000
The total amount a grand champion at a Wisconsin competition could go home with, according to Aubrey. (Grand champion usually wins about $1,200, plus more for winning other categories.)