The trees lining State Highway 64 in Russellville fairly vibrate with the summer buzzing of cicadas. Their song is slow, purposeful, timeless. Not far off the highway, Grant Hall and Robert Couser, owners of Ridgewood Brothers Barbecue, tend the fire in a smoker longer than a pickup truck. Inside the smoker, slabs of top-choice meat bathe in the vaporized flavors of seasoned post oak. Barely noticeable tendrils of smoke curl out from the hot cast-iron, ducking low in the humid air, and swirl through the screened-in smoker house.
Grant’s and Robert’s actions are slow and purposeful as well, in perfect parallel to the music of a Southern summer afternoon. That’s how you get award-winning Barbecue.
“People use the term pitmaster,” Grant says referring to a common title for those who regularly coax smoldering succulent, savory deliciousness from raw pork, beef, and poultry. “But I don’t think you can really master it. We just work together with this thing.” Grant nods toward the cooker. “I’m not its master. This fire, the wood, the meat we have in there, we all work together. And in the end, we’ve done something.”
The laid back words belie a hard-driving attitude that led to Ridgewood Brothers Barbecue winning Main Street Russellville’s Taste of the Valley People’s Choice and Local Flavor awards for 2019.
Were Robert and Grant surprised by the win? “Very,” Robert says. Grant was astonished as well, though, he had a premonition of good things to come. “At some point (during the event), I just started hearing things, and I turned toward Robert and said, ‘dude, I think we’ve got a shot,’” Grant says.
The duo won in a very Ron Swansonesque manner: Here’s our grilled meat. Enjoy.
That’s it. No condiments, except the option of some of their proprietary barbecue sauce, no extras, and no fancy presentation.
They won because the secret to incredible barbecue isn’t a secret at all. It’s found in the nuance of preparation. The pair are quick to tell you that cooking “secrets” for delectable barbecue are pure fantasy. There’s no formula of spices. There’s no holy book of the smoker. It’s surprisingly simple, really, and there are only four primal ingredients.
It starts with the wood. Ridgewood Brothers use post oak for their barbecue for three reasons: 1) It’s plentiful in the region. 2) It burns slow — slower than hickory and slower than red oak, which helps slow the cooking process. 3) The lighter flavors imparted by post oak smoke don’t overpower the already wonderful and subtle flavors of properly cooked meat but, instead, enhance those flavors.
“The guy that gets our post oak cuts standing dead trees then seasons them in his barn” Grant says. “We don’t like anything green, but we don’t like them bone dry either. We have a moisture sensor for wood, ideally, it would be 14-16 percent. But at this point, if I hit it on the ground I listen for what kind of sound it makes.” Grant demonstrates as he whacks two pieces of wood on the asphalt. The denser thump of greener wood is obvious.
Next up is the meat, and Ridgewood doesn’t cut any corners here. The brisket, for example, comes from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kansas. It’s certified Angus beef, either upper two-thirds choice or prime. Care for the living cow is important, too. “These people make sure they (the cows) have as good a life as they can,” Grant says. “They’re grain finished, but they’re also free in the pasture and, hopefully, they have just one bad day. That’s as good as I know to do.”
Enlightened cooks and eaters have long known that animals treated with kindness yield a better product. But there’s also something to be said for the empathy of a conscientious carnivore. Yes, meat comes from animals, but Grant and Robert believe that the animals shouldn’t be treated only as commodities. “I understand what this is,” Grant says. “I mean, there’s only two briskets per cow; a lot of things had to expire for this, so we try to make it as good as we can and respect it as much as we can because, well, it’s the right thing to do. I don’t how else to say it.”
The third ingredient is a good fire. Would a propane smoker be easier? “Absolutely. It would be 100 times easier,” Grant says. “But there wouldn’t be any fun in it for me.”
“The smoke is better when it’s natural fire,” Robert says. “We kind of idolized Texas barbecue, and it’s all open pits and food sitting above it. Live fire was always the point.”
A “good” fire is a clean-burning fire, and of the three ingredients mentioned so far for great barbecue, it may be the most easily botched. “We don’t want a lot of nasty smoke,” Grant says. “We want it to be 700 degrees or hotter because that’s when all the bad and big smoke particles burn up and are gone.”
Those “bad and big smoke particles” are otherwise known as creosote, the same sticky, tarry black stuff that coats a chimney. If you’ve ever had food that’s over smoked or prepared over a fire not burning hot enough, the meat will be coated with creosote and have a bitter flavor. “You’ll probably burp it up for a while afterward,” Grant says. Robert and Grant want to see a thin blue smoke coming out of their smoker. “If you see smoke like a choo-choo train, get ready for a heavy, heavy taste,” Grant says. “But if the fire is right, you’re left with the vanilla and other flavors that come out of the wood.”
Grant says the fire is like a puzzle that he and Robert constantly trying to solve. “What it’s doing right now is secondary to what’s going to happen in the future. You want to figure out what it’s going to do in half an hour.” Quality meat is essential, but the right fire is just as important.
The fourth ingredient isn’t something you can purchase or make, and it’s by far the toughest to come by. Anyone can make great barbecue. So why don’t most people make great barbecue? “It’s too hard,” Grant says. He pauses for a moment, glancing toward the smoker and stacks of post oak. “It’s not hard, like difficult to learn how to do, but it’s tedious. You’ve got to really want to do it.”
In conversation about barbecue with Robert and Grant, words like “want” don’t cut it. “Passion” and “obsession” are far more fitting. How else can you describe two best friends — since Russellville Elementary fifth grade — who have shared barbecue trials and tribulations in pursuit of the perfect brisket or pork butt since they first lit coals under a grate? “We’re pretty much as nerded out as you can get with this stuff,” Grant says.
That elusive fourth ingredient is why Ridgewood Brothers award-winning barbecue is the culmination of years and years of failure and perfecting techniques, lots of money, and a friendship maintained over miles of separation by this shared obsession for the perfect cooked meat.
After high school, Grant moved to Wisconsin and the barbecue bug bit hard. He became consumed with smoking the perfect brisket. “My wife won’t hardly eat brisket any more,” Grant says. “I brisketed her out. There were a lot of bad ones. I even have pictures on my phone and thought ‘I’ll look back on these and it will be funny some day.’ Now I look at them and laugh, and say ‘what was I doing.’”
As he talks about laughing over bad brisket, something about Grant’s facial expression doesn’t jibe with his words. Is he really over the bad briskets cooked years ago?
“No,” Grant says. “No, it’s still not funny.”
But Grant learned from his multitude of mistakes, his wife and marriage survived brisketacolypse, and the experiences eventually led to the discovery of a calling. “I was cooking for friends and family, and we had a friend at the house who had not had much home-cooked barbecue,” Grant says. “I cooked pulled pork, and his reaction to it, how much he liked it, made me really happy.”
Per usual, the path to obsession was paved with endorphins.
“I guess it’s a way I can create something and share something with someone else,” Grant says. “I can’t draw. I’m not a photographer. I’m not great with words. So this is my way to share my creativity.”
Robert’s road to meticulous meat smoking branches from Grants. “I’ve always liked barbecue,” Robert says. “I mean, I’ve always liked it, like, a lot. I figured it was so hard to do.” But during one of Grant’s visits to Russellville, Robert learned that his buddy was cracking the code. “Grant cooked a pork butt, and I was, like, ‘dude, how did you do this?” Grant gave Robert a website address. “It was a horrible website,” Robert says. “But it had good information. So I started on just a small 18-inch grill with the coals on one side and a pork butt on the other. It was a pain.”
And so the two grill buddies began a long-distance partnership working toward the mutual goal of delicious smoked meats. “We did all the barbecue stuff like correspondence chess,” Grant says. “He would cook something, I would try to recreate it up there, and then we’d talk about it, see if it worked.”
“I even mailed him a couple of rubs,” Robert says. “They were failed rubs, but I did mail them.”
Aspiring pit master penpals they were. And then they began visiting the region that, metaphorically, lit their fire.
“We went to Texas, to this barbecue place that was really great,” Grant says. “And we both came back and said we’ve got to get a smoker that runs on wood — a stick burner. Robert was looking at a small one, for his house. But the more we talked about it, the more we thought maybe we should try to sell barbecue in Russellville.”
Next thing you know, they ordered the biggest smoker the manufacturer made and came up with a name for the business. The “Brothers” part is easy to figure out — two best friends since grade school growing up to become maniacal about a challenging craft. But where did “Ridgewood” come from? “It’s my street,” Robert says. “I grew up on Ridgewood Drive here in Russellville. Grant came up with the idea. He was a block behind me on Durant, but, you know… Durant Brothers?”
And now the business is booming. Besides winning awards, it also regularly sells out of barbecue — fast. They’ve created a demand based on limited availability. “We’re only open until it’s gone,” Robert says. And they’re only open every other Saturday.
“When we first started, we talked about cooking only a fraction of what we’re cooking to create that demand,” Robert says. “But as it got closer, we decided, let’s just fill this thing up, cook as much as we can cook. And we sold it all. And we’ve sold it all ever since.”
There’s a reason for this exclusivity. “It takes too long to make the product,” Robert says. What’s available to customers on those Saturday mornings took 20-24 hours of preparation. Grant and Robert won’t reheat food. Hot off the smoker — one time — is the only way you’ll get meat from Ridgewood Brothers.
Customers usually gather early and form a line long before Ridgewood Brothers opens at 10:30 a.m. Robert says that the preorder service (details available on the Ridgewood Brothers BBQ Facebook page) have helped with line times a little. “But the line time is just part of it,” Robert says. “It’s the only way to get great barbecue. That’s why the line is there.”
So what does the future hold for Ridgewood Brother’s Barbecue? Grant and Robert have a vision, with a distinctly Texas flavor, that they believe the River Valley will embrace.
“Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, is a big inspiration for us,” Grant says. “Aarron Franklin started in a trailer doing pretty much what we’re doing now. He was in the parking lot of a gas station and now his place is so big. They do 104 briskets a day and they sell out every day. Usually, people start getting in line at 4 or 5 a.m., and it’s like a party — people bring chairs, they bring beer, and they have music.”
And they wait — anticipating, talking, socializing, forming a little community of their own based on a shared love of great food — until Franklin’s Barbecue opens its doors hours later.
“It’s like a whole experience,” Grant says. “I would love to have something like that, even if it could never be on that scale, but something where people hang out. It’s a good time. it’s an experience with barbecue.”
“We do want to be a destination,” Robert says.
But what happens if Grant and Robert’s dreams come true? Is Russellville, their hometown, big enough to hold them? “There’ll never be another location,” Grant says. “There’ll never be two of these. There’ll never be a franchise. The point is not to make a million dollars. There’s something more to it than that.”