Out of the oil field, into the smoker

Pepperbelly’s Ryan Smith brings Alaska-Texas barbecue to Colorado by way of oil rigs

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Pepperbelly

Thank goodness for the oil fields.

That’s not a sentence you’re likely to ever read again in Boulder Weekly. But I mean it. For if it weren’t for oil fields, we wouldn’t have Ryan Smith’s barbecue. At least it wouldn’t be as good.

Smith runs Pepperbelly Barbecue, a mobile meat-smoking operation that started and grew in North Boulder last year, but has since expanded throughout Boulder County and into Denver. Long before that, though, he was a kid in Anchorage, Alaska, smoking salmon.

“I think that’s where I picked up the passion for smoking and curing meats,” Smith says. “In Alaska, we would catch probably a thousand, a thousand-plus pounds of salmon every summer. All of my friends, their friends, they would have just as much fish. It was like our chore growing up: smoking, keeping the fires lit at our smokehouses and at our friends’ houses.”

In high school, Smith’s father was transferred to an oil field in Houston, and so the family moved south. Smith was shocked by the temperature differences — “It was my first experience burning the back of my legs in the car because the leather seats were so hot” — but there were big cultural shifts as well. The cafeteria at his Houston high school felt like a mall, Smith remembers.

But the change that had perhaps the greatest impact on his life was the introduction of Texas barbecue.

“I remember exactly that experience,” Smith says. “I always tell people, ‘If you can remember the first time you had barbecue, then you probably have the bug for it.’ I had a chopped beef brisket sandwich off a little barbecue trailer on the side of the road outside Brazos (Bend) State Park outside Sugar Loaf. I probably hit that trailer up three times a week.”

Smith immediately started to smoke his own briskets on whatever rig he could find. “In Texas, there’s always some sort of rusted-up smoking device around,” he says. On his first attempts, he lit up park charcoal grills and cooked the brisket for two hours. He admits those early smokes did not yield great results.

But he went onto culinary school in Austin, and then to an internship and job at a restaurant in Lake Tahoe. All the while, Smith was making barbecue, “but at the time … basically I just wanted to travel. That was my thing: cook and travel. Maybe end up on a cruise ship.”

His globe-trotting plans were arrested when, a year into his stint at the Lake Tahoe restaurant, Smith broke his leg snowboarding. He returned to Houston to rehab his leg, just as his old friends from Alaska started coming down to the area to work in the oil fields, like Smith’s father had done before them. Smith, in need of cash, joined his friends in the fields after his leg healed.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do that for a summer,’” Smith says. “And I went out, and it was miserable. The worst job ever: 120 degrees, out in Louisiana, covered in oil… I mean, it was just brutal. I did that for six months and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m done.’”

So Smith and some friends went back up to the Pacific Northwest. They restored an old wooden yacht and steered it up to a little island in Alaska. When they got there, Smith managed to find a brisket and smoked it for his friends.

“It was always a thing — always trying to barbecue, always getting better,” Smith says.

The next few years saw Smith working in and out of restaurants, and on and off of oil fields. When money got tight working in kitchens, he headed out to the oil fields. When the oil field operators laid him off, he went back to kitchens. He worked in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Texas and points in between, often smoking meats for his friends and co-workers in their little communities.

It wasn’t until his wife got pregnant that Smith ended the back-and-forth. They moved to Colorado, and Smith traded in the oil field equipment he’d gathered over the years for a proper smoker, and set it up in his backyard. He also set about refining his craft in true Digital Age fashion — by watching YouTube videos of Austin’s Aaron Franklin, from world-renowned Franklin Barbecue.

“That’s when the briskets started taking off for me,” Smith says. “Sure enough, with (Franklin’s) trimming techniques, I nailed the first brisket. And once I nailed that brisket, it was on. I started cooking those things around the clock. My neighbors were giving me meats to smoke. I started smoking meat for friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Next thing I know I’m going to catering sites, and finally I just decided to go ahead and pull the trigger.”

Smith toured potential pop-up sites for his barbecue operation, and eventually set up a small network of locations in North Boulder — the Shell station, Atlas Flooring and Cellar West Artisan Ales.

“I was nervous as heck,” Smith says of launching Pepperbelly. “My first day I think I cooked two briskets, one shoulder, a rack of ribs, and a small turkey breast, and I was out there all day. But we did get it sold. I think I sold 450 bucks our first day. I think it was all Texans who saw me out there. They’d drive by and see my smoker. The next weekend, sure enough, all those people came back with groups of people, and we sold double. And then the next weekend, we kept increasing. I just kept on meeting new people and networking more. It took off.”

Part of the reason for Smith’s success is Colorado’s nascent barbecue scene. That’s the nice way of putting it — talk to a Texan and you’ll get a far nastier diagnosis. To name just two other success stories, look at Georgia Boys and Wayne’s Smoke Shack — both are establishments that brought authentic barbecue to Boulder County on a small scale, and both quickly expanded into much larger operations once word caught on. The point is: Barbecue may not have a long history here, but the future is bright.

Smith says the other reason Pepperbelly took off is because people saw him cooking at all hours of the day. The allure of a roadside barbecue pit was too much for people to ignore.

“People saw me out there turning those coals, up around the clock out there non-stop,” Smith says. “They saw the firewood. They smelled the oak burning with all the different meats, all the fats rendering. I think that’s kind of why I got a quick takeoff right away.

“The barbecue that I do, I don’t have a lot of fancy sauces or rubs, really. The main thing I’m selling is my time and my passion,” Smith says.

Smith doesn’t think he’ll have to return to the oil fields to cover his bills anymore. So say what you want about the quality of Boulder County’s barbecue scene — but Smith’s story is evidence we at least prefer barbecue over fossil fuels.