Smile Politely

Beer and chili fest sees large crowd and fewer chilis

Every year, Urbana’s Annual International Beer Tasting & Chili Cook-Off closes off the downtown Urbana parking garage and a couple of downtown streets for the masses of people waiting to taste the beer and chili. And with thirty-six tables of beer, and four to nine beers per table, no one can ever complain that the festival lacks in beer. But every year, we hear complaints that the chili runs out too soon. This year, in spite of some teams’ inability to attend and different tactics by other chili teams to serve more people, the complaints remained the same.

Only two of the expected teams for the chili cook-off were able to attend the event, several others missing the event due to conflicts. When it became obvious that the number of teams cooking the minimum required five gallons of chili per team would not be sufficient for the crowd, event organizers did their best to draw in local restaurateurs and food trucks to serve chili or chili-based items at the event, and they did so fairly successfully. In spite of the lack of participation, the event still served seven types of chili, three types from the two competing teams. Additionally, the restaurant tent served vegetarian, chicken, and beef chilis. Of note, the Cracked truck served either a cup of chili or a chili cheese dog in exchange for event tickets. Pricey, but worth every ticket.

Since only two teams arrived for the event, the official competition judging was canceled. However, the two teams who cooked (Knauff and Lutton vs. Rennick and Pierce) still went head-to-head to give attendees the best chili they could make.

Jason Knauff and Brian Lutton, the team pictured under the grass skirt tent, have been making chili for the last five years at the competition. Jason began by helping a friend at the chili competition about seven years ago and noticed that many of the chilies tasted distinctive, and some very unusual, but none seemed to reflect a basic chili recipe. So he decided to enter with his mom’s chili recipe, “more or less,” he said. Knauff also mention that his mother insists on a few key ingredients in the chili, like using small yellow onions, and a few other particular components. In previous years, the team served smaller quantities, but this year they made fifteen gallons of chili to tend to the appetite of the crowd.

The other team, Drew Rennick and Jim Pierce, entered the chili cook-off for the first time this year, but have a bit of chili history between them. Rennick noted that one or the other of them has won the chili competition at their employer, Parkland College, since 1999, when the cook-off began. For Urbana’s Chili Cook-Off, they hand ground or chopped almost every ingredient that went into the chili. This team served two types of chili, a spicy and a mild. Besides having less heat, the spicy chili also contained smoked beef that the team ground by hand the morning of the competition, whereas the mild chili contained regular ground beef.

But, what the chili teams lacked in competition, they made up for in flavor and enthusiasm. Knauff said, “We still came to make chili … [for the people] … and to make sure it happens every year.” 

While the teams both served more than their required minimum of five gallons and one team tried to stagger the times the chili finished cooking, at some point partway through the festival, I admit — we at Smile Politely reposted a Tweet that said, “At Urbana #BeerandChili #nochili.” Sad, but true. The event, scheduled to last from 3:00–8:00 p.m., was packed away by the time I drove back past at 7:30. While not a total loss, with a couple of teams and seven interesting chilis to try, we hope next year that more chili teams attend to compete. Perhaps if you like to make chili, you should enter next year. You have a whole year to practice.

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