Prepare your palette for Steamboat’s 11th annual downtown Chili Challenge heats up |

Prepare your palette for Steamboat’s 11th annual downtown Chili Challenge heats up

Kerry Shea, owner of McKnights Irish Pub & Loft in Steamboat Springs, ladles out some of their chili to samplers during the 10th annual Downtown Chili Challenge Sunday near Seventh and Yampa Streets.
Austin Colbert

If you go:

What: 11th annual Downtown Chili Challenge

Where: Yampa Street, from 10th Street to 12th Street

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10

More information:

— As Steamboat Springs’ weather starts to turn chilly, its palette is preparing for some serious heat.

The spiciest non-athletic local competition of the year, the 11th annual Downtown Chili Challenge, is set for Saturday, and residents planning to attend should immediately begin budgeting the space in their stomachs accordingly.

This year’s panel of judges could be more accurate than ever. In the past, there has typically been a single chef on the panel of about six, but this year, there will be three or even four chefs serving as judges. This year also marks the first time blind taste tests will be instituted.

Judged categories include red chili, green chili, cornbread, salsa, People’s Choice for red chili, People’s Choice for green chili, best presentation and best team spirit.

“People’s Choice is what everyone wants,” said MainStreet Steamboat manager Lisa Popovich.

Contestants are generally groups affiliated with local restaurants, although the occasional unaffiliated entrant has been known to make an appearance. Flavors and styles range from traditional to zany, such as the debuting “Nothing But Smoke” chili collaboration by Yampa Valley Farms and Butcherknife Brewing Co.

“They’re smoking everything,” Popovich said. “Smoked peaches might even be in there.”

While creativity doesn’t have its own judging category, it plays an important role in the event.

“Like last year, Sweet Pea had their cornbread wrapped inside corn husks. We’re encouraging that,” Popovich said. “We’re Steamboat; we’re outside the box. We don’t even know where the box is.”

Winners take home cash prizes of as much as $150, not to mention local bragging rights and impressive claims for their menus. Long-time competitors consistently known to dominate include groups hailing from Smokehouse and Cantina.

“Mahogany Ridge is kind of the one to beat,” Popovich said. “The new kid on the block is Storm Peak and Dude & Dan’s.”

But the slew of entrants who won’t take home a prize should also be applauded. Those showing off their chili are advised to provide 5 gallons minimum, but 15 is what it generally takes to enthrall enough voters to win the coveted People’s Choice. Salsa entrants whip up at least 2 gallons, and cornbread connoisseurs bake enough to serve a bite-sized taste to at least 600 people.

If this seems exorbitant, consider the crowds of 1,000 to 1,200 the event typically draws — but more may be expected this year, due to the contest location’s close proximity to the ever-bustling Farmers Market. This week, market-goers may purchase beer donated by Mahogany Ridge.

The Chili Challenge event also offers live music by local group Rural Wreckage, face painting, roping and other children’s activities, local Boy Scouts’ cow-plop fundraiser and, of course, the Boots and Bare Leg Contest for all ages. Event attendees are encouraged to wear cowboy boots and bare legs for this classic contest that organizers describe as “very unofficial.”

Stuffed bellies and cow plops aside, the Chili Challenge is a serious staple in MainStreet Steamboat’s yearly fundraising and supports the community in direct, vital ways.

“Revenue pays for a lot of things — things that are sort of invisible, like trash cans and benches,” Popovich said. “This year, it’ll help us add more flowers and will help fund Restaurant Week.”

Local chili challenges have been taking place for decades, but the first official downtown challenge began in conjunction with F.M. Light & Sons to celebrate the store’s 100th anniversary. To this day, the retailer is the chili challenge’s No. 1 sponsor and extremely supportive, Popovich said.

“It’s people living in Steamboat celebrating living in Steamboat,” Popovich said. “It’s a celebration of our community.”

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