Hudson Valley Ribfest returns to the Ulster County Fairgrounds

Jessica and Ava Spadafora of New Paltz enjoy their lunch at the Hudson Valley Ribfest in 2014. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Backyard barbecue has a long tradition in this country. Established in the South by the 19th century, the culinary techniques of cooking meat low-and-slow arrived later in the North, carried to these parts by the mass migration of Southerners seeking better financial opportunities. Firmly entrenched in our collective culture now, one of barbecue’s chief advantages — in addition to being delicious — has always been that it allows large quantities of food to be prepared at once, making it a sure bet for a gathering of people seeking to share a meal outside in a natural setting.   

The biggest barbecue gathering in this region happens every August at the Ulster County Fairgrounds, where the 14th annual Hudson Valley Ribfest will be held Friday through Sunday, August 17-19. The event goes on rain or shine, and parking is plentiful and free.

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The Highland Rotary Club puts on Ribfest as a fundraiser, enlisting more than 300 volunteers every year to put on the three-day event. The proceeds enable the service club to support their many projects locally and promote humanitarian causes worldwide. Highland Rotarians are among the 1.2 million people in Rotary’s global network who seek to make the world a better place by taking action through more than 35,000 clubs in the U.S. and abroad.

Ribfest kicks off Friday evening, August 17 with free admission from 5-10 p.m., sponsored by Highland Rotary and iHeart Media. Register for free tickets in advance at www.HudsonValleyRibfest.org.

The fairgrounds will open on Saturday, August 18 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday festival hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Single-day general admission costs $7 for adults — use code BBQ4Me online for a 20 percent discount — and admission is free for kids under age 12. Tickets are also available at the gate. The price of admission includes entry to the festival, live music, kids’ activities and additional entertainment, access to the contest area and same-day re-entry.

The main stage at Ribfest will feature live music all weekend, sponsored by iHeart Media. The lineup on Friday, August 17 begins at 6:30 p.m. with the group Williams Honor, who recently opened for Bon Jovi at Madison Square Garden. Jessica Lynn takes the stage at 8 p.m., fresh off a summer European tour.

Saturday, August 18 features a mix of country and classic rock with Country Fresh playing at noon, BedRock at 3 p.m. and Led Zeppelin tribute band, Zep Again, at 7 p.m.

On Sunday, August 19, live entertainment will be provided by Hudson Valley-based Little Creek at noon and Roadhouse Roosters at 2:30 p.m.

Food vendors at Ribfest will include those offering hot dogs, hamburgers and fries, jerk shrimp and fish, Mexican and Jamaican food. Barbecue vendors (as of press time) include Big Kev’s BBQ, Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, Gullah Q. Lowcountry BBQ and Jack McDavid’s Down Home Diner. Each will have half and full racks of ribs available along with other barbecued meats and side dishes, and they often sell bottles of their sauces and spice rubs, too.

Tantillo’s Farm will have apple cider doughnuts and pies, and the local 4-H kids their “famous milkshakes.” Other vendors will have classic fair food: roasted corn, fried dough, fried pickles, Italian ices, soft pretzels, kettle corn, ice cream and lemonade. 

For those seeking something a little stronger to imbibe, the Highland Rotary Club staffs the beer tent conveniently located in the center of the festival, with a selection of beer and bottled cocktails available. IDs are checked once and wristbands issued for easy purchase on the second round.

Activities for kids include the free “Kid’s Korner” for craft-making and a “Family Fun Area” with inflatable bouncy houses.

The chef demo tent hosts cooking demonstrations and tastings, the cornhole tournaments will return, and for a little retail therapy, check out the marketplace area with vendors offering a range of items from gourmet nuts, fudge and candy to clothing and cutlery. A complete list of vendors is on the event website.

New this year for the event is an extension of the “Best of the Fest” VIP experience to two nights rather than just Friday as in years past. Tickets cost $75 for Friday evening and $100 for Saturday, available by advance purchase online only. Early purchase is advised, as just 100 tickets are reserved for each night. Ticketholders to the VIP experience must be age 21 or older.

The VIP Tent opens at 5 p.m. Food will be served between 6-9 p.m. Friday evening and 5-9 p.m. on Saturday. Ticketholders enjoy unlimited ribs, beer, wine and soda, samples from Hudson Valley Ribfest vendors and a wide variety of side dishes and desserts, under a private tent close to the stage with a roped-off outside area. A gift bag is included and on Saturday, there will be a private performance under the tent at 6 p.m. by one of the musical acts in the festival lineup: Williams Honor.

The barbecue competition

RibFest also includes a barbecue competition. Sixty teams of competitors set up their grills in a “village” of sorts at the back of the fairgrounds, behind where the main action for visitors takes place. RibFest is affiliated with the Empire State BBQ Championship Challenge, a statewide series of competitive events intended to promote the love of barbecue. Winners earn cash prizes and bragging rights. 

On Saturday afternoon, The New England Barbecue Society will sponsor a grilling contest. Prizes will be won in four categories: pizza, “wrapped in bacon,” ribeye steak and grilled apple dessert. Sunday’s competition, sponsored by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), will be all about the barbecued meats: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt/shoulder and beef brisket.

The judges for the contest have all completed a KCBS-sanctioned rib-judging training program. Spots to act as judges at Hudson Valley RibFest are snapped up quickly each February when the word is put out to apply. The ribs cooked up by the competitive teams are strictly for judging, not for sale to the public, but some of the contest teams do act as “tailgate vendors,” selling sauces and t-shirts or other BBQ-related products. Competitors are also happy to chat with visitors who wander back to the contest area.

For advance tickets to Ribfest or for more information, visit https://hudsonvalleyribfest.org/.

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