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How the Ongoing Drought is Affecting Texas BBQ

Barbecue is sacrosanct in the Lone Star State, with brisket being arguably the most Texan of dishes. But since 2006, Texas' extended drought has proved a problem for ranchers. In 2011 – the driest year on record – many cattle ranchers gave up, choosing to sell off as they watched their land dry up.

That wave of sell-offs not only affected Texas ranchers, but also affected the bounty of beef ribs, chopped beef and beautifully marbled brisket throughout the state. Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn tells Texas Standard's David Brown it's not only caused beef prices to rise, but could affect the taste and quality of Texas barbecue for years to come.

"We have to remember this drought is going to cause a permanent change in the way of life of a lot of people. Those small time ranchers have had to get out of the business altogether. They had to sell off their cattle because they couldn't feed them, there wasn't any grass to feed them ...We're just at the beginning of seeing that kind of price raising and how a lack of supply is going to affect the prices," he says, citing this week's  brisket price tag of  $2.27 per pound, compared to $1.88 this time last year. 

It's not only the prices, though. Vaughn says it's possible the cost could affect the taste.

"Rather than raising their prices," he says. "[Some restaurants] might go to select briskets, which are a lower quality and might taste a little different."

Vaughn just returned from a trip to Amarillo, where he not only surveyed the prices but also, of course, took in some of the local fare. His picks? Tyler's BBQis not much of a secret to readers of Texas Monthly, since it made the magazine's top 50.

"[I]t was actually the first time I had dined there," Vaughn says. "They had some really incredible pork ribs. And then down the street [was] one that I'd never heard of: Spicy Mike's.  And they did a really good brisket and they did a really great chopped beef sandwich... and they chop in the smoked beef and green chilies all together. And then Verdinski's also in in town. I can't say I liked the barbecue all that well, but the banana pudding at the end of the meal, was some of the best I've had."

While Amarillo may have some respectable barbecue, it's also the home one of the largest beef processing plants in the state, Tyson-owned IBP.

Vaughn says if you go to the back room of any barbecue joint in the state, you're likely to find at least a few IBP crates.  Because of that ubiquity, and because of the diminishing supply, many barbecue lovers may find their local smoker pushing pork and poultry. 

"It's just just going to be a lot of barbecue joints putting that chicken or that turkey or those pork ribs on special and try to push that," Vaughn says. "And brisket might just become something that people might not order because it becomes too expensive."

Emily Donahue is a former grants writer for KUT. She previously served as news director and helped launch KUT’s news department in 2001.
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