Aaron Franklin knows barbecue. The Texas native opened his namesake Franklin Barbecue with wife Stacy in 2009 and has since garnered global recognition for his world-class ’cue. Here, the pitmaster chats about his favorite local flavors, his espresso habit and the best beer for barbecue.
Imbibe: You’re a born and bred Texan—what local flavors have shaped the way you eat and drink?
Aaron Franklin: My parents had a barbecue place when I was a kid, so I started at a pretty young age. And then Tex-Mex is obviously huge down here—I don’t think I go more than a day without a taco, and I probably eat chips and queso every other day. Basically, if it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you’re not at work, then you’re eating chips and queso and drinking a Margarita on a patio somewhere. And we are in Texas, after all, so there’s a lot of red meat. What can I say? The food stereotypes are true.
You’ve become a kingpin of barbecue. What are the hallmarks of the “Texas-style”?
Texas is an enormous state, so big we have different barbecue subregions. What I do is Central Texas style, which is what I think of when I think of Texas barbecue. It’s from German and Czech settlers and focuses on simple seasonings like salt and pepper, and maybe a little bit of cayenne. Really, it’s a concentration of smoke and cooking temperature. Then, in East Texas the barbecue gets a little sweeter, and down in the Valley they get into more direct cooking with mesquite coals. But I think the Central Texas style is the best.
We’ve heard you spend more than 12 hours a day tending to your brisket. Any favorite drinks to keep you going?
I drink a lot of coffee. Let’s see—so far today I’ve been at work for 14 hours and I’ve probably had six espressos. Well, I sport a triple, 21-gram basket, and I think I’ve had about six of those. I’m kind of a coffee nerd, and sometimes I think our house espresso barbecue sauce is my excuse for having nice coffee equipment.
Espresso barbecue sauce—tell us more!
I worked at a coffee shop a number of years ago with a bunch of friends and basically got as nerdy about espresso as I am about barbecue now, so it just made sense to bring the two together into our signature sauce.
Feel like sharing the recipe?
[Laughs] Not a chance.
Then let’s talk about beer—do you have an ideal barbecue brew?
I tend to like ambers and altbiers with barbecue—something really smooth, slightly malty, but still crisp. Though in the wintertime I’ll switch it up to something like a chocolaty stout or dark porter—hence my affinity for espresso. But everybody’s different, and some people swear an IPA is the perfect complement to a hot piece of brisket. Either way, we have a ton of amazing beers coming out of Austin right now. In fact, I’m drinking an amber from Live Oak right now.
Any secrets you can share to help us perfect our own pit-master statuses?
Basically, just don’t take short cuts. Brisket is such a huge hunk of meat that it takes a long time to cook—we cook ours anywhere from 12 to maybe 16, 17, 18 hours. It really comes down to a willingness to watch the fire and not rely on electricity or gas to do the cooking for you. It’s about paying attention, keeping things fresh and having some awesome people to help you.
What do you love most about your work?
I think what I love most is that it’s actually my work. My wife and I own the place, and however hard we work is exactly what we get out of it. And we have a great local community here that supports what we’re doing.
If you weren’t running Texas’ top barbecue joint, what would you be doing?
I have no idea! This thing happened so quick I never developed another plan. Everybody’s pipe dream is to brew beer, but I have friends who are brewers, and it’s pretty much like barbecue hours. I’ve thought about homebrewing—I basically fantasize about it everyday—but I just don’t have the time. When I lost barbecue as a hobby, my number one choice was to start brewing beer at home, but that was about 3½ years ago, and I just haven’t had a chance.