Salsa Judging, an Award Winning Recipe and Summer Fun in Aspen/Snowmass

Snowmass Colorado kicked off their summer season last weekend with the flavorful Chili Pepper and Brew Fest.   The festival runs a day and a half with attendees having the opportunity to taste varieties of chili (red, green and salsa) from a number of award-winning and new cooks, taste home-brewed beers, taste tequila and listen to a number of bands all picturesquely perched on the side of a mountain.  I was asked to be a judge both days for the Salsa category which was not only a twist-my-arm assignment  as I love all Southwestern cuisine, but a portal into the world of the International Chili Society, a far reaching organization I knew nothing about.
For those not familiar with Snowmass, it is a sister mountain community to the famous Aspen a mere 20 minutes away.   The central dining and retail area of Snowmass Village features a walking mall leading to the ski slopes at 8,600 feet elevation.  The festival entrants line the walking mall with clever, colorful booths and often costumes, creating a buoyant, playful vibe.  As judges we were asked to not eat before the competition (both to preserve our palates but also despite only ‘tasting’, it is a fair amount of food by the end); this stipulation made the walk down the mall almost unbearable for the rich, earthy, savory aromas wafting from all the booths. 
Women are definitely familiar with being ‘cat called’ but when passing the Duck Blind Chili booth everyone gets duck called, literally.This enthusiastic group is all dressed as though they are ready to pull out shot guns but they fire with the quality of their chilis. Having participated in the festival for at least 7 years, the group is comprised from Colorado, Idaho and other surrounding areas. 
I became quickly relieved I was judging the salsa category as it has the most liberal judging parameters.  Entries may consistent of any type of salsa as long as it does not come from a jar and must totally be prepared on site (the latter criteria is the same for the Red Chili and Chili Verde).  Ultimate place designation is up to each individual judge’s preference; final scores are tallied and places awarded at the end of each festival day.  We were given a ballot and instructed to write down notes bearing in mind the cooks would see them so giving constructive insight is valued.  Sounds simple?  It was, other than the knowing the winner of each of the categories goes on to an international competition in the fall where they stand to win up to $35,000!  This is serious business.  Colorado has demonstrated particular prowess in the Salsa category having won first, second, third or fourth over the past 5 years at the world competition.
Entrants drop their salsas off at a front table only labeled on the bowl bottom for the contest organizers to know who’s is whose.
Once in the judge’s tent, the other nine judges and I were instructed about the tasting procedure.  We were each positioned in front of a neutral-colored paper bowl of salsa which had a number on the table next to it.  A spoon was positioned in the salsa for us to place a small bit onto a tortilla chip for tasting.  We were not allowed to place the chip into the salsa so as to not impart salt into the salsa.  Once we’d tasted, adding notes next to the number corresponding to the salsa number on our ballot, we rotated counter clockwise until all salsa’s had been judged.  Palate cleansing between tastings was required.  Grapes were encouraged to cut heat from one salsa to the next (something I noted for home-prepared spicy Southwestern meals).  Sour cream was available as were flour tortillas, water and beer.  We were asked not to speak to one another as well.  The salsa selections truly ran the gamut from finely diced, chunky, fruit, heat-neutral to uber spicy.
Prior to the competition I spoke with some of the entrants including Al Henry, a World Champ.  He excitedly filled me in on the chili competition world of which I was completely naïve.  There are various cook offs during the year culminating in the world competition in the fall (this year in Charleston West Virginia).  If one wins a category at one of these cook-offs they qualify to compete at the world competition.  Bonnie Tomasek, a mega champ herself who was executing the judging effort shared with me they generally have about 150 qualifiers in each of the three categories at the world competition. 
The 10 judges line either side of a table with a variety of palate cleansers in the middle and chips for tasting.Spoons are used to place salsa on chips so as to not impart salt from the chip into the salsa changing its flavor.
In addition to the individual winnings at the competitions, there are cumulative titles from the wins.  When entering one’s sixth pot of red or green chili, they are titled a ‘Master’ cook; one’s eleventh pot elevates them to ‘Grand Master’.  Bonnie, who has been competing since 1986, was one of the first original Grand Masters as well as has produced, in chili vernacular, several ‘Hat Tricks’ which is winning in all three categories.
Al Henry, multiple award winner and chili aficionado
I asked Al Henry about his strategy, whether he changes up his recipe each competition or sticks to a tried-and-true winner.  An early mentor of Al’s advised honing in on a recipe of choice and sticking to it which he’s done with success. His mentor also suggested developing his own chili blend utilizing New Mexican and California chili powders (pre-blended powders often include other spices than chili) which he shared is ideally used at about 3-4 tablespoons per pound of meat.  Al participates in all categories and has various wins to tout.  His 2008 third place Salsa win recipe has been published (click here for the recipe).
Each of the two festival day competitions is separate.  Those winning on day 1 are removed for day 2 when additional entrants may participate, as well as those not placing from day 1.  The competitions are open to all.  This year produced an exciting local win for the first Snowmass local. 
Definitely a festival to note for your next summer’s calendar and if you have a coveted chili recipe, enter it next year!  The camaraderie and fun shared by this group is obvious and it’s certainly a delicious hobby.  The weekend felt like summer all the way.


I love spending time in the Colorado mountains in the summertime.  Unrivaled, breathtaking views are just the start of it as well as it being a great way to beat the heat.  The Aspen/Snowmass area is particularly unique in the breadth of their summer activity and event offerings.  As one might expect there are endless outdoor activities from the expected hiking and fly fishing to more off beat endeavors such as paint ball courses.  The list is endless.  What I particularly love though is the mix of more Western and metropolitan events as well.  From a world class ballet company to multiple music organizations, wilderness pursuits and more.  It offers a relaxed sophistication and place for all interests and ages.  Here is a mere sampling of things happening this summer:
Aspen Food and Wine Classic (June 15 – June 17, 2012):  With the onset of food-oriented reality TV I doubt there is anyone who is not familiar with this premiere festival celebrating its 30th year this weekend.  It’s the place to be for fantastic food and wine, celebrity chef sightings and uncovering new trends.   In the event you miss it, there is a cool local spin off concept opening June 14; the Chef’s Club by Food and Wine restaurant at the St. Regis hotel in Aspen.  A pop up concept featuring Food and Wine recognized chefs who will prepare the menu keeping the festival’s essence alive all year round.  The opening menu has been devised by four former Food and Wine Best New Chefs including a personal local fave of mine, Chef Alex Seidel.
Snowmass Culinary and Arts Festival (July 19-21):   Approaching its third year this two day festival offers the chance to mince with local and international chefs through cooking demonstrations and paired tastings while strolling the Snowmass Village walking mall.  In addition a variety of artisans and crafts people will be displaying their wares along the mall.  I attended last year and loved it (to read my coverage click here and here).
Jazz Aspen Snowmass (June festival: June 22-July 7 Downtown Aspen; Labor Day festival: August 31-September 2 Snowmass Town Park):  Music lovers will thrive on these popular festivals featuring notable musical artisans on multiple stages and venues.  The mission of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass organization is to preserve jazz and related music forms through performance and education program for the community.  Headliners for June include: Donald Fagan, Michael McDonald, Boz Skaggs, Joe Crocker, k.d. Lang and Chris Botti.  Labor Day brings Steve Miller Band, Sugarland, Kid Rock, Michael Franti and more.
Anderson Ranch:  At the base of the Snowmass mountain the artisan complex of Anderson Ranch houses international artisans in residence as well as offers art classes/camps for children, teens and adults in the summer.  Thursdays this summer features a Featured Artist Lecture series with internationally known Contemporary artists.  Most begin at 12:30 p.m.  Open to the public.  Food tidbit: The café at Anderson Ranch is reputed for fabulous food always offering a vegetarian entrée.  They also hold a lunch time ‘auctionette’ auctioning off artwork from students, instructors and in residence artists (held specific Fridays preceded by a $10 barbeque lunch; check website for dates).  I have it on good authority it’s a great opportunity for some great art!  August 11 is the date for the 2012 official Art Auction.
Western Heritage Wild West Weekend (July 7-8):  Held at the Snowmass Rodeo Grounds a Pioneer Village will host education about the historical western founders of the Roaring Fork Valley long before skiing took hold.  The village will also feature historical crafts.  A Wild West show will be a weekend highlight.  Wednesday Night Rodeos:   Authentic rodeos are held every Wednesday night June 13-August 15.  Official rodeo events for old and young, Hickory House BBQ, full bar, cowboy sing-along, campfire, marshmallows; need I say more?
Photo courtesy of: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet website


Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet (July 6 – August 25):  The summer is full of dynamic dance performances by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company as well as visiting dance companies Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (known for contemporary dance) and the Hong Kong Ballet.  Performances are not just for adults; July 7 features a performance for kids of Harold and the Purple Crayon as well as Dance for Kids on August 25 with a light hearted, funny performance.
Aspen Institute:  Perhaps one of the most widely known gems on the Aspen landscape, the Aspen Institute is an international non-profit which fosters ‘values-based leadership and provides a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues’.  Through dynamic speaker series, lectures and special interactive forums.  Highlights include the Aspen Ideas Festival with The Atlantic magazine (June 27-July 3), Aspen Environment Forum in collaboration with National Geographic (June 22 – June 25) and Aspen Security Forum (July 25-July 28).  Something dynamic, inspiring and thought-provoking for all.
Photo courtesy of: UPCC website


USA Pro Cycling Challenge 2012 (August 22 & 23): Originated by Lance Armstrong, the UPCC has the highest registration level next to the Tour de France.  The race covers almost 600 miles of Colorado’s most demanding terrain.  Nearly 4000 spectators gathered last year to watch cyclists descend into Aspen.  Big news this year?  Aspen is the only location hosting two stages of the race; BOTH a finish leg and start leg.  I understand it’s a great time for spectators!  Aspen/Snowmass Women’s Pro Stage Race will also be rolling through August 23.  The only professional race only for women cyclists!
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies:  With multiple sites around the area the ACES offer a variety of programs including naturalist lead hikes tailored to your interests and needs.  Children and adults alike may participate in Naturalist Field School classes spanning topics such as birding, wilderness survival tactics, and astronomy to edible mushroom identification.  Organized classes and personal programs available.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Also check out the Aspen Music School and Festival, Aspen Historical Society, Aspen Snowmass Skiing Company (yes they have summer programs!), the Aspen Art Museum as well as all the recreational activities in the area.
For more events, activities, dates and information click for Snowmass and Aspen.
All photographs taken by Boulder Locavore unless otherwise noted.
Disclosure:  My thanks to the Snowmass Tourism Board for the opportunity to participate in the Chile Pepper/Brew Festival.


  1. says

    It looks like you've got a full summer ahead of you with all of those events! I expect full reports on all of them, even the ballet!

    I would love to have tried all the salsa's but the chilies would have gotten me salsa dancing….I just can't do hot anymore….sigh

    • says

      I was fortunate that the salsa for the most part wasn't over the top on the heat. Isn't there a phenomenal amout to do in the summer in Apsen? I feel you could spend the entire summer and not cover it all. If you think back Dennis in our vintage recipe swap there was a recipe from the Toklat Wilderness Lodge, I think it was for something like a pizza round? That wilderness lodge which raised sled dogs was folded into the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. They shared a good story about Bobby Flay's show coming there to film too!

  2. says

    No, Alex Seidel has been my fave, since we have been going the Fruition before he got famous!
    I am sure that was a lot of fun judging the salsas. Do you have to take a salsa eating break now?
    We attended the final here in Denver of the USA Pro Cycling last year. That was so much fun. Sure not like the Tour de France, but still I took some great pictures. Even one of Levi Leipheimer and our kids had a blast. You should definitely take your family this year.

    • says

      I will when you consume something in 'bulk' it does give cause for pause when resuming eating it 'recreationally' again! I have heard the UPCC is alot of fun. There certainly are unending things to do in the Aspen area. With each group I spoke with I kept adding on the amount of time I could easily spend there in the summer!

    • says

      Hi Chris. I did mention it; the competition this year will be in Charleston West Virginia in the U.S. I'm not sure of all the locations where the competition is held. I know Bonnie Tomasek said there are definitely competitors from Mexico and Canada that participate.

      It was a fun time and I learned alot. Always love that! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. says

    Wow. I don't even know where to start. I would love to judge a salsa contest, well, any kind of food contest, really. It's fantastic that they think about the littlest things, like not dipping the chips in the bowls. I've never even considered the fact that all that dipping adds salt to the sauce.

    I'd love to be there for the wild west weekend. I love seeing horse and man work together like that.

    • says

      It's serious business. When you consider these people move on to win up to $35,000 and accumulate titles it makes sense there are so many parameters. I think the green and red chilis are even more strict from what I understand. I was appreciative for the lower pressure category! I also agree on the Western night. That aspect of living in Colorado is what makes it truly unique to me.

    • says

      It was very fun! I don't actually live in this area but it's one of the great mountain areas to visit for summer. After seeing the list of what there is to do you can imagine why! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  4. says

    It sounds like an amazing event! Did you get salsa'd out? Is there such a thing as too much salsa? It's so good to have a list of all the other events happening too. Aspen looks like a wonderful place which just adds to the fun.

    • says

      I would not say I got salsa's out however when I came home to chips and salsa it seemed like a completely different experience! Aspen is a gorgeous place with unending activities and events as you can see. Certainly a mecca for the rich and famous but also for low key locals too. Was a fun weekend.

  5. says

    You make me wish I lives in Aspen. Or any part of Colorado. I'd love to judge a salsa competition. It's my favorite condiment. The spicier the better!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *