Summer is the time of year when the word "barbecue" begins to get bandied about as often as does the word "bastard" during election time. Unfortunately, the word has been co-opted by Yankees, heathens, and other mentally enfeebled sorts to indicate the cooking of hamburgers and hot dogs on the old Weber. This, of course, is "grilling." Grilling is the act of cooking over high heat, either gas or charcoal, and is related to barbecue in the same way that love is related to lust. Love burns long and slow and leaves you with an enduring satisfaction; lust burns hot and fast and usually leaves you with a mess to clean up and the lingering aroma of regret.
So then, real barbecue is the act of slow-cooking meat with smoke. Traditionally, this means pork. In fact, used by itself, barbecue is taken to mean pork. If any other meat is used, then the word becomes an adjective, i.e. barbecued beef (although, Texas barbecue is almost exclusively understood to mean beef — more on that in a bit). The meat is cooked over a slow wood fire, usually composed of hickory or oak, and is watched over by a seasoned professional known as a pitmaster. The pitmaster's job is to tend the fire, ensuring that it burns evenly, and to pimp-slap anyone who asks him when the burgers will be ready.
Depending on where you are in the country, the meat is either seasoned beforehand with a combination of spices called a "rub" or finished with some type of sauce — sometimes both, sometimes neither. Memphis barbecue, which specializes in pork ribs, mostly uses only a dry rub. But since this article is intended as a guide to barbecue sauce, let's forget I even mentioned it.
There are four main types of barbecue sauce: Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kansas City. Of these, you are likely most familiar with Kansas City-style, the thick, smoky, spicy ketchup-like sauce that was first marketed nationally by Kraft as barbecue sauce and thus has become the template by which we define barbecue sauce. But to limit our definition of barbecue sauce to only one type would be like limiting a discussion of primetime television only to the networks. Sure, there's a lot of variety and some good programs, but you have to go to cable to get the good shows with all the nudity and swearing.
That said, the mother sauce of all barbecue sauces is the Eastern North Carolina-style. It is a model of elegant simplicity dating back to colonial times: vinegar, water, salt, and pepper. Tangy and sharp, it is added after the cooking is done to enhance and moisten the meat. Because it is the simplest, and yet the one that requires the most diligent use (you don't want an amateur pouring half a bottle of it on his grill before he realizes it doesn't come out slow like ketchup), it is the least available style on grocery shelves. The two types you may be able to find are Scott's and Carolina Treet. Of course, being so simple, it is also relatively easy to make at home. I use apple cider vinegar, pickling salt, cracked black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes.
Western North Carolina-style sauce is essentially just the Eastern-style with ketchup added. It is considered a light tomato sauce, as opposed to the heavy tomato KC-style. It is popular from the Western North Carolina mecca of Lexington up into Virginia. In fact, the best store-bought variety is Sauer's, made in Richmond, Va. They have both a regular and a spicy variety, and both are recommended.
South Carolina-style is similar to Western North Carolina-style in that it is just the Eastern-style sauce mixed with one extra ingredient. In this case, that ingredient is mustard, owing to the preponderance of German settlers in the Palmetto State. Carolina Treet makes an exceptional, but exceptionally hard-to-find, version. Sticky Fingers is acceptable, and is more easily found, but has an aftertaste I don't care for. Cattlemen's, best known for their ubiquitous food service brand of KC-style sauce, is a new to the game but coming strong with their Carolina Tangy Gold sauce that is excellent and should be widely available.
This leaves, of course, the Kansas City-style. Honestly, most Kansas City-style sauces leave me flat because they are so heavy and overwhelming that they mask the taste of the meat. Most all of them contain an artificial smoke flavor that hides the real smoke taste of good barbecue. In my opinion, this style of sauce has its value as a condiment, but shouldn't be allowed near any real barbecue. I use Jack Daniel's Hickory Brown Sugar as a glaze on my bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and Budweiser Beechwood sauce on grilled chicken for a little kick.
With the current barbecue craze, store shelves are being filled with all sorts of new (looking) and different (sounding) sauces. Bull's-Eye is offering a Carolina-style sauce that appears to be little more than a KC-style sauce with some mustard added (though, in fairness, I haven't tried it yet). They also offer Texas-style and Memphis-style sauces. Interestingly, both Texas- and Memphis-style barbecues rely more on dry rubs and smoke than sauce. When Memphis does use sauce, it is a slightly sweetened version of the Western North Carolina-style. The same goes for Texas "mop" sauce. Though individual cooks may put their own mark on them, they remain just a variation on a theme.
And I should also mention that there is a mayonnaise-based Alabama "white" sauce making the rounds out there, but in my opinion, it is a godless chimera that has no place in a decent household.
So there you have it, kids, a semi-authoritative guide to barbecue sauce. Go forth, experiment, step outside of the boundaries imposed upon you by giant conglomerates and find the true regional tastes and quirky individual touches that make barbecue as uniquely American as those disposable pop stars who go from YouTube to rehab with such astonishing rapidity that it's no damned wonder I haven't listened to Top-40 radio since 1985.
'Til next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of your day.