If summer's close means an end to burgers fresh from the grill and lobster rolls by the beach, then one of fall's consolation prizes is a steaming bowl of chili on a crisp afternoon.
Five upcoming festivals across Connecticut pit chili experts against each other in fierce competition, often with thousands of dollars of prize money at stake. And as a spectator, you get to taste their championship efforts. Here's a look at some of the events coming up in September and October.
Doc Dowling Chili Cook-Off
Sept. 6, Shelton
The Down by the River festival at at the Riverwalk and Veterans' Memorial Park is a fundraiser for MovingWithHOPE, Inc., an organization that provides programming scholarships and adaptive equipment for survivors of brain and spinal cord injuries and diseases. But it's also a serious chili battle, sanctioned by the International Chili Society. Winners will advance to the World Championship Chili Cookoff later this fall.
The 2007 world champion Jerry Buma, of Northbridge, Mass., will compete in Shelton, said cookoff co-chair Mike Merola. His "Booma's Revenge" recipe is published on the ICS website, and features tri-tip, green chiles and a cornucopia of spices.
Competitors will face off in traditional red chili, chili verde and salsa categories. Contestants must follow ICS rules and regulations – for example, beans and pasta are expressely forbidden in both red and green chili varieties. Merola says about 20 chili cooks will be competing, along with a handful of Naugatuck Valley-area restaurants, who will compete in a separate "best of" battle.
The event also features food trucks, live music and a bounce house with other kids' activities. There's no fee to get into the festival, but there's a $10 admission to taste the chilis, which will be spooned up starting at 11 a.m.
Merola describes the event as "a fun day for the family." "There's a variety of chilis from mild to hot, to flavors you haven't tasted. Some people put venison in, some do turkey. It's a different experience…And you're supporting a good cause."
Connecticut State Chili Cookoff
Sept. 20, New Haven
This chili fundraiser at East Shore Park, in its 22nd year, benefits the Community Action Agency of New Haven's emergency food pantry. It's also another intense competition, with another berth to the World Championship Chili Cookoff at stake. Cooks put up their best red and green chilis and salsa for a panel of judges; a People's Choice category welcomes votes from the public (and these recipes aren't as closely scrutinized – beans are permitted.)
Guests can taste about 25 to 30 varieties of chili from noon to 3 p.m.; there's an $8 fee for this, says organizer Sharon Willard, who started the event 23 years ago. The festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., also includes live music, kids' activities, arts and crafts, a beer tent and other food for purchase. Attendees are asked to bring a non-perishable food item for the pantry, Willard says.
The successful festival has raised up to $20,000 in one day in past years, Willard says. "It really is a community event. I think [people] like the concept of tasting chili and choosing the one they like best."
Information: 203-387-7700 ext. 220; www.caanh.net.
Zombie Biker Chili Cookoff
Sept. 21, Middletown
Since many of the region's best chili cooks will be in New Haven for the Connecticut State cookoff on Saturday, organizer George Ryan thought he'd try to get them to stick around one more day and head up to Middletown for his event, which is also ICS-sanctioned. He was successful.
"They're fanatics about what they do," he says. "It's a really big weekend for the chili folks." Like the other official events, cooks will compete in red and green categories, as well as salsa.
The Sept. 21 cookoff at the Elks Club Lodge #771, is part of a larger fundraiser event for the George N. Ryan Memorial Scholarship Fund, which helps high school seniors further their education. Ryan started the fund in memory of his son, who died in June 2012 at the age of 19.
The day begins with a bike run, which leaves from the Elks Club at 10:30 a.m. Throughout the day there's also live music by Jeff Pitchell and the Texas Flood band, magic tricks by magician Gary Bessette, a pig roast by pitmaster Jesus Ramos and a wing-eating contest sponsored by Defcon Sauces. Renowned custom motorcycle designer Eddie Trotta will serve as master of ceremonies.
And the "zombie" in the event's name refers to visiting "undead" from the nonprofit Trail of Terror Halloween exhibit in Wallingford.
Chili tasting begins at noon; there's a $10 admission fee to sample. The Elks Club is at 44 Maynard St. Information: www.georgeryan.org.
Smoke in the ValleyCraft Beer & Chili Festival
Oct. 4, Seymour
Chili reunites with its good friend beer at this popular festival, which raises money for Seymour Youth Sports programs and Seymour Fire and EMS Companies. More than 100 breweries are expected at the event, along with dozens of chili competitors in two divisions, including restaurant entrants.
"We think it's the perfect complement to the beer," says Derek Signore, the event's media/marketing manager, of the chili. "We want to be able to balance that all."
According to the cookoff's rules, meat and vegetarian chilis are both welcome. "You'll be pleasantly surprised by the variety," Signore says. But with 5,000 expected attendees, he suggests preparing in advance. "It'll be hard to try them all; come early."
Tickets are on sale for $40 through Oct. 3; then they are $45 at the door. The price includes unlimited samplings of beer and chili; other food is available for purchase. Smoke in the Valley, at 20 Pine St. runs from noon to 5 p.m. Information: 203-437-1009 and www.smokeinthevalley.com.
Windsor Chamber Of Commerce Chili Challenge
Oct. 11, Windsor
Halloween comes a bit early at this annual challenge on the town green, where many participants choose themes for their booths and dress in costume for a festive touch. Photos on the website show cooks in cowboy hats, 1950s poodle skirts and Hawaiian leis.
"It's very low-key, with more community participants from the area. We aren't sanctioned, and we don't care to be," says organizer Lori Hartmann, who's been involved with the challenge since it began 19 years ago. "It's gotten huge, [in the beginning] we had only about 8 cooks. Now we average 30 cooks."
Local restaurants, civic groups, individuals, politicians and others with some connection to Windsor typically compete, she said. Chili samples are available for $1 apiece; beer and other foods are available for purchase.
Prizes will be awarded for first, second and third place chili; people's choice chili and best booth. Winners receive trophies and bragging rights. "It's a very family-friendly event," Hartmann says. "It's a lot of fun for everyone to be out and enjoy the fall day."
The festival is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Information: 860-688-5165 and windsorcc.org.