Lewis’ pit design was born from his desire for the perfect brisket. Pitmasters nationwide share in this pursuit of perfection, but most use store-bought commercial smokers in their quest. Few have smokers custom built, and fewer still build them themselves. What Lewis wanted to make, and now makes, is beef that’s been cooked to well done and miles beyond, until its salty fat slowly renders and gets trapped within the meat’s fibers beneath a thick bark. That bark starts as French’s yellow mustard thinned out with pickle juice and dosed with heavy handfuls of cracked black pepper, and it forms after smoking for the better part of a day.
“I’m interested in the end product,” Lewis says. “That’s why I started building pits.” Lewis started building pits in 2006, not in El Paso (where he was born), or Austin (where he moved when he was 18), but in Denver, where he lived and worked as a pastry chef for three years. “There’s no barbecue in Denver,” Lewis said. So he made a vertical smoker in his backyard out of two metal garbage cans using a drill, nuts and bolts, and tin snips. He hung some ribs, fired up the silver smoker, and started his ten-year quest for the perfect barbecue.
Vertical smokers are great for ribs and sausages. The long, narrow foods fit the smoker’s upright orientation, and it sufficed for the short time Lewis spent away from home. When he moved back to Texas, where brisket is king, he started building bigger, square-shaped boxes that could accommodate the unwieldy cut of meat. “I was constantly looking for containers,” he said. “Anything made of steel that was fireproof.” This led him down a black hole, where he was continually making smoke boxes and modifying them -- spending all his time and money on this singular quest. “I knew what I wanted to make and I knew there was nothing out there that would produce that.” The last attempt was with an old, giant restaurant oven. After months of tweaks and tests, it didn’t give him the brisket he wanted. He broke. He needed an idea.
“You see propane tanks everywhere in Texas,” Lewis says. “Because gas lines don’t run out to the country or in trailer parks. After the tanks are decommissioned in these areas, they’re left outside to rust.” Lewis bought a 250-gallon propane tank on Craigslist the day after that old restaurant oven failed him. “That was it,” he said, remembering the first brisket he made in it.