One of the ways in which Denver shows its immense love for burgers is through the popularity of the Burger Battle. In its sixth year, the annual event has sold out every time and in the process, it has gathered thousands of burger fanatics eager to have a say in crowning the Mile High City burger master. Behind this event that has given over $20,000 to local charities so far is Jeremy Kossler, a distribution account executive for a plastics company. A serious burger lover and connoisseur, Kossler talked to Eater about his first burger memories and the craziest things to ever happen at the Denver Burger Battle.
What are some of your earliest burger memories? I grew up in Southern California, so a lot of my burger memories revolve around In N Out. It was a Thursday night tradition after high school football games, and one of the first places I drove to after turning 16. We had another great cheeseburger joint in my hometown called "Paul's" in Seal Beach - I can still vividly remember the thousand island sauce soaking the paper wrapper. True California style.
When did you get really into burgers and how? I can't say that I've ever not been into burgers. When I was a teen, I discovered this hole-in-the wall place and was super excited about it. I got a few burgers to sample to my friends. It was like a 10 minute drive to their house. I was so serious about them trying it hot, that in the 100 degree heat, I shut the windows and turned off the A/C in my car so that the burgers wouldn't cool down. It was a miserable 10 minutes, but the food was worth it. Friends loved it. I got more serious about the ingredients and the majesty of the American burger tradition after watching "Hamburger America." From then on, I wanted to learn everything I could about the different styles, flavors, blends of beef, toppings, and try them all over the country.
Have you ever worked in a burger shop? I've never worked at a burger shop, but I have a standing agreement with Parkburger that I will come in one night and work the line.
What's your burger-making experience at home? I take great pride in my burgers at home. It's something I've worked on for years! I'm fluent in a few different styles, but my favorite to make is probably the smash style with a kewpie-truffle sauce and pickles. Either that, or the true California-style with thousand island, pickles, tomato, and iceberg lettuce. The bun is easily the most important thing to get right at home, and I've got some great friends in the burger world who can hook me up with the best buns in town.
What is a perfect burger to you? There is no such thing, and that's the best part of it. It's so versatile that it can be 10,000 different variations that can knock your socks off. In general strokes, however, I'm partial to burgers with a soft bun that's toasted with butter underneath, a fresh 80/20 beef blend that's loosely packed and not pre-formed, cooked mid-rare, and toppings that balance fats and acids and aren't too thick. Having said that, I could have a burger that's none of the above but executed perfectly and I'll fall in love.
How did you get acquainted with the burger battle and why did you want to bring it to Denver? My parents told me about an event in Miami, Florida called the Burger Bash. It brought 20+ burger makers from all over the country together for one night on the sand. I was instantly hooked. At the time, my wife and I had moved back to Denver after a year away and wanted to volunteer for charity. I was a Big Brother for Big Brother's Big Sisters, and it was a perfect fit as a regional event.
What was the biggest challenge in doing that in the first year? Selling a vision that no one had seen before was tough. Small focus groups told us we couldn't charge more than $25, which would have sunk the event. Fellow organizers on my team quit and said we had no business putting this on. We had never organized a community event, so all of the city regulations and restaurant collaborations were brand new to us. But we had some restaurants buy into the vision early on and the Facebook community around the event was amazing. When the first day of ticket sales was in the books, we knew we would make it.
How did you select the first participants and what has been the selection process since there? From day one, that was the one thing we weren't going to sell or compromise on. That part had to represent the best. Our first year, 2009, we knew which burger places were in our top 10, and everyone else's top 10. We hadn't gone through the burger renaissance yet. Since then, there are countless gourmet burgers that we need to taste. We pay lots of attention to local awards, word of mouth, and community enthusiasm. We make our list of 60-70 places to try. We take a picture of the burger, score it from 0-100, and make notes on each and every one of them. We send invites out to the top 12 that we tried that year.
Describe how the event is set up for those who have never attended. It is a competition of the top 12 restaurant burgers in Colorado. Each restaurant serves quarters of their burger to our attendees who then vote on the people's choice winner. We also have a select group of local chefs who decide a Judges' choice winner.
What was the craziest thing to happen at the Burger Battle? In August, the month of the event, weather can be unpredictable and terrifying for an event producer. One year, while setting up, we had the wind pick up a beer tent and slam it on top of a fleeing beer employee (incredibly, she was not hurt). In another year, it rained down in buckets during VIP, which exploded one of the deep fryers that was left exposed. Our first year, I had one of the participants call me afterword enraged that another participant had been cheating. We looked into it and determined there was no evidence to support the claim.
Can you hint to any of the participants in the Burger Battle 2015? I can't name any specifically - we like to have fun with the unveiling on our Facebook page, but I can tell you that the Eater list from yesterday was excellent in its accuracy at picking some of the best in the state. We have at least one type of burger you've read about but might not have ever had (I hadn't). We've got high-end toppings and delicious purity. We've got some of the most widely praised restaurants, and at least a couple under-the-radar surprises. There will be a few new wrinkles this year. We got a lot of feedback last year that we listened to. One thing is that we'll have a totally re-vamped VIP area with breezy lounges, specialty cocktails all night, and some beautiful, classy touches.
If today was the day you'd have your last burger ever in Denver, where would you go? So tough to answer that. I feel like it should be somewhere classic and all-time like Bud's Bar in Sedalia or My Brother's Bar. I feel like I should avoid this question since I don't want to leave anyone out.
Are burgers your favorite food? Ha! Oddly, I'd have to say no - it is not my favorite food above all else. It is certainly one of my favorite foods, but I am a food lover. This is one of the best mediums to explore a lot of different flavors. But so long as something is done well, I'm into it. I'd rather have an excellent Caesar salad than a mediocre burger. I also am well aware of the health concerns with eating burgers. When I'm not tasting, you can find me at the seafood counter getting salmon portions for lunch and dinner.
What burger-related stories stuck with you? I've travelled far and wide to have the best burgers in the state. I once did a 3 hour roundtrip to try Bingo Burger in Pueblo one day, and another to have Empire Burger in Breck. There are now many Burger Battles across the US. In at least 4-5 cases, we were involved in helping them or directly inspired them in getting off the ground, which is rewarding because all of them are for charity. I was once contacted by a TV show production company in NYC about hosting a show about burgers. They interviewed me a number of times, and had me make a 2 minute video with me eating and describing burgers. I had a blast but I don't think the video was too great. They never made the show.