"Competition gives me energy. It keeps me focused."Conor McGregor
For years, I had been told by neighbors, family, and friends that my barbecue was second to none. In fact, the praise was so compelling that when I came across a local sanctioned BBQ contest, I had every reason to believe that I would take top prize just for showing up.
Long story short, in my first competition in about 2007, I placed near the bottom of the pack in all four categories while also dropping $1,200 on equipment, food, and entry fees. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t that my recipes and cooking methods were bad, it was that the judges were looking for something completely different than what I was cooking.
When I started competing, competition BBQ classes were virtually non-existent so most of the recipe tweaks I made were based on what I read on various forums (including the AmazingRibs.com Pitmaster Club) and what I was able to learn by talking to more seasoned competitors. By far the most informative lessons I learned came from taking the Kansas City Barbeque Society (“KCBS”) judging class and then judging a few contests.
In the judging class, I learned why fall-off-the-bone tender ribs scored low, what the perfect pull looks like on a slice of brisket, what the “money muscle” is on a pork butt, and so much more. After judging a few contests, I was able to put those lessons into action while also debating the pros and cons of different entries with my fellow judges (once the score cards had all been collected!).
In 2017, I took my BBQ experience one step further, becoming one of only a handful of people to judge all three of the country’s most prestigious contests in a single year: the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. Each unique in its own way, these three contests showcase just how large the divide can be between entries from newcomers and those from seasoned veterans.
At Memphis in May, teams compete in one of three categories (ribs, shoulder, and whole hog) and are judged based on an unmarked turn-in box as well as on-site presentations to judges. Each judge is assigned to either blind judge one of the main categories, blind judge the rib entries from the Patio Porker teams (smaller backyard teams), or do on-site judging. While I had my heart set on being an on-site judge or, at the very least, on judging the whole hog entries, I was assigned to judge the Patio Porkers.
When the entries arrived, I was seated with 4 other judges and had to critique five different rib entries based on appearance, tenderness, flavor, and overall impression. For the ribs, the go-to for the most successful teams is baby back ribs that are cut and turned in with two bone portions so judges can test the tenderness by pulling the bones apart. Of the five entries I judged, one was completely dry and flavorless; two were fall-off-the-bone tender (again, not a good thing in competition BBQ); and two were full of flavor and had the perfect bite. Unfortunately, as I debated which of the two top-notch entries would receive my sole score of 10 for overall impression, two of the other judges at my table began heaping praise on the two fall-off-the-bone (i.e. overcooked) rib entries.
“Oh, these remind me of those amazing Chili’s baby back ribs…” That may not be a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. Needless to say, the fact that they awarded their top scores to these overcooked ribs didn’t sit well with me. As someone who understood firsthand how difficult it is for rib competitors to hit the perfect doneness mark, I was dismayed to see how easily all of that practice, money, and hard work could be flushed down the toilet thanks to a couple judges who had been brainwashed by a chain restaurant’s catchy advertising jingle for overcooked ribs. On the plus side, I now have someone to blame the next time my own ribs bomb at a contest!
The format of the American Royal (a.k.a. the Royal), is a little different. A KCBS-sanctioned event, the Royal features two separate contests: an invitational contest held the first day for roughly 200 of the year’s top teams, followed by an “open” event the next day featuring over 400 teams of various skill levels.
My visit to the Royal was rather last minute, so I was only able to secure a spot judging the open contest. After the contest’s founder, Ardie Davis (a.k.a. Remus Powers), had sworn in a few hundred judges such as myself, I took a seat alongside my fellow judges and prepared to judge ribs, chicken, pork butt, and brisket. I won’t critique all 30+ entries I tasted that day, but I will say that it was eye opening to see some truly remarkable meats served right next to ones that weren’t fit for a dog.
For a KCBS contest such as this, meats are judged based on appearance (how the meat looks when the box is first opened and presented to the judges), taste, and tenderness. The scoring system is from 9 to 2 with 9 being excellent, 8 very good, 7 above average, 6 average, 5 below average, 4 poor, 3 bad, and 2 inedible. A 1 is given in rare instances for sculptured meat, a marked turn-in container, foreign object in the container, incorrect meat, or if a judge doesn’t receive a sample to judge.
The truly exceptional entries feature meats that are pleasing to the eye, moist, tender, and flavorful. For chicken (usually bone-in, skin-on thighs), one key to competition success is creating chicken skin that bites through easily without being flabby and chewy. For ribs, the judges want to be able to take a clean bite: when bitten, the meat should expose the bone only where you take the bite versus all of the meat easily falling off of the bone. For pork butt (shoulder or picnic), judges try a bit of everything presented in the box, including some combination of pulled meat, chunks, and/or sliced money muscle (the tube-shaped muscle that runs across the surface of the butt on the side opposite the blade bone). Finally, for brisket, judges are looking for slices that require a slight tug when pulled from both ends, rather than slices that completely fall apart when tugged. Ideally, each slice of brisket will be roughly the width of a pencil (about 1/4 inch). Thinner slices usually mean that the meat is undercooked and tough. Thicker slices usually mean that the team is trying to hide the fact that the brisket is overdone and falling apart. If you present burnt ends, judges will try those too.
The final stop on my trifecta journey was the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue, and it was the fifth time I had judged this particular contest. As with the American Royal Invitational, only the year’s top teams are invited to compete, and approximately one team represents each state in the country, along with a handful of international teams for a total of roughly 200 competitors.
Unlike the Royal, judging not only includes the four KCBS categories (ribs, chicken, pork butt, and brisket) but also sauce, chef’s choice, and dessert. As a result, judges end up tasting upwards of 40 entries by the end of the day. What makes judging the Jack even more difficult is the fact that unlike the significant number of subpar entries at the Royal, virtually everything submitted at the Jack is a tender, smoky, and flavorful testament to the hard work that goes in to being a top competition BBQ team.
After judging all 3 of the major U.S. BBQ contests in a single year, I can safely say that judging is an invaluable tool for anyone who is either new to competition BBQ or is looking for tips and techniques for bettering their scores. The biggest takeaway is that most meats taste very different than what you would experience in a competitor’s backyard. Competition BBQ tends be flavored very intensely to make sure that the one or two bites taken by a judge really pop. Teams achieve that kind of taste in brisket and pork butt with flavor and moisture enhancing injections and layers of rubs; chicken is often cooked in butter for extra richness; and ribs are usually wrapped in foil with sweeteners and butter to improve flavor and texture.
As for those individuals who judge but have never competed, including my two “fall-off-the-bone ribs” friends from Memphis in May, I would encourage you to join a team for one contest in order to better appreciate the hard work that goes into preparing each entry. To everyone else, good smoking luck this competition BBQ season!