love good BBQ and spend your time hunting local restaurants for that perfect rib, the perfect chicken or brisket, you’ve been looking in the wrong place. Rather than spending hard earned dollars on a hit or miss meal based on an online review, those in the know go to BBQ Judging class. At a BBQ competition you’ll be treated to some of the best of the best – for free. But beware, after judging your first competition, you’ll be humbled, a stark look in the mirror when sizing up your own abilities.
In the past two years, all three of us have become certified BBQ Judges in the two oldest organizations in the US. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) and the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association (PNWBA).
KCBS has over 14,000 members worldwide and sanctions over 300 barbeque contests coast-to-coast throughout America. From volunteering to actual event production, our members also offer assistance to civic and charitable organizations who organize events.
PNWBA was founded in 1991 in the upper left of the US. While regionally the Pacific Northwest isn’t known for BBQ, over 800 members support this 501c3 non-profit organization with most events affiliated with charity causes stretching from California to across Canada.
BBQ judging is a serious affair. Many competition cooks travel hundreds or thousands of miles, spending equivalent dollars per competition on their entry fees and supplies. Ensuring a fair and unbiased competition is a top principle of both KCBS and PNWBA. For example, PNWBA uses a double-blind judging method. Each judging “box” from each team is assigned two numbers by computer – one known to the competition team, another number used by the judges. Only the judging computer can match the two.
About the Certification
Judging starts in the classroom. Instruction varies, though you should expect 2-3 hours covering the history of BBQ, rules and considerations, and the finer details of judging. There are differences between PNWBA and KCBS sanctioned rules, most notably the time between turn-ins (every 60mins or 30 mins respectively), preparation and presentation. You’ll find many competition cooks take judging classes (and judge non-competing events) to better understand what judges are looking for. This is an accepted and encouraged practice.
The second half of the judging classes involves actual tasting, rating, and discussing with other judges. The best part is learning by eating. There is no written test to become a judge
What do you Judge?
Both KCBS and PNWBA have four meats core to the competition – Chicken, Beef Brisket, Pork Butt, and Pork Ribs. In nearly all situations, these are two day events due to the time needed to cook, “Slow & Low”. Some competitions will have additional lite categories, normally happening on the first day of the competition. These can be Tri-Tip (a popular category in PNWBA), Salmon, Sausage, desserts, or even kids categories such as best burger. Normally the sanctioned competitions happen overnight with judging on Sunday. As a competitor, winning sanctioned events can get you invited to the big dances in BBQ Competition – The American Royal, Jack Daniel’s Invitational, and Memphis in May for example.
How do you grade?
Judging involves three elements of evaluation:
- Appearance – Evaluating eye-appeal components of color, arrangement, slice/trim, moist appearance etc. There are rules regarding how items are presented in the box and what garnish can be used.
- Tenderness/Texture – Evaluating meat’s composition, based on judge’s sample bites. For example, most judges want to see a clean bite pull away on a rib. “Fall off the bone” or mushy pulled pork in most cases won’t get you the win.
- Taste – This is the overall flavor of the entry or in foodie terms, “Flavor Profile”. Striking the right balance of smoke and spice is as much art as it is science.
Tips for the Newbie Judge
It’s not uncommon to have 3-5lbs of BBQ put in front of you during judging so you have to come ready to pace yourself. Eat a light breakfast so you’re not ravenous and forget about pacing. This isn’t competition eating. Many judges will arrive with a small cooler and ziplock bags, take just a few bites to get the texture and taste, and place the rest into the cooler. You’ll also have down time between sessions to chat with the judges, or place extras of your favorites into ziplock bags.
Always bring your poker face. The worst judge is the one who frowns, shouts with joy, or otherwise comments about a sample before everyone has turned in their scores. One of the best parts of judging is you get to sample the best of the best. But there may be times when you get a sample (e.g. from a new competition team still learning) that isn’t to your liking. Always be discreet in placing the sample into a napkin and hiding if this is the case.
Another faux pas is talking to judging teams afterwards about the judging process. Competition teams take their craft seriously. For example, if a team is disqualified for breaking a rule you’ll have no way of knowing you’re talking to the DQed party. Tread lightly.
If you really enjoy the process, after judging multiple competitions you can rise in the ranks and become a volunteer, Table Captain, or even Certified Master Judge. The most important part is to have fun! Be sure to check out PNWBA and KCBS for local judging classes and get started.