Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Judging Competition Barbecue: Just Don't Lick Your Fingers

So how does this sound? Sitting on your ass for two straight hours eating some of the best barbecue that regional competition teams have to offer, and then following that up with a couple hours of beer drinking and listing to some live blues music. The correct answer is, "holy shit yes, where do I sign up?" And the correct answer to that my hungry friends is to become a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judge. KCBS is the world's largest barbecue society and sanctions over 450 events across the country each year. Chances are, if you want an invite to compete in some of country's most coveted barbecue contests, you need to win some local KCBS competitions along the way.

Requirements to become a judge are this: you need to be over 16 and you must love barbecue. Sounds simple, but trust me cowpokers, it's a long way from loving barbecue to understanding the techniques, flavors and textures that go into making award deserving food.

Much like you might have seen on the television competition shows, entries are judged in three categories: appearance, taste and texture, and there are numerous rules to follow in each of these three. For example, appearance includes the consistency of portion size and evenness of any applied sauce, but surprisingly you are not allowed to judge the garnish in the box or smoke ring on the meat. For taste you are judging the flavor only; how the spice rub, sauce and smoke all blend together to create a pleasing bite. Texture, which many people confuse with taste, is all about the tenderness and doneness of the meat, for example, the "pull" of the ribs away from the bone or how well the slices of brisket stay together.

The four KCBS categories that judges are required to participate in are: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. Many competitions will also include additional categories such as side dishes or deserts, but judging those categories are optional after the mandatory four are completed. Judges are grouped at tables of six, and so each entry must contain a minimum of six portions. Judges must base their scores on everything that is submitted in the box, for example, a team can provide both chicken thighs and wings in their box, but a judge must taste both and consider them as a single entry. Sauce on any entry in any category is optional, although most teams choose to include some.

Teams are permitted to submit any cut of chicken, although most teams go with thighs. Most judges consider thighs to be the best tasting cut due to the fat content and how well they lend themselves to low and slow barbecue cooking. Wings are often submitted along with thighs and legs are not an uncommon entry.

Ribs must be pork ribs, either baby back or some cut of spare ribs. Not much variation in this category.

Competition pork usually means butt, the upper or lower portion of the pig shoulder. Like the chicken category, teams get creative here and often submit more than one type of presentation. The standard entry is either pulled or chopped pork, but teams will also submit slices, cubes and whole muscles to give judges some variety.

Beef brisket entries are presented last. All teams serve slices, and generally adjust the thickness according to the tenderness of their final entry; thicker slices if overdone and thinner slices if underdone. Most teams will also include cubed burnt ends in their box and many times these are the highlight of the entry.

Outside the judges' tent Oinktoberfest 2014.
I took my certification class on the opening night of Rochester's Roc City Rib Fest in May, and got my first taste (literally) of KCBS judging at both the Crossborder Blues, Brews and Que event in June, and Oinktoberfest in September. Both events were knee slapping, nipple pinching fun, but there is still so much to learn!

Here are some observations. Entries come at you fast, and you need to take every criteria into consideration quickly, especially when judging appearance. Although there is 30 minutes set aside for each category, you don't have a lot of time to judge each entry. You must pace yourself and be careful how much to eat of each entry. Do the math dumb dumbs, six entries per category and four categories to judge. That's 24 pieces of meat you will be eating, so limiting yourself to one or two bites of each is a must. Barbecue just seems to attract good, friendly people, and experienced judges always welcome questions and have great stories to tell. And as much as I gush about how great a few beers are after judging, the truth is, it's hard to pound them down the 'ole gullet with so much 'que in there.

So let's sum this up pig honkers. Barbecue good. Smoking your own barbecue better. Judging competition barbecue great! You can get more info on the KCBS website here.

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