Late last month, about 100 people of all ages, backgrounds — and taste buds — gathered inside a hotel ballroom near Capitol Hill bonded by a love of one thing: good barbecue.
Like me, they were there to take a class that would make us certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judges. It sounds fun, right? Go places and eat lots of barbecue. But having done enough stories and interviews with people who make barbecue for a living, and having cooked lots in my own backyard, I understand how much complexity, patience, and money goes into making good barbecue.
Truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up, aside from the expectation that I would eat a lot of barbecue that day. But for almost the first three hours we heard Bill Jones, a master barbecue judge from the Richmond area, explain the process of judging.
Every sample is judged on how it looks, how it tastes, and its texture. Under a complicated, weighted scoring system, the presentation matters the least, if you would, and also isn’t indicative of what it might taste like, I later learned.
Above all else, the scoring is subjective. You score it based on what it does for your taste buds, and how appealing it is to you.
On the presentation side, “Does it wow you?” asked Jones. At the same time, there are rules about how its presented. There has to be enough for six judges. Don’t let any extra pieces of foil sully the appearance. Certain types of garnishes are illegal to use inside the box, though you’re also not supposed to let a good pile of greens influence the score you give it.
Scoring for the most part runs on a scale of five to nine. A nine is considered excellent.
“Excellent to me would be I would kick my son in the groin, I would step on my wife’s face to get in that box and wallow around in it,” said Jones with his dry, southern drawl.
Something that’s an eight would still be very good.
“If it’s a five, I would give it to my mother-in-law with a smile on my face,” said Jones.
Something legitimately inedible, undercooked chicken for example, would be a two. A perfect score for a piece of BBQ will be a 36, based on how the presentation, taste, and texture are supposed to be judged.
Also, BBQ is a finger food.
“Forks are just to take the sample out, not to be used to eat with,” said Jones. “If you need a knife and fork that should be telling you something about the entry. It’s probably tough.”
Something cooking for hours at a time should not be tough.
Besides barbecue, judges will also eat a lot of saltines and drink lots of water. It’s meant to cleanse your pallet and get the taste of the last barbecue out of your mouth so you can judge the next sample properly.
Judges can be expected to sample several different pieces of chicken, pork, pork ribs, and brisket during a competition — and you’d be wise to limit it to one bite because it can add up quick. Also, how it’s prepared is up to each barbecue team. Pulled, chopped, sliced, sauced or no sauce. It’s all about making the very best piece of meat shine through in what will be one, incredible bite. Or not.
“Barbecue teams for the most part do a great job, but occasionally there’s an off-day,” said Jones. “Sometimes they’ll burn meat, sometimes they’ll undercook meat, sometimes they’ll overcook meat. McDonalds does it every day of the week and can’t get it right all the time so you can’t expect a barbecue team to get it right all the time.”
Helping out that day was a judge named Logan Cobb of Pentagon City, who happened to know some of the guys sitting at my table. He made it clear his only regret was waiting as long as he did to become a judge.
“It’s generally ruined going to barbecue restaurants,” he joked. Because is that barbecue chain really going to put the same care and effort into the food as the group of friends who worked all night?
Some of the people there also able to come home knowing more about how to make better barbecue in their own backyards.
“One key take away I got were ribs,” said Eric Ramy of Aldie. “I always thought fall off the bone, like, that’s what you’re supposed to go for.”
But that’s actually overcooked, and he vowed the next rack of ribs he made would not be falling off the bone.
Judges are also using this as an excuse to see different parts of the country and make friends in far-flung places.
Cobb said he took his first ever trip to Williamsburg recently to judge a competition, using that as an excuse to visit a place he had wanted to see but hadn’t been able to yet.
“An experience I hadn’t had,” he noted. “Barbecue made it happen.”
“I can count off 20 people that I have met because of barbecue that are dear and great friends of mine now,” said Jones. “There would be no reason for me to go to… West Lawn, Illinois, if there wasn’t a contest in West Lawn, Illinois. Harpoon, Vermont. Get to sight see and see friends and make new friends. The barbecue is like a family.
“Back in the day, before competition barbecue you’d go in the backyard… and you’d cook burgers or pork butt, and you’d invite family and friends to your house and have a great time just sitting around,” said Jones. “It’s no difference with this. It’s a little more structured because we are scoring, but still, friendships and family relationships that you’ve built over barbecue.”
Now it’s time for me to logon to the KCBS site and find a place holding a competition soon. Preferably near a beach. After all, I’m just trying to do my part to help.