The barbecue competition judging circuit is very similar to the world of professional golf. Each has a “Q” school where you have to prove yourself, and then you have to do well on some satellite tournaments before you get invited to play in the majors.
Fortunately the Memphis Barbecue Network’s version of ‘Cue school is a heck of a lot easier than the PGA’s to get into and to pass. All you really need is a $65 check, the ability to sit through six to eight hours of class and a brain that allows you to score better than 400 on the SAT. You probably don’t even need the last part.
The mental image I had for the barbecue school was of me and about 45 Uncle Jesse-esque characters sitting around a Moose Lodge talking about barbecue the way fishermen talk about fish. While I was looking forward to the experience, there was a part of me that was leery of listening to a bunch of barbecue blowhards yack away for an entire day.
Much to my surprise, when I opened the door to the room I saw a pretty diverse cross-section of folks. I would guess that the ages ranged from 25 to 75, with most folks falling in the 40-50 year old category. Some had experience competing and were looking for pointers; some had spouses that competed and wanted to have something to do to fill the hours on weekend; others just loved barbecue.
Everyone I met was very friendly, which makes sense when you think about it since barbecue is a communal event. While there is an occasional surly pitmaster, for the most part barbecue people are people people. They like to entertain. They like to bring folks together. They like to talk, tell stories and laugh. They can also get a little long winded when talking about their barbecue, but that just goes with the territory.
The morning session was mostly lecture. We went through the different parts of a pig, the format for the contests and how you actually judge barbecue. For anyone interested, here are the highlights:
- The categories are appearance, presentation, texture, flavor and overall impression.
- There is a preliminary round and a final round.
- For the preliminary, the teams are put into groupings of three, and the judges visit each of the three teams tents to score them.
- There is also a blind judging section where the judges score the three entries without knowing who is who.
- It’s a comparative judging process, where you score the teams in relation to the other two. In some ways this seems unfair, because if the best three teams are paired together in the first round, only one of them will likely advance. But there really isn’t any other way to do it, since you can’t have every judge taste every team’s entry.
When I pressed the official on why they aren’t open about the scoring process, the response I got had the feeling of a jovial country club board president defending his membership policy. He gave me a friendly yet elusive “well they don’t really need to know”, followed by one of the competition team members saying “it’s been this way for 30 years”. At the risk of becoming a muckraker, I decided that I’d retire the issue for another day.
The second part of the school was experiential learning. They brought in two competition teams, Pigs with Attitude and Yazoo Barbecue to talk about competing, show us how they present their barbecue and of course, to give us a taste of competition bbq. Pigs with Attitude had only recently started competing, but Yazoo Barbecue had been on the circuit for many years. They split the class into two and we went through a mock presentation of how they greet judges and walk them through the judging process. While they didn’t bring their smokers, they did bring two whole pork shoulders, which we got to sample.
Each team gets between 10 and 15 minutes to do a presentation for the judges. It’s the team’s chance to entertain, educate and build rapport. The two teams had very contrasting styles of presentations.
Yazoo Barbecue was very scripted, polished and well rehearsed. It was very entertaining and educational, though maybe a little intense at times. A husband and wife team, the Yazoo folks walked you through the cooking process and told you why they did certain things and what that would mean for the flavor. When the judges sat down to taste the barbecue, the husband/pitmaster would talk about the different flavors the judges were about to taste, similar to how a good winery owner will walk you through the different flavor sensations of each wine. While some might argue that they’re leading the witness, I think it’s a very clever way to boost the scores. Most people’s palates are not finely tuned enough to pick out different flavor profiles on their own, but if given a little guidance, that sweet/smoky flavor can quickly become caramelized sugar with hints of the peachwood used to smoke it.
The Pigs with Attitude presentation was more like what you’d get at your friend’s cookout. Very down to earth, friendly and humble. A relatively quick presentation, they preferred to get down to business and have you taste their shoulder, rub and sauce rather than tell you about it.
The best part was watching them pull apart the different cuts of the shoulder. They would start by effortlessly pulling out the three large bones, a sign that the barbecue was tender and done. Then they would pull away some of the beautiful, dark outer layer to reveal a deep smoke ring and then place four different samples on the plate. Fortunately we were able to taste the barbecue as well, and it was interesting to see how some parts were full of flavor and moisture, while others were a little dry. My guess is that the shoulders were cooked earlier in the morning and probably continued to cook in the foil a bit too much in parts. But the flavor was great for both teams.
From there we all sat down at the tables and went through a blind judging exercise. Three containers full of barbecue sat in front of us, and before we could start tasting we had to judge on appearance. It’s actually pretty hard to score barbecue, especially when comparing it to another. While it’s easy to say “I like this one best”, it’s harder to quantify why you like it. I ended up having to go back and forth between a few samples, which is tough because the second round of samples is colder than the first. An enjoyable dilemma to have for sure.
After the judging was over, we had a Q&A session with the MBN officials and the teams and then took a test to gauge our barbecue judging IQ. Fortunately I passed, along with everyone else in the class. So I’m officially a trained barbecue judge with a credential that designates me as a blowhard with an opinion that matters.
Barbecue aside, the coolest part about the day for me was seeing how the teams, judges and officials interact. Sure they argued over some things and bickered about others, but they did so in the way that you argue with your brother or sister. Most of the time they were going back and forth telling stories, laughing about their experiences and talking about how they love the friendships that they get to make with folks from all over the country. It’s very similar to the bond you find among brewers, artists and musicians. People that are passionate about their craft really seem to look out for one another and are usually very welcoming. Probably because they love what they do.