How to Improve Barbecue Judging...

Originally written in 2009:

Note: The newsletter below, seemed to cause some disagreements, so I conducted a survey to clarify some points. The survey is finished and closed and the full results are below...

What's undisputable is that an overwhelming majority of competitors and judges would like to see improvements made as you can plainly see in the chart below. For full results just click on the links below the pie chart...

bbq judging survey

Full Results
Judge's Answers Only
Competitor's Answers Only
All Comments - Other suggestions for improving judging

Dear BBQ Friend:

What better way to start out the new year than complaining about all the things that need improvement in our little barbecue industry...

I've been meaning to write a newsletter about this for abbq judge couple of years now. The last newsletter I did on barbecue judging was way back in December 2006 - and it hasn't changed much in the last 3 years! In that Dec 2006 newsletter, I basically explained how things work so you would know what to expect at a contest. This newsletter is a bit different... I am going to offer some suggestions for improvement.

Note: There are good barbecue judges out there and a few not so good ones. This newsletter is not intended to offend anyone. Nor is it intended to take anything away from barbecue contest winners. We are all in the same judging boat and all wins are well deserved.

I can assure you, not many people besides barbecue competitors know how much work is involved in competing in a barbecue contest. Even some seasoned barbecue judges do not have a clue. Even some Master Certified Barbecue Judges don't have a clue... all they are required to do is help a team at a contest. Note I said "at a contest" . Well, what about the 2 days of preparing for a contest? And what about the 2 days of cleanup after a contest? And what about the many, many hours of practice? Just helping a team at a contest does help a judge understand what goes into a contest, but it is still only the tip of the iceberg. If a judge really wants to become a master and understand fully what is involved, let them go out and buy all of their own equipment, spend years learning how to cook competition quality barbecue, pay the entry fee, buy the meat and other supplies, spend 2 days preparing for a contest, driving many miles to get there, working your ass off at a contest, and then driving home and cleaning up. And... why do we do this again? Oh... that's right - for the fun of it!

Maybe we would get better scores if all judges were required to go through all that! But I understand that that's not possible. So... how can we go about improving barbecue judging? I think we can all agree that the current judging is not exactly fair and after spending around $700+ for a contest, I think we deserve fair judging. A lot of my scores ranged from 9's and 8's to 6's and 7's at some tables last year. So... my first question is - "Is it even possible to improve barbecue judging?" After all, everybody has their own tastes even though they are taught to ignore their personal tastes. But is that even possible? Probably not.

And how do you overcome the fundamental problem... how can it ever be fair when one team's BBQ is judged by one set of judges and the next team's BBQ is judged by a whole different set of judges???? You simply can't. The entire system is flawed!

Then there is the question of certified Barbecue Judges (CBJ). I personally think we are slightly better off with CBJs, but I say only slightly because they are not always fair either. Some of them have tasted the best and hold everybody else up to a higher standard - thus low scores for everyone. Don't know if this is right or wrong to be honest with you. And using people off the street could result in a lot of low scores or too high scores - who knows!? I think my point is... we need a better system to overcome these innate "discrepancies".

So, here are my suggestions...

  • Use more judges - Use 8 judges per table instead of just 6 and throw out the high AND the low scores. Most sports that require human judging use a system like this (i.e. ice skating, body building, gymnastics, beauty pageants, etc). It's no problem for barbecue competitors to turn in 8 pieces instead of 6. Most of us do this anyway. The argument over wether CBJs are better than people off the street or celebrity judges is diminished because the extremes are thrown out. You are left with 6 good scores that are added up instead of 5 - hopefully giving you a better "average" of the best judges present at that table. This way, one or two or even three out of line scores will not hurt as much. All the other rules would stay the same. Most contests would only need between 10-20 extra judges and it would not matter as much if they were CBJs or not. If judges could judge 8 entries instead of 6 (per category), you would need no extra judges. If you need more room at a table, just use bigger tables or slide two together. And about the "boneyard" - that's the extra barbecue in the turn-in box for the volunteers and table captains. There's plenty of barbecue left over at the team's site that can't fit in the box. If organizers went around collecting barbecue donations for the volunteers, they would get plenty. Or competitors could just turn in a separate boneyard box when they turn in their regular box. Believe it or not, a lot of teams just throw away leftover BBQ after a contest!
  • Instead of a total disqualification for a late entry, just start deducting points for each second late. I think that is much more fair after all the work they did to turn in that category. You could lose a whole contest and waste an entire weekend just because you were a few seconds late in one category. That is not fair... especially when other circumstances may be involved like walking distance and having to dodge pedestrians. In one contest, we had to wait for a golf cart to drive us the 1/4 mile to the turn in station. Without that, we would have been at a big disadvantage.
  • Don't use any judges - Say what, Bill? Have you lost your mind!? Nope... there's plenty of very well qualified people around barbecue contests to do the judging. Who? I'm talking about the contestants themselves! Who else is more qualified? Here's how you would go about it...

1) After cooking their barbecue, contestants are usually just sitting around drinking beer for hours until the awards ceremony. Plenty of time to do a little judging.

2) Since you only need one judge per team (maybe a few extra if you use 8 judges per table), there will be plenty of judges. Anyone on a team can be assigned the task of judging. The rest of the team can still be cleaning up or they can clean up after judging is complete.

3) Contestants are there anyway, so organizers don't have to worry about securing judges.

4) I think a lot of contestants would actually enjoy this part of a competition. I know I would because we don't get to taste a competitor's barbecue very often and I think it would be a great learning experience.

5) Anti-cheating mechanism: A mathematical formula could be used to prevent a judge from purposely giving other teams undeserved bad scores. If their scores are way out of line on the low side than all the other judges at that table, then their own scores will be penalized by a deduction. And remember... it would have to be obviously WAY out of line with the rest of the table. And this would only be done with low scores and not high scores. Judges would have no choice but to be fair.

6) Cheating is possible in the present system... A friendly judge could be planted who could easily recognize their friend's box. They would give good scores if they got their friend's box and bad scores otherwise. I hate to say it, but if it is possible to cheat, in my experience, there will be cheaters. As Ronald Reagan always said... "Trust, but verify". If they get half a chance, they cheat in NASCAR, the NFL, the NBA, MLB, bicycle racing, and just about every other major sport. What makes you think cheating is not going on at barbecue contests?

7) Forget about garnishments. It will be too much of a hastle to mess with garnishments when doing all 4 meat categories in that last hour before turn-in. Most teams don't like garnishments. Most judges don't like garnishments. And it isn't a parsley contest - it's a barbecue contest. I think garnishment also gives rise to the possibility of a judge being able to recognize a box easier.

8) You'll have to implement a system where nobody's box goes to their own table. Should be easy to do with a simple computer program and a known seating arrangement.

9) All 4 categories would be turned in at one time. Let's say a 30 minute window.

10) There will be some lag time between turn in and actual judging, so all entries would be put on a tray and slipped into a warming oven. They should only have to be kept warm for about 1 hour. Even something as simple as an electric blanket could be used for this. And if you don't allow any garnishment, it will not wilt. We all know that in the current system, turn-in boxes can easily sit around for an hour before being judged. Is it fair to let a competitor's turn-in box get ice cold before being judged? I think not.

11) And last but not least... I know a lot of judges will be "unemployed" if this idea is implemented. So, I suggest that there be some way for the general public to taste or sample competitor's barbecue. I think it would make visiting a barbecue contest much more enjoyable for everyone. Of course, some details would have to be worked out like health code regulations and fairly compensating teams for their contribution. Maybe a buffet area could be set up where teams would deposit their meats. The buffet area would conform to all health codes. The public would pay to try out the samples. Not exactly sure if this would conform to the health code or not. Whatever you do, don't make the teams deal directly with the visitors - that is too much to ask of teams that are not set up for that kind of thing. And they are usually too busy with competing anyway. Another option for unemployed judges is to move to another sanctioning body or become a volunteer at a contest. Volunteers, table captains, turn-in box receivers, contest reps, etc will still be needed.

So... there you have it! Those are my crazy ideas. Take 'em or leave 'em. If you are a contest organizer, contest rep, on the board of directors, or work for a sanctioning body, feel free to suggest these ideas to the powers that be. After all, in my opinion, the main purpose of a barbecue sanctioning body is to provide the judging at barbecue contests. Think about that for a second... their main job is to provide fair judging at barbecue contests - and they get it wrong all too often. If someone were to come along and "get it right", someone may be looking for a job in a tough environment. There's a huge need in a relatively very young sport... I was always taught in business - "find a need and fill it". I think you all know this could happen. And one or two big time contest organizers are already thinking about it. There were many different racing leagues in the early 1940's before Bill France Sr started NASCAR. Ever heard of any of them? No? Point made.

While I'm on my soapbox... let's see some increases in prize money! I am sick and tired of seeing these contests which only have $4000-$5000 total prize money! That is a joke! First place would not even cover my expenses. I won 4 Grand Championships in 2009 and over $10,000 in prize money and I barely covered my expenses for the 10 contests I entered last year. There's a whole lot of room for improvement if you ask me. Like I said... somebody's gonna come along real soon and "find the need and fill it" . I watched 4 contestants on TV do some kind of chocolate sculpture contest. The winner got a check for $10,000. I about fell out of my Lazy Boy! I work my ass off for the better part of a week and can only dream about winning $10,000 at one contest. Those TV networks film a barbecue contest and don't put up a dime in prize money. Are we a bunch of suckers? Try to film a NASCAR event or a NBA game without paying big bucks - good luck with that! Again... our sanctioning bodies are not doing their job right. Who's the next BBQ Bill France Sr? This industry is ripe. It's in it's infancy. Find a need and...

I better shut up now!


Bill Anderson