BBQ Competitions - Judging the Judges

Dear BBQ Friend:

BBQ competitions are real fun and I encourage you to try it sometime. If you are a little bit intimidated, you can always compete in a "backyard" orbbq judge amateur event. Most competitions have this category for amateurs and it is a great place to "get your feet wet" and experience the fun and festivities of a competition. Some contests even have a "Kids Q" category. There are also pie contests and the ever popular "anything but" contests. And don't be afraid if you don't have an expensive $3000 smoker. Some of the teams that win on the competition circuit on a regular basis use Weber kettle grills or simple charcoal vertical smokers that you can buy for under $100. For a good list of BBQ Competitions in your area, visit the calendar of events at the site. I highly recommend subscribing to the Barbecue News also - it's a great publication. Two other great lists of contests are at...

What I really want to talk about today, is judging at BBQ competitions. Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I am not complaining about BBQ judging. I simply want to point out to beginners the inherent flawsbbq judging that are involved with any kind of judging performed by human beings. You see it in football games, with baseball umpires, and basketball referees. It's no different with BBQ judging.

The sanctioning bodies like the Florida Barbecue Association (FBA), Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN), and the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) all require judges to go through some sort of training before judging a BBQ competition. They do their best to train these judges, but to be honest, how are you going to change a person's personal tastes? So... to start with, you have a bunch of judges who all have a different idea about what is good BBQ. Judge #1 might like a sweet sauce and judge #4 might like a hot and spicy sauce and judge #6 might like no sauce at all.

To make things even worse, BBQ competitions are judged on appearance, tenderness, and taste. So what might look appetizing to one judge may look awful to another judge. And, I am always complaining about this one... smoked chicken is smoked chicken! Not baked at 325 deg or grilled or roasted. These are BBQ competitions, not grilling competitions! Most people, and that includes judges, don't know the difference between slow smoked chicken and grilled chicken. One can be just as tender as the other. I'll admit, a grilled chicken can even be juicier than smoked chicken sometimes. Judges need to be well trained and knowledgeable.

Sometimes it's just a matter of luck... you see, most BBQ competitions have 6 or more "tables" with 6 judges at each table. Your turn in box could go to any one of those tables. Let's say your rib recipe uses a sweet sauce. If your box goes to a table with a bunch of judges that like a Carolina vinegar based sauce, you're out of luck! You're going to get some bad scores. This part is sort of like a craps shoot... you never know which table you're going to get.

What I want, is for you to just be aware of how these BBQ competitions are judged and just take it in stride when you compete. Overall, they are as fair as they can be under the circumstances. One thing the sanctioning bodies can do to make things more fair is to move toward 100% certified and trained judges. I've been to some competitions where they were training new judges on the morning of the event.

For the most part though, I would say the judging at BBQ competitions is fair, but could stand some improvement. Some of these competitors spend $1000's attending just one of these competitions, and it is only appropriate that they be judged fairly by well trained, certified judges. The judges couldn't be doing too bad of a job though... the same teams keep winning week after week. It's like everything else in life I guess... you win some and you lose some!


Bill Anderson