That’s a good question and I may not have all the answers but we can talk about some important events and get an idea.
The first organized events came out of Texas. Texas Chili competitions were well in play and somebody said “hey, lets use the same system and have a BBQ contest”. Its unclear exactly when but we know that in 1974 The Houston Livestock & Rodeo had its first BBQ contest. In Texas you turn in “blind boxes” which means judges do not know who they are judging. The competition meats are chicken, pork ribs and beef brisket. Eventually the very first “sanctioning body” would come from Texas too. I’m told it was 1980 when the North Texas BBQ Association was formed which inevitably spawned into numerous organizations all very similar. The largest one today is IBCA (International BBQ Cookers Association)
1978 was a big year for competitions as it was the first Memphis in May event which brought the competition world to the South (Southern United States) This BBQ event was very different as it is all pork. To this day the event judges pork shoulder, pork ribs and whole hog. On site judging is also a big part of the competition. Because of the success and popularity of this keystone event, the Memphis in May sanctioning body was formed and this system was standardized and many “MIM” events were held throughout the US, mostly in the South. This organization has since folded but the system now lives on as the Memphis BBQ Network (MBN)
Another significant event began in 1980, The American Royal in Kansas City Missouri. As history would have it, what the Texans got started the folks in Kansas City would make it famous. It was 1985 when Carolyn Wells, Gary Wells and Rick Welch decided the wanted some ground rules and to standardize what at the time was a group of events, all ran a little different. That fall the Kansas City BBQ Society was formed and to this day has approximately 19,000 members all over the world and its sanctions 450 BBQ events a year. The “KCBS” also uses blind judging and teams are judged on chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket.
What is the biggest event to win? I will give you the top 5 in no particular order.
The Jack Daniel’s World BBQ Championship began in 1989.
This prestigious event is the largest International event in the US, (30 International teams from 2013) and it is the hardest one to qualify for the top US teams as they “draw” one team per state from a list of winners of qualifying events. Approximately 30,000 fill the city park in Lynchburg, Tennessee every Fall for this iconic BBQ competition.
American Royal, Kansas City, Missouri (referred to as the American Royal Open)
The largest BBQ cook off in the world by number of teams (approx. 500 in 2013)
The American Royal Invitational, Kansas City, Missouri
The largest face off of BBQ champions each year since 1987 (100 or more). Each team has won an event in the same year. It is is held in conjunction with the American Royal Open
The Houston Livestock and Rodeo, Houston Texas
The largest BBQ event in terms of attendance (approximately 250,000 in attendance in 2013; approximately 250 competition teams)
Memphis in May World BBQ Championship, Memphis Tennessee
Approximately 250 teams The growth and popularity of BBQ events has exploded in the US in the past 20 years. No longer limited to the US as new events are spawning all over the world.
There were 8 European events sanctioned by the KCBS this year. Whether in the US or any place where friends gather to enjoy outdoor cooking, it would be difficult to find a more pleasant environment and a nicer group of folks than BBQ people. Although fierce competitors, BBQ folks are famous for helping one another out and even rooting for each other at the awards. There is no better community than the BBQ community!
About the Author: Byron Chism is a CIA graduate (thats Culinary Institute of America, not the other one!), BBQ champion, KCBS member and creator of Bad Byron’s Butt Rub. www.buttrub.com