Judging barbecue is one of the most subjective decisions ever.
The funny thing is, most of the time results in BBQ competitions are a complete gamble – which table your box lands on, does that judge have the same views on flavors as you do, did the cooking weather work in your favour etc… BBQ entries are judged on taste, texture and appearance, and each category is given a different weighting to determine the final score.
Every now and again, you get a competitor that seems to have found a magic recipe that appeals more broadly than others, and will take out multiple championships. Like Johnny Trigg, Myron Mixon and Tuffy Stone. Or here in Australia, with The Meat Sweats and Eureka Smoke, who we have now come to expect to see in the top three placings.
We are often asked questions like “how can you teach someone in one day to be a barbecue judge?” and “what are the judges told to look for?”. Well, it doesn’t matter if they learn for an hour or learn for a year, it’s not going to change their personal taste preference. I prefer white meat on chicken, others may prefer dark. I like a sweeter sauce, someone else may prefer a spicier one. None of this can be taught, or regulated. Ultimately, teams can only hope to have the broadest and most unanimous appeal on the day.
What we try to do with a standardised judges course, is eliminate any variables beyond personal taste preference. Other ABA rules such as the double blind scoring system, hand in procedure, and judges conduct guide work in conjunction with the course to further ensure the playing field is as level as possible.
Amongst other things during an ABA judges course, judges are taught the following:
- Who the ABA is and what we do
- The team rules (to understand the limitation of the cook and what to expect in the box)
- Allowed garnishes and other appearance information
- Acceptable behaviour of judges (no talking, no licking fingers etc)
- Visual prompts to test their understanding of the validity of entries
- A breakdown of the allowed cuts and the manner in which the may be served
- What “bark” is and why it’s actually a sign of a good cook (rather than burned)
We then spend some time towards the end of the course discussing texture, rather than taste. If I put a piece of pork crackling and a piece of rubbery pork skin in front of 10 people, I’d bet my last dollar nearly everyone at the table will go for the crackling. Texture is a much more universally agreed upon category than taste. So, we discuss the hallmarks of well cooked brisket, how to check for ‘mushy’ pork, and describe the textbook perfect rib bite.
Above all, the most important instruction the judges are given is do not compare samples, judge each entry on it’s own merit. So, judges are taught not compare how they enjoyed one rib to another, but rather encouraged to just gauge how they are enjoying that particular rib in that moment. They sample and score one box at a time, and then clean their palate with water and a cracker bite before moving to the next box. So theoretically, you get a score reflecting how ultimately enjoyable your food was, not how your food stacked up against whomever else landed on your table.
Remember, barbecue should be enjoyed by everybody, not an elite few who have more “eating experience” than others. So, an award winning barbecue entry is one that a majority of judges at that table have anonymously, impartially and fairly decided was the best on the day. And to me, an entry that has the reach, skill and capability of appealing to the majority of the people judging it is absolutely the sign of a winner.