Learning how to judge barbecue at the World Food Championships

Representatives from the Kansas City Barbeque Society prepare samples during the judges certification class at the World Food Championships in Downtown Las Vegas, November 7.
Photo: Brock Radke

“One thing you’re gonna hear a lot today is integrity. That’s what we’re all about.”

I already knew barbecue was one of the most serious foods in the world, an intensely regional style of cooking with precise processes and passionate perfectionists making it happen. But I didn’t realize how serious eating it could be until I stepped into a makeshift classroom on East Fremont Street on Thursday morning, November 7, and those words above were the first I heard.

Among the many scattered events that made up the weekend’s World Food Championships was an official judges’ certification class presented by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. For $100 (or $60 if you’re already a KCBS member), anyone could purchase the right to endure this four-hour learning and tasting session and receive credentials to critique delicious pork, chicken, ribs and brisket at any of the 400-plus contests sanctioned by the society across the country each year. Many of the newly christened judges from this session went on to judge WFC’s World Barbecue Championship over the weekend, a contest with a $50,000 prize.

It seems simple to eat and evaluate barbecue, a cuisine we all love and are familiar with. But there’s a very specific KCBS way to do it. “These contests today are big money, big business, and (organizers) depend on us,” explained Wayne Lohman, a KCBS representative and instructor. “The judges are the eyes and ears between the cooks and the table captains, so it’s very important.”

At your typical barbecue contest, judges rank each dish using scores of two (inedible) to nine (excellent) in three categories: appearance, taste and tenderness. The standard dishes are chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder (pulled, chopped, sliced or any combination thereof) and beef brisket. Seems fun, easy and tasty, right?

It is, but it can get complicated. There’s a strict code of conduct that guarantees judges must be true to their own tastes and cannot attempt to impose those preferences on other judges. In fact, you’re not allowed to talk to each other until it’s all over. Also, no beer allowed: Rule No. 3 states, “I will not consume alcohol or other mind-altering substances prior to or during judging.”

You can’t visit with the teams of barbecue cooks on the day of competition. You can use utensils to grab the food out of the box, but fingers only when eating. Each bite must be judged on its own; you’re not supposed to compare one sparerib to the next. And you have to be aware of rule violations such as using red-tipped lettuce as a garnish. Green leaf only! And the cooks are not allowed to sculpt or brand their meat into weird shapes … no star-shaped pulled-pork mounds, thank you.

There may be lots of rules, but the KCBS doesn’t tell its judges what tastes good. That’s up to you. And judges are encouraged to use the top score whenever it’s deserved instead of holding out for that perfect brisket. If you’re eating great barbecue, give it a nine. Just keep integrity on your mind.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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