Judges discuss how meat at barbecue festival will be scored

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | 9:40 a.m. CDT; updated 11:44 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 26, 2009
George Lynn of Memphis, Tenn., prepares meat for the grill. Lynn competed with the Crispy Critters group at the Roots 'N' Blues Festival BBQ competition on October 3, 2008.

COLUMBIA – A panel of 70 meat connoisseurs will choose the winners of the third annual Kansas City BBQ Society Sanctioned Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival Competition on Saturday.

With 55 teams competing and $15,000 in total prizes on the line, knowing your meat is an imperative part of the judging process.

Jori Rose, coordinator for Saturday’s competition, said an important part of her job is choosing qualified judges. “A lot of time and money goes into this contest,” she said. “To honor that, I want as many certified judges as I can get. It’s my way of respecting the competitors.”

Entry fees for the competition range from $250 to $300 depending on the size of the cooking spot.

Rose said that some teams will not even participate unless there are certified judges.

Ninety percent of the 70 judges are certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, Rose said. In order to be certified, potential judges must attend a class given by the society. The class is a four-hour seminar that teaches the society's rules for judging and the scoring system.

Peter Neech and his wife, Galynn France, will be judges at Saturday's contest. They have been certified through the society since March of this year. This will be the second contest they have judged.

Neech said he learned things about judging in the process of getting certified that he never would have known about if he had not taken the class.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's taken very seriously," Neech said.

At Saturday's competition, there will be 10 tables with six judges at each table. Each table will also have a captain who brings the trays of meat. Table captains also answer any questions judges may have about an entry and take the scoring cards to the master judge.

Each table tastes and scores six entries. Entries presented to the judges must supply each of the six judges with a separate piece of meat to taste. There are four categories of meat: chicken, ribs, pork and beef brisket. A fifth category, dessert, has been added to this year's competition for fun.

Judges will first give an appearance score. Mike McMillen of the Kansas City Barbeque Society said judges base appearance scores on how the meat looks, how it is presented and how neatly it is arranged.

“If it looks burnt and it’s not very neatly arranged, it’s going to get a low score,” McMillen said.

After scoring the appearance, the judges will then give each entry a taste and tenderness score. Taste is subjective, but Rose said judges are trained to keep an open mind. Certified judges must eat what is presented to them, even if it would not normally be to their taste.

“You need to taste the meat and experience what the competitor was putting across to you,” Rose said.

Neech said each entry is judged independent of the others. "We don't compare one rib to another," he said. "You judge each piece of meat by its own merit."

Judges are allowed to drink water and eat crackers between entries to cleanse their palates.

Rose said competitors sometimes have their own sauces, and it’s important to taste them along with the meat. She thought back to a time that she judged a competition in which a team used a curry-based sauce.

“I loved the sauce,” Rose said. “I wanted to find the team and ask what they used.”

When it comes to scoring tenderness, Rose said it’s especially important for the judges to be certified.

“Many people think ribs are good when the meat falls off the bone, but really that means it’s overdone,” Rose said. “They would be scored lower for tenderness.”

Some people also have misconceptions about smoked chicken. “Smoked chicken can be pink,” Rose said. “A lot of people think this means it’s not done, but that’s not true.”

McMillen said if a piece of meat is overcooked, it will either be mushy or dry and tough.

“Dry is never acceptable,” McMillen said.

Ideally, the meat “ought to be thoroughly cooked, but not fall apart when you eat it,” he said.

Judging at Saturday’s contest will be blind, meaning the judges will not know whose meat they are tasting. Judges will not be allowed to talk to each other during the judging process, and if spouses are both judging, they cannot sit next to each other. Neech and France will be at separate tables.

According to the the society's 2009 Official Rules, Regulations and Judging Procedures, the judges may give scores ranging from nine to two, with nine being a perfect score and two being inedible.

Judges will only give a one if a contestant breaks a rule, such as including unapproved garnish or not including the correct pieces of meat. Giving a one is giving an entry a disqualification, and a contestant representative must approve it.

Neech and France said the process of becoming certified judges has been a great experience. "You get to eat some of the best barbecue you've ever tasted," Neech said. "It's a lot of fun. I would recommend this to anyone who likes barbecue."

The public is welcome to watch the cooks and judges, but public tasting is not allowed. However, Rose said public tasting is something that organizers are considering for future contests.

Judging will start at noon on Saturday and entries will be turned in every 30 minutes, starting with chicken and ending with dessert. Winners will be announced around 4:30 p.m. at the KOPN Community Stage in Flat Branch Park.

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