Judging the American Royal BBQ Contest
 "World Series of Barbecue"
October 7, 2007

Hundreds of contestants in the American Royal BBQ Contest
Portion of just one of the lots of 514 contestants in the 2007 American Royal BBQ Contest.

Today was my day to be a judge at the American Royal BBQ Contest. Not the invitational main championship, but the Oklahoma Joe's Open Barbecue Contest that has extended the American Royal weekend activities to Sunday. I checked in about 10:30 AM and was shown to one of a vast field of tables. There were about 500 barbecue judges grouped in tables of 6.

American Royal Barbecue Contest Judges
American Royal Barbecue Judges - my table (#13) is the 7th one down the left side.

About half of the judges were Kansas City Barbecue Society certified, and there were equal numbers of certified and novice judges at each table. There was supposed to also be a non judging Captain for each table, but they were short and one of our judges doubled as the Table Captain.

Being a non judging Captain would stink. They go and get the food, present it to the judges, collect the voting slips and turn the excess food over to stations where it is salvaged for the volunteers. The Captains don't normally eat until the event is over.

Before the BBQ judging began, we were given some coaching by the experienced judges at our table. We were a little surprised that except for violating the rules about presentation, almost all barbecue entries receive a grade of 7 or higher.

We also listed to a tapped message which talked about the judging criteria and what we should be looking for. Then we all had to stand, raise our right hands and swear an oath about the judging.

I was seated next to a nice woman who recently moved to Missouri from Montana (or was it Wyoming?). Her husband was also judging, but spouses aren't permitted to judge barbecue at the same table. She and I had a lot of interests in common (travel, bicycling, ethnic restaurants) and I enjoyed our conversations.

American Royal BBQ Contest Judges' Table 13
Other judges at Table 13 - Brian (our Captain), Carol, Anthony, Kim, Jill

But all conversation was stopped when a round of food arrived. BBQ Judges do not communicate while judging. Each round was one type of meat. The first round was chicken. We were given the random number assigned to each barbecue entry (so judges have no clue who the entries are from), then each box of food was presented for judging on appearance, 1-9 on a secret ballot. When each presentation has been viewed, the boxes are passed along and we placed a serving of each entry in a separate marked area of our place mats. Usually there are 6 entries of a given item judged by one table.

Each smoked meat was now judged for taste and texture. They were not compared to each other and you could not change a number for an entry after you started tasting another. The one time that I accidentally wrote the wrong number, a supervisor had to come over before I could correct the score.

Kansas City BBQ Society Judging Plate
Kansas City BBQ Society Judging Plate  (photographing the boxes of meat is prohibited)

Before we discarded the place mats at the end of a round, we put uneaten portions that we still wanted into zip lock bags. The experience judges brought along extra plastic bag to let us newcomers use.

The next item was pork ribs and we lucked out and had 7 entries this time. We ate most of the ribs and I saw very little going into the plastic bags after this round.

The next items were pork butt, followed by brisket. Even with eating very little of each one, we were all getting stuffed and I think everyone was pleased that there were only 3 entries for our table in the final category (sausage).

Overall, I was impressed by how much thought and effort has been put into finding a way to fairly judge so many items at one time. No one judge could ever taste all of the over 500 different entries in any one category. But it was also discouraging realizing how unfair it must still be. We were doing a much better job of judging (despite our full tummies) at the end of the 2 hour session, but it is still so subjective.

If my schedule permits, I will probably do the American Royal BBQ Contest again. For $15, we had

The 30th Annual American Royal Barbecue will be held October 1-4, 2009 at the American Royal Complex in Kansas City, Missouri. Judging spots are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The BBQ judging online application will go live in April.

Copyright 2007-2009 by Keith Stokes   My other trips.