So I have had the privilege of judging a number of the Australian Barbecue Alliance (ABA) sanctioned events over recent years and figured I would put fingers on keys about the experience. There are now just over 30 sanctioned events scheduled for 2017 including the first ever New Zealand event, Meatstock, taking place this weekend. It’s a sign of just how big this movement is becoming and according to the ABA website there are now 203 registered teams for 2017. Judging competitive barbecue (bbq) is a great way of seeing just how good your own skills are going and understanding the standard of competition bbq is. If you’re thinking of actually competing in a comp, I highly recommend you go and judge a competition for yourself. A number of top teams have had members be judges at certain competitions to understand the process for competition, probably also pick up some fresh ideas. It’s also a great day socially meeting new people and spending the day talking all things bbq.
How do you become a judge?
Well it’s actually a lot easier than people think. Originally I was under the assumption I would have to know a grand wizard and get invited to a secret society with some weird initiation but in reality it’s pretty simple. The first step is usually to get in contact with the promoter of the event you wish to judge and simply ask if there is any judge’s spots available. For a list of upcoming sanctioned events you can check the ABA events page http://ausbbq.com.au/upcoming-events/
If you have never judged before you will need to undertake the ABA judge’s course. These are generally held before judging starts at an event and it takes about an hour to complete. The course sets out what is expected, things to look for, is garnish really necessary? For 2017 the course and presentation has been updated and has really good information of the standard expected, the process and what to look for.
Once you’ve done your course you are now an official judge and get to walk around and tell people that you judge competitive bbq, which is great when you rock up to your mates place on the weekend. You even get an official judges card.
How does a bbq competition work?
Teams generally bump in the day before the competition and set up ready to cook overnight for hand in the next day. All food must be cooked from a raw state, onsite and within the allocated cooking window. Each competition or promoter will determine its own hand in categories and can comprise of chicken, pork, pork ribs, beef, brisket, beef ribs or lamb that count towards National Grand Championships. There are other categories which can contribute to an event Grand Champion but not to the national competition such as seafood or Braham hump. There is also categories which may be event specific which do not contribute to points such as whole hog, chef’s choice or mystery ingredient.
Before competition starts all teams have an inspection to ensure they are only using correct cookers and only using wood or wood products including briquettes or wood pellets. Meat is inspected to ensure it is in a raw state and must not be brined, rubbed, marinated or cured prior to the cooking window. Hand in happens usually an hour apart for each category with a 10 minute window to get your protein in. a typical day would be
- 10am Chicken
- 11am Lamb
- 12pm Pork Ribs
- 1pm Brisket
- 2pm Beef Ribs
How does the judging process work?
Judges are seated 10 minutes prior to hand in with 6 judges to a table. The number of tables will depend on the size of the competition and the number of teams competing, for example 30 teams would have 5 tables of 6 judges. Usually there are substitute judges to sub in and out as required. Each table will receive 6 hand in boxes per round, yes you need to pace yourself because if you judge every round you’ll be chewing through 30 portions of bbq, meat sweats anyone?
It is a blind tasting process so you don’t know which team cooked the bbq you are tasting. Each box is labelled with a random alpha numeric code like 6C, 7E or 2B which is applied by the head judge after the box has been turned in by the team. The box is then handed to the table captain who is responsible for advising the team of the box number and then lifting the lid on the box to show the rest of the table the presentation. This is where the first score is applied. Presentation is marked out of 10, there must be at least 6 clear portions (or more) in each box totalling 50g or the equivalent of a small handful per portion. Teams can hand in more than one cut per category if they like. For example in a lamb hand in you might have lamb ribs and pulled lamb in the same box. From there the table captain carries the box around so each judge can remove a portion for judging. What about smoke ring? While I do look for it, I don’t mark down a team if it’s not there. There’s a number of ways to enhance a smoke ring but for me I’m really looking for 6 evenly portioned pieces that make me salivate and get me excited to taste the entry. I really look that all the portions are as uniform as possible, not overly sauced or dry and that everything looks neat and tidy.
The next score to be applied is texture and often you get a good indication of this as you remove the portion from the hand in box. You may go to pick up a pork rib and bone slides straight out of the meat, while that’s great at home it’s not what is required during competition. The same with brisket, if you pick it up and it’s stiff with no bend or falls apart you know there’s an issue. With brisket I like to hold the flat up at one end, it should hold together under its own weight but fall apart when lightly pulled. When it comes to chicken it should be moist with bite through skin, not dry and certainly not rubbery. Texture is scored out of 10 but the points are weighted out of 20. So if you score something 8/10 for texture you’re actually scoring it 16/20.
Now we move onto the third and all important score, taste. This is probably the most subjective of the 3 categories with individuals having their own flavour profile they enjoy. Teams realise that you’re only going to take a couple of bites of their hand in to score it, remember you’ve got 30 portions to eat, so they really pack the flavour into a protein a lot more than you would ever cook at home. For me it’s about finding the balance between smoke, sweet and heat without being overly spicy or sickly sweet. I always look that you can still taste the actual protein especially for lamb and beef, while flavouring is important it should still taste like a piece of lamb. One thing I try and do is judge each hand in on its on merit rather than try and judge one team against another. I’ve found that the first score you write down is usually correct and if two teams both get 10’s then they probably deserve it. Taste is scored out of 30 so this is where the difference between an 8 or a 9 can make a big difference 8/10 = 24/30 compared to 9/10 = 27/30
Penalties and disqualification can happen in certain situations, unfortunately. Disqualification for an entry will take place if you don’t hand in on time, hand in the wrong protein, any identifying marks on the hand in box or use the wrong cut for a protein category. Penalties can apply for the following, having sauce like a dipping sauce, foreign object like foil in the box or handing in less than the minimum portion size.
Is it a fair process?
Well if you can come up with a better process to judge 30+ teams handing in 5 different proteins over 5 hours I’d like to hear it. There is always the controversy that people at one table might naturally score higher than the table next to them, but unfortunately that’s the way it is. For example, what I might judge as an 8 for flavour you might judge as a 6 because you didn’t like the vinegar sauce, that’s fine but that equates to my taste score being 24 compared with yours being 18. So if there is a table of particularly hard scoring judges compared with another table who scores more liberally you can see why there could be a difference in scores. The fact is that all the judges have an interest in low n slow and cook it themselves, they’ve been trained in what to look for and really just want to eat and score good bbq.
Standing with teams at the presentation end of the day and watching the heart break after not getting a call up after the effort they have put in can be a shit experience. You know how hard these teams have worked in all the preparation and cooking to actually handing in some of the most amazing food. When I talk to teams we always discuss how subjective the judging process is and part of the luck can be which table you end up on. The teams understand this and the best benchmark of a BBQ, in my opinion, is consistency through all the different proteins and also from one competition to the next.
So there yo go a little insight into how competitive bbq in Australia works and the judging process. For more information be sure to check out http://ausbbq.com.au/ get in contact with a promoter and go eat some amazing food. Remember to pace yourself and drink plenty of water through the process.