When I tell people that I’m going to judge the Memphis in May barbecue contest this weekend, the response I get is, “Wow! That really sounds like fun…can I judge?” The answer is: Not unless you’re a certified judge—barbecue teams want certified judges.

Then to ease the pain and disappointment, I tell them how much work it is. You have to commit to being there 2 1/2 to 3 hours on Saturday (from 11:00 till about 3:00) and you can’t fraternize with the teams. Judging usually starts about noon, with chicken, then at 12:30 ribs, 1:00 pork and 1:30 brisket. And I must warn you that if you eat everything in front of you, you can eat in excess of 2 1/2 pounds of barbecue.

All kidding aside, it’s fun, but it’s also serious. Each cooking team has spent over $350 just on the meat, along with an entry fee, so the judges need to take it seriously.

When I talk about being a Certified Barbecue Judge (CBJ), that official certification comes from a Barbecue Sanctioning Body. The largest Barbecue Sanctioning Body is the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), with over 16,000 members worldwide, and they give classes all over the world, most of them in the US. There are other Barbecue Sanctioning Bodies that also train judges: MBN (Memphis BBQ Network), the Florida BBQ Society, and so on; there are 3 or 4 in Texas alone!

To become a CBJ, you need to register and take the class. The class takes about four hours and you are instructed on what to do when judging, but you’re not instructed how to judge.

The judging procedure goes like this:

There are a possible 36 points from each judge.You’re sitting at a table of six judges. The first entrée will be chicken and you will be judging six individual chicken entries. The first thing your Table Captain does is tell you the number of each entrée. Say the numbers are 113, 116, 110, 118, 129, and 102—you have a score card and a judging plate in front of you and as the table captain calls the numbers out, you record them on your judging plate and on your judging score card, with your signature, table number, and Chicken category label. Next, the table captain will show each individual entree for presentation.That is scored from 2 to 9, and you don’t compare one against the other; if all six look like they each score a 9, you mark them all 9.

Next, the table captain will pass out the entrees in the same order used for presentation scoring. You take a piece of chicken from the box and place it on the corresponding number on the judging plate. When you have all the pieces on the corresponding numbers, you can start judging. During judging, you can’t talk, but after the whole table has finished judging, you can discuss the scores.

Here is a sample chicken box. What’s your presentation score?

You will repeat this procedure for ribs, pork and brisket.

Here is a sample rib box. What’s your Presentation score?


Here is a sample pork box. What’s your Presentation score?

Here is a sample brisket box: What’s your presentation score?

See, there’s nothing to this, especially if you love good barbecue!

When I judge presentation, I look for the color of the barbecue and how clean the cuts are—basically I’m looking at their knife skills. On this chicken, I probably would have scored it 7 or 8 out of 9, because the color really doesn’t represent what I consider barbecued.

On the rib box, I would score it a 7 or 8—I like the color but the cutting is sloppy and ragged, and there are chunks out of ribs 3 and 4. When I judge ribs especially I want the meat to NOT fall off the bone—I want some texture to the meat in all of the categories. You also want it to have flavor and that’s a personal thing—nobody can tell you how or what to taste. I don’t mind sweet, but I don’t prefer overly sweet.

The pork box, I would score an 8 or 9—it’s well positioned with brownies (those are the dark chunks), which are very flavorful, and the color of the pulled pork is good and does not look like it’s got too much sauce or is over cooked.

The brisket box I would score an 8—it looks good and moist although it’s overcooked; I can tell that by the crumbly ends of the brisket and how thick it was sliced.

When I started this article, I asked a lot of other CBJ’s about their experiences as barbecue judges and the last question I would ask was: What is your favorite category to judge? Their scoring went like this: Ribs: 19, Pork: 7, Brisket: 6 and Chicken: 3.

Now I need to go get some BBQ for lunch; this post made me hungry!

Paul Kirk is a Grilling is Happiness sponsored writer.