Inside look at the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s Certified Barbeque Judge’s Class

Do you love barbeque? Do you enjoy going to BBQ competitions? Have you ever wondered how BBQ teams score big with a Grand Championship and prize money? You might have the “Right Stuff” to become a Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Certified Barbeque Judge. KCBS-sanctioned BBQ teams across the country (and the world) put their expertly smoked meats to the test to prove that their BBQ is the best. A tent full of certified judges are the jury and score per current KCBS rules and regulations.

Carolyn and Gary Wells and Rick Welch founded KCBS in 1986. Kansas City competition BBQ was just starting with only three contests in the metro area. The first KCBS sanctioned event was in 1987 in Oak Grove, which included making rules and regulations, writing a computerized tabulation program, and establishing judging procedures. In 1995, Ardie Davis and Ed Roith established a Judge’s Certification program, now known as Certified Barbeque Judge (CBJ).

Here are KCBS Stats:

  • Over 20,000 members
  • Sanctions over 450 contests a year across the U.S.A., Canada, Caribbean, and Europe
  • Certified more than 26,000 judges
  • Combined prize purse of over $4,000,000 per year
  • Considered the gold standard in the competition barbeque world
  • Largest organization of cooking contests in the world

If you are lucky, KCBS Contest Rep and Master CBJ, Kelly MacIntosh will be your class instructor and moderator. He knows barbeque inside and out. He is also a great speaker and storyteller. The class starts with an introduction of what KCBS is and what it means to be a CBJ. The cooking teams depend on the skills you learn in this class as they cook to the rules and standards of KCBS. The teams layout hundreds of dollars for meat and supplies and spend long days with no sleep to be at these competitions. It’s serious business!

As with any organization, there is a code of conduct that needs to be maintained during an event. This applies to any participant whether you are a judge, table captain, contest official, contestant, or a KCBS official. KCBS is an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment organization with rules just like you would have at your workplace. Breaking these rules can be grounds for expulsion.

When judging, it is much different than when you are eating at a restaurant where you eat what you like and taste what you perceive as really good barbeque. Once you attend BBQ competitions and start to judge, your mind set will change not only when judging, but when you eat at restaurants too. You’ll learn what to look for in great barbeque from presentation, taste, and texture.

Another misnomer is interchanging barbeque and grilling. This is how the U.S. Government defines barbeque:  “Barbeque meats, such as product labeled ‘Beef Barbeque’ or ‘Barbequed Pork’ shall be cooked by the direct action of dry heat resulting from the burning of hard wood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the usual characteristics of a barbequed article, which include the formation of a brown crust on the surface and the rendering of surface fat. The product may be basted with a sauce during the cooking process. The weight of barbequed meat shall not exceed 70% of the weight of the fresh uncooked meat.” (The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, Chapter III, Part 319, Subpart C, Section 319.80, revised 1/1/1985, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service) When you are out in the backyard making hot dogs, hamburgers, and steaks, you’re likely grilling not barbequing. Barbeque is all about low and slow!

KCBS Basic Four Categories are chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket. Here’s a quick meat anatomy lesson on where these cuts of meat are from.

  • Chicken is defined as chicken, Cornish game hen, and kosher chicken. It can be prepared whole, half, or in parts. Most cooks use thighs and every team has their own technique to get the meat juicy and the skin just right.
  • Pork ribs are spare ribs, St. Louis style rib, and loin rib (also known as baby back ribs). Most cooks use St. Louis style ribs due to their uniform shape for a better presentation in the box. A misnomer is fall-off-the-bone tender. This actually means that the pork is overcooked, but the public loves a fall-off-the-bone rib. For KCBS, a clean bite can be taken from the rib without the rest of the meat coming off while still having a moist texture and good flavor.
  • Pork shoulder is Boston butt, Boston roast, picnic shoulder, or whole shoulder, weighing a minimum of four pounds. This is a meat that tends to get overcooked. The texture must be tender and not mushy. It can be turned in sliced, pulled, or chopped. Look for the money muscle!
  • Save the best for last! Beef brisket is the underside chest muscle of beef cattle. The whole brisket, point, and flat can be used. Corned beef is not allowed. Looking for a smoke ring is not important as it can be artificially produced.
KCBS Scoring System is based on three criteria: appearance, taste, and tenderness. Scores are 9 to 2: 
  • 9-Excellent
  • 8-Very Good
  • 7-Above Average
  • 6-Average
  • 5-Below Average
  • 4-Poor
  • 3-Bad
  • 2-Inedible
A score of “1” can only be issued if something is wrong, i.e., pooling of sauce, unapproved garnish, not enough samples in the box for the judges, etc. You’ll learn about these in the class.
  • Appearance is scored when the table captain presents it to the judges. The entries are scored from the visual presentation and not to be compared to other competitors’ entries. Each entry is judged on its own merit.
  • Taste is something that is hard to teach but you learn more as you judge. The sample should have a balance of flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
  • Tenderness is based on how perfectly cooked the meat is. Meat should be moist, not dry; tender, not tough or mushy.
Judging tables require six judges per table plus one table captain. The scoring calculation is ultimately done by computer, but Appearance, Taste, and Tenderness each have different weights (Taste is weighted the highest, followed by Tenderness, and then Appearance). The lowest score for each entry for that table is thrown out. Only five judges’ scores will determine the final result of any entry.

Some important rules to avoid receiving a “1” from the judges:
  • Rule 9 – Meat cannot be sculptured (made into a discernable shape or rosettes), branded, or presented in a way to make it identifiable.
  • Rule 12 – Garnish is optional. It is limited to chopped, sliced, shredded, or whole leaves of fresh GREEN lettuce, curly green kale, curly parsley, flat leaf parsley, and/or cilantro.
  • Rule 13 – Sauce is optional. It needs to be applied directly to the meat and not pooled or puddled in the container.
  • Rule 15 – The container cannot be marked in any way to make the container unique or identifiable.
  • Rule 16 – Each contestant must submit at least six portions of meat in an approved container.
After the lecture part of class is over, it is time to start the mock-judging. It’s time to chow! Using the information given during the lecture, the newly trained judges put their eyes, noses, and mouths to the test. A team of seasoned barbeque competitors made 72 boxes, compared to a normal competition day of just 4 boxes from each team. Two different mock-entries were turned in for each category. Normally, it will be up to six entries per judging table. The cooks either had to make it as perfect as they could or flub it up by breaking one of the rules above. Plus, they had to make it as consistent as possible while working with many different meats – more than one chicken, more than one piece of brisket, more than one slab of ribs, and more than one pork shoulder. Some entries had pooled sauce or not enough samples. It is truly amazing how it all worked. That’s the sign of a good catering team to feed the masses.

If you think you have what it takes to be a CBJ, check out KCBS’s website to see when the next class is coming to your area.

For more information:
Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS)
Class Schedule


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