I’m sitting in an apron, surrounded by seven strangers, my lips and fingers smeared in a thick sheen of barbecue sauce. In any other circumstance, I might be embarrassed or even mortified by my life decisions. But it’s October in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and for 33 years this scene has simply been par for the course given the time and place. I’m a judge at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue—“The Jack” as it’s affectionally known by locals.
I’ve always enjoyed good barbecue. It was only a day earlier, however, that I became officially accredited to assess it. The certification came by way of the Kansas City Barbeque Society—the largest competitive organization of its kind, boasting more than 15,000 members worldwide. Entry into this esteemed collective was no joke. I spent the better part of an afternoon learning the ropes in a classroom setting. Guidelines on garnish presentation, general appearance, tenderness and taste were stated, restated and then stated again. A real, live chalkboard was actually put to use.
By the fourth hour, our instructor had managed to accomplish the impossible: she sucked the joy out of eating ribs.
Nevertheless, as the boxes started getting passed around at The Jack on that fateful Saturday afternoon, the warm, fuzzy feeling was back. This despite the fact that judges are expressly forbidden from consuming alcohol while on the job. In other words, not a drop of Jack at The Jack. So my buzz was instead fueled from the 40,000-some-odd BBQ enthusiasts coalescing around the judges tent.
They watch with envy as we methodically dissect the main categories: chicken, followed by pork shoulder, pork ribs, and brisket. This year, entries have been prepared by 85 different teams hailing from all corners of the globe. Mercifully, the way judging is systemized, we only need to work our way through half a dozen specimens per category.
A score of 1 through 9 is applied to each, with the lowest number from every judging table being dropped to avoid outliers. A perfect 180 score is only received when assessments in taste, tenderness, and appearance are awarded nines across the board by all judges. That’s a hard-earned distinction given the misplaced pride with which certain judges admit to avoiding top-score merits.
Being that it’s my first time here, I’m struggling to ensure that all this protein meets the standards of what the KC BBQ Society proscribes as great—as opposed to what I’d prefer on my plate. But according to someone that’s been in this game for decades, that standard remains a moving target.
“Over the years, the rules have changed—most notably in how the meat is cooked,” Lee Ann Whippen tells me. She became certified as a Kansas City BBQ judge and competitor 26 years ago and was just admitted into (yes, it’s a thing) the BBQ Hall of Fame. “Chicken used to be served more as a whole entity, and now its parted into separate pieces—but it’s critically important to know the KCBS rules and keep up to date,” she adds. “A simple item such as a garnish can disqualify a competitor, which is heartbreaking to see—all the preparation, cost, time, and passion go out the window.”
You also need to be able to read the trend-lines. A typical KCBS judge is hemming towards sweeter tomato-based sauces these days. And they prefer well-dressed chicken thighs over chicken legs. “That’s not to say a chicken leg or spicy sauce won’t win,” Whippen adds. “But the odds are not in your favor.”
In order to increase those odds, she recommends every competitor judging at least one contest a year to observe the latest movement, firsthand. It proved an instructive experience for her on this warm autumn afternoon after the trophy was handed out to The Jack’s 2022 Grand Champion—Chris Schafer of the Heavy Smoke BBQ competition team.
“I just learned that burnt ends, which I always thought had to be turned in alongside brisket entries to win, are not actually required these days,” she says. “Not a single one of my boxes had burnt ends.”
It was so baffling to her that she sought out Schafer after the award ceremony. “His theory is that the KCBS judges all have a different interpretation of what makes a perfect burnt end, and if you don’t appease all the judges you will lose,” she recounted to me. “So therefore, don’t even risk it!”
Some things are sacrosanct, however. Especially at this Lynchburg event considered by Whippen and many of her colleagues to be the pinnacle of competition BBQ. Samples must be judged on their own merit and not comparatively. Chicken thighs should have “bite-through” skin. Brisket should not be so tender that it immediately separates when tugged at. Never lick your fingers. And in a stark rebuke of the well-documented preferences of American carnivores, an exemplary rib should not, in fact, fall off the bone.
It all underscores the point that this isn’t some happy-go-lucky gorge-fest. Far from it. The Jack is serious business and its judges behave—and ingest—accordingly; in decidedly methodical manner. “Strangely enough, I don’t even cook competition BBQ in my backyard, as I prefer sauce on the side and a lovely layer of bark,” Whippen says, referring to the dark, crisped layer of flavor skirting the edge of pork butt and beef brisket. “When you compete and judge, it’s a whole different ball game!”
As for me, the only sport I’m craving after wobbling out of the judge’s tent is one that involves a generous pour of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.