After several years of being asked, I was finally able to get out to the IBCA Invitational to eat some BBQ and do some BBQ judging. Thanks to Obie of Obie-cue, I managed to be placed on final tables for the Back Yard Chicken, Pork Tenderloin, and Pork Ribs category for day one. To cook in the Invitational, you must reach a certain number of judged points in other IBCA BBQ contests during the year. That means the participants are often winners, or ranked high, in smaller contests throughout the IBCA. It also means there's some pretty good eatin'!
I got there fairly early and had a chance to wander around the grounds a bit as the cooks finished up their entries. I heard different numbers throughout the day, but there were somewhere between 40 and 75 cooking teams for the different categories. I enjoyed wandering through the smoke and snapped a few photos of some of the cooler rigs. As in all of these contests, the rigs ranged from elaborate high dollar contraptions to simple little smokers. All competing on an equal playing field of blind judging. Let the best tastes win!
There were a number of interesting differences between the IBCA judging method and the method I learned at the KCBS school a few weeks back. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but here's the basic lowdown of the IBCA method I experienced this day. First, there are multiple rounds of judging: preliminary, intermediate, and final tables. We had preliminary judging for the chicken and pork, then straight to a final judging table of 9. For ribs there was also an intermediate judging table. Each meat is assigned a single number score from 1-10 by each judge. No separate scoring for appearance or texture, just a single number score for each meat. The top entries from each round move on to the next judging table, til the final table. Scores from the final table determine the winners. Unlike KCBS, where each judge must have a separate piece of meat, IBCA judges sample direct from the turn-in box, with clean forks and knives, which are then discarded after tasting. That leads to some weirdness like NO PICKING UP RIBS WITH YOUR HANDS! You actually have to slice off a bit of rib meat with your fork and knife, then taste it. I couldn't help mutter over and over, "This is just wrong!" I'm sorry, but I just couldn't get used to eating ribs with a knife and fork. It's just so CALIFORNIA!! Despite all that, I had a great time and I'm headed back tomorrow for chicken and brisket judging.
Most of the judges for the early rounds came from the crowd. Personally, I think KCBS's method of trying to use mostly trained judges is more fair to the cooks. At least that way you get people used to eating lots of cue, where the random crowd member may have only eaten at chains all their life and not know good from bad. You can never train folks to have the same taste, but you can try to have folks with deeper levels of experience who at least have tried a wider range of products. It all comes down to personal opinion and preference anyway.
In all, I sampled 20 chicken entries, 23 pork entries, and 22 rib entries. That may sound like a lot, but most consisted of a single bite, and I prepared well by not eating anything after 2 pm the previous day. It's all about pacing yourself and taking small samples of everything. Of the chicken I tasted, there was only one standout sample and my wife's would have beaten that one. Pork was similarly weak, with only one entry rating a good attaboy. One should have never passed the preliminaries (several judges had the same problem I did, it wouldn't cut with a plastic knife!). Ribs were definitely the standout category here. I have to say I didn't have a bad rib, but not a single one had deep smoke flavor. Most entries seemed to depend on a thick gooey basting rather than let the flavor of the meat come through. Almost all were plenty tender and moist. On the last box, after judging, we were finally let loose to grab a rib by the handles and bite into it proper. I really enjoyed that rib, even if it was not the best one I had all day!