For me, the trip from Casper, Wyoming to the State BBQ Championship in Worland, Wyoming is not that bad of a drive. It involves heading due west for about 100 miles, then turning north for about 60 more. The funny thing is, it took me four years to get there.
Barbecue in Wyoming is not that common, it’s usually cooked in backyards, and most folks get it confused with grilling. Championship barbecue is very rare. So when Worland hosted their first KCBS contest four years ago, I planned on driving up there and checking it out. As an added bonus that year, they offered a KCBS Judging Class. I had wanted to be a certified judge for years. Well, work got in the way and I didn’t get to make the trip. I don’t think there was a Judges class the next year, and for whatever reason I didn't make the following year either. 2009 was different. I signed up for the Judges class early, then made all the necessary arrangements with work. (actually things just worked out for a change) On the morning I was set to leave town, a foot injury was diagnosed as requiring minor surgery, which was scheduled for the following week. My choices were limping around the house, or limping around Worland and eating some really good barbecue. I picked the latter. On top of the Judges class, I had two online friends that were cooking this year, so I wanted to put a face to the name. About 20 miles outside of Worland, I came upon a motor home pulling an outfit that may have looked strange to some folks, but not to me. It was my buddy "T", pulling "Showtime", a custom built cooker of his own design.
That first evening I was in town was the Judges class, and it went off very well. These things take about 4 hours and are 50% instructional and 50% hands-on. The KCBS representatives did an excellent job explaining and interpreting the rules. The hands-on portion involves the appearance, taste, and evaluating the texture of the four basic meats. Chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket are the standard line-up at all KCBS competitions so we had samples of all these to work with. In addition to experiencing a wide range of quality, we really had to pay attention to technical details, as there were some intentional violations thrown in to make sure the Judges were paying attention.
The reason for using certified judges is simple..... barbecue competitors deserve accurate, and consistent judging. They are serious about what they cook, take pride in their food and spend a lot of time and money when competing. They are constantly critiquing their own barbecue, both in practice and on the day on the event. Personal satisfaction and bragging rights are one thing, but in addition to a trophy or some prizes, the top places receive a check.
All that said, it’s important to point out that not everyone in the judges class would be judging in two days. Some of the folks were competitors. They told me it’s a good idea for them to become a certified judge, so they would know what to expect. On top of us new judges, quite a few other certified judges had signed up to judge this competition. Most had two to five contests under their belt and one had judged ten times. These folks enjoy traveling from event to event just like the competitors.
The day before the contest is the perfect time for wandering around the cooks area. It’s open to the public and most teams have their banners and an awning or tent set up. Some have items for sale or trophies displayed, and every one is super friendly. For me, it was great to renew friendships with T and Bossman.
Until now, I had only visited with them on barbecue forums and through e-mails. We swapped stories, I got a tour of their cooker and of course had time to take a lot of pictures. I guess of the 30 teams on site, I visited with about half of them.
Later that day the KCBS BBQ Tour did some grilling demonstrations, food vendors opened their stands, kegs of beer were tapped, bluegrass bands took the stage and the horseshoe pits were opened for business.
Much later that evening, the teams would be firing their cookers and getting the heavy meats like shoulder and brisket prepped and on their cookers.
A skilled competition cook knows their cooker (or cookers) like the back of his or her hand. They have already taken altitude, a variety of weather conditions, and fuel choice into consideration when putting their game plan together. During the night however, Mother Nature decided to shed some tears, actually a lot of tears. This can cause some problems when it comes to a steel pit with a wood or charcoal fire. I awoke about 2:30AM to serious thunder and a wonderful lightening storm, then drifted back to sleep listening to a light rain. Across town at the fairgrounds, the cooks didn't have it so easy.
Contest day is all business for the competitors and the judges. Judges are not allowed to fraternize with the teams on this day and frankly, the cooks were most likely too busy for that anyways. Food must be presented to the judges building on 30 minute intervals beginning at noon, so timing is a critical. Once the entries are delivered, a confidential numbering system is used to track the special turn in boxes and the Judges scoring slips. KCBS representatives are monitoring the entire process, and have final decisions concerning interpretations of rules. The support people were all local volunteers, and I guess we could have not asked for a better group of folks. As an extra bonus for this competition, two additional categories were added. These were lamb and sauce.
The quality of the food presented to my judging table represented the best of the best from a teams cooker on that particular day. Six individual portions are the minimum turn in amount for each category. If a meat is pulled or chopped, there must be enough to allow for six portions. The majority of the items I judged were well above average in appearance, taste and texture. Two entries that scored high on my card was a boneless thigh that had near perfect bite through skin, and a spare rib that had a wonderful texture and a sauce with a honey back flavor. A couple of shoulder entries were presented in slices instead of the more traditional pulled pork. Only one brisket entry out of the six I saw included meat from the point.
The award ceremony took about an hour. One cook, John from Parrothead Smokers was in the groove, taking two first places and two second places. It was no surprise that when the numbers were tallied, he also took the Grand Champion position. Several other teams were in the money two or maybe three times.