Thursday, October 31, 2013

Judging at the Jack Daniel's

Judges Credentials
Each October as the leaves begin to change color in Jack Daniel's Hollow, championship BBQ teams from the US and abroad gather to compete in what is touted as the most prestigious barbecue competition in the world, The Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

The Jack is an invite only competition. The winner of the American Royal Open, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo BBQ and the Memphis in May World Championship receive an automatic invitation to the Jack, as does any team that wins 7 Grand Championships during the 12-month qualifying period. The remaining teams are determined by a state-by-state "Draw" from all the teams that won a State Championship contest during the qualifying period. After all the state draws have been completed the remaining teams get one last chance in a "Wild Card Draw" where one final and very lucky team is selected! In addition to the US teams, 18 international Championship teams representing 10 countries were also invited to this year's Jack.

Judges Invitation
As with the barbecue competition, judging for the Jack is by invitation only. Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) master judges, the most experienced KCBS table captains, local celebrities, national celebrities, legends of competition BBQ and barbecue connoisseurs are among those that receive and invitation to judge each year. So suffice it to say, I was stunned and honored (mostly stunned) when I received my invitation to join the judges panel at this years landmark 25th annual event!

The festivities kicked off on Friday, October 25th, with a judges certification class conducted by the KCBS, a requirement for those who are not certified judges. The folks at the Jack recognize the effort and work these top teams put into competing and bring in only the very best KCBS instructors to ensure all teams get fair and accurate judging and that proper judging procedures are followed.

This year's instructor was Mike Lake. Mike is the pitmaster for Rock River BBQ, a KCBS Master Judge and certified instructor. Mike and his wife Theresa are also the KCBS Reps for the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour Event. Mike is a top notch instructor and did a fantastic job making sure the new judges were very clear on the process and how to properly score an entry. Mike consistently and frequently emphasized putting your personal expectations aside, judging only what you are presented, judging each item for it's own merit and scoring each entry before moving on to the next!

Parade of Teams
Next up after the judges certification class was the parade of teams. The parade is a Jack Daniel's tradition where teams wear their shirts and/or uniforms and carry their banner, state or national flag. The procession is led by the Moore County High School band followed by the international teams and then the US teams. The parade started at the entrance to Wiseman Park, the site of the competition, and proceeded through the Lynchburg town square and then on to the Jack Daniel's Distillery Visitor's Center about 1/4 mile away. It's truly a sight to see, especially the international teams who were decked out in the traditional garb of their homeland. Lederhosen, dirndl, bunad and ceremonial costumes were abound! We followed the procession cheering on the Missouri Shark Fisherman's Club, the only SLBS team that qualified for the Jack.

Barbecue Hill
From the visitor's center, the teams and judges boarded buses for a reception and dinner on Barbecue Hill. Barbecue Hill is an open-air pavilion that offers a spectacular view of the Jack Daniel's Hollow and city of Lynchburg. Dinner was served buffet style with one section for a traditional fried catfish dinner with hush puppies, baked beans, potato salad, etc. and a second section showcasing meats such as lamb and venison cooked on Jack Daniel's Special Edition Primo Oval smokers. There were also two bars that served shots of Old No. 7 and mixed drinks, one of which quickly became our favorite, Lynchburg Lemonade. Here is the recipe:
  • 1 part Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7
  • 1 part triple sec
  • 1 part sour mix
  • 4 parts lemon-lime soda
Combine and stir. Garnish with a lemon slice and cherry. It's a truly unique drink!

After the reception on Barbecue Hill, most of the teams headed back to the competition site to start or continue preparations for Saturday's contest. Friday is really the only day judges are permitted to fraternize with teams. Judges who fraternize with teams on Saturday prior to turn in's are immediately disqualified from participating on the judges panel. So Friday night, we visited a few of our friends who were competing to say hello and wish them luck. "Break a Rib", we say! Then, it was off to our hotel to get some rest for the big day ahead.

Celebrity Judges
On Saturday October 26, the morning of the contest, it was straight from the parking lot to the judges pavilion. The pavilion set up was quite unique. The large open air pavilion was located in the center of the competition site and was fenced in on four sides. What was interesting is that spectators lined up around the perimeter to view the judging. In fact, there were bleachers five rows high that ran the entire length of the main side of the pavilion, more on this in a little bit. After finding the judges entrance, I proceeded to the check-in table where they validated my credentials and assigned a table. We were also given a black apron and a silver sharpie marker, tools of the trade for yet another Jack tradition. Judges use the time between the check-in and the kick-off of the judging to collect autographs from fellow judges on their apron's. Some of the most sought after autographs included country music singer Keith Anderson, Famous Dave Anderson of Famous Dave's restaurants, Ken Hess, pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson's and Ardie Davis a.k.a. Remus Powers PhB (doctorate in barbecue philosophy) the author of nine barbecue books and KCBS Hall of Fame member.

Judges Apron
The judging kicked off with the judges oath led by Ardie Davis "I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever." And then, it was down to business.

Judges Pavilion
There were 7 categories to be judged: Jack Daniel's Sauce, Cooks Choice, Chicken, Ribs, Pork, Brisket and last but not least Dessert. With each table having to judge 6 to 7 entries in each category, we were cautioned not too eat everything put in front of us. If you think about, in a couple of bites, a person could easily eat an ounce of food. That's over 3 lbs of food before it's all said and done and that's not counting the crackers and water consumed to cleanse your palate. I really wish I was able to share pictures of the entries, however, cameras are not allowed in the judging area as with any contest. The best I can do is provide a picture of the judging in process taken from the spectators seats outside of the judge's pavilion, something unique to Jack. As far as judging goes, the process at the Jack was pretty much the same as at any contest. There were, however, a couple of nuances in terms of what was being judged and what happened after judging that are unique to the Jack and definitely worth mentioning in order to put the whole judging experience into perspective.

First of all, sauce is a category that is not typically judged at a BBQ Contest. For the sauce entries, the teams were required to use Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 in the sauce. Each contestant turned in one pint of sauce in a styrofoam cup. The judges were instructed to score each entry on appearance, taste and texture (as opposed to tenderness). For texture, you had to decide was it appealing or not, was it too thick, too thin, too chunky, to runny? Texture to me, was very subjective, and not something you typically consider as a judge. The judges were also provided some unseasoned pulled pork so that they could taste the sauce by itself and also with meat in order to get an overall perspective on taste profile. To me, all of the sauces were eerily similar. If I had to guess, I would say that most of the teams started with Blue's Hog original and Jack and tweaked it from there.

Spectator's View
The next area where the Jack was different from most contests was the chicken category. Competitors were required to turn in both dark meat and white meat and a minimum of 7 identifiable portions. There were no guidelines on how many portions of each type of meat the contestants were required to turn-in. This resulted in some controversy right away as we started scoring boxes for appearance. For example, one contestant turned in a single unsliced breast and 6 thighs. Another contestant turned in 3 wings and 6 thighs. So the dilemma was what should each judge take from the box to sample? It was at this point that the table captains stepped in with guidance. As your turn came around and a box had both a white meat and dark meat available, you could take one of each. If not, you had to take one portion of whatever was left. In order to be fair, each person was then instructed to judge ONLY what was in front of them. If you wanted dark meat, but only got white, you were NOT to penalize the cook and you were instructed to judge only what you received on it's individual merit. I can't say for sure how the judges who only received a single type of meat scored their entries, especially those who were less experienced. But if I had to guess, not turning in 6 pieces of each most likely did not help a competitors chicken score.

Sunset at the Jack Daniel's Hollow
The last unique point to note is what happened after the judging of a category was complete and all the scores had been collected. Earlier I mentioned that there were bleacher seats along the main section of the judging area. You ready for this! After the judging was complete, the table captains and judges handed out the remaining contents of the turn-in boxes to the spectators in the bleachers. Now this is definitely unique to the Jack. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to watch judging since it's pretty boring. Now, it all made sense. I came to find out that people came very early in the morning to claim those bleacher seats so that they could sample competition style BBQ from some of the best cooks in the world. Only at the Jack! Wow!

Looking back at it all and taking it in, judging the Jack was an incredible experience. From the scenery of the Jack Daniels Hollow, to the hospitality of the contest organizers and staff to the rich traditions that are uniquely those of the Jack. If you ever get the opportunity to go as a competitor, judge or spectator, seize it! It's an unforgettable experience!

by Bill Grenko