By Allison Michelli
On shows like “BBQ Pitmasters,” images of sauce-covered ribs and slices of brisket are enough to make anyone’s mouth water. So who are the lucky people that get to taste those tender morsels and burnt ends?
What started as a weekend hobby for Fairfax County employee Alex Brown, eventually turned into a paid hobby. About 25 years ago Brown learned about the opportunity to judge barbecue contests after attending the National Capital Barbecue Battle. Brown is now both a certified judge with the Memphis Barbecue Network and a certified master judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS). His credentials make him eligible to judge at barbecue contests around the country. “My range for the last 20 years has been from Lake Placid, New York down to Georgia and over to Memphis, Tennessee.”
So how does one become a master barbecue judge? To do this Brown says you have to first become a certified judge by taking an online course through the KCBS. Then you have to judge 30 contests, cook with a team and take a test. According to Brown, judges evaluate dishes on three main categories—appearance, taste and tenderness—on a scale of 9-2 where nine is excellent and two is inedible. When sampling a piece of meat, “Falling off the bone is not a good thing to a barbecue judge. If it is falling off the bone, that usually means the meat has been overcooked.”
One of the many perks of being a barbecue judge, Brown says, is “I have met a lot of people that are now barbecue television stars. A long time ago when I was in Memphis, judging competitions I met, Myron Mixon [from “BBQ Pitmasters”]. I have been fortunate enough to call him a friend. Whenever he comes to town I try to see him or I’m judging him [in a competition].”
Some downsides to judging, “You have to watch your weight a little bit, because you could get heavy real quick and sometimes the food is not as good as it could be.” Brown recalls, “last year at a competition, I got some beef brisket, where the burnt ends looked like charcoal. I asked the authority there to come over and he looked at it and said, ‘better you than me.’”
Brown says that in past years he has participated in up to 17 competitions at the peak of barbecue competition season which runs from April to November. Recently he was promoted to an official KCBS Contest Representative. Becoming a rep has been a slight change of pace for Brown. “I am in a transition period. Since I have become a rep I don’t judge as many contests because it takes a certain amount of prep [time] to rep.” According to the official KCBS website, contest representatives work with contest organizers to “ensure the integrity of an event.” They interact with the more technical side of the judging process by addressing scoring problems, rule interpretation disputes and overall questions about the judging process. As a rep, Brown gets paid per contest and gets complimentary travel (a judge only receives discounts on hotels).
After over 20 years of riding the barbecue contest circuit Brown says, “I am 27 contests away from 100. KCBS has another badge that they give you when you have done 100 contests and I am in search of it. I won’t get it this year and I won’t get it next year but maybe by the time I retire I will have it.”