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How the pros judge barbecue at the American Royal

If you don’t smell smoke from meat fires in the West Bottoms today, you’re too far from the biggest barbecue contest on the planet, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

More than 500 teams have staked out their assigned cooking spots and are ready to party and compete. Due to strict enforcement of federal food safety regulations, teams cannot give food to the general public. If you have friends or relatives in the contest, they can invite you into their domain for refreshments. Otherwise there are food vendors galore to satisfy your hunger.

Besides visiting with contest judges and officials, and giving the judges’ oath at the Invitational, Side Dish/Dessert and Open Meat contests, I love visiting with friends that I only see once or twice a year.

They’re from all over the U.S. — Colorado, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Washington, California, Texas, plus Puerto Rico, Canada, and two friends I haven’t seen since yesterday, KC Baron of BBQ Paul Kirk, and KC Rib Doctor Guy Simpson.

Barbecue judging is serious business. Teams invest significant money, time and pride in the contest. They deserve judges who know the drill. You can learn the drill by becoming a Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Certified Barbecue Judge. Enroll in a class, and after several hours of instruction, eating, and judging, you’ll be certified.

Contest judging standards can also be used in barbecue joints. It’s simply A, T and T.


Does it look delicious? Is it presented with care, or carelessly arranged with no eye appeal? Smoke rings can be chemically faked. They are not a factor in contest judging. Contest meat can be sauced. I’d rather see bark and juicy meat instead of sauce-covered meat, but it’s the cook’s call.


Is it dry and tough, or juicy and easy to chew? KCBS says if ribs fall off the bone, they are overcooked. Although I say mushy meat is overcooked, I use the KCBS standard when I judge contests: rib meat should pull off the bone with a gentle tug.


Taste is subjective — what you like or dislike is personal.

There are some objective standards, however:

If you can’t go to the Royal, treat yourself at a Chow Town barbecue joint. Here are a few of hundreds of options: ribs at the new Plowboys in Blue Springs; Z-Man at Oklahoma Joe’s; beef and fries at Arthur Bryant’s or chow down on the new Johnny’s Bar-B-Q signature sandwich, The Remus, which is named after my BBQ persona, Remus Powers PhB.

As they say at Plowboys, “Keep Calm and Eat Barbecue.”

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”

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