The world’s most prestigious BBQ contest! Only the best-of-the-best compete here; this ain’t no place for amateurs. Teams have to win a state championship with at least 25 teams or a competition of 50 teams simply to enter the blind drawing of all eligible teams. Just a few teams qualify with automatic invitations, including the Grand Champion from Houston’s World Championship Bar-B-Que (Motley Que Crew).
Arrived in Nashville with a hearty appetite and a hankering for some good food. Morgan Weber of Revival Market had recommended City House, so I headed out for some bourbon and food sampling (might as well do as the natives do in whiskey country). City House has a wood-burning oven (and I discovered just how popular these ovens are in Tennessee) and an in-house charcuterie. I highly recommend the salami!
Headed out to investigate music venues in downtown Nashville, where no trip is complete without a visit to Tootsie’s. Checked out the music there and moseyed on over to Robert’s Western World. Between the two, I heard some great June Carter-esque music and enjoyed a strong set from a Portland band.
With temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, the drive to Lynchburg was quite a change of pace from Houston. Traveled through rolling hills punctuated with glimpses of leaves changing to their fall colors.
The Jack™ is steeped in tradition, not the least of which is that all BBQ judges must be certified through the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS).
Let me tell you, it’s serious business. The four-hour seminar covers everything from general information (e.g., “Take small portions. If you eat one ounce of each sample, you could consume nearly two pounds of meat before you are finished judging.”) to the scoring system (a scale of 2-9 for appearance, tenderness/texture and taste) and the judging process. Mike Lake, PhB, guided the prospective judges through the rules and standards of KSBS judging.
The pre-competition events continued. A parade of teams was led by a high school marching band, moving from Wiseman Park to the town square and on to the visitor center. Locals lined the parade route, relaxing in their lawn chairs and enjoying the pageantry.
After the intensive KCBS seminar, there was a party for judges and contestants.
The well-attended soiree on Barbecue Hill probably included some 600 people, all treated to some Jack Daniel’s samples and music from country music artist Keith Anderson.
One of the trip’s highlights was a house party hosted by 81-year-old Horace Wiser.
Terry Koch, director of the Texas Social Club, invited me to this laid-back, down-home reunion. Judges and KCBS folks reconnected and enjoyed the Wiser’s hospitality. Horace’s wife was a secretary at Jack Daniel’s for 46 years, so she knows—and welcomes—everyone.
This small town of 316 people swelled to more than 25,000 when the teams, judges and fans converged in Lynchburg. More than 70 American and International teams competed for the coveted Grand Champion title.
Finally, it’s the big day. The parade, Jack Dash 7-Mile Run and 5-K Run/Walk (benefiting Moore County High School Project Graduation) are but distant memories as it’s time for the cook-off to start. Okay, we might have snuck in one more morning event; the judges gathered and signed one another’s aprons.
I’ll be proudly displaying my apron with signatures from some of the most recognized names in BBQ (such as Famous Dave and Paul Kirk).
There are multiple categories to be judged: Sauce, U.S. Teams, International Teams, Chicken, Pork Ribs, Pork Shoulder/Butts, Beef Brisket and Dessert. You eat with your hands—no silverware allowed. Also, the rules only permit wood or charcoal; no gas-fired pits here.
My judging team included Alan Brouilette (a writer), Diane Hampton (executive vice president of Memphis in May International Festival), Kelly Sutton (Nashville TV anchor) and Stretch (Kansas City artist, sculptor, restaurateur and TV personality).
In the International competition, we judged some unusual, but tasty, food. Puff pastry with seafood velouté. Smoked beef short ribs with scalloped potatoes. Cubed pork sandwich with curry. Beef stew served in a pumpkin, smoke billowing from its coals.
For the Chicken category, each table had six judges and one captain. All entries had to be in Styrofoam containers and were evaluated on appearance, portion, taste and garnish. (Garnish on BBQ? Yes, indeed.) White meat, dark meat, combo—it was all good.
St. Louis and baby back ribs were featured in the Pork Rib competition. We focused on appearance, taste and tenderness, then moved on to the Pork Shoulders/Butts. Both the Tennessee and Carolina styles were represented with pulled pork, bark and sliced loin.
The Beef Brisket? Umm…not Texas-style. ’Nuf said.
There was a little more latitude in the Desserts category. We sampled a pumpkin pie cheesecake and a Jack Daniel’s Lane Cake, a traditional Southern cake layered with a nut mixture.
When all was said and done, Pig Skin BBQ from Rockwell, Iowa, was named Grand Champion. The team received $5, 000, the chance to return in 2013 to defend its title and the all-important bragging rights as best-of-the-best.
Whew! Time to grab a little rest before heading back home to Houston. Stayed at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel where Food/Beverage Director Matthew Mangold treated me to a sampling of Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18-year Bourbon. The hotel’s President Bar has a barrel of this ultra-rare, ultra-premium bourbon. Smooth, with lots of character and body.
Continuing with the theme, I paid a visit to Whiskey Kitchen and enjoyed the extensive bourbon selection (available in “flights”) and food from the wood-burning oven.
Reflecting on the trip, I received a great education. The next time I compete in a BBQ competition, I’ll be looking at it from the judges’ perspective, not just that of a competitor. Don’t know if it’ll affect the outcome, but seems like a good learning tool for future competitions.
Just like you’d expect from the South, the hospitality was outstanding. I have special memories and some new friendships from the trip. It was an honor to be a part of The Jack™ and experience all of the tradition and pride associated with the competition. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks to my buddy, Michael Berry, who got me connected with the Jack Daniel’s folks.
One of the biggest take-aways? I’m now a KCBS certified judge. Hope it leads to opportunities to judge at some other competitions. I’d enjoy the exposure to other styles and the chance to meet good people with a passion for all things BBQ. You know, I fit right in. Makes me feel right at home.