Saturday, June 13, 2015

Judging on the National Tour

What barbecue contest awards the most prize money? Many cooking teams, judges, and barbecue society members are interested in the Sam’s Club BBQ National Tour because it has the largest prize purse of a barbecue competition anywhere. A total of $500,000 is awarded to the lucky competitors.

The Sam's Club National BBQ Tour attracts 750 cooking teams
and gives away $500,000 in prize money.

The Sam’s Club Tour attracts about 750 teams nationally who compete in 25 local events. The top six teams of local cookoffs continue to five regional competitions. The best of the regionals advance to the national finals in October when 50 teams, 10 from each region, compete at Sam’s Club Headquarters in Arkansas to determine the national champion.

Cooking teams set up a day in advance in the parking lot of Sam's Club in North Charleston, SC.

Registering to be a judge isn’t easy. The opportunities to judge quickly disappear in less than 24 hours when the web-based registration system is activated, and in the first 24 hours, judges may register for only one event (local or regional). When I connected to the system on the first day of registration, I signed up for the local event in North Charleston, SC, which is near my home. On the next day, when I tried to sign up for another event, a few locations still had judging spaces available, but they were too far away to consider.

The cooking teams set up side-by-side in several parallel rows..

The local events are limited to 30 cooking teams. After 40 judges have registered, a waitlist for 10 more judges is available before the registration is closed. I felt fortunate to be registered for at least one event, although I had been hoping to sign up for more than one.

The cooking teams quietly prepare the barbecue for the competition.

Like other local events, the North Charleston cookoff had $10,000 in prize money, including $2,000 awarded to Big Dick's BBQ as the grand champion. The other five overall high-scoring teams, who advance to the regionals, also won prize money. In addition, the top five teams of each category – chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket – won cash prizes as well. At each regional contest, the prize money awarded doubles to $20,000. Finally, the national championship has a total prize purse of $150,000, and the grand champion receives $50,000. The high amounts of cash prizes definitely motivates teams to register, succeed, and advance.

A member of a cooking team tends to his fire.

Smoke plumes were rising skyward in still air when I arrived at the event site in North Charleston about 10 minutes before the mandatory judges’ meeting. Michael McDearman, series director of the Sam’s Club National Tour, welcomed the judges and emphasized how significant the tour events are in determining a national champion. He also said that $2.5 million have been awarded in total prize money since the tour began in 2011. He indicated that he is “on the road” about nine months of the year to coordinate the tour events as they are held. From February through September, McDearman is changing locations to be at each local and regional event.

Employees of Sam's Club offer samples of beef brisket to spectators.

Although McDearman is the series director, each event is run by a representative of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. For the North Charleston event, Randy and Carol Bigler, whom I had met last year at a contest in Asheboro, NC, were the KCBS representatives. After the contest, he told me that they try to manage about 20 contests each year for KCBS.

Members of Yes, Dear BBQ (which placed third overall and advances to the regional event)
relax after all meat entries have been turned in for judging.

For me, judging at the North Charleston event was rewarding. I sampled some of the best barbecue chicken and pork that I have ever tasted. I also got to observe an event where cooking teams are focused only on submitting their best entries and are not distracted by selling food to the public. However, the day in June brought temperatures that reached 99 degrees. To combat the heat I drank the most water ever at a barbecue contest: four bottles. Water, routinely available to judges to refresh their mouths after they have evaluated an entry before they taste the next one, was very important on this day just to keep cool.

Judging at a Sam’s Club BBQ National Tour event gives me more appreciation for the effort by cooking teams as they prepare for a contest. If I participate as a judge again, I hope that it will be a regional event, so that I can judge the cooking skills of the top local teams who are competing for the chance to advance to the national championship.

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