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The Road To Becoming A Master Judge

By: Mark Noordsy

Certified Judge KCBS, SCA, EAT

Photos courtesy of Mark Noordsy


As most of you know, one of the requirements to attain the KCBS Certified Master Judge designation is to cook with a competition BBQ team at a KCBS sanctioned contest. This is in addition to judging 30 contests, volunteering at least once and a score 90+ on the Master Judges exam. It’s a commitment to be a Master Judge and it is something you have to earn.


Becoming Master Judge1

A BBQ tradition – the 9:22am shot of Gentleman Jack’s.
Left to right – Mike Nagan, Tim Spellacy, Greg Spellacy, Missy Fisher, Aaron Bourdage and Greg Nagan.

It was my pleasure to cook with Aaron Bourdage and Missy Fisher of the Lucky 19 Sauce Company BBQ team at the Big Island BBQ (BIB) contest in Albert Lea. What a fantastic experience! I gained an appreciation for what the teams do for preparation, the cook, the turn-in and finally the awards.


So, what did I learn about team competing in their chosen sport ….

• Cook team members usually take a day off of work to travel and set-up plus spend at least 20 hours from the beginning of the preparation process and ending with the re-setting/cleaning of their equipment to do it all over again.

• Teams can spend anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to compete at a contest (registration fees, materials and meat). And, that doesn’t include equipment, trailers or travel.

•Teams are serious about their processes. Most have written documents detailing preparation, recipes and timelines.

• Most importantly, I learned that it is about both the competition and the comradery.

I joined up with Aaron and Missy on Friday afternoon in time to attend the 2pm cook’s meeting (they had arrived the night before and already had their meats inspected). Just like the judge’s meeting, you could sense the renewing of friendships, the competitive swagger and a feeling of excitement for the completion to begin. Every part of the process was openly shared and they made sure I experienced everything they do in getting the meats ready to cook. Trust me when I say that the meat preparation process is intensive. It isn’t just opening a package and sprinkling on a rub.

With the meats prepped and the garnish boxes readied, it was time for a “walk-about”. We headed out to socialize with the approximately 50 other teams competing. I was introduced to all the teams we visited and was welcomed into the cooking community. We stopped by a rookie team that was busy trimming their brisket. I watched as the seasoned teams offered trimming tips, encouragement and loaned

Early morning BBQ

Sunrise and the smokers fired at the Big Island BBQ contest
in Albert Lea, MN

equipment. I was impressed with the mentoring I witnessed.

One of the other highlights was seeing the genuine excitement and pride that Hanna Lauer exhibited when she won the 11-13 division of the event’s Kid’s Que. She stopped by our site and showed us her award and the grill she won with her never ending smiles. You couldn’t help but feel her passion for the sport. The Kid’s Que is an important part of building the pipeline of future BBQ competitors. I’m confident we will hear more about Hannah’s continued success.

The Lucky 19 Sauce Company BBQ team cooks with barrel smokers – which is one of the reasons I wanted to cook with them so I could better understand this type of cooker and the “hot and fast” cooking method. The barrels were fired at 4:30am and the brisket and butts were already on when I returned at 7am (thanks for letting me sleep in Missy!). Then it was watching, tweaking, turning, wrapping and resting. Of course, there was the 9:22 shot/toast – “it’s 9:22 and there is nothing to do”.

I observed a choreographed ballet as the meats were readied for turn-in. The level of attention to detail, selection of the best meats and final presentation was so interesting to observe. It dawned on me the sheer amount of effort put forth ensuring that the judges get their very best efforts to evaluate. As each meat was prepared, checklists were double checked, times called out, meats were tasted, sauces prepared and applied, the meat carefully placed in the box and a final double check for appearance before the walk to the turn-in area (which was timed the day before). I think it is important to realize that these boxes are the end result of a long process and are prepared especially for the judges that will evaluate them.

I scored each entry as a way to assist Aaron and Missy, but also to test my judging skills in comparison to the 6 judges who would evaluate each box. I kept my scores to myself so as to not interfere with their flow. With all 4 boxes turned in, it was time to wait and clean the trailer. You could feel the teams relax and socializing increase. We discussed my scoring of each entry and feel they were genuinely interested in my thought process as much as they were in the actual score.

They did well, but not as well as they hoped – 8th overall, 1st in ribs and 5th in brisket and let’s just say some of the judges differed from my scoring in chicken and pork. Yes, I took the results personally. It’s hard not to. I now understand how the cook teams feel when all their work, effort and investment are reduced to a numerical score that doesn’t lead to a call.

BBQ is very competitive and not every entry will win or score highly. And, that is the judge’s job – to objectively and subjectively evaluate each meat presented to us. I did come to appreciate the power of a 7 in taste. Two 7s in taste (one is dropped) was the difference between getting a call and ending up mid-pack. Appearance is 14% of the score, taste is 57% and tenderness is 29% due to the KCBS weighting. I will be more thoughtful in the future when determining my taste scores now that I have experienced the impact. One judge provided a comment card which explained their score, the others did not. A constructive comment card is useful to the teams so they can understand what factors determined the score received – something I think judges should consider doing when appropriate.

It was an amazing weekend of learning. A special thank you to Aaron and Missy and all the teams that made me feel welcome and who collectively make the BBQ Family what it is. I know I will be walking through the cook teams on Friday nights or after judging on Saturday to let them know how much I appreciate what they do.

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