We caught up with a familiar face on the barbecue judging circuit, Andy Williams, who was certified a Master Judge by the Kansas City BBQ Society in 2018. He told us how he fell into judging professional barbecue, and what he sees for the future of competitions
How did you get into judging barbecue?
A bit of a strange route I must admit. Going storm chasing had been on my to-do list for a while. So in 2008 I signed up with a company called Tempest Tours to go storm chasing for a week – they arrange tornado chasing tours in the mid-West. We were due to meet in Denver, Colorado, so I had a look to see what else was on in the area. I discovered there was to be a KCBS contest in Frisco up in the Rocky mountains and they were looking for judges. A short email exchange had me booked on a KCBS judging course and then judging the contest. It was a great experience with 70 teams and 10,000 visitors invited to a big party held on the high street. I was hooked. And, yes, I managed to see a few tornados that trip too.
Can you tell us about the life of a barbecue judge and what it involves?
To begin with, there were only one or two contests in Europe, so options were somewhat limited but the Dutch and Belgians really got into it and more and more contests began to spring up. Now there are loads of options to spend the weekends in some great cities. There’s a great community of teams, judges and organisers who all meet up regularly and we have become good friends. Some contests are part of a bigger event with live music and beer tents, some just in a field with a few teams. Judges often turn up a day or two before, particularly if there is a way to travel. Other judges just come for the day. Judging is on a Sunday and you normally have to sign it at nine. There is then a judges’ meeting where we all swear the judges’ oath and listen to a recording reminding us of our duties.
Judging starts at midday with chicken, followed by ribs, pulled pork and brisket at 30-minute intervals. Sometimes there are additional rounds but it’s these four that are the core rounds. You have to taste around six samples of each – it’s a lot of meat so normally it’s just one bite. The teams know this so pack as much flavour in as they can to that one bite and competition meat is very rich as a result; not like home cooked bbq at all. Many judges will wait until the results are around to see who has one. It’s judged blind though, so you never know if you tasted the winning entry.
What’s the most enjoyable competition you’ve ever judged and why?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I was fortunate to attend the first KCBS event in Europe – organised by a Dutch guy called Harry Havinga. He and his wife were a big driving force in the early days. An American called Tony Stone helped them organise the contest but sadly died before it took place. It’s now held in his honour and has grown over the last seven years to one of the biggest contests in Europe.
But in 2014 I was invited to judge at the World BBQ Invitational Championships at the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. It was an incredible experience and I met so many fabulous people there who have become great friends.
Who do you most admire in the world of barbecue?
Oh. So many candidates. Those that helped get KCBS started in Europe – the reps, organisers and teams from the early days. The International Outreach Team that travelled out from the US and encouraged contests is Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Hungary. Or perhaps Ed and Emma from Bunch of Swines whose progress I have followed from the early days culminating in their win at the American Royal this year. But I think my vote goes to Byron Chism. I first met him when he came over to compete in Grillstock in the early days. He encouraged and helped the teams and tries to attend every contest that takes place in a new country in Europe. He hosts all of the international teams on his farm for the Jack Daniels World Championships and tutors them in the fine art of competition barbecue. Many of the teams and judges from Europe have stayed on his farm and benefited from his incredible hospitality. He is a true ambassador!
Chicken, brisket, pork or ribs?
Ribs. Just a thin splash of sauce.
What do you see happening in the future of competition barbecue?
Hopefully, it will continue to grow and benefit from a close-knit community. Quite a few American judges come to Europe to judge. They like that we are all one big family and I think they have lost that in the US. Many judges don’t stay for the results and there can be a bit of friction between the teams and judges. For me, there are so many great contests to try. You can always find a new adventure to go on.
Do you see any problems with the world of competition barbecue?
It’s an expensive hobby, especially for the teams as they practice a lot and compete a lot. These days there can be two or three contests on some weekends. Teams that are chasing points in the European Cup can find themselves travelling most weekends and if you are competing with Wagyu brisket, the costs of meat alone can spiral very quickly. Given we are in Europe the weather can take its toll too! Floods and storm force winds can tear down gazebos and cold weather can make the nights long. A brisket can take 18 hours to cook; someone has to tend the fires overnight. It doesn’t bother everyone though. The first contest is WEST. It’s in the Alps in February but BBQing in -20C doesn’t sound like fun to me!
What would be your advice to aspiring barbecue cooks and judges?
For the cooks – practice practice practice. And get involved in competitions. The established teams will all help and give you advice. It’s a great community. For judges. Get on a certified barbecue judging course – there are a few in the U.K. these days – and get your self to one of the increasing numbers of contests here in England and also Europe. There are loads just an hour or two from the ferry and it’s a great way to travel and meet new people.
Interview by Helen Graves
Follow Andy on Twitter @TheBBQBedouin