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Judgecation by Pete McElveen

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May 11, 2017

On April 30, my wife Laurie and I judged our first KCBS contest outside the US when we traveled to the Barbecue Bulls Championship in Austria. (Austria is the one with no kangaroos.) This trip was one of the most interesting experiences of our lives and we thought it would be helpful to other judges to hear how it went for us.

When the 2016 season wound down, as usual, we started looking ahead to the next year. You can’t help but notice the big increase in overseas events sanctioned by the KCBS. The events taking place in so many interesting places got us talking about a “judging vacation” (judgecation?). We checked our calendars and our frequent flyer miles and settled on the April event in Salzburg, a part of the world we’ve wanted to visit for a long time. The trip was starting to get real!

But we had doubts. They speak German over there, how’s that going to work? Do they use the same meats and play by the same rules? Do they even want a couple of master judges from North Carolina taking spots away from locals? It was time to get some advice, and we got all our questions answered by venerable contest reps Wayne and Maria Lohman who were a huge help at every step and made us confident that our crazy idea to judge a contest in Europe was actually a great idea.

Next step was getting confirmed as judges by the contest organizer. The driving force in Salzburg is an energetic man named Helmut Karl. He’s competed in the U.S., has a BBQ club in Austria, and he organizes and supports this event. From everything we heard, this contest would not exist without Herr Karl and his devotion to good BBQ. He quickly confirmed our place as judges and we started making travel plans.

We mapped out our much-needed vacation with stops in France, Germany and Austria, traveling by train from town to town. But the centerpiece of our journey was the Salzburg Barbecue Bulls Championship, and what a great experience it was!

Language was not a barrier, as the entire contest is officially conducted in English. For clarity, one of the locals serving as table captain provided a German translation of the reps’ instructions, but every judge we met spoke English. In fact, English seems to be the lingua franca of Western Europe and is widely spoken in European cities.

We were welcomed warmly by our fellow judges. There had been a judging class the previous week and there were many first-time judges who were anxious to hear about BBQ in the U.S. There was a fascinating mix of people from all over Austria, from northern Italy (just across the Alps), Switzerland, and the Netherlands. They all spoke English far better than we spoke their language, and communication was free-flowing and lively.

American CBJ’s will be glad to know that contests in Europe follow the usual KCBS rules and procedures. About the only difference we noticed was a slight variation in the oath, where the “American way of life” phrase is appropriately replaced by something equally positive. We felt right at home with the familiar routine of chicken, ribs, pork and brisket, and the standard scoring system.

Although this event had a lot in common with contests in the US, there were also many stark differences. For one thing, the contest was held on a Sunday. There are practical advantages to this for the cook teams but it was a first for us. Also, the overall experience level of the judges is much lower given the shorter history of the KCBS in Europe. Apart from Laurie and myself, there was only one other master judge in attendance (Stephan Mehrer, the first MCBJ in Europe), and another judge from The Netherlands was doing her 30th contest. She was invited to read the oath and received special recognition from the reps and a trophy from the organizer.

There is still a need for more judges in Europe. Each table captain at this contest did double-duty, and table captain Eva Schnoell at my table did an amazing job handling both jobs gracefully, in two languages no less.

So, how as the BBQ? What landed on my table was very good indeed. Yes, it was a little different, and that was just fine with us. Unquestionably, the best entries I tasted were in the pork category. There wasn’t a single substandard entry and only subtle differences separated 8’s from 9’s. There were some fascinating flavor profiles and some very creative work done by those cook teams. Kudos to the pitmasters whose samples I tasted, whoever you are, for your skill in preparing those entries.

For all categories, there were some general differences in the European entries compared to what we usually get in the US – a bit more salt and pepper used, and a lot less sugar, especially on rib entries. Also, there was a substantial difference in tenderness of the brisket entries. One of the locals told me the teams don’t generally have access to the same quality of beef found in the US, which surprised me. Another said his BBQ club in Austria had to import their beef from Australia (the place with actual kangaroos).

As with events in the US, judges at European contests will pay their own expenses, and it was no different with us as visiting road warriors, but the experience was unique, rewarding, and unforgettable. We would highly recommend to any judge planning travel abroad to check the KCBS schedule and consider combining a contest with your trip. You will make new friends and can share your expertise with fellow judges who are anxious to learn. You’ll also be helping to foster the growth of KCBS barbecue around the world.

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