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Saturday, February 12, 2011

KCBS vs Memphis Style Contests

At our trailer with on-site judge
Ok, let me preface this by saying we love cooking both types of BBQ Contests.  We got our start in Memphis Contests, and our first love will always be the Memphis Style BBQ Contests.  However, it is a nice change of pace to cook KCBS contests, and we are transitioning to adding quite a few KCBS contests to our schedule- probably to the 50-50 range this year, and maybe more next year.  Let's go over the styles first and then discuss the differences.

Memphis Style contests are pork only BBQ, consisting of three types of products- Whole Shoulders, Whole Hog, and Ribs.  The hallmark of a Memphis-Style contest is on-site judging- where in addition to teams turning in a "blind box" of their product they also have judges visit them at their booth.  This results in significantly more elaborate team booths.  Due to the judging styles, Memphis teams cook a larger amount of food as well- typically 6 to 8 shoulders, 15 slabs of ribs, and 1 hog (at Memphis in May, many teams cook 2 hogs).  This results in larger cookers/trailers being needed as well.  Memphis judging is basically done in 3 stages- first, a blind box is turned in- judges do not know whose product they are judging.  Garnish of the box is not allowed.  Secondly, 3 on-site judges visit the booth (in 20 minute increments, not at once) for each category entered.  Third, the top three teams in each category advance to the "finals."  All scores start at 0, 4 judges visit all 9 entries and decide the best product that day- kind of apples to oranges (Ribs vs Hog is kind of hard to judge), but it works out in the end.  In Memphis, teams may enter 1 to 3 categories, and you see quite a few teams entering ribs only, or ribs and shoulders for example.  You can win Grand Champion of the contest entering only 1 category (sometimes this helps actually, more on that later).

KCBS cooks Pork (shoulders, butts or picnics), pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken.  Judging is blind only, and certain garnishes are allowed IN the blind box.  The Overall placements of teams are determined by combined scoring of all the seperate categories.  Thus, consistent cooking skills are rewarded.

Memphis judging is COMPARATIVE, while KCBS is not.  Memphis judges are instructed to compare the samples they get to determine their best score.  This doesn't matter if they get 3 great samples or 3 awful ones, only one can get their best score of the day.  Technically, KCBS judges should not compare samples and should judge based on its own merits- if they think something is great, then it gets a 9, etc.  The one little bone of contention we have with this is that it is human nature to compare- the teams know this as well (stand outside of turn in one day at a KCBS and watch the teams dancing around trying to avoid falling on the "favorites" table!). 

So, those are the basics.  Memphis style contests are older- Covington TN (Hubbie's home town by the way) is home of the "World's Oldest BBQ Contest (the 39th Annual this year!).  Memphis in May started in 1978.  MIM sanctioned smaller contests for several years, then stopped.  The Memphis BBQ Network picked up the gauntlet in 2007 and has grown the sanctioned contests to approximately 40 this year.  KCBS is celebrating their 25th year this year, and despite their slightly later start has grown significantly faster and will sanction over 350 contests this year. 

KCBS contests are significantly cheaper to enter.  Average entry fees are around $250, and the fraction of meat that must be cooked for a contest (around 50lbs total) certainly helps with cost containment.  MBN entry fees are typically more- up to $400 if you are entering all 3 categories.  The main costs come in the meat however- we cook 8 shoulder, 15 ribs and a whole hog- around $500 total!  The small amount of meat (relatively speaking) in KCBS contests also help with having smaller and/or less smokers.  It is very easy to cook an entire KCBS contest with 1 medium size cooker (and cookers costs run the gamut- from a $40 modified metal drum to a $10,000 cooker).  For Memphis contests, we use 4 different cookers, for KCBS we use two.

The main difference comes down to the judging however, and this is also the bone of contention among a lot of competitors.  While in KCBS 1 or 2 person teams can cook and compete, in MBN you see teams grow quite large (although, many of the top teams only have 2 or 3 people, so it can be done).  KCBS cooks sometimes compare a MBN contest to a "dog and pony show" due to the large amount of effort teams put into judging areas, cleanliness of their cookers, etc.  You will not, for example, find china plates at a KCBS contest, but you probably will find enough to start a bridal registry at Memphis in May.  Yes, this gets to be a pain at times setting up tents, flooring, tables, linen napkins, etc, but it is part of the game.  All of this is an effort to create a professional feel to your judging area.  Does all of this work really influence judges and, if so, is that really what BBQ contests are about?  Our response is a solid maybe (stepping out on a limb here!).  Cleanliness impresses judges (they are, after all, eating at your booth).  We don't really think all the other trappings do too much one way or another.

In Memphis, judges will often come back to your booth and give you feedback on your area, your product and your presentation.  This helps new teams jump ahead of the learning curve a little quicker.  In KCBS, obviously this is impossible, so you don't really know what your scores mean (example you get a 7 in tenderness in KCBS- was it too tender or not tender enough?)

The main thing we love about on-site judging comes not in the preliminaries but in the finals.  There you are truly head to head with other teams.  This is the only type of contest in BBQ where you can say you actually beat someone, not just outscored them.  If you are an adrenalin junkie, making finals is awesome.  The main drawback to Memphis is this very thing however.  Allowing the judges to know which teams they are judging also allows for personal bias (as opposed to taste preference) to enter the equation.

To sum it up- KCBS= Cheaper to enter, easier to cook, MUCH more prevelant contests, significantly less up-front investment in cookers, more relaxed atmosphere.  Memphis = more challenging meat entries (larger amounts and whole hog), larger, more elaborate set ups, more interaction with judges.

Any choice you make to cook is a good one, so you can't go wrong.  We just wished more teams would do both and dispense with the "Ours is better than yours" talk. 

Now get out and cook!

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