The room was quiet save the smacking of lips and squeak of Styrofoam as judges of the Smokin’ on the River Barbecue Competition went to work.
“Until the last scorecard is done, no one on that table can talk,” said Dan Skaggs, organizer of the barbecue festival.
Judges from all over the country tasted more than 50 teams’ entries on the second floor of Cluckers, nibbling meat and marking score cards in silence.
The competition was just one aspect of the city’s sixth annual Smokin on the River BBQ, Blues and Brew Festival that drew crowds from both sides of the river and competitors from different states.
Skaggs, who started the festival in 2009, said that judges score four different categories — chicken, pork ribs, Boston butt and shoulder, and beef brisket — on a scale of one to nine based on appearance, taste and tenderness.
“Each sample is judged individually on its own,” he said, meaning that more than one perfect score can be given.
Certified judges score the professional barbecue entries while amateur judges score backyard entries. They don’t get paid for their work.
“They get some hopefully darn good barbecue,” Skaggs said.
He said that entries vary far and wide in flavor and technique. North Carolina barbecue has a mustard base sauce while Kansas City sauce has ketchup. Texas uses a lot of pepper.
“Sometimes if you’re judging, you can almost taste where they’re from,” he said.
When it comes to cooking, competitors smoke Boston butts in fruit woods like cherry and apple while brisket gets hard woods, such as hickory or mesquite.
“Everybody has their own little secrets,” Skaggs said.
This year was Tacoma, Wash., native Nancy Cates’ second year judging the amateur category.
She said her and her husband Fred, who also volunteers at the festival, don’t have any experience barbecuing.
“I don’t even let my husband near the grill,” Nancy joked.
She judges entries based on whether she would order each sample again if she ate them at a restaurant.
She tries to keep her personal preferences — Nancy likes something with a little kick — out of the judging process.
“If when this competition was done and you wish you could have eaten all of it, that’s when you know it’s the best,” she said. That’s only happened for her one time.
Certified judge Dave Druetzler from Indianapolis has been in the smoked meats tasting business for 10 years.
What he looks for when he judges?
“Depends what the meat is,” he said. “What we’re looking for is a cook that knows how to really make excellent barbecue in four different meats.”
He’s been judging Smokin’ on the River every year.
Like Nancy, he said he knows when he’s found a perfect entry when he wants to come back for more.
“Golfers will oftentimes say they come back and keeping playing because of that one shot,” Druetzler said.
That happens most often for him with brisket or ribs.
“If it’s brisket, is it right on?” he said. “Does it have a flavor and a juiciness that when it hits my mouth it ignites my senses?”
Druetzler said some people mistakenly believe barbecue is all about the sauce. But he said another way to tell if an entry is good is when the meat is cooked so well that it doesn’t need any sauce at all.