For the vast majority of the 215,476 people who attended the Rodeo this weekend, the experience is a party that never ends: free flowing drinks, live music, dancing, and great food. Some of the “tents” are bigger than most of Houston’s restaurants — and only exist for three days a year.
Saturday morning is different. Quieter. More serious.
For 252 teams, the partying takes a break to focus on the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest. Months of recipe testing and development culminates in several hours of slow smoking as teams prepare chicken, pork ribs, and beef brisket for a panel of judges.
For the first time, contest organizers invited CultureMap to participate in the judging process by sampling ribs. For each type of meat, 85 judges evaluate the submissions. All judging is done blind. The meat appears in a styrofoam box without any identification other than a number.
In keeping with the seriousness of the effort the teams put in, judging is a solemn, mostly silent process. Seated five to a table, we receive strict instructions not to influence the other judges by discussing what we’ve eaten or even making faces. The criteria are sight (rated 1 to 5), smell (rated 1 to 10), tenderness (rated 1 to 15), and taste (rated 1 to 20).
Over the course of an hour or so, each table of judges eats about 15 submissions. Each entry is scored on their own merits, which can be tricky. What if that first or second rib turns out to be the best of the day?
Looks may be deceiving, but on this day they offer a pretty consistent indication as to quality. Ribs that have been trimmed to the same size and covered in a glaze score higher in taste than those that are cut unevenly (at least on my sheets — judges are prohibited from discussing their scores with each other).
Somewhat surprisingly, tenderness seems to be the trickiest category for most ribs. A majority of the submissions I sample are too chewy. Flavor profiles run sweet, with little of the Central Texas-style peppery bark that’s become the norm at barbecue restaurants. I award a couple of 18s for flavor, but I’m fairly certain I didn’t taste any of the winners.
For 2018, the rodeo made a significant change to the contest’s structure. Instead of two rounds of judging, preliminary and final, each type of meat is only judged once. Also, a team can only submit one entry per category; previously, a team could submit up to four entries in one category and not submit in the other two. Highest combined score produces a grand champion.
Randy Pauly, chief cook for Holy Cow Cookers, tells CultureMap he prefers the new format, because it seems likely to produce a winner who’s more well-rounded. A team can no longer submit four different styles of brisket and hope to capture a winner’s belt buckle.
While that certainly may be true, the new judging format produced a familiar result. Fort Wort pitmaster Jamie Geer, the 2014 champion, led the Houston-based Buns-N-Roses Cook Team to the Grand Champion Overall title. Geer, the designer of the Jambo pits that are a staple of serious barbecue competitors, tells ABC13 that salt, pepper, and garlic are the keys to his success.
Why didn’t anybody else think of that?
Here's the full list of winners (via rodeohouston.com):
Grand Champion Overall — Buns-N-Roses Cook Team
Reserve Grand Champion Overall — Jasper County Go Texan
- Champion — Buckshot BBQ
- Second Place — Manning Valley Natural Smokers
- Third Place — Steve’s Cooking Team
- Champion — Buns-N-Roses Cook Team
- Second Place — British Bulldog BBQ
- Third Place — Operation BBQ Relief
- Champion — The Tumble Inn
- Second Place — Madison County Go Texan
- Third Place — San Patricio County Go Texan
- Grand Champion — Jasper County
- Reserve Champion — Bee County
Dutch Oven Dessert
- Champion — Lingon & Dill BBQ Team
- Second Place — Comcast Business
- Third Place — Smokin’ Stokers
- Most Colorful Team — Floyd Morrow & Larkin
- Runner Up Most Colorful Team — Over the Hill Gang
- Go Texan Most Colorful Team — Grid Iron Cookers
- Runner Up Go Texan Most Colorful Team — Nueces County
- Most Unique Pit — Pit Boss
- Runner Up Most Unique Pit — Clifton Chevy Cookers
- Best Team Skit — Brazos County
- Runner Up Best Team Skit — Bad Girls Gone Wild
- Cleanest Team Area — Houston First
- Runner Up Cleanest Team Area — Floyd Morrow & Larkin
See more of the contest by watching this video from our content partners at ABC13: