Memphis Barbecue Network

Barbecue at its BEST!

A Visitor's Guide to an MBN BBQ Contest

What is MBN? The Memphis Barbeque Network is one of the leading sanctioning bodies of BBQ contests in the world. It is dedicated to promoting and preserving the unique Memphis style of BBQ though education, support, and management. MBN officials assist event organizers in promoting, organizing, and conducting the sanctioned events in accordance with MBN standards.

Who are the teams? MBN competition teams are made up of some of the best BBQ cooks in the world. You may even recognize some of them from television appearances over the years. They travel locally, regionally, and even nationally to compete in sanctioned contests. A few make their living from the competitions and related activities, others are perfecting their skills and techniques for their restaurant or catering business, but competition BBQ is simply a great hobby for the vast majority of teams.

What are they cooking? In a word: Pork! Every MBN competition consists of three official categories: whole hog, shoulder, and ribs. Each team is free to compete in as many or as few of these categories as they wish. Some contests also have additional, non-sanctioned categories on Friday evening, like sauce, chicken, desert, Bloody Mary, or the popular "Anything But," which is open to anything other than pork.

Whole Hog is an entire hog, whose dressed weight is 85 pounds or more prior to the optional removal of the head, feet, and skin. It must be cooked, sometimes for as long as 24 hours, as one complete unit on one grill surface. The trick to a good whole hog is ensuring that all the various cuts of meat found in a whole hog reach perfection at the same time. As a result, judges are required to sample portions of the ham, shoulder, and loin in making their decision.

Pork Shoulder is the portion of the hog containing the arm bone, shank bone, and a portion of the blade bone. Mere Boston butts are not considered valid entries. This is the piece most people are familiar with as "pulled pork." This large piece of meat has to be properly cooked and seasoned so that it is consistent throughout.

Pork Rib is the portion of the hog containing the ribs, and is further classified as a spare rib, loin rib, or babyback rib. Country style ribs are not a valid entry. Ribs are the most vulnerable to changes in weather, time, and temperature and have the smallest margin for error.

How are the entries judged? Seven different judges initially evaluate every entry: 4 blind and 3 on-site. No entry has the exact same combination of judges. Each judge assigns a score in each of the applicable criteria for each entry. The best score for each criterion is a 10.

What is the difference between blind and on-site judging? In blind judging, each table of four judges evaluate up to six entries. As the name suggests, all blind entries are presented to the judges in identical containers with no identifying information. In on-site, each team is visited by three different judges, one at a time. During each visit, the team has 10 to 15 minutes to provide the judge with a sample of their entry and make a presentation explaining how it was prepared. In rare cases, teams have even been known to tell the truth during their presentation.

What are they judged on? In on-site judging, the teams are evaluated on their personal and site appearance, their presentation to the judges, the appearance of the entry, the tenderness and texture of their entry, and finally, the flavor of their entry. In blind judging, only the appearance, tenderness, and flavor of each entry are evaluated. Each judge also assigns a score for Overall Impression to each entry, which takes into account the judge's entire experience with that entry.

How are the winners decided? The scores from each blind and on-site judge are entered into a computer, which uses a proprietary formula to weight the scores in the various criteria and produce a total score for each entry. The top three scores in each of the three meat categories then advance to the Finals.

How are the Finals conducted? The preliminary scores are thrown out and four new judges travel as a group to each of the nine finalists, evaluating them on the same on-site criteria. The highest scoring entry, regardless of the category, is declared the Grand Champion and qualifies for entry in the next MBN National Championship. Teams also receive points based on their overall contest participation and performance, which are used to determine team standings.

How much meat is being cooked? A team only cooks one whole hog, but it can sometimes weigh over 200 pounds. On the other hand, teams will usually cook at least 5 shoulders, typically weighing 20 to 30 pounds each. This is so they can use at least one to prepare their blind box, use one for each of the 3 on-site judges, and keep at least one in reserve in the event they make finals. It is not unusual for teams to cook a dozen or more racks of ribs so they can pick only the best ones for their blind box, on-site presentations, and possible finals.

Can we talk to the teams? Most teams are more than happy to talk to visitors and explain what they are doing, but please keep in mind that the teams are involved in a very serious and expensive competition on Saturday morning, and well into the afternoon if they advance to the finals. The teams are most likely to be available to talk on Friday evenings and on Saturday afternoon AFTER the judging, but even then, please use good judgment and simply come back later if you see a team is busy. Another good rule of thumb is to stay outside a team's roped off area unless invited in.

Can we sample the food? Health rules and regulations forbid teams from selling their cooked products at contests. Depending on the local regulations, however, they may be able to give away some small samples if they have any available, but the leftovers are often spoken for. Some contests have a "People's Choice," where visitors can purchase small, pre-selected samples and vote for their favorites. If the aroma gets to be just too much, many contests have BBQ and other food available from local vendors.

How can I participate? Most events have a "backyard division" that allows anyone with a grill to compete against one another for prizes and awards in ribs and boston butt. The winner of the backyard division is often invited to compete against the professionals at next year's event. There are also judging classes scheduled at various locations throughout the year to begin the process of becoming a certified BBQ judge. For a list of sanctioned contests and more info about these and other MBN topics, please visit WWW.MBNBBQ.COM.

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