A group of barbecue enthusiasts recently gathered at the Murray State University Paducah Regional Campus to learn from cookers with Barbecue on the River at its first judging school of the year.
Barbecue on the River has held the barbecue judging classes since 2010, and director Susie Coiner said the class offers a look into how festival entries are judged.
Instructors at the first judging school of the year, held Saturday, included Barbecue on the River pit masters, certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judges, Memphis Barbecue Network judges and the Barbecue on the River, Inc. team.
"We will take the participants through a raw product all the way to a finished product," Coiner said. "We will describe our point system, we will give them guidelines as to what constitutes something tender, tough or raw and then we will give them guidelines on how one would actually formulate their score after they taste the product."
Coiner said that with more than 100 volunteer judges, Barbecue on the River currently has enough judges for this year's festival. However, she said folks who attend one of its judging schools do have a good chance at judging in the future. She said those interested in becoming a judge can email Barbecue on the River at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We have used a consistent base of judges throughout our 20 years, and if a position opens up we will pull from our archives of who we have," Coiner said.
She said the judging school is typically attended by Barbecue on the River contestants seeking to familiarize themselves with what judges look for and enthusiasts barbecuing at home who "like to learn the tricks and trades of the pit masters who are helping give the class."
Among the latter group is Nicholas Holland, a lawyer at Whitlow, Roberts, Houston and Straub in Paducah who attended the judging school for the first time Saturday. Holland - who has attended Barbecue on the River every year he's lived in Paducah - said he has a hobbyist's level of interest in smoking and barbecuing, but had never before considered what makes for competition-grade barbecue.
"First we had classroom instruction - about an hour's worth - on how judging is done there: how it differs from other festivals, information on how to consider and judge each cut of (meat)," Holland recalled. "Also techniques individual barbecuers use to make it: woods they use, smokers they use, how the Barbecue on the River judging is done, what the scale is, and what the three categories of judging are, and how that's done in terms of when and where, too."
The highlight though, Holland said, was the barbecue tasting at the end of the class. Coiner explained that the tasting doubles as an chance for the students to enjoy barbecue prepared by Barbecue on the River pit masters and an opportunity to put their new-found judging skills to the test.
"Ribs that didn't come off the bone and a sauce that was overly sweet," Holland recalled. "Everyone kind of knew that it was purposeful, but it was a useful lesson. They made a mistake on purpose in that case."
While Holland said he won't enter any barbecue competitions anytime soon because between work and raising two children - ages 5 and 3 - with his wife, he couldn't devote the necessary time to it, he found the class to be a valuable experience.
"It was really worthwhile," Holland said. "And I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about barbecuing and about how judging is done."
Contact Leanne Fuller, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653.