There’s plenty of skill that goes into preparing competition-style barbecue, but most contestants will tell you that it’s really one thing that separates first place from tenth: luck. Luck that conditions are favorable during their cook; luck that every entry gets into its respective entry box flawlessly; and luck that the box finds its way onto the right table of judges.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll remember that I’ve said that competition-style barbecue is in a class of its own. Think of it like a regional style of barbecue–without a physical region. It travels from one competition to the next, and its flavors have no obvious counterparts in the many barbecue styles around the country. You’ll rarely find barbecue in a restaurant that assaults your palate, raises your blood pressure, and puts you on a path to diabetes like competition-style barbecue does.
Over the weekend I attended the 27th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue (a.k.a. The Jack) in Lynchburg, Tennessee, which I judged in 2014. This year I decided to stay outside of the official judging ring and instead arranged for my own head-to-head tasting of the two most recent grand champions. Last year, Darren and Sherry Warth and their Iowa Smokey D’s BBQ team had the trifecta of luck on their side, and they went home with the crown. The previous year it was Tuffy Stone and Cool Smoke who were grand champions of the The Jack.
This being a Kansas City Barbecue Society contest, there were four smoked meat categories to judge: chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. For my side-table judging, the eating commenced once Tuffy Stone and his dad, George, had blessed their box of chicken. Slices of chicken breast and whole chicken thighs were part of the entry (The Jack requires both dark and white meat), so I started with the Stones’s chicken thighs, which were still recognizable having been spared a sculpting sojourn in a cupcake pan, the preferred plating method by plenty of other cooks. First, I’d like to note that if competition barbecue had an official color, it would be gloss–and this was some glossy chicken. Tender, saucy, sweet, and salty are the hallmarks of this style of smoking, and the chicken from the Stones hit all those notes.
Darren Warth chose to cook wings (technically white meat) along with his chicken thighs. His family was hungry and thus had dibs on most of the leftovers, but I got an extra wing before they were gone. It had the same gloss and flavor notes, but it also expressed a unique grilled flavor that Warth accomplishes by finishing them over charcoal. It was a good chicken wing, and I marked it a notch better than Tuffy Stone’s.
Next up: ribs. This was a much closer call. Both versions were on the verge of over-tenderness with a singular texture from edge to edge. A well-developed bark, so highly revered at a good barbecue joint, is frowned upon by the judges. But in the end, I had to give Tuffy’s the nod over Warth’s.
The next round–pulled pork–was harder to judge since all of Tuffy’s “money muscle,” a cylindrical muscle from the pork butt that is well-marbled and juicy, had been served in his official entry box. The remaining pulled pork from both competitors was a little dry and undercooked. This is done on purpose, because the prized money muscle would toughen and/or dry out if cooked any longer, so the rest of the butt is essentially sacrificed and becomes a pretty average version of pulled pork.
In the final category, brisket, the sweetness was toned down, at least on Cool Smoke’s versions. It stood out in stark contrast to the nearly candied chicken. What replaced it was a beefy flavor courtesy of the salty beef broth. The tenderness is praiseworthy, but anyone who enjoys brisket fat or a good crust on their slices will be disappointed. As competition judges have become increasingly averse to those characteristics, they have been bred out of the style in favor of leaner beef with an almost homogenous texture. (Warth joked in a tweet that it “should almost be called competition braising.”)
Of the two briskets, Cool Smoke’s favored the beefy flavors, while Smokey D’s was noticeable sweeter. In fact, when I took a bite of an unfinished Smokey D’s brisket burnt end, it is was uncomfortably salty. Warth assured me that it had to be that way so you could still taste the salt after the sweet sauce was applied. There was a more pronounced bark on the entry from Cool Smoke, but neither offered much smokiness.
After going head-to-head, I saw few significant differences in the entries. I figured they’d both score high enough to be in the running, but Smokey D’s went without a top ten finish for any of their smoked meats. Tuffy Stone, on the other hand, finished the day with a historic victory. He went home with his second grand champion trophy from The Jack in just three years. Only one other barbecue team (Johnny Trigg’s Smokin’ Triggers) has ever won twice at The Jack, which puts Tuffy Stone into some rarified air–and begged the question of just how much luck had to do with it.