Long Beach isn’t typically synonymous with superior barbecue, but this past Saturday the seaside city could have rivaled Memphis, Lexington, or Llano for how seriously it approached the subject of smoked meats. The Kansas City Barbecue Society was back in town to hold its second West Coast Barbecue Classic in the shadow of The Queen Mary. While the event does involve a fun food festival full of live music, games, beer and booze, along with small samples of barbecue available for purchase to the public, the primary thrust of the event is a cold, sober barbecue competition overseen by the KCBS’ certified judges. Though smokers and cartoon pig signs ringed the park, including those of L.A. locals like Bigmista and The Spot, many of the assembled pit masters weren’t even serving the public on Saturday, focusing their efforts completely on the $9,000 prize. Still not completely satiated after our slog through 25-plus pork dishes at Cochon, we jumped into a judge’s chair to get a first-person perspective on how KCBS runs the show.
No mere dilettantes, these sworn upholders of quality ‘cue approach ribs, chicken, and brisket with a Teutonic sense of duty, the result of a five-hour certification course in barbecue tasting and judging, along with repeated tours of volunteer duty at the Society’s events.
A casual 10:00 A.M. check-in was chased by a breakdown of the responsibilities held by the 60 or so assembled judges, including an oath to uphold the standards of superior barbecue, a recorded reminder of what to look for in excellent chicken, brisket, pork, and ribs, and several questions intended to weed out anyone who may potentially be able to trace which smoked meats come from specific vendors.
Judges came from a wide walk of life, including Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq war veterans, a road-tripping father and daughter team, and plenty of guys who appear to have their year’s ration of pork fat already stored away in their bellies. Among the many rules, judges are forbidden from drinking alcohol before tasting and from fraternizing with cooks before the competition, and also must follow a very exact set of steps when tasting and scoring, down to the exact manner in which water bottles may lay on the tables.
"Once you judge one of these, you’ll never be able to eat barbecue normally again," the man sitting by our side says. He and the other old-timers revel in breaking down bad barbecue stereotypes, sharing the wisdom they’ve accrued over many competitions.
"Falling off the bone" is the filthiest term here, revealing ribs to be tragically overcooked. Judges are looking for pork ribs that reflect back a perfect bite mark, with the meat tearing neatly from the bone where it’s bitten, and the rest staying intact. Brisket, given the extreme difficulty of properly cooking the half-fat, half-muscle cut, is given the highest esteem, saved for the last round of judging and making its way into judges’ to-go bags more often than the chicken.
Samples are numbered, then renumbered, to ensure a completely blind judging experience. Tables are also broken up to ensure judges who may be too familiar with one another can’t conspire. Each table of six contains a master judge, a rookie, and an a non-tasting official who leads the the proceedings.
Just as our neglected stomachs started crying for attention, the first round of meat was carried out. Five smoked chickens from five unseen finalists came to our table, all hidden beneath styrofoam and many of them molded from cupcake pans for a compact, uniform shape. After being presented to judges for appearance, each taster takes a piece of chicken for their paper plate, and passes it to the diner next to them, the whole table maintaining silence until judging is through.
Following the five chickens, judges are presented with five sets of ribs, six plates of pork (some of which include three types), and finally, the brisket, each judged for taste and texture on a scale of one to nine. While some are better than others, it becomes quickly clear that all of the barbecue is not only up to snuff, but better than what you typically find among our region. All five chickens redefined moist, rib samples each were speckled with perfect sets of bite marks, and all six briskets tore apart softly in our hands in perfect examples of the test.
Once the roughly two-hour tasting is all through, stomachs heave with bites from 22 full-size portions of meat. Before long, organizers are announcing an unexpected round of top sirloin, at which point we gracefully bow out with half of the room.
We’d just consumed some of the best barbecue we’ve ever tasted, and due to the blind nature of the tasting, were completely ignorant as to who cooked it. As evening neared, trophies were awarded to The Other Guys as the "People’s Choice" champion, My Smokin’ Grillfriend of Bakersfield took top honors for "best chicken," Benning’s Who’s Smokin’ Now won for "best ribs," Eureka’s Ead’s Down Home BBQ for "best pork," and San Diego’s The Porketeers tookthe prize for best brisket, which helps net the team the day’s "Reserve Grand Championship." Left Coast Q took the biggest prize of the day, being named "The Grand Champion."
Check out our slide show of the smoked meats, colorful pig signs, and teams that came together to make The West Coast BBQ Classic a great day in the LBC.