Oct. 26 was the pheasant opener here in Nebraska. The end of this month also marks the onset of the whitetail rut in much of the country and offers some pretty good waterfowling for local ducks and geese. Yet, despite the abundant outdoor opportunities available this time of year, I’d encourage you to mark off the fourth Saturday in October on your 2014 calendar and make plans to attend the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn. That’s where I was last Saturday, judging the nearly 100 U.S. and international teams that had qualified for what’s known colloquially among barbecue lovers as, “The Jack.”

My weekend as a competitive barbecue judge started not with me sipping from a bottle of black label, as I had hoped, but instead drinking water and eating soda crackers. That was between bites of barbecue during the class required to be certified as an official Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) judge. Above is a photo of my sample ballot for chicken. After four hours of learning how to grade on the KCBS standards in three criteria — appearance, taste and texture — I stood, raised my right hand, and recited the following pledge:

I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbeque meat that is presented to my eyes, my nose, my hands, and my palate. I accept my duty to be an Official KCBS Certified Judge, so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque, and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.

I got a good look at that American way of life Friday night as a fog of hickory smoke settled around Lynchburg. On “The Hill” above the distillery, a rowdy crowd of competitors and barbecue fans insulated themselves against the sub-freezing temperatures with healthy slugs of Tennessee whiskey, a roaring fireplace, and country music played by fellow judge Keith Anderson. I could have easily spent the night deep in the hollow, wandering among the pitmasters who stayed up in to the wee hours tending to their ribs, pork, and brisket. Instead, I took my KCBS oath seriously and retired moderately early to be lucid for Saturday’s competition.

The next day, I donned my apron, cracked a bottle of water, and took my place of honor at Table No. 1. Seated next to me was “Big” Jim Stancil, a pitmaster from Bare Knuckles BBQ, who has competed all at levels, including on the TV show BBQ Pitmasters. As this was my first time judging, Big Jim was a great guide, as he schooled me on what makes for winning barbecue after our scores had been submitted. (Discussing entries before all judges at the table have finished scoring is a violation of the judging rules.)

Four hours and more than 40 bites of barbecue later, I emerged from the sauce-filled fray a few pounds heavier and a bit more knowledgeable about what competition barbecue is all about. Here are just a few of things I learned:

1. Practice Restraint
The most-often repeated piece of advice I heard before and during the judging was “just one bite.” Any more than that and you’re risking not only indigestion, but also the competitors who fall later in the judging could be at a scoring disadvantage because you you’re miserably full. Still, I’ll admit there were a few entries that I couldn’t resist going back to for a second bite.

2. This Isn’t Restaurant Barbecue
Those “fall off the bone tender” riblets you love so much at Applebee’s have no place in competition barbecue. If the meat comes away too easily, that’s a sign of overcooking, as is mushy pulled pork or brisket that falls into pieces when you try to fork it onto your plate. Instead, the meat should have some give. Flavor profiles in competition barbecue are different as well, resisting big flavors in place of bland ones that don’t offend anyone. There was also a strong trend toward sugary sauces over spicy ones.

3. Even The Best Stumble
I went into the weekend expecting to experience some of the best barbecue I’d ever tasted, but that often wasn’t the case. (See Rule No. 2.) I also figured every entry would nail it. This is the national stage after all. But more than once our table had virtually inedible entries. I put a piece of brisket in my mouth that had the funk of meat that had been aged about two months two long. After our scorecards were submitted, another judge admitted to spitting his out. Earlier in the day that same judge bit into a boneless chicken thigh that was raw in the middle. More than once, I marked off for appearance due to uneven application of sauce, which Stancil said was “unbelievable” at this level of competition.
4. There’s No Beer (or Whiskey) At This Barbecue**
I’ll admit it, after loading up my judging plate full of ribs I reflexively reached for a beer that wasn’t there. I was in Lynchburg and there wasn’t even a Jack and Coke in arm’s reach. Although it seems at odds with the spirit of barbecue, no alcoholic beverages are allowed during the judging process, nor are carbonated beverages. During the KCBS certification class we were even told not to show up smelling like alcohol from the night before. Instead, I chased every bite with the only thing allowed–water and a bit of soda cracker to cleanse the palate. But don’t think I didn’t pour a glass of Jack as soon as my judging duties were done.

5. People Will Eat Anything
Judging Table No. 1 faced a rotating crowd of onlookers seated along a row of bleachers, with just a livestock panel separating us from the mob. Our table captains often shared any leftover entries with those in the front row, who clamored for anything they could. When I took my judging plate as near to the crowd as I dared, it was not unlike tossing scraps to ravenous wolves. Once, an arm reached through the crowd and grabbed a big drumstick which I’d already taken a bite from. To that guy I can only say, hope you didn’t catch my gnarly cold…

I discovered a lot more over the course of my few days in Lynchburg, including how delicious hot chicken is and what it takes to make tasty Tennessee whiskey, not to mention how sugar, smoke, sauce, and some secret ingredients turn into great barbecue. Expect to read about those subjects and a few more over the course of the next year, until hopefully I get to do it all over again Oct. 25, 2014.