Most will accept the above definition as fair and reasonable when discussing the topic of competition, but this does not delve deep enough to accurately describe what ‘barbecue competition’ is all about.

Throughout the calendar year, the New Zealand Barbecue Alliance (NZBA) and Steak Cookoff Association NZ (SCA) sanction, keep records for and administrate dozens of regional barbecue competitions that are hosted in some of New Zealand’s most spectacular settings.

From snow covered alps to West Auckland hot rod shows, barbecue competitions are hosted in a wide range of places, bringing together barbecue royalty, newbies, on-lookers and above all else, a strong-positive community of like-minded people who live by the mantra “barbecue is family”. 

I’ll start by explaining the differences between NZBA and SCA events.

New Zealand Barbecue Alliance

NZBA is traditional American “low ‘n’ slow” competition where competitors are tasked with turning in barbecued meats like pork shoulder (butt), beef ribs, pork ribs, half chicken, lamb and what has been crowned the “King of Barbecue” – the mighty and unforgiving beef brisket.

At set times during a defined cooking window, usually around 18 hours from start to finish, teams must hand-in each of their anonymous entries to a panel of “blind” judges who are looking and tasting for three criteria and marking a score out of 10 accordingly.

The judging panel are asked to use non-comparative methods when scoring each of the hand-ins, meaning individual scores need to reflect the barbecue that is in front of them and not be compared to previous entry’s attributes. This is easier said-than-done because a judges score ultimately hinges on the briefest of looks and on a single bite!

Presentation Criteria

As with all foods, we “eat with our eyes” first and the presentation criteria is based on just that. Teams hand in their entries in regulation sized boxes with lids, and then the boxes are opened one-at-a-time in front of a table of judges. Does it look good enough that you are inspired to eat it? Has this team taken care to neatly present their offering? Are the portions evenly sliced, pulled or chopped? Are the individual portions easily identified? Are there excess sauce spillages on the box or an out of place sprig of parsley? Any foreign objects found in the box, like a wayward toothpick or small section of butcher’s twine, could mean a disqualification!

Taste Criteria

As it sounds – judges must then use their taste senses to identify flavour profiles that either appeal or don’t! This section is where the teams really do roll-the-dice. What appeals to one judge, may not another – some may like “sweet-heat” whereas another may not. Teams will often lament the fact that in one competition their hand-in scored highly, then in another the exact same cut of meat, methods and flavour profiles score low – the only change is the judging panel!

Doneness/Tenderness Criteria

“Mouth Feel” is a term in barbecue judging that refers to how chewy, mushy or pleasant the eating experience is. This is another subjective criteria for teams to get right on the day, but most people will agree that chicken should not be chewy and competition pork ribs should allow for ‘bite through’ rather than fall off the bone (a clean chomp mark should be left after a single bite). On this note, pulled pork should not be overdone and mushy, money muscle should be tender but with a clean bite through, and beef brisket should have a tender and juicy ‘mouth feel’ with little effort required to chew.

Most barbecue teams that finish in the top 10 are only separated by just a few points, showing just how strong the competition field is in New Zealand and just how well they are executing the above criteria.

Steak Cookoff Association NZ

SCA competitions are fast becoming popular here in New Zealand. The SCA main focus is for competitors to hand in the perfect medium rib eye steak, but also back this up with ancillary sections to inspire creativity. The result is hand-in boxes that are built around a central theme – chocolate dipped bacon roses, salmon wheels with pecan and crème cheese, crayfish tail bisque, BBQ Bloody Marys – the list goes on!

The timings, hand-in windows and judging criteria are similar to NZBA competitions but most entries are individuals rather than teams.

Barbecue Life

Barbecue competition is so much more than winning trophies and bragging rights. It provides a vehicle for community, comradery, expressions of creativity, education, time spent with whanau and for life-long friendships to be created.

In uncertain times and with the day-to-day pressures that life in general dishes up, barbecue competition brings people together, strengthens relationships and helps with general well-being, so if there are any groups of mates or families out there reading this who might be keen to get involved, just do it! The community will welcome you with open arms and provide all the advice you need to get started. 

If you’re keen to get a taste of what these comps are like, search HammerHead visuals on YouTube and watch a few videos of recent events.

Article by: Kerren ‘Kezza’ Packer