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Inside Access: Judges’ tent at the new Atlanta BBQ Festival

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Rib judging at the Atlanta BBQ Festival on Sept. 12, 2009. AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

I could smell the Atlanta BBQ Festival before I saw it. the smoked-and-grilled-everything smell hit my nose on Georgia Avenue, while heading toward Turner Field  for the new festival.

In its debut year, the festival was created by the Atlanta BBQ Club, and drew three vendors, 34 barbecue competitors and certified judges, although it was a “non-sanctioned” event this year.

It was under the judges’ tent that I sat down with Kell Phelps, the publisher of Douglas, Georgia-based National Barbecue News, to learn how barbecue is judged. (As a vegetarian, I had a lot to learn. The good news: there are plenty of folks who will barbecue a vegetable, if you ask.) It’s a little like wine they explained; some competitions will even keep grapes or crackers on the table to clear the taste from judges mouths.

Here’s how the judging works.

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Pulled pork judging. AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

Step #1: Judges are each assigned a table, where plain, white foam containers are meat are delivered in rounds. I witnessed chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket. Judges don’t know who made what, only the number assigned to each competitor.

Step #2: They’ll pop the lids on each container so everyone can get a good look inside. They’ll be making judgments already on the “appearance” category. It’s amazing how one type of meat — all some version of barbecue — can look so different.

Step #3: Each judge will pull a little from the container and set it on a placemat labeled with the competitors’ numbers. That first touch will start them thinking about the “texture” category, but the first bite is where it really start to comes clear. The perfectly cooked rib, Phelps explained, makes itself clear when you see the bone turn white when the meat is pulled off. “That’s a secret you can print,” Phelps told me. Blogging will have to do.

Step #4: The next category is taste, and it’s completely subjective. Some folks like a sweet South Carolina sauce, others a vinegary taste from North Carolina. Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, they’ve all got their styles. Some judges seemed disappointed in an oriental ginger sauce because it seemed less like barbecue and more like grilled meat. A lackluster presentation can easily be made up for in this category though; a bad taste can ruin everything, a great one can make you forget everything bad.

Step #5: For this festival, the final step was to give a score that took the others at the table into account. Which were the best? Which were not? Judges told me that once you’re judging professionals, it’s all good — it’s a matter of what’s better. What’s the very best? “It’s in my backyard,” Phelps said. “I know what I like and I can cook it.”

In a job that seems custom-made for gluttony, most judges took dainty bites, just one, maybe two, up to three if they’ve fallen in love with someone on their placemat. Before long, though, it’s all whisked away to bring on the next round of meat. It’ll come out to about one pound by the end of the day.

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Saucy chicken — maybe too saucy for the judges. AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

“I can promise you this,” Phelps said, “I’ll be having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk for dinner. No meat.”

Judges told me that Atlanta is still finding where it fits into the national barbecue scene. For now, it offers something no one else does: everything. Located in the center of traditional barbecue strongholds, you can find just about every type here. “There’s no reason this festival shouldn’t be the mecca,” Phelps told me. “This could turn into another Memphis.”

So will this festival stick around? Judge Dale Leake, of Dunwoody, thinks within five years, the place will be jammed with food-lovers. After all, it’s free, family-friendly and draws all types with one thing in common: “They all like barbecue.”

Want to go? Atlanta BBQ Festival. Through 6 p.m. Sept. 12. Free. Turner Field, 755 Hank Aaron Drive S.W., Atlanta. www.atlbbqclub.com.

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