Alex Brown leads a double life. By trade, he’s a draftsman for the Department of Public Works for Fairfax County, but come the weekends, he puts aside his scientific side and becomes Alex Brown, the Certified Master Barbeque Judge. For many, that sounds a lot more tempting and tastier than his day job.
How did this all come about?
As Brown explains, “I grew up in Chesterfield, Virginia,” he says. "And as a kid, my father used to cook barbecue for the local Shriners for their fundraisers. So I have been around barbeque most of my life.”
Thanks to his early barbeque indoctrination, back in 1994, Brown attended the D.C. Barbeque Battle, a Memphis in May contest, which was then located in Georgetown on the waterfront.
During this first event, he noticed a group of people gathered together and asked one of the organizers who they were. “Judges,” was the response. Being no stranger to barbeque with all its tastes, textures and aromas, and intrigued by the concept of “official judges,” Brown signed up to learn the judging ropes. By October, he had taken and passed the requisite classes on how to judge barbeque, and began touring the cook-off challenges. That was nearly 20 years ago, he says, and now he has earned the title of Certified Master Barbeque Judge with Kansas City Barbeque Association. “To become one,” he says, “you must judge 30 sanctioned contests, take a test, and cook with a barbeque team.”
In addition, Brown is a member of the Memphis Barbeque Association.
When asked to describe a typical judging day, Brown remembers the most outstanding “pig-out” from the D.C. contest when he judged in the finals, for an event.
“As a finals judge, you go to the top 3 teams in each category, and that means those cooking a whole hog, a shoulder, and ribs,” he says. “So I got to taste the best of the best, 9 teams in 2 ½ hours. When you first start out as a judge, you may eat. But once you get acclimated and begin to judge several competitions, you just taste and pick around. ... A lot of judges, when hanging out together before a contest, eat breakfast. Why? Because if you’re hungry during the competition, you eat, and you don’t want to do that if you are doing a contest. During a typical contest you can get anywhere from 1 to 2 pounds of meat per sample, per category, per team. That means a judge could walk away having eaten 4 to 5 pounds of barbecue very easily.”
Has he gained weight as a judge? “Well,” he says, “I fluctuate. I exercise a couple of days a week and work hard to reduce weight off season, but I can weigh an extra 20 pounds by the end of the completion season.”
Not surprisingly, as Brown confirms, the judges get special perks such as having the teams invite them into their cooking areas during off judging time because they want the judges to try their foods. “But they don’t like us much after the contest if they don’t win,” he says jokingly. There are a couple of negatives to being a judge, he says. First, judges do get full, and, second, they now know what good barbecue should taste like, and it’s hard to be on the receiving end of barbeque that isn’t so good.
While Brown would not go on the record to endorse any particular local metro area barbeque destination, he does rave about 2 Memphis restaurants. “Some of the judges will get together when we are in Memphis,” he says, “and if we get there early enough we try all the spots we can find, and we have found some nice little mom and pop places, but two of them that we particularly enjoy are the Dancing Pigs and Cozy Corner.”
Recipe:BBQ Corned Beef Brisket
Alex Brown says: “It depends on how many briskets you buy: when I cook it, I cook 2 and at 5 pounds each. If you have a choice, buy flat cut rather than the point. ... About one hour before cooking, I take briskets out, heat up the grill to 200 degrees with wood or natural lump charcoal. Once I do that, I put on a favorite rub, about ½ cup seasonings I rub into the meat with my hands. Brisket fat side down onto the cooking rack. Then I put it into an aluminum pan... I want the brisket to cook slowly, so I push the fire to one side of the grill, and let smoke do the rest. I cook it for 2 hours, and I spritz it every 15 minutes with a solution of half water and half 7 Up or apple juice. I remove the pan from the grill, and remove the meat from the pan. I put the meat on a large sheet of foil, then rub it again with seasoning, wrap it in foil, and put in the oven for 3 hours at 200 degrees. After that, I remove the brisket, and save the juices [pan drippings]. I let the meat rest, and I run the juices through the [fat] separator, slice the meat, and pour the juices over top.”