Experiencing the American Royal Barbeque Contest in Kansas City

The meeting room at the American Royal building in Kansas City, Missouri, was standing-room only. So I slipped into the back of the room and stood until more tables and chairs arrived.

But already, I could smell my purpose for being there.

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Barbeque. Yum.

It was the day before the American Royal Barbeque Contest and the room was packed with people who sought greater knowledge about this great culinary escapade. Some were contestants wanting to learn exactly what the judges were looking for, thus improving their chances at winning a ribbon. Others were like me – everyday people who want to take their passion for barbeque to the next level.

The Final Word in Barbeque

The United States doesn’t have an official food, but if it did, it would have to be barbeque. Of course, the first thing that would have to be agreed upon is agree on how to spell barbeque, barbecue, bbq or whatever. Take note: in this story it’s with a Q because that’s how the Kansas City Barbeque Society spells it, and in the barbeque world, the KCBS has the final word.

“Certainly there are other sanctioning organizations, but we were among the first to put in place a scoring system that is reliable and fair,” says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the KCBS. “Competition cooks prefer a tried and true system that levels the playing field, and that’s what the KCBS provides.”

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

With more than 14,000 members around the world, the Kansas City Barbeque Society is the world’s largest organization devoted to the art of barbeque and grilling. It sanctions about 300 barbeque contests in the United States, and of course, hosts the American Royal Barbeque Contest. That’s the big prize – the World Series of barbeque contests.

The American Royal Barbeque Contest

Whether you want to become a certified judge or just learn to appreciate the finer aspects of barbeque and grilling, make plans to attend the American Royal Barbeque Contest in Kansas City the first weekend of October each year. The hottest ticket in town is an invitation to Friday night corporate parties that have been called “Kansas City’s Mardi Gras.” Only the corporations and barbeque team members have tickets to distribute, so start making friends now.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You think you’re pretty good behind a grill and want to take it to the next level.
  • It’s called the World Series of BBQ and you want to see how the big kids play.
  • Good for those who are carnivores.

The main event is Saturday, starting about 11 a.m. and continuing until the wee hours. In addition to wandering the rows and rows of nearly 1000 barbecue teams filling the air with mouth-watering aroma, Saturday includes cooking demonstrations, cookbook signings, a poker tournament and live music. Some of the most fun is watching the Kid’s Q, a children’s barbeque contest that allows kids to pound around on ground beef patties, mix up their spices for a dry rub and play with fire.

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The contest covers 17 acres around the American Royal building. That’s where a majority of the food vendors are located and where the teams participating in the high dollar invitational contest are located. But those in the know recognize that the area on the other side of the viaduct, nicknamed Monkey Town, where many of the open competitors are located, is rich with energy and insight on good barbeque techniques.

On Sunday, the winners of all categories are announced, along with more music, food, demonstrations and more.

Things To Know About Competition Barbeque

  • There are four categories of meat in a KCBS sanctioned competition: Chicken, Pork Ribs, Shoulder and Beef Brisket. Chicken can only be chicken or Cornish game hen. The category is not called Poultry, so no duck or turkey is allowed.
  • When a contestant sends their box of meat in for judging, garnishes are allowed. But red tipped lettuce, cabbage, kale, endive and a host of other veggies will get your box disqualified.
  • Sauce cannot be served on the side in a little dish or pooled in any way. That’s a big disqualification.
  • Just because there’s a little pink around the bone on a chicken doesn’t mean it’s undercooked; there is no disqualification for undercooked meat.
  • A perfect barbequed rib has a nice black or deep mahogany crust or bark on it.

But here’s the one hard fact that I came away with that absolutely blew my mind: “Falling off the bone” is NOT a good thing in competition barbeque. What!?! Seriously. Right up there with “finger linkin’ good” I always thought that a good rib had the meat just falling off of it. Not so, says Carolyn Wells.

“In competition barbeque, there is a very narrow window of perfection for ribs,” she says. “When you bite into a rib, there should be a bit of a tug and a nice bit in your mouth, but enough left on the bone for another good bite. When meat falls off the bone, it’s really overcooked and a little dry, according to KCBS standards.”


  • Don’t even think about parking in the West Bottoms near the American Royal building. Free shuttles circle between the event and numerous pick-up points in downtown Kansas City. Look for the signs.
  • Feel free to approach teams and ask about their cooking techniques, the wood used, spices, etc. Most are willing to talk, but if it’s near the time for their entries to be submitted for judging, shut up and get out of the way.
  • Not a lot of seating is provided other than hay bales and a few picnic tables. Bring your own or grab what you can.
  • The toilets are plentiful, free and full-service in the American Royal building. No need to worry about johnnies-on-the-spot.
  • Come hungry.