You can smell the smoke the moment you land at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Every Labor Day weekend, the small town of Sparks, Nevada hosts what’s widely known as the Super Bowl of BBQ rib competitions. And that smoke? It gets progressively thicker as you make the five-mile trip from the airport to Victorian Square.

With a typical turnout of 500,000 people, who collectively consume more than 100 tons of spare ribs, event organizers call it the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cookoff. But Best in the West? I prefer to call it the Best of the Best, and I’ll be returning this Labor Day weekend for my 9th consecutive year as a judge.

I get a lot of questions about this event from people inside and outside of the BBQ circuit. Here’s my rundown of the judging experience.

The Judges’ Chambers:

Though the outdoor event is open to the rib-eating public, with a line-up of popular bands from around the country that perform on two event stages, the judging takes place in the quiet and secure confines of a ballroom at the Nugget Casino Resort, the event’s convener. As I learned in my first year as a judge in 2010, quiet is key. In fact, during the heavily monitored judging process, not only are judges prohibited from talking, we can’t utter any type of audible expression. This is always difficult for me as one who enjoys engaging in high-decibel dialogue, but this judicial gig is too important for me to risk being cut. We need to reserve our remarks for the media who patiently await interviews with us as we exit the chambers.

How the entries are staged in the judges’ chambers

The Judges’ Process:

There are typically 24 competition teams each year whose ribs are scored, in a double-blind format, by smaller groups of judges. This means that I personally score ribs from 12 numbered entries (to ensure judicial integrity, judges don’t know which ribs belong to which teams). The sampling and scoring process needs to be completed within 40 minutes, which includes a separate evaluation of 12 BBQ sauces. If you think that sounds like a lot of time, think again! Time passes quickly, and this high-stakes competition requires judges to be mindful and strategic with their time/consumption ratio. And speaking of consumption, you can always tell who the first-time judges are. They pick up each rib and lick the bone clean before moving to the next one. I mean why not, right? Wouldn’t you? But attempting to do this 12 times, with a likely return to retaste those entries that you preliminarily scored the highest, along with the 12 BBQ sauces that you need to sample and score separately, all inside of 40 minutes, is ill-advised. About 1-2 bites of each rib is reasonable.

The Judges’ Categories:

This little piggy says it’s game time!

The rib competition includes three scoring categories – appearance (10 points), texture (10 points), and taste (20 points). For appearance, we’re looking at each team’s full rack of ribs noting its visual appeal, smoothness of the sauce sheen if used, the appropriate representation of char across the rack if it’s fire-finished, etc. For texture, we’re scoring general tenderness and moisture levels and whether the rest of the rib meat remains on the bone after the first bite. A “fall-off-the-bone” rib, where you can pull the bone cleanly from the meat, may be a marketing play at a restaurant, but in competition BBQ it means that it’s overcooked. Taste is the most important category, and we’re looking for a great flavor balance of smoke, salt, seasonings, and, of course, the pork itself. The sauces are all judged on a separate point scale.

With some of my fellow judges following the adjudication

When our Work is Done:

After the judges turn in our score sheets (and I’m proud of my reputation of having the messiest and stickiest score sheet among all of the judges year after year) we’re free to speak, share our observations with one another, and go outside to watch the teams in action as they sell their ribs to a hungry public. This is when I fire up a cigar, grab a cold pint of local suds from Great Basin Brewing Co. or a local whiskey from The Depot Distillery, and get some rest before walking off the ribs and sauces that I spent 40 minutes consuming. This is a sound strategy. Because a few hours later, it’s the final evening of the multi-day event, where judges, sponsors, and those who purchased tables in the Rib Village are treated to a great concert, wine, beer, and…wait for it…all-you-can-eat ribs and sides. Gulp.

As enjoyable as this event is for my fellow judges and me, it’s just as rewarding for those who make the trip up to sink their teeth into the most righteous ribs they’ll ever eat. There are many reasons why this event was named “Best BBQ Festival” by USA Today, and those will be revealed the moment you arrive in Sparks, Nevada on Labor Day weekend.

Just follow the smoke.