For dozens of barbecue enthusiasts across South Carolina, it's all about a blue apron, a garment not easily earned but one worn with pride.
Worn by the master judges of the S.C. Barbeque Association, the aprons are given only to those who have attended dayslong seminars and more than 30 cook-offs, paid their dues as novice and senior judges and consumed more spice-rubbed and sauce-smothered pork than anyone ever should.
They know their barbecue.
"We're working on a 17-point scale," said Joe Traynham, a master judge and a pastor at a Baptist church in North Charleston. "You're looking at appearance, aroma, texture, tenderness and that overall taste. The best barbecue I ever had was at Pig on the Ridge, in Ridgeway, and it had very little sauce and it was an outstanding piece of barbecue. I think I gave it like a 16.9."
On Feb. 23, Traynham, a team of barbecue masters and their discerning palates will descend upon downtown Port Royal to critique the porcine offerings at the fourth annual Bands, Brews & BBQ event hosted by the Friends of Caroline Hospice. The two-day festival also includes a chicken wing cook-off Friday night.
As is the case elsewhere in the state, Port Royal's barbecue competition is governed by a strict and lengthy list of rules, including some that prohibit precooking, sauce-injecting, marinating or curing the meat prior to being inspected by contest officials.
To level the playing field, organizers also are supplying the meat.
Ken Hilliard of Hanahan, one of the organization's chief district marshal judges, said judges spend little time with the cooks before sitting down for a blind taste test of their dishes. The barbecue is presented to the judges in small Styrofoam boxes with nothing but a number written atop each one.
Each 9-inch by 9-inch box will contain different parts of the animal, including a piece of tenderloin, some ribs and "bark," a term used to describe the brown, crispy crust that forms on pork butts, ribs and brisket during a long smoke.
Hilliard said personal preferences go out the window when it's time for judging.
"The thing I always try to impress upon novice judges is that you need to leave your likes, dislikes and preferences outside the judging arena," Hilliard said.
That edict applies especially to the Carolinas oldest and often most-heated culinary dispute: Whether vinegar-based or mustard-based barbecue sauces reign supreme.
"You really have to keep an open mind," Traynham said. "In some parts of the state, like in Kingstree or Irmo, they're going to chop the pork and serve it with that vinegar and pepper sauce. At the end of the day, whether it's vinegar or mustard, it's all about how the barbecue scores on that 17-point scale. Nothing else matters."