As the New Year gives way to Spring, there’s an excitement in the air as the age-old competition starts anew. Established veterans are out to show that they are still the best in their class, and upstart rookies hope to show that they belong in the big leagues. The start of baseball season, you say? Well, that too, but it’s also the start of cured meat competitions across the country.

Meat competitions are friendly, to be sure. However, the word “competition” should not be overlooked, as many of these state or national events bring together high-quality processors with strong reputations. Many sausages, bacon, hams and more are entered, but there can be only one Grand Champion per category, and one Best of Show for the best overall product.

In state competitions or the American Cured Meats Competition, there will be some names that show up year after year. That’s not luck involved; that is combination of skill, experience, mentoring and attention to detail.

Bardine’s Country Smokehouse of Crabtree, Pa., has been particularly successful in cured meat competitions, both in state and national events. In 2015, Bardine’s won the Clarence Knebel Best of Show Memorial Award for its Country Bacon, and it was a co-winner of the Cured Meats Excellence Award for best overall performance at the ACMC. The company won the Cured Meat Excellence outright in 2017 for winning four grand champion awards and placed in the Top 4 in six other categories. Gary Bardine, the company’s owner and operator, was inducted into the Cured Meats Hall of Fame in 2018.

For all the success that he’s had, Bardine says that he doesn’t prepare products specifically for competition. The products he sells in his meat market are the ones he submits. However, he does pay attention to the exterior appearance of the products he submits.

“I’m not going to take a bacon to the show if I don’t have the ends nice and square, and I’m not going to take a ham that doesn’t look like a teardrop,” he explains.

The products are judged for both exterior and interior aspects, as well as taste, obviously. The external appearance points can mean the difference between an award-winning product and an also-ran, and careful inspection can eliminate any products with defects prior to submission. It also helps to create a good first impression with the judges.

“If you have something that looks good, the first thing that comes to my mind is that it’s going to taste good. If something looks rough, you’re going to think, ‘Eh,’” Bardine notes.

Bardine’s Smokehouse has won awards in many categories, but its bacon and hams have won Best of Show awards. The company uses that recognition in its marketing and displays its awards on the walls of its shop. 

“People like to be associated with winners, the customers do. I think when people come in and they see the awards on the wall, they think we’re winners,” Bardine says.

When he was starting competing at the ACMC, Bardine says that he befriended and took notes from several of the winning processors. He talked with people like Jon Frohling and toured places like Ream’s Meat Market, RJ’s Meats and Haen Meat Packing. Now that he’s become successful in his own right, he tries to help others find success on their own. He gives seminars to other processors and invites phone calls or e-mails.

“You can’t be passionate and quiet. When you’re passionate about something, you want to talk about it. That’s my duty,” he explains.


IFFA’s Quality Competition recognizes AAMP processors

For the second time, judges from Germany came to America in order to taste, smell and examine American-made meat products. The International Quality Competition for Sausage and Ham brought an international meat competition to Madison, Wis. To give American processors a chance at gold and silver medals or trophies. The event, held January 21-24, was a satellite contest of the IFFA Quality Competition, an international meat judging event held every three years in Frankfurt, Germany, in conjunction with the IFFA trade show. The judging was put on by the American Association of Meat Processors, the German Butchers Association and UW–Madison’s extension meat science program.

A total of 329 products were submitted by 35 participants in 2016. For this year’s event, there were 458 products submitted by 42 processors, and organizers were pleased with the increased interest. A total of 351 Gold Medals were awarded at this year’s event. In addition, 25 Cups of Honor were awarded to those companies with five or more gold medals in the competition.

The overall winner this year was Louie’s Finer Meats of Cumberland, Wis., with 31 gold medals. The 1st Place winner in the Sausage category also went to Louie’s Finer Meats, with 25 gold medals. RJ’s Meats, of Hudson, Wis., came in second place in the sausage category with 18 gold medals and first place in the ham category with 10 gold medals. Tiefenthaler Quality Meats, of Holstein, Iowa, took second place in the ham category with 9 gold medals. 

Unlike other meat judging competitions, this was done in public in the Discovery Building on the UW-Madison campus. The public event drew a crowd of interested bystanders. Many meat processors who had entered products came to observe the process and talk with their German counterparts. Plenty of college students also stopped by to watch, ask questions and — most importantly — eat free samples after the judges had finished with the products.

“It’s a great chance for people to learn how an international meat product judging competition works and learn about the quality meat products made across this country, especially here in Wisconsin,” said Jeff Sindelar, UW–Madison associate professor and extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences.

American award winners will be invited to pick up their medals and trophies in Frankfurt during IFFA, which takes place from May 4-9, 2019.