Given the increase in grilling "backyarders" and television usurping regional barbecue restaurant stars into nationally known faces with professional tours all over the country, it is no surprise that the charcoal briquette itself is also having its time in the sun. And nowhere does the sun shine brighter (along with the help of a lot of wood scrap and fire) than in Belle, Mo., the location of the Kingsford charcoal factory and the Kingsford Invitational barbecue contest. The Daily Meal, fresh off its Ultimate BBQ Road Trip, took a tour of the charcoal factory to see the journey of charcoal from wood to grill.
While the charcoal-making process is usually kept under wraps, the Kingsford factory in Belle, Mo., sometimes offers tours, including to local elementary school children. When visitors first arrive at the factory, they come to a dead-end road and see a looming khaki mountain that looks inviting for climbing. But upon closer scrutiny is the realization that no mountain could be this tan. It’s not really a mountain at all; it is a giant pile of the wood scrap that gets fed into the Kingsford furnaces, which burn 550 to 600 tons a day and 200,000 tons of wood a year. There are five Kingsford factories in the U.S., each burning about the same amount, meaning about 1 million tons of wood scrap are turned into charcoal briquettes in Kingsford factories across the country each year.
History of Charcoal
Charcoal has certainly come a long way since cavemen used it to write on walls. The etymology of the word charcoal is from the Old English charren, "to turn," plus cole, "coal;" hence, charcoal, "to turn to coal."
In the 1920s, Henry Ford developed a process for using wood scraps from his Model T’s, which were in fact made of wood, to popularize briquettes (spelled briquet on the Kingsford bags). Briquettes, however, were first patented by Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer in 1897. Kingsford was originally called Ford Charcoal, and E.G. Kingsford, Ford’s brother-in-law, helped broker the location for first factory, which was later renamed in his honor. Since Ford’s mass production of the charcoal briquette, barbecuing with charcoal has become more and more popular.
How Charcoal Is Made
The manufacturing of charcoal is a multi-step process. The main ingredient for a quality briquette is the char (the first syllable of charcoal), but charcoal briquettes are not pure charcoal. At the beginning of the charcoal-making process, that mountain of wood visitors see at the entrance of the factory glides onto conveyer belts and enters a wood hog that feeds the retort for char. Afterward, it is dried and then packaged. The charring process occurs when the wood is burned in a furnace, creating a manageable material to form into a briquette. If the wood is too brittle, it will crumble. Once the charcoal is warm and soft, it is put into a dryer set at 300 degrees. Two hours later, the once-soft briquettes come out hard and are ready to be bagged and shipped to stores across the country.
See the journey of charcoal, from wood scrap to briquette, in The Daily Meal’s step-by-step slideshow How Charcoal Is Made.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.