Whether you're smoking, grilling, or barbecuing, using natural hardwood lump charcoal will give you better results than briquettes. But choosing the best lump charcoal is kind of a pain – every company has the same things to say on the bag. You'll see "burns hotter", "burns longer", and that it's "all-natural". Unfortunately, that doesn't actually tell you very much about the product inside the bag.
All-natural hardwood lump charcoal can be made from lots of different types of trees ranging from North American oak, hickory, and walnut, to imported woods from South America like teak and mahogany. The debate over the "best tasting" hardwood lump charcoal is never ending and highly subjective. You might not even be able to tell the difference from one wood to another. So we finally decided to pick up a couple bags of lump charcoal and put them through their paces to see which ones performed well.
Picking the Contenders
When we set out to write this article, we wanted to have bags of natural hardwood lump charcoal that were easy to come by. Figuring that there are 4,192 Ace Hardware locations in the U.S., we decided that was a good place to start. We found three brands at our local Ace that are available all over the nation (and can easily be ordered on Amazon). The brands we selected are Rockwood, Blues Hog, and B&B. Each brand is made from hardwood lump charcoal and available in a 20 lb. bag.
Pricing the Competition
One of the first considerations anyone makes before buying charcoal is how much the cost will be. One of the reasons we wanted to buy our lump charcoal in one spot was to have consistent pricing. Each of the 3 bags of charcoal predictably was priced differently:
- $17.99* B&B Oak Lump Charcoal
- $25.99* Blues Hog All-Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
- $27.99* Rockwood Premium All-Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal
*Based on local Ace Hardware prices. Prices varied on Amazon and might vary by location.
As you can see, there is a significant difference in initial price between the cheapest and the most expensive. Now that we had our charcoal, it was time to get scientific.
Opening the Bag
Three bags of charcoal to examine, three bags to open. We did our best to get a sense of the experience. Was there a lot of dust? Does the charcoal smell odd? How full is the bag? What does it look like? Things immediately got complicated.
We decided to start with the most expensive product we had bought. Upon opening the bag, we noticed a moderate amount of dust. The smell was very charcoal-y without any wood smell or the odor of chemical additives. The lump charcoal itself seemed small (about one to two-inches) with only a few pieces of larger material. Larger pieces were clearly cut-offs from more finished looking pieces of wood. The bag was moderately full.
Keeping on, we opened the second-most expensive bag. There was almost no dust at all, even after shaking the bag a bit. Again, this product smelled like good-quality lump charcoal without any off smell at all. Pieces were roughly fist or baseball sized with a few pieces that had clearly been branches measuring around 7-inches in length. The bag was full nearly to the top.
We noticed more dust from the B&B than from the Blues Hog, but far less than the dust from Rockwood. This one had a clear smell of oak charcoal that instantly made us want to smoke some meat. Pieces were smaller than those from Blues Hog with the majority of the bag being large chunks that obviously came from trees. The bag was very full.
The Burn Test
Up next in our scientific endeavor was figuring out how long each product would burn. We decided the best way was to use a charcoal chimney starter with one pound of charcoal. We used a homemade fire-starter that is created from several pages of an old book and beeswax.
The first thing we wanted to see was how fast the charcoal started to burn. As soon as the fire starter lit, we started a stopwatch. We considered the ignition to be the point where we could see flames beginning in the base of the chimney.
- Rockwood took about four seconds to ignite.
- Blues Hog took about seven seconds to ignite.
- B&B took about six seconds to ignite.
Next, we wanted to see how long the charcoal would burn.
For this test, we decided to let the charcoal burn all the way until the very top pieces in the chimney had an ashy appearance.
- Rockwood took a little over eight minutes to ash over.
- Blues Hog took just under 17 minutes to ash over.
- B&B took just over 16 minutes to ash over.
For this test, we didn't have a high-temperature thermometer handy. Since we aren't trying to blow glass or shape metal, we decided to see which brand would hit 500 degrees the quickest. We used two thermometers – one mounted in the hood of the smoker, the other remotely on the middle of the grate – and simply waited until temperatures got up. Of course, we set our smoker up with the vents all the way open to stimulate a fast, hot-burning fire.
- Rockwood took about 22 minutes to hit 500 degrees because we had to add more.
- Blues Hog took less than 18 minutes to hit 500 degrees.
- B&B took just over 19 minutes to hit 500 degrees.
Conclusion – Which is the Best Lump Charcoal?
We were a bit surprised by some of the results that we got. One bag (the one from Rockwood) seemed so much different from the other two that we actually went and bought a second bag. Unfortunately, it was the same inconsistent quality, with lots of little chips, even more dust than the first bag, and only a few sticks of charcoal. Most of the bag was coin-size pieces.
When we are smoking on a charcoal smoker, we want to be able to comfortably predict when we need to start more fuel so that temperatures don't drop. That's where a longer burning charcoal comes in handy. Of course we weren't getting good times out of the Rockwood due to the incredibly small size of the pieces of charcoal. In fact, on our high-temp burn test, the temperature hit about 385 and stopped before dropping. Turned out that our charcoal had burned out in the interim. We had to add about half a pound to get the temperature to hit 500 degrees, meaning it took a pound and a half to do the same job as B&B or Blues Hog while also taking longer to do it.
We have always liked Rockwood lump charcoal and have promoted it numerous times, but the last several bags we've used have been disappointing both in size and quality. We've now used several bags of both B&B and Blues Hog without the inconsistency problems.
The results of this amateur scientific experiment lead us to believe that Blues Hog and B&B provide the most value when considering the amount of charcoal needed to achieve a full cook and how much each will cost. The oak flavors from both products make for a great finished product, and the larger chunk size seems to have been the difference for longer, hotter burning coals as we found and reported on directly in this completely objective experiment with all materials sourced from an unaware 3rd party.
Some people say that "size doesn't matter" as far as lump charcoal is concerned, but we found that ignition time and burn time were directly proportional - bigger chunks took longer to ignite, burned longer, and burned hotter. The smaller chunks ignited faster and burned out quicker. For the smaller chunks to even reach 500°F, we actually had to add more charcoal because it burned up too fast which increased the cost of using it.
|Brand||Price||Chunk Size||Ignition Time||Burn Time||
Heating Limit (Time to hit 500°F)
|Rockwood||$$$||small||4 sec||8 min||22 min (added extra 1/2lb charcoal to hit temp goal)|
|Blues Hog||$$||large||7 sec||17 min||18 min|
|B&B||$||large||6 sec||16 min||19 min|
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