Kingsford Invitational - Part Three
My previous post
in this series ended with the group heading from St. Louis
to Belle, Missouri to the site of the inaugural Kingsford Invitational
barbecue competition. Not only were we about to be spectators to an
incredible competition, but we'd also get to tour the largest Kingsford
charcoal plant. As I said earlier, dudes love to see how things are made, so
I was really looking forward to it.
Belle is a very small town located about two and a half hours southwest of
St. Louis, and the drive has the palpable feel of midwest Americana. I
spent my teen years in Columbia, which is smack dab between St. Louis
and Kansas City, but it had been nearly 20 years since I'd been on the
ground in this area of the country. What is known by some as "flyover
country" was freshly familiar to me, and I enjoyed the trip.
The weather, minus the considerable wind, was just about as perfect as
one could expect for early November in central Missouri. We enjoyed
wall-to-wall sunshine with temperatures in the low 70's. The setting of the
plant is not at all what I expected. It's in a what looks like a small valley
that's surrounded by gently rolling hills, and at this time of year, trees still
clad in multicolored leaves.
We walked to the plant and the first thing that catches your eye, other
than the unexpected size of the complex, is the giant mound of what looks
like dirt from a distance.
We went into the welcome area, donned our protective gear and, after a
short safety briefing, we headed out to start the tour. We were split into
several small groups and each was assigned a tour guide. Fortunately, my
group had the plant manager, Steve Miller (no relation) as our guide. He
was very friendly and more than eager to answer any and all of our
Our first stop was that apparent dirt mound. It's actually an incredibly
large pile of sawdust and wood that's recycled from various sources. How
big? Well this plant produces something like seven million pounds of
charcoal per day, and it takes eight pounds of raw wood to make one
pound of what becomes the wood char from which the briquets are made.
A little quick math tells you that this plant consumes about 56 million
pounds of wood per day.
The wood (mostly oak, and some hickory) is trucked in and dumped. Then
the dozer driver constantly mixes the wood so that the moisture level and
age are as evenly distributed as possible. The dozer then pushes the wood
into a huge chute that leads to what was described by Steve as a
200-horsepower garbage disposal. That machine chews up the wood and
spits it out in a fairly uniform size onto the conveyor that feeds the plant.
Next the wood is fed into huge dryers that reduce the percentage of
moisture in the wood from about 30 percent down to about five percent.
The dried wood then heads to the huge multi-stage oven, called a retort,
that bakes the wood in an oxygen-starved environment at about 1000
degrees. The result is the wood char (black stuff) that makes up the bulk
of each briquet.
What struck me as we walked past the retort was the absolute absence of
any smell of anything burning. In fact, other than the smell of the wood
pile, this plant has no smell.
When I asked Steve about that he pointed to the top of the stack on the
right of the picture above and said, "See that? That's all the smoke that
comes off of this plant." He went on to say that their retort is the most
advanced in the world and that the emissions from this plant are incredibly
low. Additionally, most of the energy used in the plant is recycled on-site.
The char is then mixed with a handful of other ingredients and is molded
into the familiar briquet shape.
At this point the briquets have the consistency of a baked brownie. Steve
handed each of us one and they were barely warm and easily broken apart
by hand. The excess around the edges of each briquet is shaken off and
The briquets are then spread about a foot thick onto a huge conveyor
which takes them through a gigantic dryer.
Hot air is forced through them from top and bottom and they emerge as
the product that we know.
The product then heads to the bagging line.
The bags are blown open with air and filled.
Then they're sealed.
Next they head to the machine that automatically places the bags on
Finally, each pallet is robotically wrapped in plastic and placed for the
forklift driver to take it to the warehouse.
Oh, and the warehouse is incredibly large. I think Steve said that it is
200,000 square feet.
As you can see, the pallets are stacked six high. Steve said that during
the winter months that they work to fill the warehouse in preparation for
the kick-off of grilling season (Memorial Day).
I can't thank the folks at the Kingsford plant in Belle enough for their
hospitality and for the incredible tour. Steve was a great tour guide, and I
could tell that he takes great pride in his crew and his plant. The place
was incredibly clean for a charcoal plant. Oh, and it struck me that along
the tour Steve stopped and thanked every worker that we encountered for
coming in that day. It was the opening day of deer season, and the folks
working that day volunteered to work. That kind of leadership is sadly rare
In the next installment of this series I'll cover the Kingsford Invitational
Kingsford Invitational - Part One
Kingsford Invitational - Part Two