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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:01 PM   #1
EatRBBQ
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Default UDS Charcoal Comparison Test Burn

I've read a lot of various charcoal tests and comparisons in the past, many of which seemed to focus on lighting some in a pile, watching it burn, measuring some temps and recording results. However I haven't seen many specifically designed to test the various charcoals in a controlled burn, sealed system smoker designed to cook low and slow.

IMHO there is a large difference in usage styles, aka Low and slow smoking versus grilling. Using charcoal to grill usually involves plenty of air-flow to the fire for hot fast cooking. Using charcoal for a low and slow cook usually involves controlling the air-flow, fire, and temps. IMHO those are two very different applications for the same product and I’d think there would be big variations in performance.

A little history of my experiences:
I started in BBQ in the back yard and on my apartment patio/porch using a Brinkman cheapo vertical (the Brinkman un-modified is a fickle beast and lead to years of varied results). My path went indoors for a while and I ended up with an electric cabinet smoker for a while and a trusty American Harvester Dehydrator (the electric died young and never produced the results I’d care for, the dehydrator is still in occasional use for jerky and dried goods). Eventually I bought a Chargriller off-set to replace a seriously trashed Brinkman. The combined experiences eventually led me to buying a MeadowCreek TS250 which I’ve used for competitions, catering BBQ, and doing whole pig roasts. I’ve owned and/or cooked on a variety of other off-sets and cabinet smokers over the years as well.

Following that history from a bit of a technical/mechanical perspective one might notice I’ve been evolving towards more controlled, sealed systems. Following the somewhat typical Q-dude evolution I have at times turned my nose up at alternatives, having settled into what works for me.

I recently took the time and effort to build my own Ugly Drum Smoker. There are obviously differences in all smoker designs, builds, and uses and the results and flavors they produce. From my experiences and IMHO the UDS is a very controlled, sealed, tight system. I’m not saying it’s the end all smoker for everyone, I’m just saying it’s very consistent and controlled.

That consistency and control makes it seem to me an ideal way to compare some various fuels/charcoals on a budget. Seeing that I was building a couple more UDS for myself and a friend it seemed like the ideal time to run some basic tests while I have this many cloned UDS to work with.

Trying to remain open minded and always looking for new information and experiences related to BBQ I decided to drop a few bucks and test some various charcoals available locally (Rockford IL) and reasonably priced.

The Test Set Up:

Volume versus Weight
Many of the tests on charcoal varieties that I’ve read were done by weight.
In my real world application of charcoal as cooking fuel I don’t weigh out the stuff, I fill up my fire area or burn box with what I need (be that a grate in the bottom of a grill, a charcoal insert or tray, or a charcoal basket in a UDS). To me that’s a volume usage. The UDSs I used in my test all have the same size and dimension charcoal basket/ash tray rig (cloned in my garage) so this “test” was done with some consistency at least by volume.

Consistent/Controlled Test
Each of the 5 UDS I used in this test has the same dimensions, same air-intake size, and same exhaust size. I used the same charcoal chimney for each brand, used the same lighting method and times.

Out of preference I always light charcoal (lump or briquettes) until it’s clearly burning, “grayed” and all of the “white” smoke (moisture) has stopped. For this test comparison I used the combination of a propane turkey fryer and a weed-burner.

55 gallon “keep it simple” UDS:
4 equally spaced 1” air-intake holes 3” from bottom of drum
3 centrally located 1” exhaust holes in smoke lid
Same brand Q-thermos mounted same location (23” from drum bottom – 1” below first cooking grate)
Same charcoal basket/ash-tray rig (18” deep dish pizza pan as ash tray, 13.5” grate 1” above on legs, ½” expanded steel grate 6” tall wrapped around)

Set all UDS in same location to allow for same weather effects, air-intakes and exhausts positioned in similar directions.
Air-intake set at 1” open.
Exhaust set at 2” open.

Chimney Lighting:
Same over-sized Weber brand chimney (capable of taking 5 to 7# of briquettes)
2 minutes timed on the propane turkey fryer
1 minute of weed burner on top for even lighting
2 minutes of standing/breathing in chimney
1 minute of standing/breathing once loaded into the Charcoal basket prior to lowering into the UDS.

Brands Tested

Royal Oak (Red bag) Lump, Made in the USA - Wal-mart
Royal Oak (Green bag) “Steakhouse” Lump, Made in the USA - Menard’s Hardware
Frontier Brand Lump - Lowes Hardware
Kingsford Blue Bag Briquettes - Sam’s club
Stubb’s Briquettes - Lowe's Hardware

I made a log for each brand, checked at same time intervals, and even considered converting that data into a chart for listing the specifics here. All the results were so similar that I’m not going into all that effort and detail.

Over all observations:

The starting process worked charmingly, all the brands lit and grayed up fine with the mentioned lighting/timing. Loading the charcoal basket into each UDS with 1” air-intake and 2” exhaust produced about the same initial temps 5 minutes in of 300 degrees. 30 minutes past loading all of the brands choked down to around 260 degrees. An hour into the burn each UDS had settled to the 230 degree mark. I checked the temps every hour and all brands, lump and briquettes alike, held stable temps around 230 degrees for 4 hours (or more).

My past grilling experiences had left me with the impression that the lump brands would burn hot and fast and not hold up long. I was mistaken in my conclusions, in a controlled system that doesn’t apply.

In past test burns, in less sealed smoker systems, the lump did burn away faster than the briquettes for me. All those air leaks just let things get out of control. Now I’m not going to run out and buy a pallet of lump to burn in my Meadow Creek as my TS250 is nowhere near as sealed and efficient as a UDS. But I am much more open minded about using lump in it for short cooks or blending it with briquettes for other applications.

All the brands were monitored for 5 hours of observations and temps, and then I went to sleep letting all the brands just go with the same 1” intake/2” exhaust over night. 14 hours after they had initially been lit most of the fires were completely burned out or self-extinguished.

Specific Observations:

Royal Oak Red-bag 100% Natural (Made in the USA) from Wal-mart

Bag contents: Decent pile of mostly medium sized charred wood, some healthy chunks, and not as much dust, shake, or small pieces as I’ve seen in previous red-bag purchases.

Snap, crackle and pop were with us for the lighting process. No surprise, happens with lump and nothing that couldn’t be managed. Right out of the bag, into the chimney, and on the first sign of flame this stuff just smells like something you’d want to cook meat on. Very little white/bad smoke during the lighting. Very little or no white smoke after the timed lighting and addition to the UDS smoker.

During the first hour or two of the test this brand did trend to run a little higher temp, maybe 5 degrees above all others. Beyond that it stood up like a champ and held for a solid 4 hours of stable cooking temps. By the 5th hour things were rapidly winding down, temps dipped below 150.

All throughout the test this stuff smelled good, begged for some meats to be added. We expected to find a complete burn out, but when the next day clean up began we found about 2 heaping handfuls worth of self-extinguished lump un-burned. What did burn was reduced to light, fluffy ash and little of it.

Royal Oak Green-bag 100% Natural “Steakhouse” (Made in the USA on back of bag) from Menard’s

I literally stumbled on this brand as they were stocking it at my local store. It was $2.00 cheaper per bag than the red-bag from Wal-mart, so I had to snatch some up for this test.

Bag contents: For the most part this material looked like the red-bag. I had to recruit some other’s opinions; we all think the “Steakhouse” had more medium and small pieces than the Red-bag. Perhaps this is Royal Oak’s lesser grade?

Beyond the piece size differences the two brands burned very similarly. The only difference noticed was at clean up time the next day; this “Steakhouse” Green-bag stuff had completely burned off.

Otherwise, this version of Royal Oak also held up like a trouper, gave a solid 4 hour stable cook window, smelled delicious even without food in the UDS. Very little or no white smoke after the timed lighting and addition to the UDS smoker.

With both Royal Oak brands tested, IMHO I could load up a full UDS basket and get a solid 5 to 6 hour cook with good, clean fuel, little ash. I’m going to have to do some chicken and ribs with it and report back about flavor. If I were planning a long 12 hour or more cook on a UDS I’d have a spare charcoal basket rig waiting, I’m still wondering about that long of a cook with lump. Again, I’ll burn some soon and find out, report back.

Frontier Brand 100% Natural Lump (Made in Mexico) Lowe’s Hardware

http://www.bbq-brethren.com/forum/showthread.php?t=78858

This stuff is funky.

It burned alright, held temperatures alright, it lasted as long as everything else I used in this test, and it produced little ash. Very little or no white smoke after the timed lighting and addition to the UDS smoker.

Beyond that though? It left me with a new UDS seasoned with an ammonia smell and the desire to never use the brand for anything again.

Kingsford Blue Bag (21.5#) Sam’s Club

My neighbor had wandered over to see why we had so many smokers going, probably scouting for leftovers as usual. He opened the K-blue bag and said while inhaling deeply “I love that smell, always makes me think of summer and grilling.” I know that smell, fuel, who knows what, put it to the flame. I use Kingsford often, as a staple, it’s consistent, but I’m aware of its unique smell and issues. I normally flame the stuff longer and make sure it’s all gray before adding to any smoker.

During the timed lighting process the Kingsford produced its usual stream of heavy white smoke until the weed burner was put to the top of the chimney. After the 2 minute stand/breath in the chimney it was burning with much less, but still noticeable white smoke. After loading and breathing in the charcoal basket for 1 minute it had little or no white smoke.

Once loaded into the UDS it did produce a bit more white smoke during the first 10 minutes of being choked back. (As I mentioned before, I usually flame Kingsford for about twice as long than the controlled timing in this test/comparison run).

Other than that, once the white smoke was gone, the K-blue bag was dead on temperatures. At the 5 hour mark the temp was still locked on 230 degrees. At 6 hours it was still locked on 230 degrees. The next morning on clean up the Kingsford was the only one to have any heat or life left in it. In the deepest part of the ash pile there was still a sign of life, just enough to make the charcoal basket rig warm to the touch, but not really a fire. It produced an ash pile approximately 20% of the original material (by sight) the most ash of all tested brands.

Stubb’s Briquettes – Lowe’s Hardware

I went to Lowe’s looking for this brand because I’d read some good things in these forums and other reviews.

Upon initial inspection the Stubb’s briquettes look like quality made, hard compression, very dry charcoal. There was very little dust or breakage in the bag. During the lighting stages I was impressed by the aroma it gave off, hard wood smells, not charcoal. It produced little or no white smoke during the lighting. Through-out the test it gave consistent temperatures, very stable. At clean up it had burned clean and complete, it had the least amount of ash remaining of all brands in this test run.

At clean up I noticed a scent in the drum, again an ammonia smell. Considering my experience with the Frontier Brand I knocked on the neighbor’s door for a fresh nose. I did not mention the Frontier experience I’d had, I kept him away from the UDS I burned Frontier in, it was already cleaned and put deep in the back of my garage. As he lifted the Stubb’s UDS lid he immediately mentioned “piss” (his choice of words not mine) or ammonia smells.

I was disappointed, honestly, I loved the way the Stubb’s smelled during light up and cook times, and the small amount of ash it produced. I’d hoped the Frontier brand had just tainted my sniffer.

The following day I pulled the UDS the Royal Oak red-bag was tested in. Had the wife, the neighbor, a friend who does Q, and myself check the UDS for scent, seasoning. It had no hints of ammonia like smells. We loaded up a chimney with Stubb’s and repeated the test as outlined above. After a 4 hour burn the ammonia like scent was becoming obvious.

I was not about giving up, I was about finding out. We pulled the charcoal basket and poured what remained of that pile of Stubb’s in my Chargriller. Piled on another 2# of fresh Stubb’s briquettes and proceeded with a taste test. The fresh Stubb’s was all grayed up within 15 minutes, very toasty fire, with a very light ammonia scent. We made some fresh lightly peppered ground chuck burgers, grilled them over the Stubb’s briquettes, and then ate them.

We got no ammonia scents or flavors from the burgers. They were tasty, there were no left overs.

I did further research on the Stubb’s, made by Cowboy Charcoal Brand. I won’t go into my experience with Cowboy Lump, but I will not be using Stubb’s or Cowboy again. I’ve got a full, unopened bag of Stubb’s that’s heading back to Lowes for a refund.

Summary:

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the lighter weight lump hold up well against the heavier briquettes. My grilling experiences and opinions seeing lump burn hot and fast, as well as some minor experiences with similar results in off-sets, had me betting against the lump. In a 4 or 5 hour cook I would have lost the bet.

My experience with briquette in my UDS has allowed me as long as a 14 hour run with one load of the charcoal basket heaping. Now it’s obvious to me I need to load up a full basket of lump and give it an honest chance to show me it can run for 14 hours as well.

All in all, it’s good to burn a bunch of stuff in my driveway, make my neighborhood smell wonderful (mostly) even in the dead of winter.

On another aspect of this learning curve…. If I can get lighter weight lump to burn as long as the heavier briquettes in my UDS applications? That’s a lot less weight for me to have to lift, carry, and haul around during the summer catering and competition season and I’m all for that!

Based on these brand comparisons I'd say you'll find Royal Oak (Made in the USA) lump in my stock much more often in the future.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:25 PM   #2
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Wow! Great read. I have been using Stubbs regularly for at least 6 months and have not had any ammonia smell. I can't speak highly enough of it. I also used Frontier lump for the first time yesterday and had no funky odor. But with all the bad reviews on it, I doubt I'll buy another bag. Are you sure a dog didn't wander up and piss on some of your samples?
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:31 PM   #3
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Thank you for a very enlightening, and much needed (IMHO) analysis! Do you plan on doing more tests? I always felt NakedWhiz could have used a lot more data than what they offered. A little subjectivity, like smells, etc, would be nice to share for the world I think.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:38 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Crüe-B-Cüe View Post
Wow! Great read. I have been using Stubbs regularly for at least 6 months and have not had any ammonia smell. I can't speak highly enough of it. I also used Frontier lump for the first time yesterday and had no funky odor. But with all the bad reviews on it, I doubt I'll buy another bag. Are you sure a dog didn't wander up and piss on some of your samples?

Actually that's not the first time that was asked.
I did get both the Stubb's and the Frontier at the same Lowe's.

This Lowe's location is a clean place, the pallets of this stuff were recent stock, Lowe's is stocking up for spring.

I'll be making a trip to Lowe's sometime in the next few days and returning what I have. I'll fish around for any other complaints.

The way the Frontier Brand burned blue and white and the plastic sweet funky it gave off long before the ammonia smell would exclude it from any future shopping list for me.

If I were ever to try either one of them again, it would be the Stubb's. Well, except for that Cowboy Charcoal association, that's a sensitive topic, I hate Cowboy lump with a passion.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:45 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bigabyte View Post
Thank you for a very enlightening, and much needed (IMHO) analysis! Do you plan on doing more tests? I always felt NakedWhiz could have used a lot more data than what they offered. A little subjectivity, like smells, etc, would be nice to share for the world I think.

My next round of tests is going to be more about practical application in a long cook. We all liked both the Royal Oak lump options. I've still got a full bag of both the Green "Steakhouse" and the Red-bag.

I'm pretty certain at only 10# the full bag will be more than my UDS charcoal basket can take unlit. I don't load my basket and fire it up, the aluminum pizza pan ash tray probably wouldn't fair well with a propane torch put to it so directly.

I'm assuming if load up mutliple chimneys, fire them all up, let them all ash over, that I'll end up with a reduction enough in volume to squeeze it all in. (As I look at the clock and consider smoking up the neighborhood again tonight!)

I'm hoping the RO lump in that quantity will give me stable, constant temps for 12 hours. If it'll do that, I'm good to go with anything I might smoke.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:45 PM   #6
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thats a damn nice write up. ive used the RO steak house for my last few cooks, its good stuff
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:49 PM   #7
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Great read. Hopefully we can keep building this thread with other observations. I can add one from this weekend's cook. I used 14# (whole bag) of the Kingsford Comp. I really liked the way it burned more consistently, but then it could also be the way I started it up, I didn't have my weedburner with me, so I lit up half a chim of it and then poured it evenly on top of the unlit. I didn't have any spots where briqs didn't light up. Started up at 1AM and was still going at after 2PM when I put on the last food items. At thin point I added some RO lump to crank up the heat, one thing I noticed is that the higher heat of the lump made "grilling" on the UDS a serious possiblity.
Funny you mention the "amonia" smell. I have noticed that with some brands.
I also had less bad white with the Comp blend. As for Stubbs, I've used it before, and really liked it, but have a hard time finding it in the off season.
Cool read.

Thanks.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:50 PM   #8
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Cool post.

I'm happiest with B and B lump from Academy Sports. It's more dense than the Royal Oak, and I can smoke as long as I need without refueling. I pack the pieces in real tight, and use a wind break of some sort if needed. However, I've used the Royal Oak and gotten much longer burns than you mentioned, as well. Maybe weather conditions were just better and/or I packed the pieces in tighter. Who knows....

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Unread 02-22-2010, 03:55 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave Russell View Post
Cool post.

I'm happiest with B and B lump from Academy Sports. It's more dense than the Royal Oak, and I can smoke as long as I need without refueling. I pack the pieces in real tight, and use a wind break of some sort if needed. However, I've used the Royal Oak and gotten much longer burns than you mentioned, as well. Maybe weather conditions were just better and/or I packed the pieces in tighter. Who knows....

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Very valid point.
I loaded a chimney with briquettes in the test, just dumped them in until the chimney topped off. When I loaded the same chimney with lump I gave it a couple taps and a shake to get tiny stuff to fall thru and then poured in more.

Once the chimney was lit I just dumped it into the much larger charcoal basket, it just fell and spread out, and I might have leveled the pile a little. I certainly didn't go for a tight load which could change the dynamic of the burn pile/fire.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 04:08 PM   #10
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Many thanks for the test runs. Have been strictly a blue K kind of guy. Will be trying others as I can locate them.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 04:20 PM   #11
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The BBQ Widow (wife) needs the driveway shoveled clear, has to get out. Since I'm going to be out there anyways, might as well burn $8.00 worth of Royal Oak and try a long cook over night.

I'll even try to get some pics up as it goes.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 06:21 PM   #12
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One thing I do enjoy about UDS, it takes very little work to pull it out and get it going.

Here's a couple of pictures during the clone build:








These were four of the 5 I used for my UDS Charcoal comparison tests.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 06:28 PM   #13
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So I'm setting up the UDS for a full 10# bag of Royal Oak Red-bag, Made in the USA Lump. Why not some pictures?

Two over-sized chimneys and all the RO Lump fit:



Shaking the charcoal basket a little as the chimneys were poured in allowed all 10# of the RO Lump to fit.



Dropped the charcoal basket into the UDS with just shy of 1" air-intake and 1.5" of exhaust and 5 minutes later it was already dropping to 300 degrees.







I hear the BBQ Widow growling about burning charcoal in an empty smoker, waste not/want not and all that. The good news, I might have some poultry pron to share in a few hours.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 07:14 PM   #14
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About 20 minutes after dropping the charcoal basket in with 1" intake/1.5" exhaust temperatures settled to 230 degrees.

The BBQ Widow ran out and got a chicken and some turkey legs not wanting to miss out on a rolling UDS.

K.I.S.S. Red pepper, Black pepper, Granulated onion



Pop the lip, get some apple chips on top of the fire, insert the cooking grate, drop in one chicken and 3 turkey legs.
10 minutes later the UDS has already stablized at about 230 degrees and the smoke is rolling blue.



Maybe 1.5 hours on one side for the turkey legs, flip em and flip the chicken then. I'm expecting turkey legs in about 2 hours, chicken in 3 or more. Then we'll see how well the 10# of Royal Oak Lump lasts throughout the night. I'm hoping to check in hourly on the temps, maybe give the charcoal basket a shake/stir around 6 hours in, then see if that RO can last 12 hours.
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Unread 02-22-2010, 08:30 PM   #15
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2.5 hours into my Royal Oak USA Lump 10# burn test.
The RO is rolling along, holding temps excellently. It's even being reasonably forgiving about messing with loading food, flipping food, and taking a quick photo or two. I figure this makes it a fair test, if I were to load a 9# shoulder or whole pork leg I might get in one or two times over the 12 hours (one time to flip the meat, one time to shake/stir the coals).

So far the 10# bag of RO/full charcoal basket full is peforming just like any briquettes I've used in the past on the UDS. Upon my flipping of the turkey legs and chicken I can see clearly that the burn pile in the charcoal basket is still plenty full and looks to have many more hours left to go. I can even see unburned applewood chips in the picture here...



Popped the lid back on, 10 minutes later it locked right back to 230 degrees, didn't have any flare up or temperature spikes.

Yes, the white flecks in the photo are snow!
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