Labor Day means BBQ, and BBQ (for many) means charcoal briquettes. Well, technically Labor Day means celebrating the hard work of laborers “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.” In fact, Labor Day became a national holiday way back on June 29, 1894. But you can do all that celebrating while grilling in your backyard. So why not explore the supply chain of charcoal and how those little sooty black squares became so ubiquitous in our backyard grills?
Origin story: the black chunk rises
The briquet’s story isn’t as old as you’d imagine. Its birth came from the “capitalize on everything possible” mentality of Henry Ford, who wanted to recycle the copious amounts of scrap wood his Model T factories produced.
Consumers bought one million Model T’s in 1919. Each car contained a bunch of hardwood, and Ford wanted to produce his own instead of procuring the wood from vendors.
So Ford worked with a real estate agent in Michigan—Edward G. Kingsford—to buy 313,000 acres of timberland in Michigan. If that last name of the real estate agent rings a bell, that’s because it’s the namesake of Kingsford charcoal briquets.
Now back to the scrap wood: Ford didn’t want it all to go to waste, so he enlisted the help of Oregon chemist, Orin Stafford, who patented a method for making little lumps of fuel from sawdust and mill waste combined with tar and cornstarch. Ford called it a briquet.
From there, Ford enlisted his friend Thomas Edison to build a briquet factory next to Ford’s Model T sawmill. Kingsford ran it and produced 610 pounds of briquets for every ton of scrap wood used. Thus began the Kingsford charcoal briquet.
How are those briquets made?
Alright, so we said those chubby little burners are made from a combination of materials, but how exactly? Kingsford still gets most of its wood for briquets from lumber mill wood waste. If you went to the factory, you’d see giant mounds of sawdust and wood chips looming in the distance. Like a loose, dusty Grand Teton range.
From there, they go into an oxygen-poor dryer to cook out the moisture and get mixed in with lime (not the fruit juice). It’s all still just a giant pile of dust at this point, until it gets mixed in with corn-starch, gets passed through a press, and voíla your cute little charcoal cherub is ready to light. So why the lime? It turns white when the briquette gets to cooking so you know when they’re ready to cook on.
The incredibly wasteful energy of charcoal
But really, charcoal is just a very, very inefficient way of cooking. Unlike gas grills, which provide energy for when you need to cook and not when you don’t, charcoal grills expend a lot of energy pre-cooking and post-cooking and provide the same waste no matter how much you’re cooking over the briquets. When you look at gas, almost 90 percent of the heating value that comes out gets used in the grill. Charcoal uses less than one-quarter.
We’ll leave it up to you whether you’re ready to give up the smoky purity of a charcoal grill for the incredibly more efficient gas version. But you can actually reuse unspent charcoal. Just pour some water on it and reuse those coals for your next grill session.
So when you take a look at that chunky little bundle of incinerating prowess, think of all the industries involved in getting your grill to the perfect temperature. You’re a part of an ancient tradition full of modern inventions, using natural resources to help make your holiday celebration a success.
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