Kentucky's Crace Brothers Are Having A Hot Time Making Lump Charcoal
(Reprinted from The Washington Post - Written by Candy Sagon)
KY. - The fires of hell must feel like this. A giant hand of heat
shoves you back. The breath seems to evaporate within your lungs.
Your eyeballs feel too scorched to turn in their sockets. When you
do manage to look up, the air above is thick and wavy, like cooking
oil that has been shaken.
isn't hell, though. It's a heavenly green patch of Kentucky countryside
where charcoal is being made. Not briquetes--which many people call
charcoal even though it's not quite the same--but the natural lump
charcoal that has been used in fires since time immemorial and which
is trying to make a comeback today among backyard grillers.
make charcoal requires heat--the kind of intense, searing heat that
is coming from the open maw of this 12-foot-tall black oven. A round
door, resembling a large submarine hatch, bulges like a sightless
eye on the front. On the back, a small hole reveals ravenous orange
flames. A light at the top blinks green, meaning the heat within
is an acceptable 1,000 degrees and holding. Inside the oven, an
equally enormous black pot holds maple and oak wood scrapes collected
from companies that make furniture, wood flooring, even baseball
then there's the odor. Or rather, the surprising lack of it. Just
a pleasant charcoal aroma, no stronger than you'd get from a little
backyard barbecue. And barely any smoke--some thin wisps that are
dwarfed by the puffy clouds in a summer sky. In fact, except for
the mild aroma and the heat that comes blasting out when any of
the ovens are opened, there is little hint that this is a charcoal
that's just the way third-generation charcoal makers Don Crace Jr.,
41, and his brother, Sam, 45, want it. "This," stresses
Don Crace, "is charcoal-making, the modern way."
eons, natural charcoal has been made around the world by slowly
charring wood until it crisps and turns to carbon. It has been burned
in a covered pit, inside a dirt-packed mound, in a brick kiln, even
in towering stacks allowed to smolder in the open air. To do it
in large quantities, the process can take days, often weeks.
on this thickly wooded 30-acre site, just 10 miles from the Tennessee
border, the Craces, owners of Cowboy Charcoal, are doing things
differently. They're the only American company, they say, using
nonpolluting European technology to produce cleaner, purer lump
charcoal in just hours instead of days.
brothers think they've discovered the perfect natural-charcoal recipe.
It goes like this: Take 2,000 pounds of wood. Pour into huge metal
pot "the size of a Volkswagen," as Don Crace puts it.
Place pot in a 15-foot-deep European retort oven. Close door. Roast
at 1,000 degrees for 8 hours. Carefully remove (pot will be hot;
a front-loader is recommended). Let cool another 8 hours. Yield:
750 pounds of pure natural-lump charcoal. Sell to industries needing
charcoal for purification processes; sell to grill-owners who don't
like the additives in briquets.
the growing number of grill-happy, health-conscious Americans, the
Cowboy Charcoal brothers are hoping their product can spark new
life in the market for hardwood charcoal, a product eclipsed since
the 1950's by the pillow-shaped briquets.
far, it seems to be working. Cowboy Charcoal, sold under its own
name at places like Wal-Mart and Hechinger, as well as under the
Whole Foods label, says it has doubled its retail sales this year
over last (company officials declined to make exact figures public).
The Whole Foods-labeled product alone, introduced this summer and
available locally at Fresh Fields stores, has tripled expectations,
say executives with both the grocery chain and the charcoal company.
Still, Don Crace admits, "it's a long hill to climb."
bought nearly 870,000 tons of briquets last year; lump charcoal
accounted for only about 50,000 tons. And neither briquet nor charcoal
makers are thrilled with the growing popularity of gas grills, which
don't use either form of charcoal.
something about building a fire yourself," says Don Crace.
"It's like the primal drum beat. People call me up just to
tell me about the beautiful fire they built. And I understand."
course, he's assuming they built that fire the "real"
way--the way it's been done since Prometheus gave fire to man and
then man had to figure out how to rekindle it.
charcoal," writes John Uhlmann and Peggy Heinrich in their
book, The Soul of Fire (University Books, 1987), "mankind
probably never would have made it out of the Stone Age. Charcoal
provided the intense heat necessary to melt iron and other metals."
has also been used to filter water, flavor whiskey, make gunpowder
and save lives by neutralizing poisons such as arsenic. Centuries
ago, it replaced wood as the favorite fuel because it was smokeless
when it was burned, even though it certainly wasn't while it was
culture, it seems, had its special group of people whose grueling
dirty job it was to make charcoal. In Italy it was the carbonai.
In England, they were called wood colliers.
and Sam Crace's great-grandfather, Jess Rawlins, was a community
collier in southern Ohio in the early 1900's. The collier was the
man whom farmers called after they had cut and cleared the trees
from their land. The farmers then would stack the logs or place
them in pits for burning into charcoal. Their great-grandfather
would travel around, lighting the fires and tending the burning
wood. After the wood burned and cooled over several weeks, the farmer
could sell the charcoal to local markets as a cash crop.
process of turning those trees into charcoal, says Don Crace, was
considered an art form. "If you did it wrong, all you got was
a pile of ashes."
the 1930's, Don and Sam's grandfather, Roland Crace, decided to
take a different approach. He and an Ohio brick kiln operator decided
to make charcoal using a systematic production method. Under the
controlled conditions of a kiln, they were able to offer year-round
production and develop a steady local market for their charcoal.
and Sam Crace's father and uncle expanded the business even more.
In the early 1950's, as the backyard barbecue boom began, they moved
to Florida and operated several charcoal plants, selling the product
for both backyard and industrial use. They sold those plants in
1970 and moved to Tennessee, where they began making liquid smoke
flavor as well as briquets. Bob Evans Farms acquired their company,
Hickory Specialties Inc., in 1992.
thereafter, Don and Sam Crace began Cowboy Charcoal, headquartered
in Brentwood, Tennessee, with yet a new twist on the family business:
European retort ovens. Unlike in a kiln (or, obviously, in a pit),
the flames don't touch the wood in a retort oven.
tell people that the wood is being roasted--sort of like a chicken,"
says Don Crace. "It's a method used in Europe," he adds,
"where lump charcoal is much more popular than in the U.S."
advantages of the retort system, Don Crace says, is that it's more
consistent and can achieve a higher temperature. He also feels that
it doesn't pollute as much because wood gases are recirculated and
burned off within the chamber.
the Cowboy Charcoal plant, visitors who want to see the process
have to pass by a large red and white sign reminding them that "this
technology is a trade secret." No one gets to the ovens without
are 14 of the double retort ovens silently burning in a large yard.
One oven of each pair burns for four hours, and then the second
one is started. Heat from one side helps fuel the other so that
temperatures remain fairly even.
Don and Sam Crace also feel it's important to make charcoal from
kiln-dried hardwood scraps that are clean enough "to be used
as children's blocks," says Sam Crace. Using clean wood keeps
the ash content down, too much of which can add bitterness to foods
cooked over the charcoal.
while the wood may start out with the color and heft of a toy building
block, when it comes out of the oven after eight hours, it's ebony
and almost weightless. As a character in Susan Musgrave's novel,
The Charcoal Burners, describes it, "It's the ghost
Cowboy Charcoal can achieve more than a ghost of lump charcoal's
past popularity with home cooks, however, remains to be seen. While
retail sales are up, Don Crace admits that two-thirds of the company's
charcoal is still sold to industry. Industries demand it because
of its purity. Home-grillers may want to keep playing the grilling
game down and dirty.