Kingsford Factory Tour, Belle, Missouri
Most of my fellow competitors on the competition circuit know I’ve been using Kingsford briquettes exclusively since my rookie days in 2008. I continue to use them because they work extremely well and are a great value. When the summer half-price sales at Lowe’s and Home Depot starts around May, I fill my garage with them. Between my BBQ classes and contests, I probably go through 150-200 bags a year.
In November 2012, I was invited to tour Kingsford’s flagship briquette factor in Belle, Missouri. I was one of 6 barbecue judges handpicked from around the country to crown the 2012 world champion at Kingsford’s Belle factory from the winners of the nation’s most prestigious barbecue contests which included the American Royal, Jack Daniels Invitational, and others. See my blog titled “8 Lessons from 8 World Champions” about my stint as a barbecue judge at the 2012 Kingsford Invitational contest.
The six of us arrived at Belle on Friday a day before we were to begin judging. One of the main highlights of our trip was the tour of the Belle plant. We were ushered into a big bus together with the rest of the VIPs, journalists, bloggers, food writers, and competitors for the short drive to the facility.
Henry Ford, the American genius who brought us the Model T, was the founder of the Ford Charcoal Company in the 1920’s. Mr. Ford generated a lot of sawdust in his automotive plants as the Model T had a lot of wooden parts. Being a smart man, he figured that the sawdust was worth something so he created his own charcoal company based on Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer’s patent for briquettes in 1897. Ford’s brother-in-law E.G. Kingsford was reputed to have assisted Ford in finding the location in Michigan to build the first factory so Ford Charcoal was renamed in his honor. Ford applied his automotive mass production savvy to charcoal briquettes and its popularity took off. Today, the multinational company of Clorox based out of Oakland, California, owns the Kingsford brand.
Our journey to see how charcoal was made began in the head office where we were given a safety briefing, hard hats, protective eye-ware and ear plugs. We were reminded to stay with our guide (6 tourists per KF guide) and not to touch nor stray from our group. Stragglers would be thrown into the furnace (just kidding).
My group’s first stop was a giant brown hill of sawdust and scrap wood. Our guide told us that sawdust from hardwoods from local lumberyards continuously replenish the giant pile as the factory runs 24/7. This wood, 600 tons a day, is sent by conveyor belt to huge ovens where the wood is heated in the absence of oxygen converting the sawdust into charcoal.
They are then mixed with ground coal and a half dozen ingredients including limestone, starch, borax, sawdust, and sodium nitrate which help to bind the material together to make the briquette shape. The briquette is initially wet and semi-soft like a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie and has to be dried for a couple of hours before being bagged. Kingsford’s special formula allows for easy lighting by the customer and permits it to burn steadily for long periods. I can vouch for the long burn as I regularly get up to 16 hours from one bag of Kingsford Blue when I compete with my one 18-inch WSM smoker.
Besides the Kingsford Blue, there is a self lighting version called Kingsford Match-Light. Because it contains some form of lighter fluid, I don’t use it for low and slow barbecue below 300 degrees. If you are grilling, the Match Light would probably be OK as you are grilling around 350 to 450 degrees which is hot enough to vaporize the volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When you are barbecuing, the temps are not high enough to vaporize the VOC so you may get some lighter fluid taste in your meat. I recommend you avoid using Match Light for low-slow barbecue for that reason.
In 2008, Kingsford introduced the Competition Briquettes. It has less binders and much less ash. Based on my usage and tests, they seem to burn hotter, light faster, and have don’t leave a lot of ash. They are also more expensive than regular KF Blue. I’ve been asked by many if I recommend the competition version. For me, personally, I prefer to stick to the KF Blue because it costs less, especially when on sale at half price. As they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” I’ve won many Grand Championships including national-level 1st place Brisket, 1st place Sirloin, 3rd place Pork, and 1st place Chicken using regular KF Blue so I’ll stick to it.
I think my guide mentioned that there are half dozen such Kingsford factories in the U.S. Since I live in the West Coast, my KF Blue comes from their Oregon facility. My guide also mentioned that they have to run all the plants 24/7 to stockpile the bags which all sell out between April to September each year. Each bag has a shelf life of about 5 years so if you have old briquettes in your garage, you might want to replace them as the components break down over time and old briquettes do not work well. The bags the briquettes are sold in vary by size up to 22 lbs. The reason for the many sizes is that various discount stores want them manufactured in a unique size. Our guide told us that if Walmart sells the 18.3 lbs size, then Home Depot will not sell in that size. Apparently, the marketing folks know that the average American is not good at math so they can’t figure out if the 18.3 lb from Walmart for $8.88 is cheaper or more expensive than the 16.5lb one from Home Depot for $7.69! When the tour ended, I had a new found appreciation and better knowledge about the KF Blue that I had been using. If you get an opportunity to do a tour, I highly recommend you take up the invitation.