In this category I review various brands of hardwood lump charcoal that I have tried. No charcoal briquettes here. For your smoker or grill, do yourself a favour and only use all natural hardwood lump charcoal. You can find it in the big box stores and specialty barbecue shops.
Nature's Own Hardwood Lump Charcoal
Nature's Own Hardwood Lump Charcoal is a Canadian-made product that I picked up for a decent price at my local Costco store. It is made from sugar maple.
Nature's Own contains a full bag of very large sized (relatively speaking) pieces of charcoal. Compared to many other brands, this products seems to give a generous amount of large pieces of charcoal. In addition, while every bag of charcoal will have dust and crumbs at the bottom of the bag, I find Nature's Own to have less of this than other mid-level competitors (such as Royal Oak, for example). However, while the size of the charcoal lumps are very good, this product has some quirky qualities that I have not noticed in other brands that I use or have tried. Highest on this list is its crazy tendency to spark like mad -- almost like a handheld sparkler gone mad. This is not a big issue when you are using charcoal primarily in a closed smoker, but if you are using it in an open pit or cooker: stand back and cover up! I have been seriously stung by these snaps of spark on a few occasions (although at night it puts on a great show!). This seems to happen just as the charcoal is reaching its hottest point and then it settles down and stops. But it will get you if you aren't careful. Children should definitely be kept a safe distance away as soon as you hear those first few crackles.
In terms of burn quality I find that Nature's Own is a bit more challenging to light than some other brands and that it also burns hotter (and faster) than other brands. Ash production is a bit on the high side versus other brands. One important point is that the flavor that this product imparts into your food is quite nice. So that is a big plus. All in all, despite a quirk or two, I would rate Nature's Own as a fair product for the price. (Reviewed November 2012).
Royal Oak Lump Charcoal
Royal Oak is probably one of the most widely available brands of lump charcoal around these parts. Typically you can find it at Canadian Tire, WalMart and similar stores, so it is usually pretty easy to track down. Royal Oak is not a premium brand of charcoal, which means it comes with a very attractive price versus some competitors, such as Big Green Egg Charcoal or Wicked Good.
I have been using Royal Oak for many years. It is good quality charcoal and a large bag will yield a respectable amount of large hardwood chunks -- but not as many as some of the premium products. This is one of my only real issues with it. I often find myself short on bigger chunks, particularly if I am beefing up the charcoal remnants from a previous cook. By the time you get to the bottom of the bag you are left with a lot of unuseable micro peices and coal dust. Again, I put this down to the fact that it is a budget brand on the market. But if you go through a lot of charcoal, this is one to consider trying.
As far as cooking with Royal Oak? I have no issues at all. It lights well, it burns evenly and I can keep a load of this going for well past eight hours at 225F when smoking in my Big Green Egg. So no complaints at all. I find the smell pretty good too. So for a price conscious budget brand, this hardwood lump charcoal gets the thumbs up. (Reviewed March 2012).
Maple Leaf Hardwood Charcoal
Another brand of charcoal that you will see sometimes in local stores around Southern Ontario is Maple Leaf Hardwood Charcoal. Maple Leaf comes from Quebec and is comprised of maple, birch and beech wood chunks.
I would rate Maple Leaf as slightly better quality than Royal Oak. There are larger chunks in the bag and the charcoal lights quickly, burns clean and produces a moderately lower amount of ash than most maintstream brands. It also has a nice aroma that gets people in the mood for smoked foods before you have even put anything into the smoker! However, as is typical with most brands, the bottom of the bag is usually an unuseable mix of tiny crumbs and coal dust.
All in all, I tend to go through a few bags of this brand in an average season. A lot of times I find myself reaching into my Maple Leaf bag when I need to add a few big chunks to a Royal Oak mix in the smoker (when there are none to be found in a bag of Royal Oak).
While I would rate it higher than Royal Oak, it is not high enough that I would make a special trip to hunt this stuff down. It is available at retailers across southern Ontario, but is not quite as readily available as Royal Oak.
(Reviewed October 2011)
Wicked Good Hardwood Lump Charcoal
One of my current favourite brands is Wicked Good Charcoal. This is an all-natural South American hardwood blend from Argentina that makes a point of stating that it is not made from Tropical Timber.
This is a premium blend of lump charcoal that you will typically find in your barbecue specialty stores. I find that Wicked Good has a fairly consistent level of quality in terms of having good-sized chunks of charcoal with a less-than-average amount of dust and crumbs at the bottom of the bag. More bang for the buck. It is about as easy to light as most other brands I have reviewed and it burns hot with good aroma. Ash production for the Weekend Warrior Blend (they also make a Competition Blend) is moderately less than most other brands and I find that as a result you can get a longer burn from the same amount of charcoal. A good thing. As a result, this is my current go-to brand for long cooks like brisket or pork butt.
One important point of note: Wicked Good also makes a hardwood briquette version of the Weekend Warrior Blend. The bag looks almost identical, so pay close attention to where it says Hardwood Lump Charcoal to be sure you are buying the one you want.
Wicked Good Weekend Warrior Blend is definitely worth trying if you have not done so already.
(Reviewed March 2012)