Wicked Good Charcoal-2014
02/20/14 - 09:10 Filed in: Charcoal | Review
The title of this review also sums up my review of this charcoal and is the short name used for this charcoal. The long name is Wicked Good Weekend Warrior Hardwoode Lump Charcoal. It is often referred to on barbecue related message boards as WGWW It is my lump of choice for use on my Big Green Eggs. He tends to be more costly than some of the other widely available on charcoal. But it has several virtues that cause me to not even think of the price difference. I just tend to feel when you're dealing with food, you very often get what you pay for. So I don't like to scrimp on things that contribute to a meal I'm making.
The Wicked Good Charcoal Company is headquartered in New England, Kennebunk Maine to be more specific, which goes a long way towards explaining its name. You see in New England and some other parts of the Northeast "wicked" is slang for excellent or awesome. The company is owned by the husband and wife team of Lee Ann & Larry Johnson. They are very customer focussed and responsive. I have had several interactions with Lee Ann in the past via email and you couldn't ask for a nicer person to deal with. The company also has distribution centers around the country. It seems to have some retail availability in about 40 out of the 50 states. In New England they have pretty good retail coverage, plus they actually have a distribution center in Chicopee, MA in the central part of the state which actually sells charcoal by the pallet quite a decent savings. Let's begin at the beginning though.
BACKGROUND: Wicked Good Weekend Warrior charcoal is the descendent of another charcoal made by this company called Wicked Good Competition Blend lump charcoal whose name describe its purpose in life. It was used by many competition teams in the New England area and had earned quite a good word-of-mouth reputation for itself. Many amateurs started using it because of the good reputation it had for high-temperature, long burn times and low ash production. The only problem was it was VERY hard to light. It would often take an extra sheet or two of newspaper in a charcoal chimney and it still could be problematic. I tried some of that charcoal into thousand five, for my then new Char Griller Smoking' Pro horizontal barrel smoker. Even using some extra newspaper in my charcoal chimney, I found it extremely difficult to light. I actually resorted to using regular charcoal briquettes in my charcoal chimney which I would pour on the lump to get the lump going. I really didn't like lump charcoal with that smoker because the irregular shape and size of the lump resulted in wild temperature variations in that particular piece of equipment. It was less due to issues with the lump and more to do with the very drafty conditions in that smoker. Lump works excellently in the Big Green Egg with its tight seal and precise temperature control. So the reason I never use lump was not due to a quality issue with the lump, instead it was a quality issue with my smoker. Meanwhile the Wicked Good Charcoal Company came out with the Weekend Warrior blend. It's main reason for existence was to deal with the tough to light issue with the Competition Blend. By making the charcoal easier to light they gave up some of the high temperature, low ash production and long burn time this charcoal had a reputation for. I don't even think these days that the competition Blend is even made.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: The charcoal comes in 11 and 22 pound bags (5 and 10 kg). This charcoal tends to be shipped in such a way that is not a mess of small pieces and useless dust. There is usually a wide range of pieces ranging from large pieces the size of my forearm to smaller pieces that are about the size of a golf ball. The pieces trend towards the medium size range and even the smaller pieces are larger than the small pieces and many other love charcoal bags I have seen. One thing I find interesting is this charcoal comes from South America and seems to be able to make it up to New England with far less abuse and shipping damage than some local US brands. In fact I've noticed in the last six months, that the pieces in the bags seem to be getting even a little bigger on average. I've actually had to break some of the larger pieces apart. But this is the kind of problem to have you can always make a large piece smaller, but once the pieces smaller's no going back.
WOOD SPECIES: The charcoal is made from a blend of South American hardwoods. Information on the bag implies that the company is going for a certification showing that the trees are grown and forested it in a green manner. Trees are planted to replace the ones taken to make the charcoal. This is not another case of yet another South American rainforest being stripped bare. It has a different smell than other hardwood charcoal I have used, but yet it has some similarities. Similar but different. Definitely not unpleasant.
LIGHTING: Although I didn't have a vast experience with the Wicked Good Competition Blend lump, I did use enough of it to know that the new Weekend Warrior Blend is far easier to light. I still feel like it's slightly more difficult to light than many other brands of lump. This is purely anecdotal I don't have any testing results to hang my hat on. I do know the WGWW lit very easily using the paraffin firestarters that were my lighting method of choice up until about a month ago. I now use a Looftlighter electric firestarter. While it has no trouble getting the lump going, it does seem to take about twice as long as the directions for the Looflighter suggest. But we are talking two minutes vs. one minute. I have a feeling this is due to this charcoal still being a little more difficult to light and mainstream lump. When the lump does light it does so with next to no sparking. In the year and a half I've been using WGWW I did have one bag which produced lots of sparks, but that has been the exception. Once the lump is lit it doesn't produce a ton of noxious smoke. After about 20-30 minutes depending on the cooking temperature I am shooting for, the smoke is running nice and clear.
UNDER FIRE: One of the things I like about this charcoal is it's relatively smoke neutral. By this I mean if you let it get ignited and burning good for about 30 minutes, you'll smell some smoke coming out of your grill, but it will be quite subtle compared to a lot of the other lump charcoal out there. I like this smoke neutral approach. This works well where I do quite a bit of baking on my Egg and I really don't want smoke flavor in that food. When I need smoke I can always add it by using my choice of wood chunks or chips. On relatively short cooks I sense very little smoke flavor coming from the charcoal. On longer-term cooks you do send some smoke flavor, but it is very mild compared to other brands I've tried. The charcoal is easy to get up to 700° (371C) on a Big Green Egg for doing high temperature pizza cooks or stir fries. I accidentally got it up over 1000° (538 C) one time too.
In the Big Green Egg this charcoal tends to burn very evenly. You can get it down to 225 (107C) for low and slow smoking, but you need to be very careful not to overshoot your temperatures because it is very difficult to get it back down once it's managed to climb over. But unlike some other charcoals, WGWW will burn at this lower temperature provided, you don't overshoot your mark. One of the advantages of the Big Green Egg is the precise temperature control possible via the lower draft door and the dual function metal cap. I usually have no trouble dialing in my temperature to within +/- 5 degrees or closer and then keeping it there for hours. While this characteristic is not unique to WGWW, it is just another item for the plus column when picking a charcoal.
The first time I used my first BGE. The charcoal you see me lighting on the left cooked a spatchcocked chicken at 350 degrees (177C) for 90 minutes, and then a brisket for 9 hours at 225 degrees (107C) and the picture on the right shows how much lump was left after 10 1/2 hours of cooking and an hour of warmup time. I was stunned how little was used. This charcoal has the lowest ash production of any charcoal I have used..
SHUTDOWN: One of the things I like is when you shut the the lower draft door and place the ceramic chimney cap on the egg the fire goes out almost immediately. In the Winter on a 5 to 6 hour cook I would burn through one bag or more on my old smoker. On the BGE I use about a quarter of a bag and have about half of that leftover for reuse when I am done. You are left with a lot of usable charcoal and very little ash. While I haven't scientifically tested it, this lump seems to produce the least amount of ash of any charcoal I've used. I've used some WG Hardwood Briquettes in my old smoker, which is supposedly made from the same blend of 3 South American hardwoods. This charcoal in briquette form also produced the least amount of ash of any of the all natural hardwood briquettes I tried. I don't mind the cost of the Wicked Good because of the low charcoal consumption of the Egg vs. my smoker using all natural hardwood briquettes.
AVAILABILITY: Around here in New England this charcoal can be relatively easily found year round. When I was using all-natural hardwood briquettes in my old smoker I had to stock up for the winter. The stores which carried all-natural briquettes would put them on sale right after Labor Day and would try to sell it all out. They wouldn't get the briquettes back in until spring. When I used to go on scouting expeditions in search of briquettes in the winter in New England, I used to see the WGWW lump in many of the stores that didn't carry the briquettes year round. I remember wishing that I could use lump charcoal in my smoker because the lump was available year round. I am at a bit of a loss to explain the difference. One thing I speculated about was whether the lump was looked at as a charcoal for a more serious griller. One whom would grill year round.
In my neck of the woods, the WGWW is carried at several BGE dealers close to me. There are some general stores which carry it and some high end butcher shops too. I can drive 20-30 minutes in any direction and find some. Let me just say I like this charcoal well enough that I don't mind driving to get it.
COST: There is no getting around it this charcoal can be a bit pricey. I generally pay about $22.00 a bag for the 22 pound (10kg) bags. For me I don't mind paying this price because the charcoal is consistent, nicely sized, burns quite hot and for a long time and produces little ash. This last item tells me that I am getting the most from the charcoal itself and that helps me rationalize the cost. The interesting thing is that over half of that cost is shipping. Wicked Good Charcoal will sell you a 22 pound (10kg bag for around $14.00. The devil is in the details though as the shipping costs amounts another $10 to $12. That is why I just buy it from local retailers. The price is nearly the same and it is instant gratification.
PALETTES: For folks in the New England area there is an alternative that will really drive the price down. Wicked Good Charcoal will sell you the charcoal in 30, 40 or 60 bag palettes. If they ship it to you within New England the costs as of today (February 20, 2014) are: $508.46, $641.19 and 901.54. This works out to a price per bag of $16.95, $16.02 and $15.03 per bag. If you have a truck or trailer, you can go pick it up in their distribution center in Holyoke, MA in the Springfield area. The price for this works is $418.61, $551.34 and $811.70. This includes a fee for their handling costs at the warehouse to get you loaded up. The per bag cost works out to $13.95, $13.78 and $13.53. This is a sweet price if you have a vehicle big enough to handle the load and a place to store it. Or you might be able to go in with one or two other grillers and split a palette two or three ways. They will ship outside of New England too, but the rates vary by location. If you are interested I will let you do that homework on their website.
WHY THIS IS MY “GO TO” LUMP: For me this charcoal is all plusses. Bags with nicely sized pieces, very little ash and dust and no foreign matter like rocks or nails that you get in some brands. I have no trouble lighting it and the warmup process is repeatable and predictable because of the bag to bag consistency. It will burn hot or low and very stably at whatever temperature you choose. The charcoal has become almost a non-factor in my cooks, more like briquettes with their consistency and relative stability. I like the smoke neutral qualities of the charcoal where I bake on my Eggs. There is very little ash, which means very little waste in the charcoal itself. Little ash translates to quick and easy cleanups. I generally just swirl the BGE Ash Tool around in the left over lump to drive what ash there is into the ash drop. Then I remove it via the Ash Pan. The only time I do a major clean up is when I will be doing a high temperature cook.
Those of you who are saying I didn't mention the high cost and that is a negative, must realize for me it isn't. All of the factors above save me time, save me aggravation and give me a predictable easy cook every time. My time is worth money and for me the time savings and ease of use totally offset any extra cost. Your mileage may vary, but for me this is my Go To charcoal.
SOME RELATED LINKS: Here are some links to other blog entries about Wicked Good Briquettes and a link to the Wicked Good Charcoal website.
WICKED GOOD CHARCOAL 2010 Blog Entry about Wicked Good All Natural Hardwood Briquettes. These briquettes share a lot of qualities with the Wicked Good Lump Charcoal
WICKED GOOD CHARCOAL WEBSITE
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