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At the end of 2005, a new version of Kingsford Charcoal Briquets began to appear on store shelves in the United States. Much discussion about the new product was posted on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board, some of it saying that new Kingsford did not burn as long as old Kingsford when used for overnight cooking.
This discussion caught the attention of the folks at Kingsford. Kelly Burke, a scientist with the Kingsford R&D group, contacted me to ask if we could meet to discuss the bulletin board feedback.
On Sunday, April 9, 2006, I visited the Clorox Technical Center in Pleasanton, CA. I was hosted by Kelly Burke and Bob Miller, the R&D manager for Kingsford Charcoal Briquets.
The purpose of my visit was to:
The purpose of this article is to share what I learned during my visit. I have not written this article to defend Kingsford against negative publicity, or to change anyone’s opinion about the new product, or to promote it. Kingsford did not tell me what to write about in this article, but they did review it prior to publication to make sure that no company confidential information was revealed.
TVWB has no vested interest in the charcoal product you use, Kingsford or otherwise. TVWB is not sponsored by or affiliated in any way with The Clorox Company or Kingsford Charcoal Briquets. I did not receive any financial compensation, nor did I receive any free product, in exchange for this article.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must report that I enjoyed eating 4 steak skewers, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder, that Kelly grilled on a Weber kettle in the test lab. They were juicy and delicious.
The Clorox Technical Center in Pleasanton, CA employs about 500 people involved with research, development, and testing of all Clorox products. These include such well-known products as Clorox bleach, Pine Sol, Tilex, Formula 409, Glad plastic bags and containers, Armor All protectants, STP oil additives, Fresh Step kitty litter, Brita water filtration, Hidden Ranch salad dressings, and most important to barbecue enthusiasts, KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce and Kingsford charcoal.
I arrived just before 11:00am and was met by Kelly at the main lobby. He escorted me though the building to the Kingsford testing facility, which is just a small part of the large campus-like complex. We were joined later that morning by Bob Miller, the R&D manager.
Once I was outfitted with a pair of safety glasses, Kelly took me into the briquette pilot plant where experimental batches of briquettes are produced for R&D purposes. We climbed a flight of stairs to an elevated platform where a batch mixer resided. Imagine sort of a barrel on its side with horizontal mixing blades inside and an access door on top.
Dry ingredients and cooked corn starch as a binder are combined to create "green mix", a wet briquette material that’s similar in consistency to snow in the sense that it can be compressed without dripping any water.
Since the R&D lab does not have the ability to produce wood char in-house, this ingredient—the most abundant in the product—is shipped in from one of the regional factories.
The green mix is conveyed downstairs to a briquette press. The mix flows into the spaces between two rotating press rolls, forming the pillow-shaped briquettes. One wheel makes the "K" imprint on the front, the other wheel makes the two Sure Fire Grooves on the back.
The "green briquettes" are conveyed to steel trays made of expanded metal. Loose bits of material and rough edges called "fines" are knocked off the briquettes and fall through the bottom of the trays.
The trays are loaded onto racks and rolled into a drying chamber to remove moisture and set the product shape. The finished briquettes are then cooled and bagged, ready for use in the R&D test lab or for shipment to customers around the country that participate in field testing of Kingsford products.
Adjacent to the briquette pilot plant, behind a heavy sealed door, is a separate temperature- and humidity-controlled room where a large quantity of Kingsford products is stored. These products are allowed to stabilize in this room for a period of time before being used in the test lab. Bags of charcoal are stacked on ventilated wire shelves, and small plastic bins hang off the wall containing production samples from Kingsford factories around the United States.
I also saw a variety of competitive products stored in this room. Each year, Kingsford tests their product against all branded and private-label charcoals from the top 20 charcoal markets in the country.
The next stop on my tour was the Weber burn room, where a WSM was already setup and waiting for my Minion Method demo. I’ll tell you more about that a bit later in this article.
This room consists of 8 test stations, 4 on each side of the room. Each station consists of a three-sided enclosure, open on the front, with a concrete floor below and a ventilation hood above. In the center of each station is a 22-1/2" kettle bowl and ash catcher attached to a pivoting frame for easy dumping of ashes. This setup is meant to mimic the way a customer might use Kingsford for high-temperature grilling in the backyard. In the corner of the lab was an industrial-strength, fire-proof ash disposal bin with ventilation to the outside.
To conduct a burn test, a measured amount of briquettes is placed in a wire ring on the charcoal grate and a measured amount of solvent (lighter fluid) is applied and lit. A circular array of 7 thermocouple probes is placed at grilling height above the fire and the readings are tracked by computer. A timer at each station tracks burn time, and other proprietary technology is used to monitor product performance and is tracked by computer. All 8 stations can be monitored simultaneously by a single Apple desktop computer.
In a separate, larger room is the division lab burn room. This room contains 16 stations, 8 on each side of the room, with a large work area running down the middle. Each station consists of a fireplace insert installed waist-high in the wall and ventilated to the outside by an exhaust fan.
Unlike the Weber burn room, which is designed to mimic customer usage of Kingsford, the division lab burn room conducts scientific "stress tests" of charcoal products to determine their performance characteristics.
As in the Weber burn room, a measured amount of charcoal is placed in a metal ring, a measured amount of solvent is applied, and the charcoal is lit and burned. The same setup of thermocouples, timers, and proprietary technology is used to track the burning charcoal by computer.
These labs runs thousands of burn tests each year for a variety of purposes. "Here we separate the men from the boys," said Kelly, by evaluating the performance of production Kingsford against prototype products and competitive products. They also run tests of production samples from the various factories around the United States for quality assurance purposes.