Charcoal grilling is a popular pastime for many Americans. The satisfying smells and tastes associated with cooking over a charcoal fire are nostalgic for backyard barbecues. But have you ever wondered how we ended up grilling with those black brick-like briquets? Surprisingly, we owe the existence of Kingsford charcoal briquets to the innovations of Henry Ford.
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How Did Henry Ford Get Involved With Charcoal?
During the 1920s, Henry Ford was looking for ways to make use of the waste wood scraps left over from producing parts for Model T cars. One day, Ford learned about a process to turn wood into charcoal briquettes. He realized he could put the piles of sawdust and wood scraps to good use!
Ford bought a large area of timberland near Iron Mountain, Michigan. He built a sawmill and parts plant there, in an area that became known as Kingsford, Michigan. At the mill and plants, Ford produced the parts he needed for Model Ts. But the milling and production processes also created a lot of leftover wood debris, like branches, stumps, and sawdust.
Transforming Waste Into Charcoal
Ford suggested the waste wood be processed into charcoal as a way to avoid waste and make the most of the available resources. Charcoal had commonly been made by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. This carbonized the wood while minimizing combustion.
Ford tasked researchers with finding an inexpensive, efficient way to carbonize wood scraps into charcoal on a large scale. After much experimentation, they devised a process using a vertical kiln heated to over 1,000°F. The extreme heat evaporated the water and gases in the wood, leaving behind nearly pure carbon in the form of charcoal.
Why Charcoal Briquets?
The bulk charcoal left over after carbonizing wood still contained impurities like ash. Researchers ground the charcoal into powder and mixed it with a binder to form into uniform briquets. These charcoal blocks performed better for even heating and long-lasting burns.
Ford named his charcoal venture the Ford Charcoal Company. The consistent charcoal briquets were first sold to meat and fish smokehouses in the 1920s. But later, as backyard grilling grew in popularity, Ford expanded their marketing.
How Did Kingsford Charcoal Get Its Name?
When Ford first began producing charcoal, it was simply called Ford Charcoal. But in the early 1930s, the name was changed to Kingsford Charcoal in honor of Edward G. Kingsford. Kingsford was the real estate agent who had helped Ford locate the timberland property used to produce the charcoal.
According to legend, Ford gave Kingsford the chance to invest in the charcoal business idea. Kingsford opted for a cash payment instead. Had he accepted the investment, Kingsford would have become extremely wealthy from the future success of Kingsford Charcoal!
The Growth of Kingsford Charcoal
As demand for charcoal briquets rose, the processing operation in Michigan could not keep up. Additional charcoal plants were opened in Louisiana, Alabama, and Missouri. The charcoal was sold as Kingsford through stores and later by E.J. Brach & Sons.
Kingsford charcoal grew in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s barbecuing boom. Backyard cookouts became a staple of summertime. The consistent performance and inexpensive price of Kingsford made it a favorite charcoal for grilling.
In the early 1970s, Kingsford was acquired by The Clorox Company, a major manufacturer of household products. Under Clorox’s ownership, Kingsford continued to dominate the charcoal market. Creative marketing campaigns like the “cook with the best” slogan further boosted brand awareness.
Why Does Kingsford Remain on Top?
Today, Kingsford charcoal still leads charcoal sales in America. Kingsford provides a consistent, high-quality grilling fuel at an affordable price point. The brand meets the needs of both casual summertime grillers and barbecue competition enthusiasts.
Over decades, Kingsford has become practically synonymous with charcoal grilling. Many backyard grill masters are loyal to cooking over the traditional blue bags of Kingsford. The brand maintains dominance through tradition, quality, and effective marketing.
How Kingsford Charcoal Is Made Today
While no longer owned by Ford, Kingsford charcoal is still made using a similar manufacturing process as originally developed. Here is an overview of how Kingsford charcoal briquets are made today:
- Obtaining Wood: Kingsford uses scrap lumber like sawdust and wood chips from mills and industry. This recycles waste wood products into charcoal.
- Drying the Wood: First, moisture is removed from the wood by drying it in large rotary dryers. The dried wood contains about 30% moisture.
- Carbonizing the Wood: Next, the dried wood is fed into multi-story brick kilns heated to over 1,000°F. As the wood cooks, gases and water vapor are released, creating charcoal.
- Processing the Charcoal: After cooling, the charcoal is ground up and sifted to remove impurities. Starch and borax are added as binders.
- Forming the Briquets: The charcoal mixture is shaped into pillow-shaped briquets under high pressure. This compresses the briquet for an even, slow burn.
- Drying and Bagging: The briquets proceed through dryers once more to remove moisture. Finally, charcoal briquets are bagged and shipped out for grilling!
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The Legacy of Ford’s Charcoal Briquet
Thanks to Henry Ford’s ingenuity, Kingsford charcoal transformed from sawdust and scrap wood into an American grilling staple. Ford created a purpose for wood debris that may have otherwise gone to waste. In doing so, he fueled a backyard cooking tradition that still thrives today. More than just a product, Kingsford charcoal has become an iconic piece of summertime nostalgia.
So the next time you unwrap those blue charcoal bags and smell that familiar smoky aroma, think of Henry Ford! Kingsford charcoal is a small but mighty example of Ford’s knack for innovation and resourcefulness. Briquet charcoal may seem ordinary, but its creation was anything but.