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Exploring the World of Artisanal Charcoals: Unique Blends and Uses

Exploring the World of Artisanal Charcoals: Unique Blends and Uses

Rhodri Evans |

Charcoal has been used for cooking and heating for thousands of years. While most of us are familiar with standard briquettes made from compressed sawdust, there is a whole world of artisanal, small-batch charcoals made from diverse materials using traditional techniques. From Japan to South America, artisans are crafting unique charcoals that impart subtle flavors and aromas to grilled foods. This article explores the different types of artisanal charcoals available today and how they can enhance your grilling and smoking.

An Introduction to Artisanal Charcoals

Artisanal charcoals are handmade in small batches from all-natural ingredients using traditional methods like pit-burning and kiln-burning. They are made from various wood sources like oak, hickory, maple, and fruit woods as well as coconut shells, olive pits, and other organic materials. This gives each charcoal its own distinct characteristics.

Unlike standard briquettes designed to burn consistently, artisanal charcoals often burn at different temperatures, produce various aromas, and leave subtle flavors on food. They allow grillers to customize their grilling experience based on the food they are cooking and the flavor profile they want to create.

Here are some key differences between artisanal and standard charcoals:

Source Material for Artisanal Charcoals

Artisanal charcoals use diverse natural materials while standard briquettes use sawdust and coal.

Artisanal Charcoal Production Method

Artisanal charcoals are handmade in small batches while briquettes are mass produced.

Artisanal Charcoal Burn Characteristics

Artisanal charcoals burn inconsistently producing more flavors while briquettes burn evenly for consistent heat.

Aroma and Flavor

Artisanal charcoals impart more aroma and subtle flavor compared to standard briquettes.


Small batch artisanal production is often more sustainable than mass production.

Shape and Size

Artisanal charcoals come in various shapes and sizes while briquettes are uniform.

Let's look closer at some popular types of artisanal charcoals and what makes them unique.

Japanese Binchotan Charcoal

Binchotan charcoal originated in Japan and is one of the most prized charcoals used by grill enthusiasts and chefs around the world. Here is an overview:

  • Source Material: Premium grade white oak from the Mie and Wakayama prefectures of Japan.
  • Production Method: The logs are burned for 2-3 weeks in kilns with very little oxygen to produce charcoals with very high fixed carbon content.
  • Burn Characteristics: Bincho tan burns over 1300°F with almost no smoke or sparks. It burns slowly and evenly.
  • Aroma and Flavor: Imparts a lightly sweet, woody aroma and flavor perfect for enhancing delicate foods like fish, shrimp, and vegetables.
  • Shape and Size: Irregular chunks and sticks sized from 2-4 inches.
  • Uses: Binchotan is exceptional for grilling, smoking, and baking. It's perfect for Japanese dishes like robata. The high heat produces a nice char while accentuating natural flavors.

Binchotan's purity and traditional Japanese production process result in one of the most prized charcoals for both cooking ability and aromatic qualities. It allows cooks to perfectly caramelize and char grill foods without overpowering them.

Coconut Shell Charcoal

Coconut shell charcoal comes from carbonizing raw coconut shells. Here's an overview:

  • Source Material: Discarded coconut shells, an abundant agricultural byproduct in tropical regions. Very sustainable source.
  • Production Method: Coconut shells are burned in pits, brick kilns, or metal kilns. No chemicals are used in the process.
  • Burn Characteristics: Burns over 1200°F with medium heat and small size making it good for shorter grilling sessions. Low ash content.
  • Aroma and Flavor: Imparts a lightly sweet, smoky coconut flavor. Does not overpower more delicate foods.
  • Shape and Size: Small and irregularly shaped chunks and chips.
  • Uses: Excellent for quicker grilling of vegetables, fish, and shrimp. Adds nice flavor to Southeast Asian dishes. Burns consistently and is easy to use.

Coconut shell charcoal offers a sustainable way to add a touch of sweetness and exotic aroma to grilled foods. It's great for quick grilling and imbuing tropical flavors.

Lump Hardwood Charcoal

Lump hardwood charcoal is made by burning whole hardwood logs in a kiln or pit. Here are some details:

  • Source Material: Various hardwoods like ash, hickory, oak, mesquite, apple, maple. Does not use filler.
  • Production Method: Log wood is burned in pits, brick kilns, or small metal kilns. No chemicals are used.
  • Burn Characteristics: Burns around 1200°F. Tendency for uneven burning with sparks and embers. Long burn times.
  • Aroma and Flavor: Imparts strong hardwood aroma and flavor ranging from hickory to fruity. Great for robust foods.
  • Shape and Size: Irregular lumps and chunks sized from 2-4 inches.
  • Uses: Ideal for slow smoking brisket, ribs, pork shoulders. Provides intense hardwood flavor. Can also be mixed with milder charcoals.

Lump hardwood charcoals allow grillers to infuse the robust flavors of different hardwoods into barbecue and grilled meats for that true pit-smoked taste. Their irregularity requires more grill skill.

Bamboo Charcoal

Bamboo charcoal originates from carbonized bamboo. Here are some interesting facts:

  • Source Material: Bamboo is an extremely renewable resource making bamboo charcoal sustainable.
  • Production Method: Bamboo is burned inside a kiln at up to 1400°F. No filler or binders are used.
  • Burn Characteristics: Burns around 1100°F. Hard density provides good heat. Low sparks and ashes.
  • Aroma and Flavor: Imparts a light smoky aroma and minimal flavor allowing foods' natural flavors to shine.
  • Shape and Size: Small, thin sticks and dense chunks sized 1-3 inches.
  • Uses: Excellent for grilling delicate foods like vegetables and tofu where you don't want strong charcoal flavors. Provides consistent high heat for good caramelization.

Bamboo charcoal offers a renewable, eco-friendly option tailored for delicately flavoring lighter foods where the charcoal takes a backseat to the ingredients.

This covers some of the most popular gourmet charcoal varieties. You can also find artisanal charcoals made from olive pits, citrus trees, pecans, grapes, mesquite, and other woods. Charcoal production has become an art form!

Factors Affecting Charcoal Flavors

There are a few key factors that affect the aromas and flavors that charcoals impart to food:

  • Source Material: Every wood or organic material contributes its own range of flavors from robust mesquite to delicate fruit woods.
  • Production Method: Pit-burning, kiln-burning, pyrolysis, and various techniques result in different flavor profiles. Slower, cooler burns produce the best flavors.
  • Time and Temperature: The length of time and temperature charcoal is burned at affects flavor depth and complexity. Longer, cooler burns enhance natural flavors.
  • Blending: Some producers blend various source materials to create signature flavor profiles catered to different foods.
  • Binders and Fillers: Some lower quality charcoals use fillers, petrochemicals, and binders that negatively affect flavor. High quality artisanal charcoals avoid these additives.
  • Craftsmanship: The skill of individual artisans impacts the final product including subtle flavor variations.

Understanding these dynamics allows grillers to select optimal charcoals tailored for the particular foods they are cooking and the flavors they want to achieve.

Comparing Charcoals By Grilling Use

Each type of charcoal brings its own strengths and best uses for grilling. This comparison table provides an overview:

Charcoal Type Best Uses Characteristics
Lump Hardwood (oak, hickory) Smoking brisket, ribs, pork shoulders. Grilling beef and other robust meats. Strong hardwood flavor, irregular burning with sparks
Bincho Tan Grilling tender meats and vegetables. Perfecting sear while preserving natural flavors. Clean burn, light aroma, high heat
Coconut Shell Quick grilling shrimp, fish, and vegetables. Southeast Asian dishes. Mildly sweet coconut aroma, easy to use
Bamboo Grilling delicate vegetables, tofu, seafood. Minimal flavor impact, high consistent heat
Olive Pit Grilling Mediterranean vegetables, seafood, lamb. Light earthy aroma and flavor
Fruit Woods (apple, cherry) Smoking or grilling pork, poultry, baking. Fruity, slightly sweet aroma

This comparison shows how the source material and production process make various charcoals better suited for different grilling tasks based on the flavors you want to impart.

Buying Guide for Artisanal Charcoals

Here are some tips for selecting high quality artisanal charcoals:

  • Seek out specialty brands that focus on artisanal production in small batches from sustainably sourced materials. The bag or packaging should highlight the source material and traditional production methods.
  • Avoid lower quality commercial brands with lots of fillers, additives, and chemicals. Check that ingredients are 100% natural.
  • Look for diverse source materials like various fruit and hardwoods, coconut shells, olive pits, etc. This indicates true artisanal production.
  • Seek out legit Japanese bincho tan as brands vary widely in quality. Higher prices often signify better production practices.
  • Select charcoals tailored for your needs whether that's delicate seafood, smoking brisket, or grilling veggies. Try different varieties.
  • Buy from specialty retailers like barbecue supply stores or high end grocers. They often have the best selection and knowledge.
  • Purchase smaller quantities first to sample different charcoals before buying larger amounts.

Taking the time to select high quality artisanal charcoals can significantly enhance your grilling, smoking, and cooking by adding wonderful flavors and aromas. It's worth exploring beyond standard briquettes!

Notable Artisanal Charcoal Brands

To get you started exploring the world of artisanal charcoals, here are some of the most notable small-batch charcoal producers sourcing first-rate materials and using time-honored production methods:

Kamado Joe - Lump Charcoal

  • Based In: China with US headquarters
  • Source Materials: Oak, hickory, maple, walnut, coconut shells
  • Specialties: Lump hardwood charcoals, blended varieties
  • Where To Buy: Specialty retailers, Ace Hardware, Amazon

Gower Charcoal - Lump Charcoal

  • Based In: Swansea, Wales with distribution across the UK
  • Source Materials: Hardwood Ash
  • Specialties: Lump charcoals
  • Where To Buy: Buy artisanal lumpwood charcoal

Fogo - Lump Charcoal

  • Based In: Mexico and Latin America
  • Source Materials: Mesquite, oak, hickory, pecan
  • Specialties: Hardwood lump charcoals
  • Where To Buy: Grocery stores, specialty retailers, online

Rockwood - All Natural Lump Charcoal

  • Based In: USA
  • Source Materials: Maple, hickory, oak, other woods
  • Specialties: All natural lump charcoals
  • Where To Buy: Home Depot, specialty retailers, online

Big Green Egg Charcoal

  • Based In: Indonesia with US distribution
  • Source Materials: Hardwoods, coconut shells
  • Specialties: Lump charcoals for kamado grills
  • Where To Buy: Direct via Big Green Egg website

Fire & Flavor All Natural Charcoal

  • Based In: USA
  • Source Materials: North American hardwoods
  • Specialties: All natural lump charcoal
  • Where To Buy: Specialty retailers, Amazon

This list covers some of the top producers of gourmet lump charcoals using traditional artisanal methods. Seek them out to discover new flavors and aromas for your cooking!

Incorporating Unique Charcoal Flavors

Artisanal charcoals span a wide spectrum of flavors from robust hickory to delicate fruit woods. Here are some tips for incorporating them into your cooking:

  • Match charcoal flavors to the foods you are cooking. For example, use hickory lump charcoal for pork or mesquite for beef.
  • Blend charcoals to create your own signature flavor. Mix a fruit wood charcoal with coconut shells for sweet, smoky flavor.
  • Layer charcoals by starting with milder varieties and gradually adding more robust flavors towards the end of grilling.
  • Use stronger charcoals for heartier foods that can stand up to intense smoke like brisket or ribs.
  • Opt for milder charcoals like bamboo or coconut shells when grilling lighter foods like seafood or vegetables.
  • Combine charcoal types in different areas of the grill or smoker to create indirect flavoring zones.

  • Infuse charcoal aromas by adding wood chips, herbs, spices, or wetted aromatics right to the charcoal.

Don't be afraid to experiment with gourmet charcoals to discover new flavor dimensions for your cooking!

10 Unique Ways to Use Artisanal Charcoals

Beyond traditional grilling and smoking, artisanal charcoals can be used in some creative ways:

  1. Pizzas: Toss charcoal chunks directly into pizza ovens for smoky, grilled flavors. Fruit wood charcoals pair nicely with Veggie pizzas.
  2. Cooking over Campfire: Use diverse lump charcoals and add aromatics for customized campfire cooking.
  3. Smoking Cheese: Add charcoal chunks to smoke generators to cold smoke cheeses for unique flavors.
  4. Flavoring Salt: Smoke plain salt with charcoal to make your own distinctive finishing salts.
  5. Infusing Vodka or Whiskey: Smoke spirits with cherry or apple wood charcoals to create artisanal infused liquors.
  6. Roasting Vegetables: Toss chunk charcoals right into a roasting pan with veggies for smoky roasted flavors.
  7. Making Charcoal Powder: Grind charcoal into a fine powder to use as an ingredient in rubs, marinades, and barbecue sauce.
  8. Backyard Firepit: Use interesting lump charcoals and aromatics to enhance the smell and experience of a cozy backyard fire.
  9. Tabletop Smoker Box: Add charcoal chunks and wood chips to small tabletop smokers used to smoke foods indoors.
  10. Soap Infusion: Place charcoal chunks in water used to make artisanal soaps for beautifully smoked soaps.

Don't limit yourself - artisanal charcoals can be used in many creative ways beyond just grilling to infuse amazing new flavors!

Combining Charcoal With Other Flavor Sources

There are endless possibilities for layering artisanal charcoals with other flavor sources for uniquely delicious results:

Combining Charcoal With Woods

Soak or mist fruit, herb, and aromatic woods directly over charcoal for boosted flavors. Hickory, apple, mesquite, and pecan all add signature flavors.

Using Herbs with Lump Charcoal

Try rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, or tea leaves placed over charcoal to infuse foods with herbal essences.

Adding Spices To Artisanal Charcoal

Whole spices like cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, or chiles smoked over charcoal lend exotic nuances.

Lumpwood Charcoal & Citrus

Smoked citrus peels or misted citrus juice contributes brightness when combined with charcoal.

Smoking Teas with Lumpwood Charcoal

Smoking brewed teas like Lapsang souchong, genmai cha, or jasmine green tea produces marvelous flavor fusions.

Using Liquor and other Liquids

Mist or atomize smoky bourbons, flavored vinegars, wines, teas, and fruit juices over charcoal for an added layer of flavor.

Nut Woods

Adding pecan, walnut, almond, or peanut shells to charcoal generates rich, roasty flavors.

Dried Herbs and Flowers

Try smoking bundles of rosemary, thyme, lavender, tea leaves, peppercorns, or cloves wrapped in cheesecloth.

Wetted Aromatics

Soak flavorful materials like hay, vine clippings, juniper boughs, corn husks, coffee beans to generate smoke.

Mix, match, and experiment with diverse aromatics layered over quality charcoal until you find your ultimate flavor combinations!

Grilling and Smoking With Artisanal Charcoals

Grilling and smoking with artisanal charcoals introduces countless possibilities for flavoring all types of meats, seafood, vegetables, and other foods:

Grilling Delicate Foods


Light charcoals like bamboo and coconut shells add flavor without overpowering delicate shrimp, scallops, fish fillets, and whole fish.


Fruit wood or olive pit charcoals lend subtle flavors that complement grilled veggies like eggplant, asparagus, corn, mushrooms, and squash.


Milder charcoals allow the flavors of chicken, turkey, game hens, and quail to take center stage.

Grilling Robust Foods

  • Beef - Hardwood lump charcoals like hickory, oak, or mesquite infuse big beefy flavor into steaks, roasts, ribs, and burgers.
  • Pork - Oak, pecan, apple, cherry, or maple charcoals provide perfect sweet, smoky flavor for pork chops, tenderloins, ribs, and pulled pork.
  • Lamb - Fruit wood charcoals lend fruity essences to lamb chops, kebabs, and racks while mesquite boosts gaminess.
  • Sausages - Almost any charcoal variety complements sausages ranging from smoky oak to fruit woods for versatility.
  • Vegetables - Even hearty veggies like potatoes, onions, peppers, carrots, and eggplant shine over hardwood or blended charcoals.

Smoking Large Cuts

  • Brisket - A base of oak lump charcoal with a blend of hickory, pecan, or mesquite provides perfect flavor for authentic Texas-style brisket.
  • Pork Shoulder - Blend mild and sweet fruit wood charcoals with some hickory or oak for ultimate smoke flavor in pulled pork.
  • Beef Ribs - Straight hickory or mesquite lump charcoal generates the quintessential barbecue rib flavor.
  • Whole Chickens - A combo of oak lump and apple wood charcoals infuses great all-around flavor into smoked chickens.
  • Salmon - Alder wood charcoal produces the definitive Northwest salmon smoke flavor keeping the fish moist.

The possibilities are endless for perfecting flavor profiles and recipes by combining diverse artisanal charcoals with different grilling and smoking techniques. Explore until you find your favorite pairings that make your food taste its best.

Safety Tips When Using Artisanal Charcoals

While providing great flavor, artisanal lump charcoals and different shaped chunks can present some safety considerations:

  • Use extra caution when adding new charcoal chunks since they may spark and flare up more than briquettes.
  • Start charcoals in a charcoal chimney or separate area until fully lit before adding to grill or smoker.
  • Let coals burn and stabilize for 5-10 minutes before cooking to avoid flares from gasses being released.
  • Position irregular lumps carefully to allow proper airflow and prevent choking the fire. Don't overload grill.
  • Monitor temperature closely as uneven shapes can lead to heat spikes. Make adjustments as needed.
  • Always have a spray bottle of water and fire extinguisher handy in case you need to quickly control a flare up.
  • Dispose of ashes carefully in metal containers since some charcoal chunks may retain heat even after cooking.
  • Store charcoal bags properly away from other combustibles and sources of moisture.

With some extra care, you can safely enjoy all the amazing flavors that artisanal charcoals bring to your cooking!

The Future of Artisanal Charcoals

The whole world of artisanal lump charcoals provides an exciting new dimension for grilling and smoking enthusiasts. Here are some possible future trends:

  • New and exotic source materials - Producers may source sustainable organic materials from around the world like South American or African hardwoods, olive pits from the Mediterranean, or Asian bamboo.
  • Innovative production methods - Artisans may devise new kiln designs and burning techniques to create charcoals with more complex flavors. The possibilities are endless.
  • Flavored and infused charcoals - Look for lump charcoals featuring organic flavors from embedded ingredients like citrus peels, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, or liquors.
  • Boutique and designer charcoals - More specialty producers will emerge offering charcoals marketed around exotic source materials, unique flavors, or custom crafting techniques.
  • Next level flavor combinations - Companies may sell pre-blended combinations of lump charcoals and aromatics tailored for specific grilling recipes and food pairings.
  • Direct to consumer sales - Small producers will leverage e-commerce to provide artisanal charcoals directly to home grillers hungry for new specialty products.

The world of artisanal charcoals has lots of room for innovation to provide creative new fuel sources and incredible layers of flavor for grilling and smoking aficionados. What will they think of next?


The rich diversity of artisanal charcoals opens up amazing new possibilities for flavoring your grilling and smoking that go far beyond standard briquettes. With small-batch charcoals made from different woods, shells, and pits using time-honored techniques, you can customize flavors based on what you are cooking. Experiment with the wide variety of lump charcoals available to find your perfect matches. Blend and layer charcoals with other aromatics for truly signature flavor combinations. The world of artisanal charcoals provides tons of room for creativity and discovering new essences for your cooking!