Heating Fuel vs. Cooking Fuel

While BBQ pellets seem like a simple addition to fuel pellet operations, it is a fairly complicated coproduct with many variances relevant to fiber logistics and manufacturing.
By Luke LeRoy and Anna Simet | August 23, 2021

Although there is plenty of disagreement about the exact timeline, man learned to harness and control fire somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million years ago. In other words, humans have spent 52 million Saturdays in the backyard trying to control and manipulate fire to best suit their needs—whether that’s keeping the offspring from freezing to death under their mammoth rugs, or preserving and preparing meat for consumption.

In 1897, the charcoal briquette was patented, but it took more than 50 years for the kettle grill (classic, black charcoal grill) to come to existence as a portable and manageable means of utilizing charcoal as a backyard cooking solution. Flavor? Some of the best. Convenience? The charcoal kettle grill still operates like the early models did back in the 1950s.

Somewhere between the charcoal briquette and the advent of the kettle grill came the patent on the first gas grill—1930, to be exact—and husbands have been disappointing their families by drying out chicken ever since. Why are they so popular? It’s easy to make a case for convenience: Turn the knob and the cooking grates are sizzling within minutes. Sure, grill designs and burner technology have advanced dramatically, but the gas grill has a fatal flaw that it cannot outrun: chemistry. Propane burns dry, which robs meat of moisture and flavor.

In 1985, Joe Traeger invented the pellet grill and locked it up with a patent the following year. While that was 35-plus years ago, it has been in recent years that the BBQ pellet market has really begun to explode. The intense smoke created by BBQ pellets locks in the natural qualities of the meat while adding a controlled, consistent smoke flavor, and those who own a pellet grill often swear they’ll never go back to other methods.

BBQ pellet manufacturers capitalizing on the boom are a mix of existing industry stakeholders—many of whom began with fuel pellets or appliance manufacturing and added BBQ pellets to their product lines—as well as new players. While a seemingly straightforward concept, there are many differences between cooking fuel and heating fuel, from fiber logistics to the manufacturing process, and the list goes on.

A Different Animal
On paper, a facility already geared for processing wood fuel pellets might appear ripe for a shift into the cooking pellet space, but it isn’t so simple. “Fiber procurement is so much more so complex with BBQ pellets than fuel pellets,” says Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons. “You need a variety; you get it from all over the country. It’s just not easy. Input costs are all over the place, and how you handle and store it is all different. It’s probably the most difficult aspect of being in this space.”

Dansons, which owns such brands as Pit Boss, Louisiana Grills and Country Smokers, has been selling BBQ wood pellets since approximately 2002, currently featuring two operating plants with two more scheduled to begin production before the end of 2021. According to Thiessen, Dansons operates the largest dedicated BBQ wood pellet manufacturing capacity in the world. And when it comes to fuel and BBQ pellets, Thiessen is quick to point out that comparing the two, from procurement to production to end use, is like comparing apples and oranges.  “We are very specific about using only hardwood fiber stock for our cooking pellets,” Thiessen says. “We don’t use any softwoods or oils to flavor our pellets. And due to the fact that we only use hardwood fiber—and we require several diverse wood species at a time to make our gourmet blends—the cost of fiber is significantly higher than typical heating pellet feedstocks.”

Though the profit margins of BBQ pellets can be quite a bit higher than those of fuel pellets, most often, feedstock sourcing goes well beyond the typical fuel pellet radius. “It all depends upon the species available to you,” says Bruce Lisle, Lignetics Strategic Initiatives. “Anyone making BBQ pellets west of the Mississippi will have a difficult time, the reason being distance from the hardwood species used to make them. A West Coast producer won’t be able to economically produce BBQ pellets, hauling raw materials across the country. A mill in Indiana or Ohio or Michigan needs to make sure there is a reasonable amount of species around, within a reasonable distance. That’s compared to our domestic wood pellet industry, which is really based on residues—they’ve got to find a place that will generate that residue, or they might be chipping and using roundwood.”

The trickiest part is adaptation to inconsistent cost attributions, from Thiessen’s perspective. Input cost variation ranges widely, and it all ties back to the need for multiple types of fiber required to produce actual 100% hardwood pellet blends. In addition to cost, that consistent sourcing of fiber from a wide variety of hardwood species is a challenge. “Due to the higher cost of raw materials, we keep our feedstock either covered or constantly rotating in order to avoid material degradation,” Thiessen says. “Raw stock for cooking pellets simply cannot be handled in the same way as is done for fuel pellets.”

Feedstock sourcing and handling is the crux of the logistical hurdles, agrees Stephen Faehner, president of American Wood Fibers. “It comes down to better control and management of feedstock and raw materials,” he says. American Wood Fibers is fortunate in the way our systems were already designed—we can see and blend several different mixes together, so it’s not just making a pile out of ingredients A, B and C. We’ve got a fairly robust system to feed in fiber at the right intervals.”

In addition to space requirements for raw material, production timing is another challenge, Faehner says. “An operator might say that a plant has a 100,000 tons of capacity, but that is not so if they’re running BBQ pellets. Suddenly, a plant that they hoped would make 100,000 in fuel pellets might only make 40,000 or 50,000 tons in grilling pellets. A lot of system time is lost going in and out of production—that is, if you’re doing it properly. We don’t have a desire to do it differently; we want to be very quality conscious.”

Faehner adds that increasing SKU count is another component to juggle. “With fuel pellets, you have a 40-lb bag. For BBQ pellets, there are all kinds of different packages—15-, 20-, 30- and 50-lb bags. That SKU count goes up pretty rapidly; I think we are up to about 50 with BBQ pellets. It’s just a different game—managing inventory and production, fiber shopping, all of it is not as simple as one might think. And some [fuel pellet] producers have decided not to mess with it and instead only focus on fuel pellets—that’s not a terrible strategy.”

While there are currently no standards for BBQ pellets like there are heating pellets, Lisle says, “there are some formal conventions, for lack of a better word, that BBQ pellet producers need to be aware of.”  Particularly, when it comes to the actual manufacturing process and the equipment and consumables being used. “When a pellet is combusted, the products of combustion go into the food,” Lisle explains. “At all pellet mills, an important component is grease for the pellet mill bearings. Most contain additives and that’s fine in heating pellets, but some are carcinogenic when combusted. It’s a minute quantity, but it is still there. That’s why using the right grease is important. And some use additives as pellet die lubricant—those also must be looked at. You’re not taking it to the extreme of food grade, but really, you are. From a production standpoint, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Circling back to standards, Lisle says it has been an issue of contention among industry stakeholders, but both he and Faehner believe it would help protect consumers.

Staunch on Standards
“In any industry, you have to have some assurance to the consumer that what’s on the bag is in the bag,” Faehner says. “Unfortunately, there is a little bit of a blight on the wood pellet world, because for a long time, we had very generic standards and they were pretty unsophisticated, from a real process quality management standpoints standpoint.”

That led to some bad consumer experiences and subsequent PR for the industry. Some basic standards for cooking pellets could prevent a similar situation, Faehner says. “I don’t think it has to get super complicated, but I have run my pellet grill—which is a great grill—with some suspect pellets a few times, and then it didn’t run well. It clogs up real fast, the burn pot gets jammed, and then we’re in the same scenario that the fuel pellet stove folks have struggled with.”

“I 100% agree,” Lisle says. “We’re the only ones who have a viable interest in this, so we should develop some basic standards to protect the consumer from bad product. Nobody wants to go through a standards battle—it has been very divisive—but in this case, anyone doing it on a regular basis should already be doing it to a basic standard. What happens is some guys get into the business and put bad stuff out, consumers might see that it’s cheaper and then they don’t have a good experience.”

Lisle gives a specific example dating back a couple decades ago, relevant to heating pellets and why a standard was needed. “A long story short, a store owner had a customer who couldn’t light their pellet fuel,” he says. “The retailer came to assistance and also couldn’t get it to light. They came to find out that in a certain region in Virginia, they had changed the building code. Some fireproof plywood used to build roofs had all been removed—hundreds of roofs—because it was causing molding and other issues. A company picked up this waste stream and made heating pellets out of it. That is the Wild West of wood pellets. Not only should plywood not be used because it’s not virgin fiber, but it was fireproof.”

The point is, Lisle adds, is that most of the people in fuel pellets have been doing it for a long time and are committed to the industry, which is attracting a lot of attention. “We’re getting lots of investor money and it’s attracting different kinds of people who want to participate, so we need to ensure that we’re producing a quality product,” he says.

 Faehner says a standards component as simple as pellet ash content plays a huge role in how a grill performs. “To me, this is one of those situations in which I would rather lead than follow, being proactive vs. reactive,” he says. “I don’t think there is a crisis in quality, but I have burned bags I picked up at retail and they were junk—but I know where they came from and why they were junk, and so do the manufacturers who put them in the bag. If you have bad actors in the industry, you end up with issues, so we want to try to weed them out with quality.”  

Maintaining Momentum
Rather than the desire to diversify producer product lines, it is consumer passion for BBQ pellets that is really driving the market forward. “The passion of the grilling industry is truly a blessing, and it’s my favorite part of being in this [BBQ pellet production] industry segment,” Thiessen says. “People love to grill, and they engage in a different level when they are exploring their passions.”

Right now, the slowing of an industry boom is seemingly nowhere in sight. According to Forbes, the pellet grill industry has enjoyed a 25 to 30% annual growth throughout the latter half of the past decade, and since COVID-19, some reports indicate the past 18 months have produced a 400 to 500% surge in pellet grill demand.

“It’s an exciting market—it is growing fast, and I don’t foresee it slowing down,” Faehner adds. “I understand pellet grills might be 11 or 12% of the market on a sales basis, and I think the runway is long—there is pretty steep potential for BBQ pellets.”

Contact: Anna Simet
Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine