Needless to say, over the course of two decades I've tested a lot of lump charcoal. The main things that separate the different brands are price and sourcing of material to carbonize.
Personally, I prefer brands that offer "medium/large" pieces of lump charcoal that are relatively uniform. For all practical purposes, these are easier use.
Apart from that, all I care about is price.
I want to preface this entire article by saying that I would be doing a disservice to the Barbecue world if I didn't mention Doug Hanthorn's site: Naked Whiz.
Doug has been reviewing and and extensively documenting different brands of Lump Charcoal for over two decades. Meaning, if you don't see a particular brand of lump charcoal in this article - there's a very good chance that Doug has reviewed it.
In my opinion, there are only a few different factors that separate different brands of lump charcoal. For example, things like method of carbonization and the species of wood used.
Aside from that, lump charcoal is simply carbonized wood.
Note: Unlike a lot of reviews for lump charcoal, I've actually used every brand I'm about to outline in this article (as well as many more). This guide is long and in-depth and shares my personal experiences using them.
Of the different brands of lump charcoal I've bought over the years, B&B has been the most consistent (closely followed by Jealous Devil).
Note: I do have some qualms as of 2022 though, which I address below.
In terms of pricing, they're still unmatched. Cost per pound is a huge factor for me and will likely be one for you too.
My local Runnings (a farming supply/outdoor store) sells their Oak B&B Lump charcoal for $16.99 for a 20 lb bag. In comparison, Jealous Devil is $24.98 at my local Home Depot for a 20 lb bag.
In terms of cost per pound, B&B is by far the best of any brand that's local to me.
While $8 doesn't seem like much, if you're barbecued for as long as I have, that number starts to add up over time.
I also appreciate the fact that when I look in the bag of B&B lump charcoal, I see actual trees/limbs as apposed to pieces of scrap or wood that I can't qualify (pictured below). I've also never had an instance where I see a piece of wood that looks "foreign" or that it didn't belong.
Another thing to note is that B&B sells lump charcoal based on the hardwood being carbonized. Where I'm from in New England, I can only find the Oak lump charcoal - which isn't a huge issue as Oak is super consistent.
There was one time I did find the "char-logs" pictured below:
Granted, the char-logs are more so reminiscent of briquettes rather than lump charcoal.
In your local area you might be able to find the Hickory or Mesquite lump charcoal. Mesquite is a type of wood that most folks don't really use for smoking simply because the smoke flavor is quite strong.
Rather, it's commonly burned down to use as a coal-bed just because it produces a hot, long lasting fire.
My qualms with B&B in 2022: I will say, while I still find B&B to be consistent in terms of the lump sizes, you'll find far less "huge" pieces these days in the bags. This could be due to the fact that they started selling "Texas Sized" lump charcoal which contains much larger pieces.
The bag pictured in this review is the 2021 version - even though I bought it in May 2022.
Also, if you're unaware, Duraflame bought B&B charcoal (previously a Family owned business). Some folks have said that Clorox owns Duraflame and since they own Kingsford, quality will likely drop.
However, when researching this notion, it isn't true. Even visiting Clorox's brands page, Duraflame isn't listed.
This video by View to a Grill demonstrates my point in terms of sizing differences. The video is timestamped and you can immediately see what I'm referring to.
Likely what's happening is the "Texas Sized" bag contains larger lumps to compete with products like FOGO's Super premium and Kamado Joe XL (both of which are below).
Nevertheless, for the time being, B&B is my preference.
If there is one brand that's super hyped in the world of Lump charcoal, it's Jealous Devil. A lot of websites that do reviews like this will typically put JD at number 1.
To me, B&B more consistently offers me pieces of lump charcoal that I like (medium/large pieces for smoking) and also minimizes the number of small pieces that don't do much for grilling or smoking.
Granted, if B&B ends up having quality issues due to selling the larger chunks under a different bag - for more money - I might have to switch to Jealous Devil.
Jealous Devil probably has the best consistently in terms of sizing. Meaning, the "chunx" as they put it are essentially all the same size and you get those pieces throughout the entire bag.
Jealous Devil doesn't tell you on the bag what type of wood they use to carbonize but visiting Doug's site (nakedwhiz.com), we can see that they use:
"Jealous Devil is made in Paraguay from a South American wood called Quebracho Blanc..."Doug Hanthorn, Nakedwhiz.com
Whenever I buy Jealous Devil, I always ensure the bag I'm buying is the "Chunx" version.
Inside the bag are minimal amounts of small pieces/dust which tends to plague lower quality brands. I've also never found any foreign materials or "non-wood" materials inside a bag.
Lighting causes very little pings inside your chimney which is great. The lump/heat lasts for a really long time - which is common for a hardwood like Quebracho.
I only wish the price was a bit lower.
Royal Oak is a brand that I can almost always count on to be available at any of the local places I buy lump charcoal from - whether it's Home Depot, Runnings, or a Walmart Supercenter.
A 15.44 lb bag usually costs around $15-17 dollars which is quite affordable. The size distribution is usually quite consistent - Nothing is overtly large or super small and the amount of charcoal dust is minimal.
Here's a photo from a chimney of Royal Oak lump charcoal:
On Royal Oak's website, we can see they say their lump charcoal is made from American Oak and Hickory hardwood, and nothing else.
Royal Oak actually has a video going over how they make their lump charcoal as well as what goes into filtering the contents of the lump charcoal for foreign containments - ie. using magnets to grab metal and using Human's to check for wood that isn't fully carbonized as well as other contaminants.
When lighting, there are minimal pings and pops and lighting is quite average when compared to other brands.
The lump lasts for quite a while and produces a small amount of ash in comparison to other brands.
FOGO is a brand that's not readily available to me and I've never seen it at my local spots for where I get lump charcoal.
However, my best friend recently got into smoking and bought a 35 lb bag off of Amazon. I went over to his house to check it out. To date, I've smoked two spatchcocked chickens, a chuck roast, hot dog burnt ends (check out our recipe) and I've also grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.
What I quickly noticed is that the Black bag definitely has what I'd deem smaller pieces and dust (more on the dust/residue below), as apposed to the medium/larger size that I prefer with B&B or JD.
When researching this, the amount of medium sized pieces in the black bag is entirely on purpose. In a video, FOGO notes that their black bag is designed for more even heating as apposed to hot spots, which can happen due to inconsistent sized pieces of lump charcoal.
Rather, their "Super Premium" lump charcoal (brown bag) is made for smoking low and slow. My buddy also bought the brown bag so I tested those out too. If you're into smoking, this bag is more your speed.
Mainly because the size of the lumps is super impressive. Pictured below are a few:
Similar to Doug, I also noticed that it took a bit longer for the FOGO lump charcoal to actually light. My buddy uses Tumble Weed starters and even with two under his chimney, it's rather slow going; However once it lights, the fire does build.
I did notice initial pings/popping in the black bag which is counter to Doug's comments. However, my buddy lights over a firebrick away from grass so it's not a huge issue.
Something to note about the black bag is that it feels like a residue/dust is applied to the outer surface; Almost like the consistency of activated charcoal. I've never experienced it on other brands of lump charcoal but it could be related to how they carbonize their wood.
This also results in tons of dust at the bottom of the bag. This same residue isn't on the outer surface of the brown bag either.
If FOGO was local to me, I'd likely buy it - especially the brown bag. However, for the online prices, I'd likely never opt to use it. A 17.6 lb bag of the super premium is near $35. At the time of writing this (8/23/2022) the 35 lb black bag is on sale for roughly $45, marked down from nearly $60.
Click here to check the current price of the brown bag.
To round out this review, I wanted to include a brand that I've used a few times but I can't source locally, Kamado Joe.
Again, I quite like using medium/large chunks so I've opted to buy their XL version off of Amazon a few times.
If you're someone who likes larger lumps - the Kamado Joe "Big Block XL" includes a healthy amount of medium/large lumps and minimizes small chunks and dust.
If you're unaware, Kamado Joe is a manufacturer of Ceramic grills or "Kamados." It sort of goes without saying that most grill manufacturers want to keep your business at all points of your Barbecue journey.
Whether that's with the purchase of their grill, their equipment, their charcoal, etc.
To illustrate: This is the same reason Traeger, Pit Boss, Grilla Grills, etc. all make pellets; In some cases they even have their own pellet mill.
The reason for this is that they get you on the front-end through the purchase of their grill as well as the back-end by using their pellets.
Keep in mind though, just because you own a Kamado Joe doesn't mean that you can't use a different brand of lump charcoal. Conditional warranty coverage like this is against the law.
The biggest reason Kamado Joe makes lump charcoal as apposed to briquettes is because lump charcoal produces far less ash than briquettes. Regardless of brand of Kamado, they'll all tell you to use Lump charcoal for this reason.
To me, the Big Block XL charcoal is very similar to that of FOGO's brown bag - only the lumps are a tad smaller. This is actually a good thing as you really don't need huge pieces of lump charcoal.
Of the different brands though, Kamado is by far the most expensive. On Amazon, I'll only buy this charcoal if it's on a significant discount. For this review specifically, I bought the charcoal marked on sale from $69.99 to $29.99 for a 20 lb bag; The latter being way more realistic.
In the bags I have bought though, I've never found any foreign contaminants and it's nice to see actual limbs. According to the Kamado Joe website, the lumps are sourced from Argentina.
More specifically: "Authentically crafted from a blend of guayacan, guayaibi, aistal, and white quebracho hardwoods"
"Quebracho" quite literally means "axe breaker" - meaning it's a very hard wood. Kamado likely uses it because it produces very little ash and it burns for a long time.
I will say, something I don't quite care for is the plastic barrier between the bags. I'm assuming it's used to prevent moisture ingress. I'm not sure how much more it costs to manufacturer a bag like this but it's not necessary. Rather, you can simply roll the bag closed and store off the ground in a cool dry place and be totally fine.
I've even run tests on briquettes completely soaked in water for 2 hours and they still light. Charcoal also doesn't expire or go bad due to moisture.
Overall, Kamado Joe Big Block XL features a consistent number of medium/large pieces with minimal pings/pops when lighting. My only issue lies in the price of the charcoal - there's no dancing around the fact that it's expensive.
Rather, Jealous Devil carbonizes the same hardwood - Quebracho Blanc - and is more affordable even if Kamado Joe is on sale. Jealous Devil's lump charcoal is just as consistent, if not more consistent than Kamado Joe.
It sort of goes without saying that not much really separates these different brands of lump charcoal. Again, lump charcoal is simply carbonized wood.
The biggest differentiators are essentially price and the material being carbonized. Of these two factors, prices wins out for me every single time.
There are three main "types" of lump charcoal. The word types refers to the wood used to make lump charcoal.
Of these different "types" - I'd wager to say that most folks prefer to use limbs, natural wood, as well as saw mill wood scrap; Both are forms of unprocessed wood.
Where-as kiln dried lumber scrap could consist of processed wood like flooring scrap. In my experience, these types of lump charcoal also tend to burn rather quickly and are more prone to breaking when moved.
This is often why you hear folks on Barbecue forums say "the folks at the warehouse must of had a bad day" or something to that affect. The remnants of their bag consisting mostly of small pieces of lump that broke apart.
I've personally had this happen from almost every brand above where I get a "bad bag." Whose to say the reasoning - whether it's the brands fault, or the folks handling the bags in the warehouses.
Remember, in some cases these bags are traveling from places like South America, all the way to New England (where I live), are handled by several different people, and may even be handled by a delivery person from UPS/Fedex; It's bound to happen.
It should be noted that there have been "horror stories" of people finding all types of items inside bags of lump charcoal. In my 15 years of buying lump charcoal, I've only ever found a piece of twine in a bag.
To me, that's a pretty good track record across dozens of brands.
I know some people have found wood that's not fully carbonized, rocks/pebbles, varnished wood, etc. These are pretty rare occurrences, even if you're the fortunate one to experience it.
Throughout my reviews, you might of noticed that I prefer large/medium chunks of charcoal - some folks are opposite to me and prefer them all to be small/medium.
The reason I prefer large/medium chunks is because I find it easier to reload my charcoal when they're bigger - simple as that.
If I'm smoking, I can grab a few large pieces and be good for a while (in terms of volume) as apposed to grabbing the bag, tilting it, and dumping it into my smoker.
With that said, the weight of lump being used matters, the size doesn't.
If you have 2 lbs of small/medium pieces and 2 lbs of large pieces, they will burn for nearly the same amount of time. The size of lump charcoal doesn't change the amount of potential energy nor how long it lasts - the weight does.
The only thing that changes heat and burn time is quantity. It's a similar concept to:
"Which weighs more? 1 lb of feathers or 1 lb of rocks."
They both weigh the same; A pound of anything is a pound of weight.
With that said, you also don't want a brand that has tons of small pieces/dust; Most folks would feel cheated if they received a bag like this. The biggest issue with small pieces/dust is that they'll fall between your grates and are essentially unusable.