Are Premium (Jealous Devil, FOGO, Primo, etc.) Charcoal Brands Worth Buying?

Before I delved deep into grilling or any kind of barbecue, I genuinely thought that Kingsford was the charcoal out there that everyone used. I never heard of barbecue competitions, if I’m being completely honest, and entering the world of barbecue flipped my entire paradigm upside down as I gained this new hobby that turned into a full-blown passion backed by the enjoyment of throwing down grub that will be enjoyed by those I’m feeding.

The first time I ever grilled on my own, it was on a cheap 17.5″ Backyard Grill charcoal grill that was purchased at Wal-Mart. I used Royal Oak, that was purchased by someone else — the same person who was teaching me how to grill. Up until that point, nobody had taught me how to properly grill; growing up, my mom would use an old charcoal grill and line the top with foil for easy clean-up and to avoid flare-ups. My aunt, who lived within a minute down the road, would often cook family meals and she used a gas grill, even though we all preferred the flavor that charcoal imparts onto meats.

When the person who was teaching me how to grill explained Royal Oak to me, they said, “This is a serviceable charcoal, but Kingsford is the best.”

I got into barbecuing a few months later when I received my first smoker, which was a used offset vertical Brinkmann Trailmaster stick burner. It was great — now, when I say ‘great’, I mean that it got the job done, and being a stick burner, one eating the grub from it would enjoy the best barbecue the world has to offer from the most classically done ‘Q. However, it was a pain in the ass to manage the temps, because you had to continuously babysit the fire by adding more wood periodically, and as stated, it was used… it was several years old by that point, had experienced rust from being outside in rainy and humid weather conditions, and it didn’t seal well so there was a lot of leaky smoke. It eventually rusted to the point of holes being accrued, rendering it unusable, but I miss the heck out of using it, since it was my first smoker and created the barbecue that I first knew of: flavors imparted from logs of wood via an awesome stick burner. I learned how delicious barbecue is a labor of love.

Enough of that story, however. I used Kingsford to start my fire, in a bed of briquettes, before layering it with some genuine southern cherrywood.

2017 was the year I got into the barbecue community on Instagram, and it was the same year I started using my 22.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, which is a ‘water’ smoker featuring a water pan that runs on charcoal briquettes (you can use lump, too, with no issue) and wood chunks.

During that time, I noticed a lot of people in the barbecue community on IG talking about all these ‘foreign’ charcoal brands. I say ‘foreign’ because they were all ‘foreign’ to me. Jealous Devil… FOGO… Primo… there are other brands I’m forgetting, so you will have to forgive me here. This are much smaller companies than, say, Kingsford or Royal Oak or even Stubb’s, and one can say they are ‘niche’ products because the averae griller or barbecuer is unlikely to know of such brands, unless they hang out on social media within the community and follow some of the ‘bigger’ names in the said community who often write about them.

I remember the first time I heard of one of these brands. I believe it was Jealous Devil all natural lump charcoal. One of the big names in the Instagram barbecue community posted about it, and she said she was using it for a barbecue competition, stating that she was using a Weber Smokey Mountain. I was intrigued and read the comments from other Instagrammers who wrote about how good Jealous Devil charcoal is. I remember checking out the price and my mouth dropped. I was used to finding incredible deals on Kingsford and Royal Oak around the major grilling holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day…) for cheap prices (I’m talking 40 or so lbs. for around $10), and then I see Jealous Devil all natural lump charcoal’s price… $33.95 for a bag on Amazon.

It was daunting to see that price for charcoal at first. I mean, I would rather spend that type of money on a brisket, but curiosity grabbed hold of me, and I had to check to see what the fuss is about, so guess what? I ordered a bag. The shipping was super fast and I couldn’t wait to get it.

Before I continue, let me mention something about Kingsford and Royal Oak. As far as Kingsford goes, I can’t believe how many detractors it has on social media. There are so many people who claim they despise the smell of it, describing it as acrid, disgusting and ‘chemical.’ I disagree with all of them, and perhaps my olfactory senses are ‘ignorant’, but I’ve never found that to be the case with trusty ol’ Kingsford blue. As far as Royal Oak goes, it is more known for its lump charcoal than its briquettes, but the knock on it is that, for one, people knock it for having small pieces in the bag, and for two, I’ve read stories of people finding weird items in there, from rocks to nails to barbed wire to concrete chunks to whatever else; I’ve heard similar stories about Cowboy lump charcoal. I have never had these issues with either Royal Oak nor Cowboy, but they are alarming to hear about.

Anywho, I received my bag of Jealous Devil all natural lump charcoal and was pleased to see the consistency with the size of the lump coals. They were pretty much all uniform in size, unlike Royal Oak or Cowboy, with next to no ‘tiny’ pieces. I fired it up for a cook in my Barrel House Cooker 14D, vents wide open, and hung a whole chicken in there. It turned out delicious. The next day, I smoked a few racks of ribs in my Weber Smokey Mountain, using the Jealous Devil all natural lump charcoal, and again, delicious… with the ribs, it held temperature perfectly, but then again, I was using my WSM, which always holds temps better than virtually anything else.

But was it worth the price?

To me? A backyard barbecue guy with business aspirations that have not come to fruition yet?

No.

I’m glad my curiosity influenced me to give it a shot, but as I’ve stated above, after several hundreds of cooks and becoming a lite barbecue veteran, I have never had any issues with Kingsford, Royal Oak, Stubb’s or Cowboy, which are much cheaper brands. As far as Royal Oak and Cowboy lump are concerned, respectively, I’ve never found any weird items in there, and I don’t really mind the small pieces, because if you really want to combat the small pieces from falling throw the cracks of the charcoal grate, you can lay it on a small bed of briquettes.

I can’t consistently afford Jealous Devil, FOGO or Primo charcoal. I mean, I guess I could, but consider how often I’m grilling and barbecuing, it would be a big time money sink for me, personally, if that would be all I use, because instead of putting that same money towards delicious meats, I’d be sinking more of it into charcoal. However, I will say this: if you have disposable income that lends itself towards justifying that kind of spending towards such brands, that is wonderful, but the taste in the food when using such premium brands vs. Kingsford, Royal Oak, Stubb’s, Cowboy, etc. is negligible to me.

I think using such premium brands are worth it if you are entering barbecue competitions, however. Reliable, big chunks of lump that will burn clean & consistently and not impart any ‘chemical’ flavors is something you want on your side in a competitive cook, but for frequent grilling and barbecuing? If you can afford it, go for it, but don’t turn into one of those types of people that wants to “keep up with the Joneses” and use it because it is popular in the niche barbecue community on social media. Use it if you like it and can consistently afford it, because while I have tried FOGO and the others, Jealous Devil is awesome, but I can’t justify using it exclusively as far as my allotted budget is concerned.

Brands like Kingsford, Royal Oak, Stubb’s and Cowboy have never once failed me up to this point, so I’ll be vanilla and stick with them, although I may return to Jealous Devil this fall when I enter another barbecue competition that is coming up.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comment section. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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