The History of Pellet Grills & Smokers.
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What is a Pellet Grill?
Pellet grills are the hottest products in BBQ – and for good reason. Both convenient backyard cookers and competition-level smokers, pellet grills appeal to beginners and pros alike. Easy-to-use, they’re perfect for anyone who wants to enjoy classic BBQ at home. Capable of cooking blue ribbon food, pellet grills have also become the go-to smoker for many championship BBQers.
However, BBQ’s newest star isn’t all that new. In fact, the pellet grill has been around for nearly thirty years. During that time, it has evolved from an innovative alternative to traditional wood-and-coal smokers to a versatile multipurpose cooker that can smoke, sear, roast, and even bake.
Pellet Stoves to Pellet Grills
The origins of pellet grills (also called pellet smokers) trace back to the 1970’s oil crisis and the demand for an affordable heat source. One alternative was wood pellets, small hardwood capsules made by compressing sawdust. By 1982, Joe Traeger, whose family owned an Oregon heating company, began experimenting with a pellet-burning furnace.
Pellet stoves enjoyed popularity in the Northwest and Northeast, but the Traeger name would ultimately become synonymous with a different product. During a Fourth of July barbecue in 1985, Joe stepped away from cooking chicken, only to return and find the grill engulfed in flames. Kicking it over in frustration, he began a quest to build a better grill, one that burned wood pellets.
The Beginning: Traeger Grills®
Traeger developed their first grill in 1985, patented it in 1986, and began producing it in 1988. The grill’s exterior design borrowed heavily from traditional offset smokers—a classic drum barrel body with a chimney; where the side-mounted firebox had been, Traeger put the pellet hopper. Outwardly, the grill resembled the same charcoal-and-wood smokers that had been used for generations. Inside, however, was a different story.
Like pellet stoves, the electric Traeger Grills controlled by a simple three-position switch. The wood pellets traveled from the hopper onto a rotating auger that fed them into a firepot. A fan stoked the fire and helped distribute heat. Although early Traeger Grills had to be lit manually, the company eventually adopted automatic start, using ignitor rods to light the pellets.
Both fuel source and flavor enhancer, the food-grade pellets contained no additives except vegetable oil, often used as a lubricant during production. Because of their small size and composition, pellets lit easier than charcoal and burned cleanly. Available in a variety of woods, they produced the smoky taste coveted by BBQ lovers.
The Traeger Grill revolutionized smoking, making it simple and convenient. Like a gas grill, Traeger Grills had a continuous fuel source, the auger feeding pellets onto the firepot. You could walk away without worrying about stoking coals or adjusting vents. Like a traditional smoker, these grills used indirect cooking—a diffuser plate between the grates and firepot distributed heat and eliminated the flare-ups that had ruined Joe’s chicken.
Traeger took his reinvented grill on the road, performing demos for a public that had never seen anything like it. Thanks to its patent, for twenty years Traeger remained the only name in pellet grills, developing a loyal following among BBQ enthusiasts.
In 2007, a year after Traeger’s patent expired, Joe sold the company. Though the brand lived on as the name in pellet grills, it now had competition. Fans of Traeger Grills had innovative ideas of their own.
Competition Arrives: The Next Generation of Pellet Grills
An early competitor was Louisiana Grills, which began selling pellet grills in 2006. One of their first changes was to move the firepot closer to the hopper, shortening how far the pellets traveled and cutting down on pellet jams. It’s a move that would later be adopted by brands like Memphis Wood Fire Grills® and FireCraft™.
While Louisiana Grills found a way to improve reliability, Green Mountain Grills saw an opportunity to improve safety. A long-time Traeger customer, the company’s founder, David Baker, noticed the grills got too hot after being turned off, especially near the hopper where the wiring was housed. His answer was to design Green Mountain Grills with a fan feature that cooled the grill during shutdown.
“My father is an innovator and always made comments about how this grill he was grilling on could be so much better,” said Jason Baker, David’s son and Green Mountain Grills’ Director of Business Development. That innovative streak was apparent in the decision to give Green Mountain Grills a peaked lid, providing more room for roasts and turkeys. In the years to come, other brands would utilize a similar concept, incorporating more vertical space to accommodate secondary cooking racks.
Set-It and Forget-It: The Evolution of Easy
From the beginning, simplicity was the selling point of pellet grills. When the hopper was loaded and the controller was set, the grill supplied its own fuel and smoke. It was a true set-it and forget-it product, but one that needed refining to compete with the best grills and smokers on the market.
Of particular concern was heat retention, especially in cold weather. “Pellet grills didn’t run hot enough for harsh winters,” said Jeff Thiessen, President of Louisiana Grills. Even in warm weather, heat loss caused significant fluctuations in temperature that affected cooking. One solution was to use thicker steel and better construction. Louisiana Grills went an extra step, rolling the metal for each grill with its corresponding lid, ensuring a snug fit and gapless seal.
While better construction helped make pellet grills more efficient year-round cookers, the most significant advancement was in temperature control. The low, medium, and high settings on the original three-position controller approximated a temperature, but with big jumps in between. Each setting represented a duty-cycle, the length of time the auger fed pellets, then rested, before starting again. However, the cycles were fixed. Whether the grill was within five degrees or fifty degrees of its target temperature, the next duty-cycle was the same duration. These early grills struggled to maintain consistent temperatures.
The next generation of pellet grills featured multi-position controllers with better temperature control. The improved accuracy was owed to sensors that read the pellet grill’s internal temperature and provided feedback to the controller, telling it to adjust the duty-cycle. This adjustable duty-cycle dramatically improved the temperature accuracy of the grills.
The introduction of algorithmic technology has transformed today’s pellet grills into high-tech cookers with unprecedented temperature control. These advanced pellet grills utilize sophisticated algorithms that continuously alter the pellet grill’s duty-cycle, allowing them to zero-in on a desired temperature. The addition of intermittent fans has further enhanced that ability. By blowing short puffs of air, the grill can achieve small, super-precise temperature changes. That precision has allowed some brands to adopt fully digital controllers that can be set in 5°F increments.
Mirroring the trend toward intuitive products, some brands have applied these advances to create smart pellet grills. Utilizing a meat probe in tandem with an internal sensor, the controller reads both the grill and food temperatures, lowering the heat when the meat is done. Never before, with any outdoor cooker, could you walk away so confident and worry-free.
Beyond Indirect Grilling
Smokers have traditionally done only one thing: cook indirectly. However, the newer and more advanced digital controls produce higher cooking temperatures, thus allowing some pellet grills to become versatile multipurpose cookers. Louisiana Grills, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack® and FireCraft all offer options that let you switch between indirect and open-flame cooking. Now the same grill can sear a perfect steak, smoke a brisket, roast a turkey or cook a pizza.
The Platinum Market
As the pellet grill field has grown, brands have had to separate themselves from the competition. A few have done so by establishing a super-premium market. Appealing to backyard chefs, these high-end units offer advanced algorithmic technology, stylish looks, and superior performance.
Bob Borgerding, General Manager of Memphis Wood Fire Grills, said about creating a super-premium brand, “We wanted to take what had been done before and create differentiation.” Their versatile stainless steel grills reach 700°F, feature dual-walled construction, and a sleek modern design. They also offer built-in options for customers who want the ultimate outdoor cooking experience. In 2016, Memphis became the first pellet grill manufacturer to include cloud-based WiFi control with their grills, allowing users to control their grill from their phone or tablet anywhere they have internet access. It was a huge step forward for pellet grills and BBQ. It also reset the bar for every other pellet grill manufacturer, many of which are racing to adopt wireless capabilities. In fact, in the next few years, WiFi capability will likely be standard on most quality pellet grills
Another super-premium brand, Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack makes large double-walled stainless steel grills that have a rugged commercial exterior and versatile four-zone cooking that includes dedicated areas for direct and indirect cooking, as well as cold smoking.
The New Class
While the emergence of high-end pellet grills attracted new buyers, it also created a void. Traeger-inspired models performed well but lacked upscale features. The super-premium models cost significantly more. In between, there was little.
To fill that space, some brands have started making pellet grills that offer excellent construction and performance, but cost under $1,000. Firecraft produces a stainless steel pellet grill, while Louisiana Grills sells several heavy-duty models. Both offer the latest digital controllers that can be set in 5°F increments, a meat temperature probe, and direct cooking options.
The Future of Pellet Grills
Thanks to the popularity of cooking shows and restaurants exploring the style, BBQ and grilling are at the forefront of culinary culture. Versatile and easy-to-use, pellet grills are ideal for a public moving beyond hot dogs and hamburgers. A true set-it and forget-it product, they’re perfect for people hungry for authentic BBQ flavor but lacking the time and expertise for traditional smoking. On the competitive circuit, pellet Grills are also garnering fanfare, with serious smokers using them to make championship BBQ.
Pellet grills are the fastest growing category in BBQ. However, they still only account for a small percentage of overall BBQ grill sales. An ongoing obstacle is educating the public, most of which is unaware of pellet grills and what they can do.
“There’s a total lack of awareness,” said Jeff Thiessen, noting that showing pellet grills in action is still the best way to win customers. “The demo sells the grill along with word-of-mouth—this is a grassroots industry.”
The recent growth of bargain brands sold in big-box stores has given pellet grills a larger audience than ever before. It’s a development that benefits every manufacturer—the more that people learn about pellet grills, the more likely they are to discover what each brand has to offer.
“Big growth is a when issue, not an if issue,” said Bob Borgerding. “Converting is all about education, and the industry needs to work together on it.”
The Rebirth of Traeger
In 2014, Traeger was taken over by a group led by Jeremy Andrus, the former CEO of headphone makers Skullcandy. The new ownership brought a level of marketing savvy and expertise not seen in pellet grills or BBQ, as well as a desire to introduce Traeger to the masses. Almost immediately, Traeger began rebranding itself, targeting a younger, more outgoing audience. It established a huge presence on social media, hired a gourmet chef to create Traeger-inspired recipes that appeal to the foodie community, and enlisted brand advocates that reflect an active, outgoing lifestyle. They also updated and redesigned their grills to reflect recent advances in pellet grill technology and performance.
However, Traeger wasn’t satisfied with simply selling to the Skullcandy demographic it knew so well. The ultimate goal was to make Traeger a household name, and so the new ownership put its grills in big box stores, where they could be seen by the average shopper. They also dipped began a Traeger Roadshow, showcasing the grill and its abilities for customers who could see and touch the grill, and taste the food the came off of it. The on-site demos were a move right out of the Traeger family playbook, when Joe’s sons would take the original Traeger Grill around the Northwest, winning over converts one stop at a time.
Recognizing that pellet grills are a “show-me” product, Traeger took their roadshow to television, producing a half-hour infomercial that introduced millions of viewers to pellet grills and what they’re capable of. For the better part of decade, pellet grill makers knew that once people saw their grills, they’d be sold. Traeger proved them right. By the end of 2016, there was more interest than ever in pellet grill, thanks in large part to Traeger’s marketing efforts. For those that doubt the Traeger effect, consider this: the term Traeger Grill was searched more than 3X as often as the term pellet grill.
Traeger’s success had a positive effect on the industry as a whole. Their marketing created a trickle down effect: The more people learn about Traeger, the more aware they become of other pellet grills on the market. Everyone reaped the benefits. While Traeger positioned itself as the Weber of pellet grills, the brand people know and trust, every other brand enjoyed increased exposure to potential customers.
Information for this article was gathered through interviews, articles, user feedback, online forums, and manufacturer websites. A list of those sources follows:
- http://livingoutfitters.com/brands/wood-pellet-products – Traeger Stove
- http://www.google.ee/patents/US4619209#backward-citations – Patent Traeger furnace
- http://www.catholicsentinel.org/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=35&ArticleID=1375 – Traeger stove/grill
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pellet_stove – pellet stove history
- http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/1525/seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees – pellets invented
- http://seriousbirder.com/blogs/what-are-food-grade-wood-pellets/ – food-grade pellets
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=27009.0 – early Traeger Grill, electric was for fan and auger
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=6389.0 – early Traeger
- http://www.bbq-brethren.com/forum/showthread.php?t=61093 – discussion, images, old Traeger
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=358.0;wap2 – early memory of traeger grills, demos
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=293.0 – LA vs. Traeger
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=243.0 – LA vs. Traeger
- http://pelletheads.com/index.php?topic=243.0 – Green Mountain 2008
- http://www.catholicsentinel.org/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=35&ArticleID=1375 – history Traeger
- http://grilljunkieguy.com/tag/traeger-grills/ – wood pellets food
- http://barbecuebible.com/2015/02/20/new-pellet-grills/ – pellet grills, general
- http://blog.greenmountaingrills.com/27/ – interview GMG
- http://www.casualliving.com/article/487312-prime-time-pellets – growth pellet grills, patent expired
- http://amazingribs.com/BBQ_buyers_guide/smokers/pellet_smokers.html – Traeger bkgrnd
- http://greenmountaingrills.com – Green Mountain Grills
- https://memphisgrills.com/ – Memphis Wood Fire Grills
- http://www.traegergrills.com/ – Traeger Grills
- http://www.cookshack.com/store/Grills – Fast Eddy’s
- http://www.louisiana-grills.com/ – Louisiana Grills
- http://www.firecraft.com/ FireCraft