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Hearth & Home February 2018

The Pit Barrel Cooker by Pit Barrel Cooker Company.

A Barrel of Fun

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Barrel grills are becoming an exciting new barbecue category, and now is the time for specialty retailers to jump on the bandwagon.

They have been called “garbage can smokers,” “hillbilly smokers,” “ugly drum smokers,” and “crockpots for men.” But lately , barrel grills are becoming known as one of the hottest categories in the barbecue industry.

Inspired by the kind of DIY smokers that have been jerry-rigged in backyards for years from 55-gallon drums, scrap metal and hardware parts, today’s modern, manufactured barrel cookers are shiny-new, preassembled, and ready to fire-up out of the box.

They are catching on as compact and reasonably priced alternatives to large traditional smoker grills and expensive kamados, and as a low-tech, no-frills, foolproof way to produce really good barbecue and smoked foods.

Super-simple and fun to use, charcoal-fueled barrel grills are either made from, or configured similarly to, upright, 55-gallon drums. Food is sometimes placed on a grill rack, but more often it’s hung from hooks inside the drum, where it cooks by convection heat, with temperatures regulated by adjusting the air-intake openings. Drippings hit the coals in the base of the cooker, vaporizing into flavorful smoke, without flare-ups.

A barrel grill at the 2017 World Food Championships held in Orange Beach, Alabama.

The sealed environment of the drum retains moisture, smoke and heat, so meat cooks hands-free, and much faster than in a traditional offset smoker. For example, brisket and pork shoulder might be ready in four hours, ribs in two hours, and chicken in 30 minutes – a fraction of the cook times required by most low-and-slow cookers.

Backyard barbecuers are embracing barrel grills as an easy, no-experience-necessary way to try traditional barbecuing and smoking techniques. The cookers are also gaining traction on the competition circuit, where teams credit the moist, tender and consistent results for wins, and love that the fast cook times eliminate the need for overnight pit-tending, allowing them to actually catch some shuteye on competition weekends.

In fact, in the past few years prizes at some of the biggest barbecue competitions in the country, including the American Royal, Jack Daniels Invitational, and World Food Championships, have gone to teams using barrel cookers.

Barrel House Vertical Cooker.

“It’s hard to believe that something so simple could cook so well, but it does,” says Scott Ragland, a seasoned barbecue sales and marketing consultant with experience in the barrel-grills category. “You don’t need a diffuser plate. You don’t have to turn the food or even touch it, and there are no flare-ups. It’s absolutely foolproof and incredibly enjoyable. This category is starting to explode and will be the next pellet grill category.”

Affordably priced – usually between $300 and $800 – the cookers make it easy for consumers to invest in a specialized second grill for smoking or low-and-slow barbecuing. The grills are ideal as gifts, particularly around Father’s Day and holiday time. Besides backyard weekend warriors, other key consumer targets include cabin owners, RVers, camping, hunting, fishing, and outdoor enthusiasts, tailgaters, and competition cooks.

There are also a host of complementary accessory products – from specialty grates to turkey suspension hooks – available for the category, to further bump-up sales at retail. Some companies offer opportunities for customizing the cookers’ exteriors.

Manufacturers now have barrel grills on their radar. More than a handful of companies have launched lines of the cookers in the past five years, and Ragland predicts there will soon be more.

Pit Barrel Cooker Co. is the category’s originator and number-one seller, according to company COO Marv Lieberman. Veteran Noah Glanville developed the patented cooker and his company as a way to cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed him home after serving as a Navy Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps unit in Iraq, and then as a private security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Glanville built 29 prototypes, continually tinkering with the charcoal basket and airflow, until he perfected the design and it was ready for manufacturing.

Today, the Pit Barrel Cooker is made from a lidded, steel drum in 18.5-in. and 14-in. diameter sizes, with a black, porcelain-enameled finish, and handles fashioned from horseshoes. Using the “hook-and-hang” method, food is suspended from metal hooks so it dangles in the center of the barrel, cooking simultaneously on all sides.

Pit Barrel Cooker Co. offers additional optional accessories, including heavy-duty GrillGrate cooking grids customized to the shape of the cooker, a variety of hanging baskets and racks, and even spice rubs. Active-duty or veteran U.S. military, police or fire department members can request a free logo of their branch or department be mounted on their cooker; the company donates a portion of the sale of those units to Operation Barbecue Relief and charities benefitting fallen firefighters and police officers.

Gateway Drum Smoker.

Gateway Drum Smokers are the premium products in the category. Available in 30-gallon and 55-gallon sizes, these patented cookers have a smooth exterior with two adjustable air-intake pipes that extend from the base, and an exhaust pipe on the lid. Extremely fuel-efficient, they are available in standard black, charcoal, red or royal-blue heat-resistant paint finishes, but can be customized with different paint colors, flame details, airbrushed designs, or logos. The brand is a favorite among competitive cooks and has racked up an impressive slate of victories on the competition circuit.

Barrel House Cookers are made up of individual components that can be stacked to form a slim, vertical, 14-in.-diameter, cylindrical smoker. The base component of this versatile system can be used individually as a portable, direct-heat grill. A wide roster of individual accessories and bundled accessory packages, including covers, mitts, pizza pans, stainless-steel slotted grates, cedar planks, drumstick racks, and extra meat hooks, provide additional sales opportunities for retailers.

Made in Holland, BarrelQ grills are designed for “grilling and chilling,” according to co-owner Gerben Bierbooms. Unlike other barrel grills designed mostly for indirect, low-and-slow style cooking, these units position the fuel basket near the top of the converted oil drum, making them well-suited for high-heat direct-grilling. Available in small and large sizes, the multifunctional BarrelQ grill also can be used as a wood-burning fire pit.

When ice is swapped for the coals or woodin the fuel basket, the unit becomes a beveragecooler, and with the lid on, it converts to a side table. BarrelQ grills may be customized with company logos or other designs.

Big Poppa Smokers DIY Drum Smoker Kit.

Tuff BBQ Equipment offers its made-in-the-USA, 55-gallon, Classic Barrel Cooker. It features a water pan, two cooking grate levels for smoking or grilling, and promises expert results in three simple steps: light it, load it, leave it. For those who still prefer the old-school, make-it-yourself method, there is the Big Poppa Smokers DIY Drum Smoker Kit with all necessary components included, except for the 55-gallon drum, power tools for assembly, and of course, elbow grease.

Like many exciting and innovative products that start out in specialty channels, Ragland believes that barrel grills will eventually make their way into Big Box stores. But, for now, the category is still in its infancy and benefits from an educated sale, making it a smart consideration– and potentially a barrel of fun – for independent retailers.

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