Prime 6 Extruded Charcoal: A Report


Introduction
Recently, our Facebook feed has been flooded with advertisements from Prime 6 Charcoal, talking up their appearance on Shark Tank and extolling the virtues of their product. A couple of the claims on their website caught our eye: 1 pound of Prime 6 equals 3 pounds of lump charcoal and almost no ash. Having done a little bit of work with extruded charcoals, both wood-based and coconut shell-based, and a whole lot of work with lump charcoal, we wanted to find out what Prime 6 is really like. So here we go!

In order to evaluate Prime 6 charcoal, we ran our usual set of tests so we could compare the results with our results from testing over 120 brands of lump charcoal and a number of brands of extruded charcoal. We also included an open grill "Smokey Joe" test to compare Prime 6 to both lump charcoal and briquettes when grilling on an open grill.


The Boxes
Prime 6 charcoal comes in either 9-pound hexagonal boxes or 22-pound rectangular boxes. Here are a couple of photos of the 9-pound box. We didn't get it into the photo, but these 9-pound boxes have a rope handle so you can carry the box in the upright position:


And here are a couple of photos of the 22-pound box.


The Extruded Logs
The charcoal is produced in Vietnam by extruding/compressing locally-sourced eucalyptus, red oak, white oak and cherry wood sawdust into logs and then carbonizing the logs. The result is logs of varying lengths. As for the amount of waste in the bottom of the box, one 9-pound box had 18 grams of crumbs, while the other 9-pound box had 88 grams of crumbs. Here's a photo of the entire contents of one of the 9-pound boxes. You can see the small amount (18 grams in this case) of "crumbs" in the pile at lower left:


The contents of the 22-pound box were similar. The box contained 100 grams of crumbs.


The individual logs are approximately 1.5 inches across (flat side to flat side) with a hole down the center of the log which is about 7/16" in diameter. The logs vary in length from 2.3 inches to 11.0 inches. You can break the logs into whatever lengths you like, however, the shorter the piece, the harder it is to break. For our testing, we wanted the individual pieces to be around 2-3 inches in length, so we used a brick chisel and hammer to split them up. Here are some photos of logs close up:


The logs were all in pretty good shape. They are reasonably dense, although not the densest charcoal we have ever seen. Prime 6 logs weigh about 26 grams per inch. The excellent extruded coconut charcoal from the Philipines that we tested in 2003 weighed about 33 grams per inch. And Komodo Sustainable Charcoal weighs about 49 grams per inch. We will say, however, that one of the most pervasive old wive's tales about charcoal is that higher density means longer burn time. No, it does not. One of the longest burning lump charcoals we ever tested felt like black pieces of styrofoam. If you want to guage the burn time of a charcoal, you must burn it and measure it. Density alone is not a predictor of burn time.


Package Labeling
The weight on 9-pound boxes is listed as "WEIGHT 9LBS." It doesn't mention if that is the net weight or the gross weight. We assume it means net weight, but in either case, both 9-pound boxes we bought were seriously underweight. Both boxes each contained only 8.4 pounds. Even if you add in the weight of the packaging, the packages are still underweight. To bring the boxes up to the advertised net weight, you would need to add another log that is 11.6 inches in length, and there is no room in the box for such a piece. So you are only getting 92.5% of the charcoal that you should be getting.

So what about the 22-pound box? The weight is listed as "WEIGHT 22LB." When we weighed the contents of the box, it was only 20.4 pounds, or 1.6 pounds short. In this case you would need pieces that add up to 22 inches of logs to make up the difference, and again, there is no room in the box for this much additional charcoal. You are only getting 92.7% of the product that you paid for.

Since the labeling doesn't state if the weight is net or gross, we decided look to see what the law requires. According to the Federal Trade Commission's website, Fair Packaging and Labeling Act: Regulations Under Section 4 of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act:

"The FPLA requires each package of household "consumer commodities" that is included in the coverage of the FPLA to bear a label on which there is:
  • a statement identifying the commodity, e.g., detergent, sponges, etc.;
  • the name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor;
  • and the net quantity of contents in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count (measurement must be in both metric and inch/pound units)."
Packages are required to state the net weight, not the gross weight, so these packages are clearly mislabeled. We wondered the mislabeling might be due to something similar to what we encountered with a firm that was bagging their charcoal in Mexico, then shipping it to the US for distribution. We noticed that every bag had a gross weight just a smidge over the advertised weight, but net weight below the advertised weight. When we asked them about it, they were horrified to find that in Mexico, their workers were filling the bags using gross weight, which was apparently normal in Mexico. They had to rebag all the charcoal to meet the legal requirements.

This charcoal is made in Vietnam, so could a similar thing be happening? Do the Vietnamese sell and label goods by their gross weight? According to the Vietnamese Customs website, Decree Number 89/2006/ND-CP OF August 30, 2006, on labeling of goods:

"Article 3. — Interpretation of Terms
    8. Quantity of goods means the quantity of goods expressed in net weight, net volume, actual size or the count of goods."
So, it isn't normal to sell products by their gross weight in Vietnam and Prime 6 packaging doesn't meet the labeling requirements of Vietnam, either.

Finally, in addition to the 3 boxes we purchased, we were able to weigh two additional 9-pound boxes in the store. Both of those boxes were also underweight. So, of the 5 boxes we weighed, all 5 were underweight. Also, the three boxes that we were able to open and accurately weigh were all underweight by the same percentage. We can only surmise that this is a systemic problem and not just a single packaging mistake.


Ease Of Lighting
The Test: We broke the logs up into roughly 3-inch lengths and put them in a chimney to about ⅔ full. We then used single sheets of newspaper, added one by one, to light the charcoal. We stopped adding sheets of newspaper when we felt that the charcoal was burning well enough that we could leave it to finish starting on its own.

The Results: Prime 6 logs took 5 sheets of newspaper to establish a fire in the chimney. When you compare this to other extruded charcoals, Prime 6 logs are easier to start, most brands taking 6-7 sheets. Compared to lump charcoal, the Prime 6 logs are more difficult to light than most brands.


The Smoke
The Test: We observed the smell of the Prime 6 charcoal smoke at various points during out testing. We also cooked some chicken breasts over Prime 6 charcoal with no other smoking woods or chips.

The Results: We would never claim to have a discriminating nose for evaluating smoke, but we'll give you our best impression. The smoke, generally speaking, is very mild. This might be a good choice for people who want to cook over charcoal but either don't like smoke, or want to add their own smoke flavors with additional wood chunks. As for taste, which is really what you care about, when we cooked a chicken breast using Prime 6, there was very little flavor added to the chicken by the charcoal.


Maximum Temperature
The Test: We started a chimney of logs (the same chimney we used in the ease of lighting test) and once they were burning away, dumped them into a clean medium size Big Green Egg Cooker. We then added more logs to bring the level of the logs up to the top of the firebox. Finally we recorded the maximum temperature at the dome level, (the level of the dome thermometer). Temperatures were measured using a 2000° K-type probe thermocouple. We allowed the fire to burn with the air vents wide open for a sufficient time to get all the logs burning and until the temperatures measured no longer continue to rise.

The Results: The maximum temperature that we measured was 798°F. Compared to other brands of extruded charcoal, this is slightly below the average. Compared to the many brands of lump charcoal we have tested, this would place it in the bottom 15%, so not very impressive.


Burn Time
This is probably the most important test. Prime 6 claims that 1 pound of Prime 6 logs is equal to 3 pounds of lump charcoal. To measure the burn time, we conducted the exact same test that we conduct for every review of lump charcoal that we do.

The Test: 3 pounds of logs are burned in a small Big Green Egg cooker. The burn is controlled by a Flame Boss 300 temperature controller. The cooker is kept at 400°F for the duration of the burn. The clock is started when the temperature first rises to 300° and stopped when the temperature falls to 350°. The cooker is opened one time when the temperature starts falling below 400° due to charcoal depletion. The logs are stirred enough to knock the ash off and piled up so the burn can continue.

The Results: The burntime we measured for Prime 6 logs compares very favorably with other brands of extruded charcoal. It was the longest burning extruded charcoal we have tested by just a hair. However, when you compare the burn time of Prime 6 with lump charcoal, the burn time is better than only about 75% of all brands tested. Clearly, you aren't going to get 3 times the burn time of any brand of lump charcoal, and the best brands of lump charcoal burn 30% longer than Prime 6.


Ash Production
Prime 6 claims on their box that Prime 6 charcoal produces "close to zero ash." Let's see.

The Test: After the burn time test is finished, the lid of the cooker is opened and all the charcoal is allowed to finish burning to ash. Once it is cooled, we measure the volume of ash in a graduated vessel.

The Results: The Prime 6 charcoal produced 375 ml of ash. Compared to other brands of extruded charcoals, this is about in the middle, but almost twice as much as produced by the best quality brands of extruded charcoal. When compared to lump charcoal, Prime 6 charcoal ash production is again right in the middle.


Can You Snuff The Fire And Re-Use The Logs?
The Test: Briquettes or logs that use a binder to hold the charcoal together suffer from the fact that the binder breaks down when the charcoal burns and thus is no longer very effective. Prime 6 says they use no binder, so how well do the logs stand up to heat? To test this, we stir and manipulate the logs used in the maximum temperature test in order to dislodge all the accumulated ash after they thoroughly cool down to ambient air temperature. We then try to crush or break the remaining briquettes by hand.

The Results: The Prime 6 logs are quite intact and resistant to breaking up after having burned at nearly 800°F for 15 minutes. They can easily be relit and used for additional cooking.


The "Smokey Joe" Test
The Test: A lot of purchasers of charcoal use it to grill in a kettle cooker. The "Smokey Joe" test aims to see how the charcoal burns in an open kettle as opposed to sealed up in a kamado-style cooker with controlled airflow. For this test we burned equal weights of the Prime 6 logs and Lumber Jack Lump Charcoal in a Weber Smokey Joe kettle cooker. We started the charcoal with a chimney starter, dumped the charcoal into the Smokey Joe, and spread the charcoal evenly over the charcoal grate. Next we added the cooking grid and then we placed a 2500° Type K ceramic thermocouple on the cooking grid in the center. We recorded the temperature every 15 seconds using a data recorder and stopped when the temperature fell to 200°.

The Results: The Lumber Jack Lump Charcoal started out far hotter than the Prime 6 logs and remained hotter for the first 2 hours and 20 minutes of the test. The Prime 6 logs were able to maintain a modest temperature for about 30 minutes longer than the lump charcoal, although we are not sure how useful 300°F is for actual cooking on a grill. So again, 1 pound of Prime 6 is certainly not equal to 3 pounds of lump charcoal.


Bonus: Prime 6 Logs Versus Popular Briquettes
The Test: We went back and retrieved test data from a previous Smokey Joe test in which we compared Kingsford Competition, Kingsford Sure Fire, and Wicked Good Charcoal briquettes. We merged in our current data from the Prime 6 test and produced a graph comparing the Prime 6 logs with the briquettes.

The Results: Prime 6 charcoal finally gets a chance to shine when compared to briquettes. As you can see, the Prime 6 logs burned about as hot as the best briquettes in the test (Wicked Good Charcoal) for the first hour, but then the Prime 6 charcoal pulled away, burning hotter and for an additional hour after the best briquettes had given up.


Pricing
There are no two ways about it. Prime 6 is expensive. This is a bit tricky, obviously, as pricing can vary greatly from store to store and region to region. However, we think we can give you a feel for how expensive Prime 6 charcoal is. One of the statistics we track is the price per hour of burn time. (Ultimately burn time is what you are buying.) Here, we show you the price per hour of burn time for Prime 6 in the 9-pound package, Prime 6 in the 22-box, Char-Broil Center Cut Charcoal (the most expensive lump charcoal ever) and Lumber Jack Charcoal (the best performing lump charcoal ever).

Brand Price/Hour Of Burn Time
Prime 6
(9-pound box)
$0.94/hour
Prime 6
(22-pound box)
$0.84/hour
Char-Broil Center Cut
(Most Expensive Lump)
$0.76/hour
Lumber Jack Charcoal
(Best Performing Lump)
$0.47/hour


When compared to the most expensive lump charcoal we have ever tested (Char-Broil Center Cut), Prime 6 is 11-24% more expensive, depending on whether you buy the 22 or 9-pound box of Prime 6. When compared to the best performing lump charcoal we have ever tested (Lumber Jack), Prime 6 is 79-100% more expensive. And we should point out that the price we used for Prime 6 was the lower price we paid in stores, not the higher price they charge on their website. Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself if the attributes of Prime 6 charcoal justify a price up to double that of the best performing lump charcoal.

As for briquettes, we found the Prime 6 is approximately 150% more expensive per hour of burn time than Kingsford's regular briquettes.


Availability
Prime 6 advertises on their website that their charcoal is available at 16 different vendors. We checked as many of our local stores on the list as we could and here's what we found:

  • Walmart: Online only
  • Lowe's: Online only
  • Lowe's Foods: Three 9-pound boxes on the shelf
  • Wegmans: Not available
  • The Fresh Market: Not available
  • Sprouts: Not available


Conclusion
Let's summarize how Prime 6 Charcoal performed in all our tests:

  • Ease of Lighting: More difficult than lump charcoal.
  • Smoke: Extremely mild.
  • Maximum Temperature: Far lower than lump charcoal.
  • Burn Time: Only average compared to lump charcoal.
  • Ash Production: Not "close to zero". Average compared to lump charcoal.
  • Snuff and Reuse: Prime 6 maintains its integrity and can be reused.
  • Open Grill Burning vs. Lump: Not as hot as lump, slightly longer burn time.
  • Open Grill Burning vs. Briquettes: Hotter and much longer than briquettes.
  • Pricing: Far more expensive than lump or briquettes.

Overall, Prime 6 charcoal doesn't really perform as well as lump charcoal in the categories that matter: lighting, maximum temperature, burn time and ash production. The comparison to briquettes is more favorable, but in both cases, Prime 6 charcoal is far more expensive. And then you have the issue that Prime 6 is selling underweight packages. You only get about 93% of the charcoal you think you are paying for. Like all things, you'll have to decide if the higher price of Prime 6 is worth what you perceive to be the benefits.


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