The Royal Oak brand of charcoal briquettes is readily available and, from what I can tell from the barbecue forums, has a few fans. I decided to try out Royal Oak charcoal to see if it needed to be part of my grilling and smoking arsenal.
The big question of course was, “Is Royal Oak Better Than Kingsford?”
The answer is, Royal Oak is not better than Kingsford. Royal Oak charcoal briquettes produce more ash than Kingsford and appear to contain more coal. In addition, Royal Oak has a corporate history that includes massive pollution and violations of worker safety.
Royal Oak Classic Briquettes -2021 vs 2015
The first thing you notice when comparing Royal Oak to Kingsford is that the briquettes appear to be nearly identical. Pictured below is Royal Oak on the Left and Kingsford on the Right.
The Royal Oak has a patented “Fast Start Ridge” in the middle of the briquette that facilitates lighting while the Kingsford has an impressed “K” that serves a similar purpose.
The size comparison of the two brands is important because it shows that Royal Oak briquettes have significantly changed in recent years and is no longer the same product that got great reviews.
Specifically, in 2015 The WireCutter tested different briquettes and determined that they liked Royal Oak better than Kingsford. However, when you read their physical description of the briquettes, given below, it is obvious that they were not testing the product being sold today.
“In 2014, Royal Oak added a ridged edge to its briquets, which it claims helps the briquets light faster and burn longer. The design creates a voluminous briquet that’s significantly larger. This means that individual Royal Oak briquets will ash over a bit faster, fill a chimney with fewer total briquets, and, depending on how you moderate the airflow in your grill, burn a bit longer.”
Today’s Royal Oak briquettes are not “significantly larger” that “fill a chimney with fewer total briquettes”.
Another huge indication that the Royal Oak product has changed is the ash production. Keep Reading for Details.
Side by Side Burn Tests
I loaded up two charcoal chimneys, one with Royal Oak and the other with Kingsford, lit them with Tumbleweed starters and burned them side by side.
The first thing I noticed when I started collecting the data for this burn comparison was that the Royal Oak briquettes were much denser than Kingsford.
A full chimney of RO weighed 1975 grams compared to 1735 grams for Kingsford. As a follow up I weighed several briquettes individually and came up with the average briquette weight:
- Royal Oak Average Briquette Weight: 29.3 grams
- Kingsford Average Briquette Weight: 26.0 grams
This indicates that Royal Oak briquettes are 12% heavier than the same sized Kingsford briquettes. More on that later.
I did not keep detailed notes on how long it took the chimneys to completely burn through the charcoal but the Royal Oak did last ~15-20 minutes longer than Kingsford. This was not unexpected given that there was 13% more charcoal, by weight, in the RO chimney.
Once the charcoal had burned through, the ash production between the two brands was examined (Kingsford on the Left, Royal Oak on the Right).
- Royal Oak produced 667 grams of ash which equates to an ash content of 33.7%
- Kingsford produced 379 grams of ash which equates to an ash content of 21.8%.
Based on this test it was determined that Royal Oak Classic briquettes produce roughly 50% more ash than Kingsford.
This result is in direct conflict with the study performed by The Wirecutter which indicated RO produced less ash than Kingsford. This is yet another indication that the Royal Oak charcoal from their 2015 evaluation is not the same formulation being sold today.
What are Royal Oak and Kingsford Briquettes Made From?
The exact composition of either brand is not publicly known. Here is the information that I have found which was provided by the companies.
The general ingredients for Kingsford are:
- wood char: for heat
- mineral char: also for heat
- mineral carbon: also for heat
- limestone: for the light-ash color
- starch: to bind the other ingredients
- borax: press release
- sodium nitrate: to speed the ignition
- sawdust: to speed the ignition
The general ingredients for Royal Oak are:
- food starch
- other proprietary ingredients
Ok, so there isn’t much information about Royal Oak but I am going to make the assumption that it has many of the same primary components as Kingsford.
Assumed Primary Ingredients for Both Brands
- Wood Char
- Mineral Char (Coal)
- Ignition Aids
If we go back and look at the physical characteristics of Royal Oak we see that it is 12% denser than Kingsford and produces 50% more ash. These characteristics are very similar in the differences seen between wood char and coal.
- Wood Char (Lump Charcoal) Ash Content ~3-10%, Density ~ 0.2 g/cm3
- Mineral Char (Coal) Ash Content ~28% Ash, Density ~ 1.5 g/cm3
Based upon the increased density and ash production of Royal Oak I suspect it has a much higher coal content than Kingsford.
This is just my personal preference but I like the idea of grilling over a wood fire better than grilling over a coal fire.
How Does Royal Oak Perform in a Grill?
My grilling experience with Royal Oak briquettes was not great but I will chalk that up to User Error.
I loaded up a chimney with Royal Oak but had run out of Tumbleweed starters. I figured I would use the paper packaging the charcoal came in to light the chimney. The bag had three layers of paper so there was plenty of fuel to start the fire.
It took me three tries, and had to use ALL of the paper from the bag, to get the charcoal lit.
I had planned on grilling up some burgers and wings but, before the charcoal was finally lit the family was pretty hungry and I ended up frying the burgers in the kitchen.
I did end up throwing some hot dogs on the grill just so I could honestly say that I grilled over this charcoal. The hot dogs were tasty and did not have any acrid/off flavors. Once the charcoal was lit it was fine for grilling.
I was scratching my head about why I had trouble lighting the charcoal and finally found the answer when I looked at the pictures I had taken of the packaging.
Apparently the right way to light Royal Oak charcoal is with lighter fluid. Like I said, User Error on my behalf.
Royal Oak All Natural Hardwood Briquettes
Royal Oak has another line of briquettes called “All Natural Hardwood”. According to Royal Oak the only ingredients in this product are:
- Hardwood Char- exclusively from hickory and oak hardwoods.
- Food starch- used as a binder in the process of making briquets.
How do these briquettes stack up against Kingsford?
I don’t know.
Once I started researching the company I realized that I didn’t want to spend any more money on their products so I never bought any for comparison.
Kingsford charcoal in made in the USA and so is Royal Oak.
I started to research where the Royal Oak plants were located, how many people they employed etc and quickly ran into some articles that were highly troubling.
One of the articles was about Royal Oak’s interest in opening a new factory in Hardeman County, TN despite strong community pushback. Apparently many residents do not want a Royal Oak factory based upon pollution concerns.
The pollution concerns of the Hardeman residents are partially based upon the documented pollution from Royal Oak’s Ocala, FL plant that was shut down in 2006 and gleefully demolished by town residents in 2018.
It says a lot when residents do not want your factories and take great joy in demolishing them.
The articles that really turned me against Royal Oak products were the ones about worker safety.
In 2020 OSHA fined Royal Oak over $300,000 for serious worker safety violations. Osha cited 19 serious violations at the Branson plant and 10 violations at the Summersville facility.
What makes this story worse is that the fine was not the result of a random OSHA inspection but instead was triggered by an internal whistleblower. Apparently the head of maintenance at the Summersville facility tried for years to get the company to address the safety issues. After years of corporate inaction the employee called OSHA.
One of the reasons the whistleblower gave for calling OSHA was that he was sincerely worried about worker safety and did not want to see anyone get hurt like the employee who got stuck in an auger at the Branson facility.
It says a lot when workers fear for the safety of their coworkers so much that they call OSHA.
What About Kingsford?
Kingsford has had its own problems when it comes to pollution and worker safety.
According to this site, Kingsford was fined seven times between 2007 and 2018 for combined penalties of $215,000 for both environmental and worker safety violations. Details about the specific Kingsford violations has been difficult to find.
The lack of details about Kingsford’s issues suggests that local news agencies did not think they were nearly as important or as egregious as the Royal Oak problems.
Royal Oak may have been better than Kingsford in the past but I see no evidence to support that claim today. It appears that the formulation for Royal Oak briquettes has changed from the time they received great reviews.
If you are looking for a Kingsford alternative then check out B&B charcoal.