Differences Between Gas and Charcoal Barbeques
The kettle shape of the famous Weber grill was initially more a matter of convenience than inspiration. George Stephen worked as a welder at the Weber Brothers Metal Works, and was frustrated by how often his grilling attempts on open braziers were foiled by wind, rain, blowing ashes, and flare-ups.
Shutterstock/ Alexander RathsBy creating a deep barbecue, he helped protect food from these elements. His job was welding metal spheres together to create buoys. According to “The Story of Weber” at www.weber.com:
It was in these very spheres that his idea took shape. He knew a rounded cooking bowl with a lid was the key to success. He added three legs to the bottom, a handle to the top, and took the oddity home. As public relations representative, Donna Myers, president of the DHM Group, a public relations firm that represents many clients in the barbecue field, told us: “The round kettle was pretty easy to make with no seaming.”
Stephen designed his first barbecue kettle in 1951, Weber Brothers Metal Works allowed him to stamp the kettles, and they attained success quickly. Most of our sources would concur with Bruce Bjorkman, director of marketing for Traeger Grills, about the reason why most charcoal grills ever since have been round:
Probably the best answer I can give you is that most [charcoal grills] are round because people are knocking off the Weber charcoal grill, which was one of the first mass-produced charcoal grills in America. The first mass-produced grill was a brazier produced by the BBQ Company. It was a round, open grill … and goes back to the 1940s.
No one can accuse Traeger of following in the footsteps of George Stephen-it offers barbecues in the shape (and colour) of a pig and a longhorn steer (“no bull!”).
Not everyone jumped on the bandwagon, though. Many other manufacturers have and still do produce non-round charcoal grills. J. Richard Ethridge, president of Backyard Barbecues in Lake Forest, California, recalls that his company made large rectangular charcoal grills in the 1960s. But Ethridge has moved on to round barbecues with a difference-Backyard offers grills in the shape of a golf ball (perched on a tee) and an eightball nestled on a “cue” stand. Both of these models are available with your choice of fuel-propane, natural gas, or charcoal.
And the reverse is true as well. You can find round gas grills, such as the space-age model offered by Evo, a Beaverton, Oregon, company, which makes round gas grills with a flat, solid cooking surface. George Foreman’s outdoor grill is a propane-powered round model that looks not unlike a Weber grill.
Bruce Bjorkman believes that the domed top of round charcoal grills might aid in creating a “convection radiant dynamic,” so that food cooks a little more evenly as heat is bouncing back in all directions. Donna Myers notes that after Weber’s success, plenty of other non-round charcoal grills, especially square-covered cookers, became quite popular and performed well:
I don’t believe that the roundness and depth were ultimately essential. What was probably discovered was that a lid with any shape would do the job.
Myers notes that the rectangular form of gas grills was almost certainly a matter of economics: “I’m not sure whether gas grill manufacturers would tell you that it was the cost that led to that shape, but I’m quite sure that was the motivation.”
We found one who was more than happy to share exactly this experience. J. Richard Ethridge points out that gas grills are more complicated to manufacture than charcoal grills:
I think the manufacturing process pretty much dictated the shape of gas grills. It is very difficult and expensive to manufacture a big round grill. Our grill is twenty-four inches in diameter and it takes a 650-ton press (1.3 million pounds of pressure) to stamp out that big a round grill. Metal (cold-rolled steel) will only “stretch” so far. There are not many factories in the U.S. or Asia that have a 650-ton or bigger press-they are very expensive.
If you look closely at the Weber charcoal grill, you will see that it is, indeed, round if you look at it from the top. But if you look at it from the side, you’ll see that the top is flat at the top, and the bottom is oval. It is not truly round-ball shaped. On the other hand, square box or rectangular grills are very easy to make in any size. It is much easier to bend straight edges on a large piece of metal than to make a box shape.
Ethridge pointed out other issues that make it less difficult to manufacture rectangular gas grills. For technical reasons, it is easier and cheaper to craft rectangular burners, and it is difficult to disperse heat evenly when you use a rectangular burner in a round grill. Most gas grills also have attached lids, while charcoal grills do not. While it is easy to manufacture a hinge for a rectangular grill with a flat back, Ethridge found when he first manufactured the 8-Ball and Golf Ball grills, that Backyard had to design a special hinge for the round grill so that it would lift up the lid first and then open. Even Weber, whose round kettles dominate the charcoal grill market, manufactures rectangular gas grills, presumably for economic reasons.
We were curious about whether Weber claims any advantage to the round shape of its charcoal grills, and were a bit stunned when our query was met by this response from the legal department:
As Weber is a privately held company, our policy is not to provide any information regarding the federally protected shape of our kettle grill. Although interesting to others, we consider the subject to be a trade secret, and highly confidential.
We didn’t realize that the Weber’s spherical form was a secret, but the guarded response is proof positive that in the barbecue world, it’s the steak, and the sizzle, and the shape that matter.