023 Abel – Clean Heat Charcoal

023 Abel -

Ep 4 of ‘Living the Dream’ sees me having a good chat with Abel from Clean Heat Charcoal about all things fuel. Clean Heat Charcoal is renowned for their environmentally friendly wood-based charcoal products and is making serious waves in the Australian BBQ scene. In this Ep, Abel lets me in on how his charcoal briquettes are made, and more interesting for me, how his lump charcoal is made. He also lays out some great advice for people looking to open a business of their own. Check it out!

Much thanks and appreciation go to this episodes sponsors:

Harvey’s Kitchen

JAGRD Woodfired Smoker Ovens

Pure Meats Robina



  • For a quick and easy meal, he likes to do chicken drumsticks on a Weber with indirect heat and baked potatoes with basic herbs and spices
  • His favourite offset is ‘The Baron’ by AR Smokers amongst nearly 3 dozen other BBQs
  • His other companies include Blaze Braai products and AR Smokers
  • BBQ is referred to as ‘Braai’ in South Africa
  • He’d never seen a gas BBQ until he immigrated to Australia 22 years ago
  • Braai is actually very similar to Australian grilling, but over charcoal, not gas, and the cooking style is more similar to Asado with the way they raise and lower the meat over the heat
  • Boerwurst is a traditional South African gourmet sausage that South Africans start eating from the time they get teeth. They can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is in every home
  • What makes it different to Aussie beef sausages
    • Boerwurst is course ground – like having a streak in a sausage
    • Very unique combinations of spices
    • Every South African family has their own recipes, so when people get invited over for dinner, people bring their own sausages to compete and compare
  • Clean Heat came about as a project to keep Abel busy while living in Australia for a mix of personal reasons. It sells as Blaze Braai in South Africa
  • They are very proud of the environmentally friendly focus of their products
    • In Namibia, there is an invasive bush that is taking over and stopping short grass growth – it kills everything else around it and drives animals away
    • By cutting the bush down, it brings back the grass and therefore the animals, native and farmed
    • Not only this, but they are giving jobs to communities in this area who would otherwise not have any employment at all
  • To turn wood into charcoal
    • They use mobile kilns
    • The wood gets cut by hand by 450 people
    • The logs gets separated from the twigs
    • They use kindling to start a fire and put the kiln over the fire
    • The raw logs go into the kiln
    • Once the fire is hot enough, they seal the top and bottom, completely stopping the fire
    • The wood in the kiln starts to secret ethanol and tar, fueling the fire. Once these have burned off, the fire starves out and the wood carbonises
    • The process takes about a day and a half
    • Essentially the timber is baked to the point of self-combustion
  • Charcoal burns longer than wood because charcoal is carbon and is compressed and therefore denser
  • Good charcoal will never flame
  • How is charcoal different to briquettes
    • Clean.  Heat.  Briquettes are 100% charcoal
    • They get the smaller pieces, ‘fines’ and grind them up
    • Then it goes into a blender with a little water and 10% organic corn starch to form a porridge
    • Then it gets moulded and baked into the little pillows
  • Some companies use Borax as a binder
    • Borax is in washing detergents and ant poisons
  • Other ingredients include lye, kerosene, sand etc as fillers
  • Coming up in the future for Clean Heat
    • Within two years they have already become a national brand
    • They’re launching in the United States next year
  • They have recently upgraded their plant by converting a potato grader to a charcoal grader, allowing them to do up to 200 tonnes in 24 hours
  • Abel has a background in agriculture and studied production management
  • Despite this, he’s always loved cooking with fire
  • He joined Blaze Braai a few years ago and that’s when they got into charcoal
  • A day in the life:
    • Abel gets up very early, around 5am to start his day
    • Then he checks emails and social media
    • By 6.30am he’s at the warehouse
    • He loads the truck himself for his deliveries
    • Then he meets with different customers
    • Then goes home and cooks himself some BBQ for dinner
    • Then back into the office, making international connections with his business partners
    • He typically works from 5am – Midnight
  • What skills would an up-and-comer need
    • You need to be a people person
    • Understand that it’s not a business you can switch on and off
    • You can’t be lazy – the business doesn’t happen by itself
    • You need to breath, eat and live charcoal
    • You’ve got to have a firey passion for charcoal
  • Resources need to get off the ground
    • Money – need equipment, warehousing, materials
    • Space – large warehouses
    • Vehicle – for delivering
    • OR a delivery service, but that’s more $s
  • You have to be organised and systematic
    • Particularly with deliveries – you can’t deliver things haphazardly
  • You can either do things properly or you can be a busy fool
  • Unexpected Surprises he’s had to face
    • Good news travels very very fast
  • Biggest challenge
    • Distance between factory and Australia
    • Shipping schedules
    • Weather in South Africa
    • Customs departments
  • Takes 6-8 weeks from the time an order is placed to get the charcoal to the warehouse in Australia
    • Travels 2,500kms from the bush to the facility in South Africa, before it even hits the ships
  • Can take up to 12 days for a container to pass inspection at Australian customs
    • Charcoal often gets broken at customs
  • Nature is the biggest problem
    • Summer is the highest demand period, but is also hurricane and flood times in South Africa
    • In February they lost five months of work due to flooding in Namibia
  • Biggest success:
    • The Australian arm of the company
    • Meeting all the people in the low’n’slow community
  • Listener. Questions:
    • What’s the best way to start a charcoal fire?
      • Abel uses a piece of newspaper coated in vegetable oil, balled up and placed across the charcoal
      • He also loves his chimney starter, but not with parafin firefighters – he uses paper towel covered in vegetable oil
    • Does Abel cook on charcoal or briquettes?
      • He likes to use his briquettes in his Webers, and his charcoal in his offsets and his spits
    • Best way to put out a charcoal fire?
      • Charcoal is hydroscopic – it absorbs moisture, so it’s best not to wet it down
      • Best to snuff it by closing the vents – it will be dry and ready to use again
      • You can reuse wet charcoal, but make sure it’s dry
      • If it’s wet, you’ll get steamy, black smoke which will affect the flavour of your cook
    • Is bigger lump charcoal better than smaller pieces?
      • Not necessarily
      • It depends on what you want to use it for
      • Smaller pieces are far better for using in shorter cooker or direct grilling
      • If you’re doing cooks requiring longer time, you’ll need bigger pieces
      • More important is what is the carbon content of that piece? The higher density, the hotter and longer it will cook
    • Differences between South African and Australian BBQ culture?
      • Aussies are more into American style BBQ than South Africans
      • The grilling culture is very similar
      • The differences are actually quite subtle
      • They have a lot of spicy spices in their rubs
  • Some native South African spices used in rubs
    • Aromat – a dry rub
    • A rub for potatoes – name???
    • Peri Peri from Bird’s Eye Chilli
    • Corriander
    • Garlic
    • Indian influences – masala, curries
    • Fainborse – (check name). Tastes like wild sage, rosemary and thyme combined
    • They lean to the spicy side more than the sweet
  • Does the quality of the wood affect the quality of the charcoal?
    • The wood species will affect the flavours and the charcoal
    • The denser, heavier and harder the wood, the better the charcoal. The lighter wood will make charcoal that will burn out quickly and without much heat
  • Abel’s Top Three Tips
    • Don’t go near it if you don’t have the passion for it
    • Need to have passion for Food, Fire and Friendship


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