Blackmore Vale Magazine - May 1997.
After the first tantalising glimpses of sun over the Easter weekend, many people's thoughts will be edging towards the longer, lighter evenings and the inevitable advent of the barbecue season.
This year as you stoke up the fire, spare a little time to consider not just the quality of your sausages but also theorigins of your charcoal. 97% of the charcoal currently used in Britain is imported, generally from third world countries. About a third comes from Indonesia and is made from mangrove woods where little is done to regulate how much of the wood comes from sustainable forests. In addition, the methods of production are so ineffective that only about 60% of the charcoal is reduced to carbon, hence the great clouds of smoke produced when barbecuing as the other 40% of the wood burns.
With this in mind, charcoal production is becoming a growing concern throughout Britain. With carbon contents of up to 90%, British charcoal is of a much hugher standard, which means that on a local scale for the average barbecue fan it's easier to light, heats up faster and burns cleanly leaving only ash. On the grander scale, it is a growing rural enterprise which creates local employment and is a sustainable product whose by product is managed woodland. It also creates a market for low value wood and thus acts as an incentive to good woodland management. Forest thinnings which would otherwise be a waste product are utilised and coppicing which is a renewable source is encouraged. This in turn benefits local wildlife which returns to the newly cleared areas.
Jim Bettle from Blandford is a former forestry contractor to the Morden Estates. His interest in charcoal was sparked many years ago when working for a company in Sturminster Newton. After learning more about the technical process involved attending courses in Chichester, Cheltenham and Ironbridge he founded The Dorset Charcoal Co. at the end of 1996 using just a converted oil drum. The oil drum has now been replaced by two 7 foot diameter steel ring kilns. After it is cut to size, the wood is stacked in the kiln. The kiln is then fired and the lid settled and sealed. The evennes of the burn is controlled by the restriction of the air supply and movement of the chimneys. The moisture is driven out of the wood in this way for approximately 16 hours. Once the smoke turns blue, all the ai intakes are sealed, starving the burn of oxygen. After cooling for 24 hours the kiln can be opened and the charcoal graded and bagged. Jim hopes to to produce around 10 tonnes in this, his first year, and increase to four kilns soon.
When not stoking his kilns, Jim spends his time visiting local retailers and encouraging them to display his charcoal, as well as maintaining is woodland and coppices. Due to the seasonal nature of barbecuing he is also exploring other avenues which would benefit from high quality charcoal such as artists or horticulturists.