The Weber Kettle is arguably the most iconic grill of all time.
There are other companies that have made a name for themselves with novel designs and features. But when you think about charcoal grills, I'll bet the kettle shape Weber pioneered comes to mind. I would argue that overall design is timeless. Invented by George Stephen in 1952, the first model was inspired by the shape of a buoy. Stephen worked at Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago at the time -- where the company gets its name (which technically is Weber-Stephen). Stephen discovered that a rounded bowl and a removable lid could drastically improve grill performance. So he cut the top off of a buoy, attached legs to the bottom and a handle on the top. The Weber Kettle was born.
Since its inception, Weber redesigned and tweaked what are considered "normal" grill features to increase efficiency or to simply make cooking easier. For example, the company's Flavorizer Bars not only help direct grease and moisture away from burners on gas grills, but they also enhance flavor by producing smoke from said drippings.
In 2020, Weber is bringing nearly 70 years of grilling know-how to an increasingly popular product category: pellet grills.
If you're unfamiliar, these cooking devices use compressed hardwood pellets as their primary fuel source. Pellets come in a variety of woods -- hickory, oak, pecan, cherry, etc. -- and basically look like rabbit food. The benefit is they're much easier to store and require a lot less attention than shoveling coals during the cooking process. Pellet grills are electric, with a fire pot or heating element inside that ignites the tiny pieces of wood.
More recent (and more expensive) models offer WiFi and/or Bluetooth connectivity so you can monitor and control your grill remotely. This sounds like overkill, but I assure you it's not. The addition of WiFi means you don't have to physically walk to your grill to check the status of your 12-hour brisket cook. And during the winter months, that's a huge perk. Plus, if you need to run to the store for supplies, you can do so. Let's be honest: We'd all rather keep it parked on the couch than have to manually monitor the grill every hour or so.
Currently, the pellet grill industry is dominated by the likes of Traeger, Pit Boss, Camp Chef, Green Mountain Grills and others. Traeger is probably the best-known of the bunch, partially due to its massive marketing machine. The company's original founder (who sold it and now works for Pit Boss' parent company, Dansons), Joe Traeger, invented the pellet grill. Even though the Traeger family is no longer affiliated with the company, the legacy remains. The company first brought WiFi connectivity to its lineup with the Timberline in 2018 before expanding the smart grilling tools to all of its 2019 models. Traeger isn't the only company to offer WiFi on a pellet grill, it's just one of the more popular ones.
"The revolution in charcoal grilling with the Weber Kettle completely changed and transformed grilling industry back in the '50s," Weber CEO Chris Scherzinger explained. "The exact same thing happened when Weber introduced its first gas grill in the '80s. We believe that SmokeFire revolutionizes pellet grills."
That sounds like what you'd expect to hear from the chief executive of a company in the middle of a massive product launch, but I don't think Scherzinger is overstating things. Especially when you consider how Weber designed its latest grills.
Weber is admittedly a late entry into the pellet-grill game. It did its homework, however, and rather than simply put out a line of pellet grills with the Weber logo on them, it brought its wealth of grill knowledge to the table. It also listened to pellet-grill users, collecting info on what they did and didn't like about using these machines.
"We developed from the ground up with a white sheet of paper a completely new approach to the pellet grill designs," Scherzinger continued.
The first area Weber tackled on SmokeFire was the actual cooking process. In order to convince people to invest at least $999 on a grill, it has to be versatile enough to cook everything well. The company discovered that most existing pellet grills max out at around 400-450 degrees, despite claims of 500 or higher. This is fine for a lot of high-temp uses like roasting or even pizza, but for a true quick sear, you need a grill to get hotter. Weber devised a solution for SmokeFire that ensures temperatures of up to 600 degrees.
"You can get a steak that doesn't look like it was baked in an oven, but one that looks like it was grilled on a Weber grill." Scherzinger said. "We sought to make this grill the first pellet grill that can really be a grill." In other words, instead of offering both low-and-slow barbeque-style cooking alongside a higher temperature range, Weber wanted true searing ability -- whether you're cooking burgers, steaks or something else.
Next was grill performance. Those Flavorizer Bars not only protect a grill's heating element and enhance flavor, but they also help evenly distribute heat. Most pellet grills have a solid sheet of metal that protects the fire pot and directs grease to a collection container underneath or on the side. That large element also helps keep ash from flying up on your food. Weber chose to bring a battle-tested element of its gas grills to its pellet model, rather than include one large piece of steel. And by doing so, the company also made a much less sexy task -- cleanup -- a lot easier.
That piece of metal in most pellet grills has to be protected, otherwise it will rust quickly if you're not careful. Grill makers offer aluminum liners to help with this, or you can simply wrap the entire thing in aluminum foil. Either way, it's extra work, and extra cost. With the Flavorizer Bars, you don't need a cover, and they're much easier to remove and handle.
But that's just one piece of the grill. In order to clean most pellet models, you have to completely remove everything from the inside. When you count the grates and other protective pieces, we're talking six or more items. Then you have to break out the shop vac. Yes, most companies advise you to clean out the ash and dust that accumulates during the cook with a vacuum. It's fine if you already have one, but if you don't, that's an additional purchase on top of a pricey grill. Either way, the the cleanup process is awful, and you need to do it after every third or fourth cook to keep your grill running smoothly and safely. And, most importantly, to keep ash out of your food. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience: It's the worst thing about these grills.
Weber realized this wasn't a great experience, so it did something about it.
"We developed a different design in our engine, and in our shields and filters, inside the grill box that prevents the ash from flying up and landing on top of the food," Scherzinger noted. "All of the ash lands in the drawer." That drawer is a slide-out compartment that's easily accessible from the front of the grill. Here, both ash and grease collect for easy removal. Sure, you'll want to take the SmokeFire's internal components apart and give it a deep clean from time to time, but if what Weber claims is true, you won't have to do it nearly as often. That's a welcome change.
The company also opted to put the pellet hopper around back. This isn't a novel decision -- some other grill makers have done the same -- but that location does provide its advantages. There's less potential for an auger jam since the setup is now partially gravity-fed. The auger is a drill-like spiral that moves the pellets from the hopper to the fire pot. When the hopper is on the side of a grill, the auger path is longer, so there's more space for something to go wrong.
Where most companies offer one or maybe two food probes, Weber has opted for four. This isn't unique to SmokeFire, either, but the ability to monitor that many things simultaneously isn't a common feature on these grills.
"We increased the number of probes to add a level of versatility," Melanie Hill, Weber's director of IoT, explained. "Let's say you're grilling for a large party and someone wants medium rare, someone wants rare and someone wants a well-done steak. You have the option to have up to four probes."
Weber has a proven track record with connectivity. In 2016, Weber-Stephen acquired iGrill from iDevices, a line of connected thermometers that allow you to monitor food temperatures on your phone from Bluetooth range. The company would develop the iGrill 3, a similar device designed specifically for use with its gas grills. The only issue is you had a limited range to venture from the grill before you lost contact with the device. iGrill is still helpful if you needed to step away and can help you avoid overcooking an expensive steak, but the nature of the connectivity restricts the available features.
"We layered on top of [our design] the technology development that we've been doing, transforming from just a hardware company to a hardware and software company," Scherzinger said.
On the software side, Weber isn't forging its path alone. The Weber Connect app that powers the smart features for both the SmokeFire grills and the Smart Grilling Hub runs on JuneOS, the software that powers the June smart oven. Basically, the same algorithms and software that help you cook food perfectly with a small appliance are doing the same with Weber's new hardware. Powerful features like step-by-step guidance and estimated completion times are important additions to backyard grilling and smoking for cooks of all skill levels.
"The draw of the JuneOS is its way of using algorithms and artificial intelligence along with the predictive quality of cooking," Hill said. "We basically mirrored that from a grilling perspective and worked hand in hand with them over the past 12 months as we developed the product."
It's also about education, providing the tools necessary to make grillers confident in their ability, even if they lack experience. In fact, the Weber Connect app will be available in 30 languages at launch. The display on the SmokeFire grills will offer that language support as well.
"We decided to push the envelope with Weber Connect to not just tell you when the meat is done, but literally guide you through the whole process," Hill said. She went on to say Weber made it a priority that Connect was simple, easy to use and "kind of fail-proof."
Sure, companies like Traeger allow you to send recipe information from their app to the grill over WiFi, but the process doesn't involve the specifics that Weber and June serve up. Inside Weber Connect, you're always aware of the next step, how long until you need to complete it and more. It goes well beyond simply having your grill adjust temperature or remind you what step you're on. Weber's spin on smart grilling provides details and, more importantly, time information, so you're aware of what's coming without having to flip back to the full recipe page and read the steps for the 100th time.
Hill explained that Weber also put a major emphasis on the quality of the visuals in the app. We live in the Pinterest and Instagram age after all, so a cooking app doesn't just need to have the information, it also has to look good. She said it was a top priority that the photos and videos that guide you in Weber Connect be on the same level as what you'd find in the company's cookbooks.
It's not just about guiding novices though. Weber Connect is a great tool for experienced cooks too. The app gives you the ability to manually use presets for specific temperatures, so if you've done a brisket before and you know the temperature at which you like to wrap, for example, you can do things on your own. Ditto for setting a completion temp on your favorite cuts.
"There's a lot of cool things that you can do interacting with an app that really allows you to make your own programs and ultimately cook food better," Weber's head grill master, Kevin Kolman, explained. Even semi-pros will appreciate tools like the estimated completion times, since every pork shoulder or brisket is different, and the duration of the cook can vary based on things like fat content and other factors.
While pellet grills are certainly popular devices, the more compelling Weber Connect hardware is the Smart Grilling Hub. Announced at CES, this compact unit gives you all the benefits of Weber's powerful new software for the grill or smoker you probably already own. It too accommodates four probes, and you can use one of them to monitor ambient grill temperature in addition to keeping track of your food. WiFi and Bluetooth are on board, and unlike similar devices that run on batteries you have to replace, the Hub is rechargeable.
It's also only $130. Similar products, like ThermoWorks Signals, can cost over $200. And while they offer Bluetooth and WiFi, the software component isn't nearly as robust. Essentially, the Smart Grilling Hub gives anyone the chance to use Weber's advanced connected grilling tools without having to drop at least $999 on a new grill. Plus, this hardware is a lot more portable. If you need to cook elsewhere, you can take your high-tech sous chef with you.
A thousand dollars is a lot to spend on a new grill, especially when you can do a lot on a kettle-style grill for a fraction of that cost. The trade-off, naturally, is manual labor and ease of use. Weber's SmokeFire grills are competitively priced though, parked in between Traeger's Pro Series and Ironwood -- that company's entry and mid-range models. Yet, the SmokeFire has a feature set that's more in line with Traeger's premium Timberline series, despite Weber's 24- and 36-inch models being priced several hundred dollars cheaper at $999 and $1,199, respectively. There are other, cheaper options that still get you WiFi, like Camp Chef's Woodwind grills, but Weber is banking on the fact its powerful app and design choices will entice you.
The implications of SmokeFire and Weber Connect reach beyond simply an iconic grill company getting in on the hot new trend. The cleaning process is in dire need of help, and, if what Weber says is true, it has devised a way to relieve some of the headache. Sure, we'll have to wait and see when this gets in the hands of real users and reviewers, but based on what I saw with working models at CES, Weber's approach will at least ease some of the stress of routine maintenance while also offering better overall performance. Other companies will surely be tracking SmokeFire and Weber Connect closely to gauge reaction. Pellet grills aren't a new technology by any means, but there's room to innovate when it comes to design, features and software. If Weber succeeds in improving cleanup and guiding aspiring backyard pitmasters, you can bet other companies will try to do the same. And Weber doesn't plan to take a break either, even though SmokeFire grills will start shipping this month.
"It takes myself and my wife out of the kitchen and puts us on the patio with a glass of wine in our hand -- it's just a better way to live your life." Scherzinger explained." "iGrill started us on that path, for sure. Weber Connect and all the innovations that we're pursuing in the coming years seek to advance that even further."
And now I'm hungry.