Spark Grills introduces a new kind of charcoal grill that is conceptually and cosmetically appealing. Many feel charcoal produces better flavor than gas, but prefer to press ignition and spin control knobs rather than get their hands dirty piling up and lighting charcoal, messing with air dampers and cleaning out ash. This thermostatically controlled grill aims to automate the charcoal grilling experience and take away those pain points.
Control system and app
Plug Spark into a standard outlet. The single control knob ignites charcoal and has settings from 200°F to 900°F.
Once the charcoal ignites, two fans controlled by two thermostats are meant to dial in your set temp. A "stoking fan" under the fire makes the grill hotter and a "cooling fan" at grate level cools it down. Download the Spark App and receive real time temperature updates and built in timer notifications. Spark comes with two integrated meat probes that plug into the control system and report cooking progress to your smartphone. The App cannot change set cooking temps. That still needs to be done at the grill.
Instead of conventional charcoal briquets or lump, Spark burns large, proprietary, rectangular charcoal "Briqs". Spark comes with three types of Briqs, but more are available and in development.
The Seasoning Briq is meant for a first time startup to burn in and season the grill.
Briqs are impregnated with plant based alcohol for ignition. You must use them immediately after opening the foil wrapper or the alcohol will evaporate.
Place one of the perforated Briqs in the "Briq Pan" which resembles a nearly square cast iron skillet as shown in the photo here.
Slide it into the drawer in the belly of Spark.
On goes the "Heat Spreader" to even out temps.
Hmmmm….charcoal grills get their distinctive flavor from drippings sizzling on red hot coals. Spark's Heat Spreader covers the briqs so drippings sizzle on metal instead, more like the way drippings sizzle on a gas grill. Spark points out, however, that they have no grease pan because all the drippings are channeled to the fire where they burn up.
Two coated cast iron cooking grates top it all off for a total cook surface of 23.7 inches x 16.3 inches. Spark's dimensions are 45 inches wide x 23.5 inches deep x 42.5 inches high. The total assembled weight is 105 pounds.
Spin the control knob to the right to activate the electronic ignitor and the alcohol laden Briq will fire up. Set the temp and start grilling. When done, grab the Briq Pan by the handle and dump out the ash.
Spark came onto the scene with intriguing, well made internet ads and succeeded in quickly catching the eyes of many, including us. But once Spark catches your eye and you look a little closer, a big question pops up.
Spark charcoal "Briqs"
Spark is designed to be used exclusively with their proprietary Briqs. Different Briqs are designed for specific temperature ranges and each has an estimated duration time.
Quick Briqs: these have a range of 450°F to 600°F and last 30 to 45 minutes, for simple grilling of, say, a few hamburgers.
Everyday Briqs: 500°F to 700°F, last 60 to 90 minutes
High Heat Briqs: 600°F to 900°F, last 30 to 45 minutes.
Spark is working on Low and Slow Briqs with a projected range of 200°F to 300°F and 6 to 8 hour duration. Even so, you would have to switch out Briqs for an extended cook of, say, a 16 hour brisket. The Briqs are currently made from oak. They also hope to make Applewood and Hickory Briqs down the road. Spark says that you can use conventional briquets or lump in a pinch, but the control system won't work properly and Spark has no adjustable dampers to regulate air intake or exhaust, so we cannot say how well it will work.
You may notice that the current line up Quick, Everyday, and High Heat Briqs doesn’t go below the 450°F range. To test those temps, we decided to try dropping the set temp below the Briq's specified lower range. With an Everyday Briq, 500°F to 700°F, we began with the control knob at 500°F. Our digital temperature probes clipped to the cook surface shot up to 570°F then gradually settled in around 530°F. Click here to read why accurate digital thermometers are the most important tool by far for cooking indoors and out. We then dropped the set temp to 400°F, and Spark's temp went down to around 412°F. Next we tried 300°F. Spark dropped to about 310°F then began fading as the fuel gradually exhausted. It appears that you can get slightly lower temps than advertised.
And that begs the question: If the Everyday Briqs are capable of being set to much lower temps than the specified 500°F threshold, isn't that an attractive feature? Why does Spark place a limit on their recommended temp range? Spark reports they've experienced some inconsistency between batches that affects lower temp performance. Therefore they specified conservative ranges they feel confident will work everytime, everywhere. Spark's ideal range is currently around 500°F.
They also warned us that they discovered some Briq batches "ignite as expected but either extinguish completely or are only partially lit." They believe they successfully isolated those batches and addressed the cause, but we experienced this failure to launch with a batch we received. It looks a little something like this.
Spark says if you get bad Briqs, contact them for replacements at no charge.
A final observation about the Briqs: Cooking time can be an issue. We disliked racing against the clock to finish cooking before the Briq died out. Yes, in a conventional charcoal grill, the fuel also has a limited burn time, but at least you can use the air dampers and lid to lower the heat and buy more time. With Spark, you can throw a few briquets or small pieces of lump into the drawer to extend the Briq, but if you really need to keep cooking and want to fire up a second briq, Spark recommends removing all food beforehand because the alcohol accelerant can produce an unpleasant taste and aroma, a significant drawback. They're considering production of "Toppers", thin Briqs without alcohol that lay on top of a dying Briq to extend the burn time.
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Spark Grills are made in Thailand, but the Briqs are made by Spark at their facility in Boulder, Colorado. Over and over in our conversations with Spark, it became increasingly clear that the Briqs are a work in progress. As they are a key element in using the grill properly, the ongoing R&D with Spark's fuel source leaves us to conclude that while the grill may not be a prototype the Briqs are. In fact, at the time of this writing, Spark was only selling the Quick and Everyday Briqs on its website.
And even those had a 6 week lead time for shipment. The company assures us they are working to eliminate Briq production issues. In addition to the limited temperature ranges, burn durations, and quality control, Spark Briqs cost about $5 apiece and are only available for sale directly from the manufacturer. Conversely, briquets and lump are sold everywhere and some retailers are currently offering two 20 pound bags of Kingsford Original Charcoal Briquets for $20 total.
To assess heat consistency across the cook surface we performed a bread test. The test indicated Spark was hotter on the left and toward the back.
While the current recomended Briq temperatures do not extend below 450°F, Spark is capable of hitting lower temps with a 2-zone set up. With that set up, a hot direct zone provides direct heat and a moderate zone provides cooler, indirect heat. Click here to learn the importance of temperature control with 2-zone cooking. With most grills, you set up two zones side by side. Spark's 2-zone configuration is highly unusual. You remove the heat spreader and cook in a circle around the exposed fiery briq.
This worked well for chicken wings. They browned up nicely with crisp skin. However, you couldn't use this setup with a big hunk of meat like brisket. Of course, anything that takes hours to cook would be tricky for Spark anyway, until they develop the proposed Low and Slow Briqs. Meanwhile, that hot, direct zone can do some serious searing and, without the spreader, drippings sizzle right on the red hot charcoal.
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Packaging and Assembly
Spark came in two boxes, one for the grill head and one for the cart. Packaging was excellent. No hardcopy of the manual was included, but instructions and a 25 page manual were available online and with the Spark App. I confess, I'm accustomed to having printed assembly directions at hand and the lack thereof perturbed me while slapping Spark together.
The grill head is double walled, porcelain coated steel and seems solid, however the bare bones cart which lacks tool hooks or a storage shelf was lightweight and wobbly. A side shelf on the right didn't fit the cart frame precisely and had a tendency to pop up.
We liked the insulation strip on the lid.
The lid hinge was springy, creating an initial impression that the lid would flop closed, although it never did.
Spark is sexy, but with each enticement comes a hurdle. It catches your eye and draws you in, then throws roadblocks in the way. We wonder if Spark's uncommon effort to improve on the simple, tried and true, beloved charcoal grill will come to fruition.
For that to happen, Spark needs to provide way more instruction on how to explore and use their highly unusual invention. Speaking with their customer service team, we encountered several, interesting anecdotal techniques. However, the full range of Spark’s specific capabilities is not yet made available in writing and/or concise visual formats.
Time will tell. Until Spark can get a grip on their Briqs and provide considerably more instruction, we have to caution our readers against taking the plunge, particularly if this is the only grill you plan to buy. Questions about performance and availability of their proprietary Briqs are reason enough.
If Spark can overcome those two hurdles, we'll revisit this product and take another look. With a stable fuel source, reliable in both performance and availability, and with good instruction on how to fully utilize this new concept, we can easily see how it would appeal to some.
Spark's warranty covers defects and workmanship issues that occur within three years from the date of delivery.
We thank Spark for providing a grill for our tests.
Cooked On It
We have hands-on experience testing this product. We have also gathered info from the manufacturer, owners and other reliable sources.
Spark Grills is a new company with a new take on the tried and true charcoal grill. Their sleek, modern design features elctronic ignition and thermostatic control, appealing to backyard cooks who prefer gas over charcoal for ease of use. Founder, Ben West, came from EcoZoom, a nonprofit that designs efficient cookstoves for use in developing countries.