By: Max Good
The Karubecue C-60 Pit is a very innovative, wood burning smoker designed to help the greenest novice smoke meats like a wizened Texas pit boss. The smoke quality from this machine is astonishing. I call the aroma Karubouquet. At its crux is a patented Inverted Flame Firebox (IFF) which sucks heat and smoke from underneath a wood fire, not the top. Heavy smoke, laden with gases and microscopic particles is pulled through a red hot fire where it burns up, sending clean, light blue smoke and heat into a thermostatically controlled oven. The entire system has a simplicity which belies years of relentless research and development.
In 2004 Dallas area engineer, Bill Karau, began his quest to solve the age old problem of temperature control and smoke quality. A hot fire produces relatively clean smoke. A low and slow fire can smolder and baste meat with an overload of black creosote. His solution is the Karubecue C-60: a competition level pit with maximum 60 pound capacity. The C-60 is surprisingly compact, weighs a little over 100 pounds, ships in two cardboard boxes almost fully assembled and consists of three major components:
The Smoke Selector Firebox
Made of 14 gauge 304 stainless steel, it rests on top of the cook box. It burns small firewood no larger than a brick, and holds enough for about 30 minutes. There is a small charcoal tray at the bottom. Karau recommends starting the fire by dumping a chimney of lump charcoal in the firebox then loading in wood. It’s best to overfill the firebox so you always have a steady supply of fresh, heated wood primed for the fire.
As wood at the bottom burns, tamp the pile down to keep a solid bed of red hot coal blazing, then throw a few more pieces on top to keep the process moving along. Two manual valves allow you to select the type of smoke that is drawn into the cook box. The lower valve draws clean smoke from underneath the fire. The upper valve draws thick, “dirty” smoke from above the fire to give meats a more powerful flavor. It has enough ash capacity for very long cooks and easily lifts off the smoke cabinet for ash removal.
The Cook Box
Made of 18 gauge 430 stainless steel, it’s a cabinet style, vertical oven with four legs and one single-wall door hinged at the bottom. It comes with four 12″ x 20″ stainless steel cooking shelves that are interchangeable with standard catering steam pans. Shelf heights are adjustable to twelve positions. At the rear is a diffuser column where heat and smoke from the firebox enter the cook chamber and are immediately met with air from the internal convection fan to prevent hot spots. With the fire and control boxes removed, it fits in most car trunks.
The Control Box
Consists of two high temperature fans for draft and convection, and a dial controlled thermostat. Unlike digital touchpad controllers now found on many pellet smokers, the Karubecue dial control is imprecise and temperature range is limited. C-60 is truly a dedicated smoker and likes to run in the 250° to 300° range, though some owners drop it down to 180 for smoking fish. The control box contains all of the electric components and is easily removed for indoor storage.
The design is brilliant, but presents two significant challenges that will turn many away from Karubecue.
WOOD MUST BE THE RIGHT SIZE. Fireplace logs are way too big, chunks and chips are way too small. So you need Goldie Locks Logs that are just right: no bigger than a brick, no smaller than a can of Red Bull. I found a firewood supplier who let me rummage through his pile of scraps and end pieces. Karau uses a Black and Decker Alligator Lopper shown below.
IT REQUIRES BABYSITTING. When questioned about the need to replenish wood every half hour Karau responds, “If you just want to crank it up and walk away, get a pellet smoker. I designed the C-60 to smoke meat as good as the best stick burning pit boss can make, without the years of experience. In my opinion the Karubecue makes that job easier.”
So why be bothered? If I could post a scratch and sniff version of the picture below, all would be explained.
You have to feed the flame, but that’s all you have to do. Karau’s invention takes care of the rest. The C-60 produces perfect smoke from start to finish every time you fire it up. The results are ambrosia. Those who seek the Holy Grail of Smoke need look no further.
If you’re like me, you’ll need to learn something about wood fires to understand how the IFF works. Ask yourself how does wood burn? “It doesn’t”, declares Karau. I found an exchange between Karau and a fellow smoker at The BBQ Brethren Forum where he explains:
Karau: “The key point is that wood is not a fuel, it is a fuel source. When wood is heated, it decomposes into two fuels: charcoal (a solid fuel that burns in a surface oxidation) and smoke (a gaseous fuel that either burns as flame or escapes the firebox unburned to re-condense in the cook box as creosote). I say again, smoke is a fuel. It contains about half of the total caloric content of wood. It burns as a flame with sufficient heat and oxygen present….”
Response: “Dude, you almost made my hillbilly head blow up.”
In layman’s terms: when wood is subjected to extreme heat the moisture evaporates as steam, then the cellular structure breaks down into smoke which is a gas composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and microscopic particles. The remainder is reduced to charcoal. So wood produces steam, smoke and charcoal. Smoke is a gaseous fuel. Charcoal is a solid fuel. We’ll address the role of steam shortly. Our own Dr. Blonder describes this process in “The Zen of Wood and Smoke”. This is why just using charcoal on the C-60 doesn’t cut it: no VOCs, no steam, no Karubouquet.
In 2001 Karau began traveling around Texas with BBQ buddies methodically seeking small, family owned BBQ “Joints” on a series of annual BBQ Tours. He came to a few conclusions. Even the best joints are inconsistent, with the outcome driven largely by the pit boss’ experience and attention. Great pit bosses share many practices; these practices could be designed into one pit. This pit should be affordable and easy to use, thereby enabling anyone to consistently create great backyard Q.
After many epic fails and a parade of returns to the drawing board, he finally came up with the C-60. Here’s how it works. Dump a chimney of hot coal in the firebox then load with wood. As the fire builds, heat and smoke naturally rise into the air. Once you have a solid glowing fire, turn on the controller and set the desired temperature. The draft fan and convection fan are activated. The draft fan begins pulling air from the cook box creating a vacuum which draws air from outside through the firebox. This inverts the natural upward flow of the fire and pulls hot air and smoke gas through the red hot bottom of the firebox. You see the inverted flame. VOCs and particulates burn up as they are sucked through the fire into the cook chamber leaving only clean, light blue smoke. Some humidity from the air and steam from the wood go along. This mix of heat, clean smoke and steam enter the cook chamber through the diffuser column at the rear where they are met with an air current from the convection fan to mitigate hot spots. The hot smoky mixture begins circulating throughout the cook box. When the thermostat senses the desired temperature has been reached, the draft fan shuts off, breaking the vacuum. Heat and thick smoke resume a natural upward path into the air while the convection fan continues internal heat circulation. When temperature drops below a set threshold, the draft fan kicks in and the cycle repeats. By design the cook box is not insulated. This promotes controlled heat loss and keeps the draft fan busy.
Because the firebox needs to be replenished every half hour, you can’t set and forget the C-60 even though it has thermostatic control. There are no built in heat indicators or internal meat probes, but a small hole in the control box provides a storage place to insert your instant read digital thermometer which can also monitor the average temp inside the cook box. Karau recommends checking internal meat temp by opening the door and using an instant read. Opening the door is no issue with the Karubecue because the system regains temperature within about a minute. Probes can also be threaded through two small holes in the upper front corners of the cook box.
Although the 12″ x 20″ shelves are sized to hold commercial steam pans, you shouldn’t need a water pan. Plenty moisture from the wood typically survives the fiery path into the cook chamber. The trays are more useful for keeping cooked foods warm.
It’s so beautiful it almost brings a tear to the eye. Alas, why must things of such beauty be so rare? Karau is still making these smokers in his garage. Which means production is very limited. Karau says this is also by design. He doesn’t want to get into the manufacturing business and is much more interested in licensing his patents. Right now they are handmade and sold for $1,695, but Karau took great pains during his grueling R&D to keep cost down. He hopes one day to see them manufactured at higher volume with a lower price. Construction is excellent and Karau is confident he can maintain quality when he outgrows the garage.
2-year limited warranty on parts and workmanship.
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Karubecue is a small, one man operation. Owner/designer Bill Karau is still making these one of a kind smokers in his garage, so availability is limited. But Karau is exploring manufacturing opportunities with large, established BBQ companies and hopes to one day see his brainchild mass produced at a lower price point.
Published On: 2/15/2013 Last Modified: 6/13/2021
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