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12 best charcoal BBQs for your next garden gathering

From slow-cooking to rustling up pizzas, these charcoal BBQs can take the heat

Jon Axworthy
Friday 16 June 2023 12:58 BST
<p>We took advantage of the sunny streak in May to really get to grips with how versatile each barbecue is</p>

We took advantage of the sunny streak in May to really get to grips with how versatile each barbecue is

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Summertime, and the grilling is easy. Well, it should be with the right charcoal grill at your disposal to banish those painful memories of blackened burgers, sausages that should come with a health warning and veg kebabs that have had the last ounce of goodness grilled out of them.

Unlike with gas models, where you can control the heat easily, charcoal barbecues rely on vents to manage the heat your food is exposed to, so these have to be efficient, and it’s crucial the heat to the grate is distributed evenly, so you don’t have to worry about hot and cool spots spoiling your alfresco fare.

We needed to know how each grill performed, cooking first with high heat and searing a batch of burgers to satisfy friends and family. Then we got hands-on, to see which grills coped best with slower-grilled foods, such as chicken, and whether they could hold a lower temperature across the whole grate, to ensure the food didn’t dry out.

All the barbecues included in our edit were tried and tested for their trouble-free credentials and we only included models that took the grind out of grilling.

When the smoke cleared, we were left with a line-up that included grills that would satisfy everyone, from committed char-heads to part-time pit masters.

How we tested

Quite simply, we took advantage of the latest sunny streak in May to really get to grips with how versatile each barbecue is. Could they reach high temperatures for searing steaks and burgers and adding a delicious charring to foods such as veg and flatbreads? And could they deliver low and slow heat to foods you want to fall apart on the fork and melt in the mouth? Keep reading this article, for our full verdict.

The best charcoal BBQs for 2023 are:

  • Best charcoal BBQ overall – Drumbecue original half charcoal drum: £349.99, Drumbecue.co.uk
  • Best charcoal BBQ for cooking for (very) large groups – Weber ranch kettle: £1,769, Weber.com
  • Best charcoal BBQ for pizza – Bar-Be-Quick pizza kettle: £100, Barbequick.com
  • Best charcoal BBQ for couples – LotusGrill standard: £136, Amazon.co.uk

Drumbecue original half charcoal drum

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: Overall
  • Weight: 25kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 84cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 233cm diameter, 74cm length

The origins of the half-drum barbecue are shrouded in mystery. OK, actually, they’re not, as clearly some poor, put-upon grill hound, who routinely had to cook for large numbers of people, realised everyone could be fed and they could be sitting down with a drink much quicker if the drum was cut in half to increase the cooking surface.

The affordable Drumbecue is a brilliant example of this uncomplicated approach to charcoal barbecuing that’s loaded with benefits.

Well-made, zero assembly and with plenty of grill to go around, it holds the heat superbly and makes it easy to control the temperature and find direct and indirect heat for different proteins. We were very happy with what came off the grill, whether that was some succulent and satisfying meat kebabs, or burgers that had a delicious charred crust, encasing juicy flesh.

Good air circulation for a barrel means that, once the coals are going, you won’t have to worry about managing the heat, and we also liked the fact the drum had a good cooking height, which meant we didn’t get a bad back after flipping burgers all afternoon.

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Everdure fusion

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For fast heat and simplicity
  • Weight: 36kg
  • Number of grills: One grill and spitfork
  • Main cooking area: 1,600sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 90cm x 73cm x 41cm

If one of your main reasons for avoiding barbecuing over charcoal is the lighting of the coals, the Fusion has been designed to do all of the work for you, with its fast flame ignition system. This heats the coals to ignition after you’ve loaded them into the porcelain enamel firebox, and turns itself off after nine minutes, by which time, the manufacturer claims, the barbecue will be ready to go.

Give or take a minute, we can confirm this system worked an absolute charm every time. The heat was reassuringly even across the chrome grill and, although there is some management involved once the food hits the heat, the hinged grate allows good access to the coals, so you never feel things are getting out of control. This BBQ produced one of the best burgers of the testing cycle, making a gloriously juicy patty with a flavour-packed crust, although you won’t be disappointed if it’s a whole chicken you’re after (or a leg of lamb, for example) as there is an in-built rotisserie that pops out from the side of the barbecue.

All you have to do is simply clip a rod and some forks (which are stored within the barbecue) into the integrated rotisserie columns and it will slowly revolve and cook your meat over the heat.

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Bar-Be-Quick trolley grill and bake

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For convenience
  • Weight: 26kg
  • Number of grills: Two cooking grill positions
  • Main cooking area: 2,263sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 118cm x 97cm

Coming together without incident (10 steps is all it took), this grill on wheels is a good option if you want a little more than burgers and sausages but don’t want to remortgage the house to secure a new grill for the garden.

We really liked the fact it will easily serve up grub for a family of four or five, plus guests, thanks to a really big cooking area with adjustable grills, which can be lowered or raised (with the help of a heat-retardant glove) to control the cooking process.

However, it was the addition of the oven that took a lot of the stress out of our grilling session, because it was really convenient for keeping cooked food warm without having to do a mad dash through to the kitchen – it was also handy for baking garlic bread and flatbreads to go with the fiery feast.

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Weber ranch kettle

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For cooking for (very) large groups
  • Weight: 67kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 6,936sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: No
  • Dimensions: 106.7cm x 95.8cm x 113.6cm

When it comes to kettles, this is the mothership. Assembly is straightforward but it’s a workout, because the grill is absolutely huge with 6,936sq cm of cooking space.

Obviously, a barbecue this size (and this expensive) will appeal to a fairly niche group of serious searers, however, if you have just invited the entire beer garden back to yours for an impromptu barbie, the ranch will certainly keep them all fed.

The stainless steel, hinged cooking grate means you can keep adding fuel via a charcoal chimney, although it is quite a tricky process when the fire’s going.

Tool and lid holders add convenience, and the whole unit, although weighing in at 67kg, is easy to move around on some very sturdy, locking casters and all-weather wheels.

The lid and bowl are porcelain enameled and this added to the very impressive heat retention and consistent temperature for even cooking across the grate.

The enameling also means it’s rust-proof, which is probably why there is no cover available for the Ranch, but if you’re leaving it out (we’re not sure where else you would store it) you’re still going to need to think about some form of over-winter protection.

Also, cleaning takes time. Firstly, to scrub down the expansive grate and secondly to clear out the prodigious amounts of ash that will have fallen into the grill.

  1. £1,769 from Weber.com
Prices may vary
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Broil King kamado keg 5000

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: Kamado
  • Weight: 57kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 600sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 106.7cm x 95.8cm x 113.6cm

You know a barbecue comes from a manufacturer across the pond (Canada, to be precise) when it’s compatible with the trailer hitch of a pick-up truck.

However, assuming you’re not on your way to a tailgating party, this grill will also deliver consistently flavourful meat with the egg-shaped construction holding in the heat and smoke to influence the taste of the food.

It was very easy to get the keg to temperature (and hold it). Whether you’re looking to smoke low and slow or go for high-heat grilling, the keg will handle both processes equally well, and, for a large barbecue, it is ridiculously fuel efficient.

The cast iron cooking grid held the heat, while the secondary steel rack can swivel conveniently out of the way. Combined with an accurate thermometer, it ensured effortless cooking of the proteins and veg on the menu.

From experience, we’ve found the heat that Kamados generate can be a bit tricky to control, but the keg’s airflow dampers were precise and responsive, heating up or cooling down the firebox accordingly, to allow for some very precise cooking.

A well-sized grilling area also means no one will have to wait for their food.

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Masterbuilt gravity series 800

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For grilling meat
  • Weight: 70kg
  • Number of grills: Two
  • Main cooking area: 5,160sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 129cm x 140cm x 77cm

This is a serious grill that will allow you to really flex your culinary muscles and showcase everything you’ve learned while bingeing all those barbecue tutorials on YouTube over the winter.

Supremely versatile, the 800 comes with grates and griddles that allow you to be both pit master and short-order cook, but what makes it so unique is the tower (or hopper) on the side of the barbecue, which houses the charcoal load and is controlled digitally, so you can set the temperature high for thin and tender foods or something less-intense for thicker cuts. A fan near the bottom of the grill then pushes this hot, smoky air into the grill, cooking food to perfection.

The cast iron grates hold the heat, so you never have to panic and feel rushed, and there are two porcelain-coated warming or smoking racks

We were up and cooking in just over 15 minutes, and the 800 made it simple to switch up the heat from low to high and back again, producing mouth-watering results and really inspiring us to cook with more confidence, because everything is totally controllable.

Once you’re done cooking, you can starve the tower of air at certain points to stop the charcoal burning any more, thus saving on fuel.

On the digital side of things, the 800 has four plug-in locations for digital meat probes and is smart enough to pair with an app that will keep you abreast of temperatures, cooking times and all the metrics required for a mouthwatering mealtime.

  1. £999 from Diy.com
Prices may vary
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Weber performer GBS

best chrcoal BBQs
  • Best: Kettle barbecue
  • Weight: 32.6kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 2,552sq cm
  • Material: Porcelain enamel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 110cm x 107cm x 74cm

The original kettle kings have been refining their craft for decades, and it shows with the latest incarnation. The only problem we had with assembly was attaching the spring-loaded hinged lid, which was a little fiddly, but the effort is worth it, because it frees you up to concentrate on the grill without having to play unwanted games of lid Frisbee.

The barbecue created a nice even heat across the stainless-steel grate, which includes a cast iron insert in the middle, to ensure you can wow with nicely caramelised steaks and burgers. It really excels at lid-down roasting too, with a built-in thermometer and the ability to move the charcoal to the sides of the kettle in two baskets (overcoming the classic kettle problem of having too much heat in the middle) to provide indirect heat for a perfectly cooked bird. Ash is dumped with a simple handle pull, which also controls the vents and there’s plenty of hanging space for tools.

  1. £499 from Weber.com
Prices may vary
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Char-broil performance charcoal 3500

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: Cart barbecue
  • Weight: 42kg
  • Number of grills: Two
  • Main cooking area: 2,400sq cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 115cm x 147cm x 72cm

Assembling a cart barbecue can be a frustrating process, but some very clear instructions and well-crafted parts meant the 3500 came together easily and was sturdy when in use.

The venting was very efficient, so getting the charcoal burning wasn’t a problem. We also liked the external crank, which made it easy to raise or lower the height of the fire pan to control the amount of heat exposure and avoid incinerating any quick-cook meats.

The well-placed warming rack meant we could easily let the meat rest for five to 10 minutes before serving, and it was also useful for toasting bread. The large shelf spaces on either side of the grill came in handy for serving, and clean up was easy with a fully removable ash pan.

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LotusGrill standard

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For couples
  • Weight: 3.7kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 32cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: No
  • Dimensions: 35cm x 26cm x 23.4cm

If you’re barbecuing for two, this eye-catching grill is perfect for tabletop or balcony cooking, because the manufacturer has taken the innovative design used in its smaller, more portable grill and applied it to a larger grate size.

Because the grill is fan assisted (powered by AA batteries), the lit charcoal is ready to cook on very quickly (on average, 10 minutes), and, because it burns quickly, there’s very little smoke, which is a real bonus if you’re cooking in a covered area.

The air is adjustable throughout, which makes for a very relaxing barbecue experience and the cooking was even across the grill – it didn’t take long to get through some meat kebabs, which were all succulent and satisfying.

Considering it’s a smaller barbecue, with a smaller charcoal load, the LotusGrill can reach good searing temperatures too.

You can choose between five eye-catching colours, and you can put most of the grill through the dishwasher when you’re done, to add to the Lotus’s ease-of-use credentials.

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Bar-Be-Quick pizza kettle

Bar-Be-Quick pizza kettle.png
  • Best: For pizza
  • Weight: 15kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 54cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 125cm x 76cm x 66cm

Bored of burgers? Of course you’re not, but with a long, hot summer ahead, it might be nice to mix up the menu occasionally, and, with this kettle, you can do exactly that.

It comes with an insert that sandwiches nicely between the kettle’s firebox and domed lid and takes a pizza stone that produces 14in pizzas. After an initial failure, where we were a bit too eager to get busy with the pizza paddle and the oven temperature wasn’t hot enough, we waited for the inset temperature gauge to get into the red zone and then tried again.

The mouth of the oven is sufficiently wide and high to allow easy access to the stone with the paddle and when turning, and the oven produced a pizza with a lovely, chewy crust, crispier base, bubbling cheese and well-cooked toppings.

You may need to add to the fuel load if you’re cooking more than three or four pizzas but, for a large family gathering, you’ll be able to deliver a real taste of Italy – even from a back garden in Wigan.

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Kamado Joe classic III

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For smoking
  • Weight: 85.27kg
  • Number of grills: Tiered system
  • Main cooking area: 622.3sq cm
  • Material: Galvanised steel
  • Cover available: Yes
  • Dimensions: 122cm x 118cm x 71cm

If red’s your colour and you like traditional Japanese Kamado cooking, which is renowned for its impressive temperature range, this entry should make you pretty happy.

We’ve tested quite a few grills from this manufacturer, and we really like the ones that include the “divide and conquer” cooking system, which splits the grate in half and tiers it, so that some of your food is always closer to the charcoal – so you can ensure those chicken drumsticks are ready at the same time as the veg kebabs. It also made it much easier to cook with direct and indirect heat, which is important if you’re cooking your chicken bone-in, where the direct heat browns the skin and the indirect heat finishes it off.

The dome isn’t as unwieldy as in other kamados we got hands-on with and the heavily insulated walls made the grill fuel-efficient and took the stress out of temperature control, so we could smoke, sear and, in particular, roast joints of meat, which is where the Joe really excelled.

Managing the food on the grill was simple, the slide-out ash drawer adds to the easy cooking experience and the cast iron cart means it moves around well on a level patio or deck.

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Drumbecue original charcoal drum tower

best charcoal BBQs
  • Best: For burgers
  • Weight: 45kg
  • Number of grills: One
  • Main cooking area: 54cm
  • Material: Steel
  • Cover available: No
  • Dimensions: 90cm x 60cm x 60cm

One of the main advantages of an upright oil drum grill is that you get a lot of cooking surface for a relatively small footprint and that’s exactly the case with the Drumbecue. With minimal setup, you can get straight to cooking on this no-nonsense grill that’s very effective at searing a lot of food, very quickly, without having to worry about your quality control. It produced consistently juicy, crusty burgers seared nicely over the grill’s hot spot and there was another bonus in that there was a good overlap between the rim of the drum and where the grate actually sits, so we didn’t have to worry about losing our sausages over the side if we got overly ambitious with our tongs.

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Charcoal BBQ FAQs

What to look for when buying a charcoal barbecue

Before you crack out the “kiss the cook” apron, have a think about the maximum amount of mouths that you’ll be feeding in one sitting, because that will dictate the size of your grill. For two to four people, you’ll be fine with a kettle grill – the classic, spherical shape cooks hot and fast and will give you enough room to keep the burgers coming until everyone is satisfied.

If you’re just planning the occasional cookout, rather than a grillstock summer, a kettle will mean you can serve up a range of food quickly and won’t have to spend valuable chilling time cleaning the barbecue afterwards. With basic kettles starting at around £50, they can be real value for money if you can guarantee quality.

If you need more grill space (for more than four people, for example) then you could consider an oil drum or half barrel barbecue. They cost more and take up a lot of room, but make it easier to manage and master cooking a lot of different foods that require different temperatures. It’s easier to create hot spots for searing and sizzling while also creating lower temperature zones for low, slow and well-smoked food.

Finally, ceramic charcoal grills, aka kamados, are typically egg-shaped and their construction is all about cooking versatility, so if you’re looking to up your barbecue game, the efficient insulation and heat circulation means you will be able to produce all the usual fare, as well as slow-roasted meats and even pizzas with a perfectly crispy crust. They are robust, long lasting and very good looking but they’re a serious investment, with even the most basic models costing several hundred pounds.

Whatever you decide, all grills need to retain enough heat to cook everything you need in one sitting and put those appetising sear marks on burgers and steaks. Also, think about how the barbecue can make the whole process easier too. For example, is there a warming rack or an in-built side table? Are there places to hang tongs, forks and other utensils when you step away from the grill? Finally, if your barbecue isn’t going to be stored away, it’s best to make room in your budget for a cover to protect it from the elements when not in use.

How to safely light and use a charcoal BBQ​

Before you can enjoy your barbecue’s benefits, you’re going to have to light the thing. Use a charcoal chimney to make sure you don’t spend half the afternoon blowing at coals, burning your fingers and getting covered in lighter fluid.

Simply stuff the base of the chimney with newspaper (old egg cartons are good too) then load it with charcoal – halfway is plenty for a basic grilling session, but if you need more heat and more cooking time you can fill it to the top. Light the paper, or cardboard, and place the chimney on the barbecue’s grate. When the coals are glowing red-hot, pour them into your grate and you’re cooking with charcoal. Don’t forget that the coals need oxygen to keep going, so open up all the vents on your barbecue.

Where can I buy sustainable charcoal?

Green grilling is a major issue these days, as charcoal comes with a sizeable carbon footprint, especially as most of the charcoal purchased in the UK is imported. It’s important to try and mitigate the impact and source some British lump-wood charcoal, if possible. A good place to start is to look for local producers whose product is certified for sustainability with the strict Grown in Britain (GiB) Standard, which provides a mark that assures quality and sustainability for British woodland products, including charcoal.

The verdict: Charcoal BBQs

To many, charcoal barbecuing is an art form and can be, at times, intimidating and stressful, but with the Drumbecue original half charcoal drum you can really make things easy on yourself this summer and deliver some succulently smoky offerings to anyone with an appetite. With high performance and low maintenance, its big grilling area allows you to cater for all kinds of garden gatherings, while straightforward access to the coals means you can cook directly or indirectly with ease.

If you’re really looking to take you grilling up a notch or two and are keen to invest in a barbecue that will let you really spread your (hot) wings then the Masterbuild gravity series 800 is a really innovative barbecue that holds its temperature and consistently turns out incredible food, from basic burgers to more complex low-and-slow meals.

Planning a summer cookout? Check out our round-up of the best BBQ essentials

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