For all my grilling years I've used charcoal briquettes as my fuel, as had my father before me, and his father, too. I played around with using lighter fluid and matchlight charcoal before settling on the charcoal chimney as the superior way to ignite the coals. This summer, though, I've turned to something new (new to me, at least): lump charcoal. And I couldn't be more pleased with the results.
Lump charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes and leaves behind fewer ashes at the end. This also means that it will burn faster, too. My first experience with lump charcoal left me surprised at how quickly the charcoal ashed over and was ready for cooking--about half the time as with good old Kingsford briquettes--and also how quickly the charcoal seemed to melt away into ashes. But, as I have learned, you can control the speed of burning by limiting the air supply to the grill, and I've had great success mastering the little rotating air vents to limit the burning without dropping the heat too low.
With lump charcoal gaining in popularity with barbecue nuts like myself, one might think that it was the Johnny-come-lately on the scene. But, it's actually older than briquettes, dating back to the 19th Century. When outdoor grilling first became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, lump charcoal was the fuel of choice, getting displaced sometime during the mid-1950s with the rise of Kingsford and other popular brands of charcoal briquettes, which were made by grinding up charcoal and binding them together with starch and other fillers into the now-universal briquette shape.
But now lump charcoal making a comeback, particularly among the hard-core competition barbecuers and grilling nuts. Such folks claim that, since lump is free of the starches and binders and additives of briquettes, it doesn't impart unpleasant flavors to the meat. While I can't attest to this for certain without a head-to-head taste test, the items I made with lump charcoal certainly had a very clean, nice wood-smoked flavor.
There are some other benefits, too. You can throw a handful of lump charcoal on top of burning coals and stretch out a fire without having to break out the lighter fluid or start a separate chimney of charcoal burning. Since it burns more cleanly, there's less mess to clean up at the end of a grilling session. But, the coolest thing about lump charcoal is that it tinkles while it burns. It's hard to explain unless you are there to hear it, but there's a definite tinkling, like a thousand tiny chimes as the lumps burn and settle into coals.
Long languishing in obscurity, lump charcoal is getting easier to find: I got my last bag at Lowe's, and I've even seen it popping up in grocery store aisles. If you don't use a charcoal chimney and are more the type to just quickly grill up some burgers or a steak, then it might not be worth the experiment. But, the last three or four times I've used my grill it's been with lump charcoal, and I don't think I'm ever going back.