There’s something magical about charcoal grilling, especially during the long days of summer. You just can’t replicate that taste on a gas grill. Since 2013 BBQ Dragon has been bringing new innovations to the charcoal grilling market, and I have one of their latest gadgets on the back patio for testing. It’s the Chimney of Insanity, a chimney starter that BBQ Dragon claims is the best in the industry.
What’s a chimney starter? And is the Chimney of Insanity the best around? Let’s go make a fire and find out!
Design and Build
Before we begin, let’s take a moment to recognize how cool this thing looks. That raised dragon logo? The name die-cut out of the base instead of boring vent holes? You know you want it on display at your next cookout. I’d probably manufacture some story about how I won it in a martial arts contest at an ancient dojo, nestled in a hidden mountain valley… but that’s me.
Now let’s get down to business. For those of you who don’t know, modern-day chimney starters have been around since the 1960s. The basic concept is pretty simple: charcoal is suspended on a rack in a metal cylinder with holes cut in the bottom to promote air flow. Ignite your starter material under the charcoal and, as the charcoal starts to burn, and updraft is created that speeds up the process of firing up the whole stack. It’s a tried-and-true design, with variations offered by hundreds of manufacturers.
What makes the Chimney of Insanity unique? Well, they’ve added a 3″ tube, bent at a 90-degree angle, that’s accessible from a side vent on the cylinder. This allows for side-loading your starter material, which is a great safety feature (you don’t have to move a hot chimney to add more starter fuel underneath). That’s not the only benefit, however: if you blow air through that tube, it’s designed to create a vortex in the chimney that will dramatically accelerate the ignition of your coals. BBQ Dragon makes a fan specifically designed to attach to this tube that was not tested here, and videos show the rig lighting a full batch of charcoal in under 10 minutes. Given that a traditional chimney starter usually takes 20-25 minutes to fire up, this is an impressive time saver.
In addition to the innovative tube design, the overall build on the Chimney of Insanity is excellent. Heavy-duty materials are used throughout the construction, with extra rivets added at all the seams to ensure durability. It’s got a burly vinyl handle and heat shield, which allow for confident handling when loaded with rocket-hot coals. After killing several cheap chimney starters, I bought a heavy-duty Weber model that’s lasted several seasons. The Chimney of Insanity’s construction quality is easily on par with the Weber, and I expect that it will last just as long.
Testing the Insanity
I wanted to put the Chimney of Insanity through its paces, so I set up three different performance tests to see how it lives up to its claim.
For the first test, the Chimney of Insanity squared off against my old Weber chimney starter. I measured out two pounds of natural lump charcoal (my preferred heat source) for each chimney. Each chimney also got three sheets of 8-1/2″ by 11″ paper as starter material (rolled up and placed under the starter for the Weber, and inserted in the tube for the Chimney of Insanity). Both chimneys were fully lit and ready for grilling after about 25 minutes. I found the Chimney of Insanity easier to fuel with the side tube (and definitely easier to handle), but not particularly fast under normal circumstances compared to the Weber.
For the second test, the Chimney of Insanity was loaded to the brim with traditional charcoals. Paper was loaded into the side tube and lit, adding additional paper every few minutes as needed to stoke the burn. Things got off to a slow start, so we added some manpower by blowing into the side tube periodically after about 5 minutes to speed things up. That’s when I started seeing the benefits of the design, with a fully lit chimney ready to go in under 20 minutes. A nice improvement, but my technique was still lacking.
For the final test, the Chimney of Insanity was loaded with 50 charcoal briquettes and 6 hunks of raw hickory wood (to add flavor}, filling the whole chamber. We also borrowed one of the wife’s old hair dryers to simulate the effects of the BBQ Dragon fan (you know… for science). We started the fire, gave it a couple minutes to settle in, then turned on the hair dryer and aimed it at the tube.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please step back for your own safety. We have liftoff.
After a moment, you could hear a dull roar emanate from the chimney. Within a few minutes, we didn’t just have fire… we had roaring flames belching out of the top of the stack. It was as if Smaug himself woke up and decided to torch those pesky dwarves poking around for his treasure. Just check out the photo below:
Neat, right? It was impressive to behold. I’d say we had the whole chimney lit at about 15 minutes, which is great considering that I had some big ol’ chunks of raw hickory wood stuck in there. Honestly, we had to dial back on the hair dryer action every minute or so to make sure that we didn’t create a catastrophe in the back yard.
We’ve since used the Chimney of Insanity in this manner several times, with similar results. I would imagine that the BBQ Dragon fan, which is specifically designed to fit the vent, would produce more impressive results with a consistent low-velocity airflow. Sadly, I did not get the opportunity to test it here.
I can’t leave the testing portion of the review without a gratuitous food pic. Here was that night’s dinner: chicken thighs, legs & breasts with my homemade barbecue rub and sauce, baby sweet peppers marinated in garlic and olive oil, and sliced potatoes roasted in foil. The hickory wood adds an extra layer of flavor and smoke. Let me know if you want the recipes!
The Chimney of Insanity is a nice chimney starter, but there are some things to consider if you’re looking to buy. It’s a good size (6″ diameter, 11″ tall), but there are bigger models out there if you need to fire up extra charcoal. The Weber I tested it against is 7″ in diameter and 12″ tall, and left more room when loaded with the same amount of charcoal (see picture above). I measured the Chimney of Insanity’s capacity at about 2 pounds of lump charcoal or 50 standard briquettes. If you are using standard briquettes, I don’t know that you’ll notice a size issue here; if you use wood chunks or natural lump charcoal, however, the extra size is helpful for managing odd-sized fuel. If you have a bigger grill, you might be firing up multiple stacks of charcoal anyway. Mine is a standard Weber kettle 22-1/2″ grill, and I found the Chimney of Insanity’s amount sufficient for most two-zone grilling (filling half of the grill, and leaving the other half for indirect cooking).
You’ll also see some discoloration in the pictures that resulted from firing up the chimney several times. This is something I have seen happen with every chimney starter I have owned, and it’s the result of the high heat you’re playing with. I think it shows that you’re using your toys often and well, but you should be aware that the shiny exterior will show signs of use over time.
Finally, it could be argued that you could get similar results by applying a steady air stream to any stack of charcoal. I’ve done this on camping trips with an air compressor. The BBQ Dragon fan, in fact, was originally sold for this purpose without the Chimney of Insanity (see our review here) . I do like the fact that the side vent give you much more control for a safe burn, however, and consistent results with each grilling session.
Conclusion and Pricing
Bottom line? I believe that the Chimney of Insanity performs well as a replacement for your current chimney starter with a solid build, a great handle, and some nice additional safety with the side-loading tube. The real magic happens when you get airflow going through that side tube. That’s when the beast earns its name, firing up a full stack of charcoal in half the time it would take otherwise.
At about $30, the Chimney of Insanity is just about right in terms of pricing when compared to similar models. You can get a cheap chimney for under $15, but it probably won’t last more than a season or two. The better-built models (like this one) usually range between $25 and $40 and can be expected to last several seasons. With the additional design features adding to the performance, I think the Chimney of Insanity is a good buy for the charcoal griller.
After a season of grilling, the BBQ Dragon Chimney of Insanity continues to perform like a beast. After practicing for a dozen or so grilling sessions with different fuel types and starter materials, I’ve found that we can truly get a full chimney started in under ten minutes. The trick is adding extra paper under the chimney to get things going… and a cheap $5 hair dryer for the air source. I also use a mix of natural wood chunks and natural lump charcoal to maximize smoke flavor and burn time. The Dragon has lost its shiny exterior due to the punishing heat, but it looks like it will be more than ready for several more seasons of abuse.