On February 11th, 2020, models of the Weber SmokeFire pellet grill began shipping to consumers in the United States and Canada. European customers will begin receiving theirs in the first part of March.
After months of hype, marketing, and general excitement, the most anticipated pellet grill (and possibly just grill) was finally available. As quickly as they could, YouTubers and so-called influencers picked up their grills and began releasing unboxing and assembly videos. Shortly after that cooking videos emerged. Within a couple of days, there was more content than one person could digest.
This is when all the controversy began. I am not here to fuel the arguments. Whether SmokeFire succeeds or fails means nothing to me. What I would like to know is exactly what the issues are, if they can be fixed, and what Weber is doing about it. The consumer comes first. There are, however, many interested parties out there on both sides ready to praise or condemn and many who just want something to argue about. There is, however, a consistent thread of truth that runs through all this and I want to understand what is going on and how this all happened.
Many people have had nothing but great experiences with their Weber pellet grill, and that is great. Some have not been so lucky. There are suggestions that those with problems are doing something wrong or that fault lies with them and not with the grill or with Weber. This could certainly be true. Any rollout of a new product is bound to have hiccups. If, however, there is a space between what Weber promised and how the grill performs, then that is a problem. Also, the perception of a problem is also a problem and early reviews have not been kind.
What Weber Promised
The implicit promise is that the grill works properly and as advertised. What was advertised was that it would be easy to operate and maintain. Weber made claims about occasional cleaning and that that cleaning would only take a few minutes. They also promised very even heat, that grease would drain completely out of the grill, and that the vast majority of ash would fall into the ash catcher below the grill.
Again, not every user nor every grill has these issues. I also believe that they are being dealt with by Weber as much and as fast as they are able. While I do believe that there is a good deal of hyperbole floating around the internet and social media, it is hard to deny that the issues raised are not real.
Weber has always marketed their gas grills in large part based on their even heating. They did the same with SmokeFire. Promising an even heat whether it was running low and slow or hot and fast. Off the bat, this was a problem. Pellet grills are not great at producing the kinds of even heat that gas grills potentially can (and yes, results vary and some pellet grills are better than others.
While promising perfectly even heat is not wise, there is an acceptable range for most consumers. For many owners of SmokeFire, the heat has been wildly uneven. Varying as much as 100 degrees from side to side at high temperatures with a notable hot zone just right of center. This is caused by a misalignment of the ramp that feeds pellets from the auger with the firepot. These two should line up perfectly. It appears that either in the factory assembly of the grill or in shipping that they seem to move out of alignment.
Making sure that the part line up perfectly reduces the problem, but it doesn’t completely eliminate it. Even with every part perfectly placed the SmokeFire produces a temperature variance side to side of 30 to 40 degrees F. Most users can work with this, but the promise of even heat is not being met.
Weber chose to use a narrow, rear-mounted pellet hopper. It put much of the working parts of the grill out of sight. However, for a number of owners, pellets are not feeding consistently into the
auger. Depending on the temperature the grill is running out and how full the hopper is, the grill may simply go out due to a lack of fuel after a few hours. Weber’s solution, for now, is to check on the grill every hour or two to push the pellets down towards the auger. Many people have chosen to remove the safety guard that keeps fingers out of augers. Not the solution Weber wants to hear about and not one that always solves the problem.
Weber is now offering an accessory to fit inside the hopper to improve the flow of pellets into the auger. If you have a SmokeFire it is recommended that you contact Weber to get your grill retrofitted with this accessory.
Traditionally pellet grills used a large, solid plate of steel to separate the fire from the food. It virtually eliminated the potential for grease fires. As manufacturers move to build a better, hotter pellet grill they have moved away from this design. The Weber SmokeFire is an open flame pellet grill with metal deflectors to channel heat and grease while allowing the grill to reach 600 degrees F give foods a kiss of flame while they cook at high temperatures. Of course, 600 degrees, fatty foods, and open flame is a situation that requires stellar engineering.
What Weber promised was that grease would drain into the bottom of the grill and out through a pair of small holes on either side of the firepot to be collected in a disposable tray underneath. At high temperatures, however, the grease combusts before it can escape. As lower temperatures, the grease combines with ash to form a sludge that sits inside the grill. This can lead to grease fires that can potentially damage the grill and likely the food you are cooking.
Weber’s current recommended solution is to clean the grill after every use. So much for the promise of this being easy to maintain. There are actually several parts to this problem. First of which is that there is virtually no incline in the body of the grill for grease to follow down to the drains. It remains in the grill for too long for grease management to work properly.
Weber is working on a software solution that will detect temperature spikes in the grill and shut it down until the temperature drops back down to normal levels. This doesn’t prevent grease fires, but it is an attempt to manage them better.
How Did This Happen
Weber is the most powerful company in outdoor cooking. Their marketing and public relations are handled by one of the world’s biggest companies in that field. And yet, early reviews of their prized pellet grill are largely negative and the internet is flooded with everything from glowing endorsement to highly problematic criticisms to outright mockery.
Setting out to practically reinvent the pellet grill is a daunting task, but one Weber is more than capable of. So what went wrong? I think to understand this we have to look at the criteria that SmokeFire was expected to achieve beyond the basic cooking parameters.
Weber has an aesthetic. Their products, attractive or not, look like they come from Weber. SmokeFire doesn’t look like most pellet grills. It looks like a Weber. That is intentional. It even has the Weber ‘flavorizer’ bars, just like their gas grills. Design and appearance were obviously heavy considerations in how this grill looks and therefore how it works.
But it really is the engineering that takes precedent here. Weber wanted to virtually eliminate the risk of hopper fires. These are catastrophic events that will destroy a grill and can cause serious property damage. To accomplish this, SmokeFire uses an auger with an upward incline. Fire can’t travel down the auger so no hopper fire.
To do this though, the auger had to be short. This meant that pellets couldn’t be fed from the side of the grill. Also, since there are two sizes, they would have had to manufacture two completely different augers and adjust the software to make allowances. SmokeFire isn’t the first pellet grill to do this, but it did take creative thinking.
Feeding the pellets from the center meant that the hopper had to be in the front or in the back. Front mounting puts the grill too far away from the operator so the hopper went in the back. This leads to a long and narrow hopper that has difficulty feeding pellets correctly.
As for the grease fire issue? Weber gas grills drain grease away rather than letting it burn inside the grill. This reduces flare-ups and improves user experience. SmokeFire was designed to operate in the same way. Drain grease, don’t burn it. Unfortunately, inside a pellet grill is free-flying ash. Not a problem with gas grills, but an issue with pellet grills. This is a case of trying to solve the same problem in a completely different environment.
Weber will fix its problems. As I stated above, they are on the case. Future versions of their pellet grills will be built with the solutions they are not trying to retrofit into SmokeFire. Eventually, they will have a pellet grill nearly as reliable as their gas grills. Sacrifices may or may not have to be made, but they will get it.
Yes. It would have been better for those who have had problems with their Weber pellet grills for these problems to have been solved earlier. With new products, there is a learning curve, and Weber is climbing that now. The question that will remain to be answered, is how much damage has been done and how long will it take to get back on the right foot.