INSIDE A GRIMY south Minneapolis warehouse, a dead forest awaits resurrection. When placed in the hands of the Twin Cities’ best cooks, apple trees will be reborn in flakes of trout, chunks of maple will find new life in warm sinews of pork.
Twin Cities grilling aficionados may already be familiar with the charms of Northwest Charcoal & Chemical Co. and its cigar-chomping CEO, Phil Muller. “Anyone with a chain saw can sell wood,” he says. “But there’s probably no one in the area that has all the types we do.”
Muller surveys the stacks of logs and massive bags of charcoal that lie about his workplace. There are pieces of oak, black walnut, olive, and ash. Wood burns better than briquettes, Muller says, because a 10-pound bag of charcoal contains roughly 2 pounds of sand—which doesn’t burn. And wood not only smolders better, it adds flavor: Like a good wine, each type of timber should be carefully paired with the proper meat. “Maple is mild and mellow—good for smoking chicken or ribs,” he says. “Alder is a light, sweet wood used for fish. The most popular woods are mesquite and hickory. Mesquite’s out of Texas, and has a very strong taste—use too much of it and things get bitter. Hickory is earthy, primarily for cooking or smoking pork. Pecan is a close relative of hickory, but it adds a lighter, nutty taste to chicken, ribs, and briskets.”
Muller gets most of his product from northern Minnesota, but he also imports peach wood from Georgia and orange wood from Florida. The logs and chunks he sells are prized by slow-cooking barrel smokers while the sawdust is used by commercial smokers. A band saw next to the cords of cherry and walnut cuts logs into “pellets” to feed a smoker at the Interlachen Country Club in Edina; Northwest’s trees also flavor the fare at such Minneapolis restaurants as Market Bar-B-Que and the FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar.
A well-seasoned smoker on Northwest’s premises indicates that employees know their product line. Muller’s specialty is a prizewinning beef brisket, cooked for 12 to 16 hours with indirect heat using hardwood charcoal and mesquite. The smoker smells of a Deep South roadside stand. You almost expect to hear the clink of ice cubes in a glass of sweet tea, or the snap of a screen door.
Northwest Charcoal & Chemical Co., 2900 17th Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-879-8044
What To Drink Now
A certain Elizabethan playwright famously opined that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Ah, but what if that name were as unpronounceable as Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner)?
Gewürztraminer’s distinctly floral aroma is often compared to rose petals, but while the wine’s smell might be sweet, its flavor isn’t necessarily so. This is particularly true in France’s Alsace region, Gewürztraminer’s home turf, where the wine is frequently fermented to a dry or near-dry finish.
While Gewürztraminer makes a fine companion to the sausages and other delicacies of its motherland, David Anderson of France 44 Wines & Spirits in Minneapolis notes that it matches up surprisingly well with Asian foods, especially spicy dishes.
Pierre Sparr makes one of the more affordable Alsatian Gewürztraminers. Served with halibut grilled in a banana leaf with Thai green curry, the wine’s rosy fragrance and hints of spice make for a pairing that is sweet indeed.
Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer, $15.99, France 44 Wines & Spirits