Tailgating is reliving your carefree past at your alma mater, or partying all day in the parking lot of your local pro stadium, but regardless of venue, it also means grilling and good eats. Many people think grilling makes anything taste good, but that’s not necessarily the case says pellet grill expert, Todd Strem, just back from the Minnesota State Fair. “Not camel,” he says, referring to “camel-on-a stick” the Fair’s newest fare. “People said it tastes like bison. Everything used to taste like chicken. Now, I guess, it tastes like bison. I just couldn’t do it.” Even if he grilled it? No, sadly, not even then. And Strem knows all about grilling food to perfection. He belongs to a select group of Minnesotans who expertise in combustion has led to better eats. They’re the guys and gals at Northwest Manufacturing in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, population 1600.
Red Lake Falls is an hour east of bone-chilling Grand Forks, North Dakota and two hours north of teeth-chattering Fargo, so its hardly a surprise that Northwest makes outdoor wood furnaces. The Biomax Commercial Boiler generates 6.8 million BTUs, the WoodMaster 5500 Super-Duty is double-plumbed, ideal for farms, and the Focus 30 and Focus 60 - the first flex fuel furnaces to be built in America - will exceed EPA standards, ahead of tightening regulations. They’re all bio-fueled and punishingly efficient.
Northwest excels at burning stuff, so it makes sense that it would go beyond just burning stuff for heat and diversify into burning stuff to cook with. Hence the WoodMaster Deck Pellet Grill and the WoodMaster Mini-Hog Pellet Grill; the latter conveniently mounted on a trailer and perfect for tailgates. “I did thirty-five burgers and thirty-five brats on it at the same time,” says CEO Chuck Gagner says of the Mini-Hog and its 900-square-inch grilling surface. “The idea for the grills was in-house,” says Gagner. “We just thought it would be a neat project.”
The Gagners built Northwest Manufacturing on what they call a “neat project,” when the three brothers made a wood stove to save money on the family farm. Twenty-two years later they run Northwest together. The development team toiled for a year and a half on the grills spending most of that time on the temperature controls - despite the fact that they were using their own furnace technology. “We know all about burning different types of bio-fuels and we know about controls,” says Strem, who heads up Sales and Marketing. “We invested that time because we wanted to have the most accurate temperature controls of any grill on the market. And we do. Our grills maintain 500 degrees even when it’s 20-below.”
You fill the grill’s hopper with compressed hardwood pellets (apple, cherry, garlic, mesquite, maple, pecan, hickory, etc.) and an augur lifts the pellets and drops them down a chute into a firebox. An electric igniter there starts burning the pellets. A draft fan helps maintain the burn-rate and a thermostat controls the temperature. The grill automatically maintains the set temperature, adding pellets as needed. A grease shield prevents flare-ups.
Because pellet grills use indirect and convection heat they can smoke, grill, roast, barbecue and even bake - think cheesecake gently smoked with pecan. The WoodMasters offer three hyper-accurate grilling options: set temperature; grill surface temperature (a gauge reads actual temperature on the grill); internal meat temperature. Stick the attached thermometer into your meat, when it hits the desired temperature, it’s ready. It’s pretty much foolproof.
“There was this gal out of Fargo, told me her husband was the worst griller,” says Strem. Apparently there was nothing this man couldn’t ruin but his wife never said a word. She ate everything just to make him happy. “They got the Deck Grill and since then she says it’s been impossible for him to mess anything up. Life is good,” he laughs.
The Deck Grill came to the attention of barbecue champion, Joe Davidson, founder of Oklahoma Joe’s, manufacturer of world-class BBQ grills and smokers, and of Oklahoma Joe’s restaurants in Kansas City and Stillwater, and winner of more than 300 competitions. He set a contest record at the 2009 Memphis in May Championship winning five categories, Wings, Beans, Poultry, Vinegar BBQ, and Ribs. In addition to competing, he runs team-building grill-camps for Fortune 500 companies and is developing camps for everyday grillers, too. Davidson competed with the WoodMaster Deck Grill during his most recent appearance on TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters.
“I’m always looking for the next good thing, especially if it’s made in America. That’s important and it’s rare. I saw this grill and asked Todd if I could try one. Told him, ‘No commitment, just want to try it,’” says Davidson. He likes pellet grills because you can custom-blend pellets, say hickory and mesquite, to get the perfect flavor and the smoke isn’t overpowering because pellet grills typically burn clean. The downside is that they didn’t get hot enough. “It’s hard to find one that gets up to 500 degrees and stays there. This one does. It’s unique in the world of pellet grills.” Davidson plans to use the Deck Grill at the granddaddy of all barbecue competitions, The 31st Annual American Royal Barbecue in Kansas City, September 30th to October 3rd.
Strem says they all thought grills would be just a fun project. Its slow and steady success is icing on the cake. “If you have another product that is based on something you’re already doing - you’re just putting it in a different application - it keeps your production guys working. And that’s a good thing.”
Northwest can customize either grill with an infused powder-coated version of your favorite photo, logo or team as they’re licensed with the two major college licensing groups. “NDSU (North Dakota State University) invited us to the Bison’s home opener against Morgan State on September 18. I’m taking the Mini-Hog and I can’t wait,” says Strem. Proof positive that there’s nothing like a new flame.