What are Traeger Wood Pellets?
Traeger Pellet Grills LLC was started in 1985 by Joe Traeger, and is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Wood pellet grills and BBQ wood pellets have become a niche of the wood fuel industry. However, while wood pellets over the previous decades have been a very small niche in the BBQ industry, it’s grown considerably. Where previously Traeger Pellet Grills were only available in the US and Canada they are now even sold in Europe. Besides producing pellet grills, Traeger actually produces their own brand of BBQ wood pellets of various different flavours.
While it’s generally acknowledged that cooking with charcoal produces improved flavoured food over gas, the cooking process is harder to control. BBQ wood pellet grills use a hopper and feed auger in a similar fashion to pellet stoves and boilers. Therefore the temperature of the cooking process can be precisely controlled.
How Traeger Wood Pellets are made?
While I have my main post on how wood pellets are made, I thought I would share with you Traeger’s own video on their process. It’s slightly different from the ‘normal’ wood pellet production process. However, most of the equipment is the same. Check out the video below to watch how Traeger wood pellets are made. Please note it takes 40 seconds to get through the promotion before they start to show the actual pellet manufacturing process.
Raw Materials and Preparation
One area where Traeger has a different (and generally) more difficult pellet manufacturing process is dealing with a wide range of raw materials. They produce BBQ wood pellets from Hickory, Mesquite, Apple, Cherry, Oak, Alder, Pecan, Maple and various other blends. That’s a lot of raw material management to take care off. Traeger appears to be making wood pellets from whole logs.
Normally with a typical fuel pellet plant, you prepare a standard raw material, typically either softwood or hardwood. You then set up the plant to deal with that particular raw material. That can involve setting up the hammer mill with a certain sized screen. It can also involve setting the dryer to a certain rotation speed. Finally, it can involve using a specific die at the right compression in the pellet mill. With Traeger, they have multiple different wood species to deal with in separate batches.
Now, when you watch the video if you pay close atension you will notice the narrator make an important point. He states that the other wood species are mixed with alder or oak. Therefore, with an applewood pellet blend its not 100% applewood. It’s not clear what percentage of the mixture used to make the BBQ wood pellets is applewood. I don’t believe they are mixing the raw materials together before the wood pellets are produced. More than likely they are mixing the separate batches of wood pellets together before packaging.
Size Reduction via the Hammer Mill
The first part of the Traeger wood pellet plant appears to be their hammer mill trough feed hopper. A screw of belt conveyor will then take this material at a controlled rate into the hammer mill. The hammer mill is likely fitted with a 5mm screen, as Traeger produce 6mm BBQ wood pellets. The material produced from the hammer mill is now a small consistent particle size suitable for the pellet mill. However, the raw material first needs to be dried down to the perfect moisture content.
Drying the wood before the Pellet Mill
If you have read my main page on how to make wood pellets you will know that getting the moisture content right is very important. As this is a large scale pellet plant Trager is using a large rotary dryer. The video itself does not actually demonstrate the order of their process correctly, showing images of the pellet mill before images of this rotary dryer.
You have to set up the rotation speed of the dryer to suit the raw material moisture content of the wood your processing. In general, the optimum moisture content for the pellet mill is 12%. As stated at the start of this post, Traeger has significant challenges due to the wide range of woody biomass materials they have to process. Depending on how long the material has been sat in the yard will impact on the starting moisture content. Testing the raw material and changing the dryer rotation speed could be very labour intensive. Furthermore, if you get it wrong it could disrupt the whole process. Even leading to a pellet mill die blockage.
While it’s not shown in the video I would imagine they have inline infra-red moisture meters. These constantly monitor the raw material as it enters the rotary dryer. The computer can then adjust the speed of the dryer to suit the wide range of different raw materials this plant has to process. While these inline infra-red moisture meters can be very expensive, on a pellet plant such as this they can be invaluable. Plus, you also have to remember these are BBQ wood pellets. On a value per weight basis, BBQ wood pellets produce the most profit by far of any other wood pellets.
The Larger Ring Die Pellet Mill
Where the Traeger wood pellet process differs from standard fuel pellet production is in the use of food-grade soybean oil. Vegetable oil is often fed into pellet mills via drip feed or peristaltic pumps to reduce the pressure within the die and avoid die blockages. However, too much oil will reduce the compression of the wood pellet to a point where it doesn’t form to a sufficient density.
The Traeger wood pellets are made with food-grade soybean oil as these are BBQ pellets. The smoke from Traeger wood pellets penetrates the food to produce the delicate wood smoke flavours. Therefore using a food-grade oil in this instance is good practice. For standard wood pellet production, it’s common to use other pellet binders.
Ring Die or Flat Die Pellet Mill?
Traeger has chosen to use ring die pellet mills over flat die machines. The advantages are increased roller and die life, more consistent pellet quality and a lower power input per ton of pellets produced. The material is metered into the centre of the ring die pellet mill, where the die is mounted vertically.
Two rollers are located on the inside of the die, the pellets are produced on the outer edge of the die. The rollers are not actually set against the surface of the die. There should be no metal to metal contact. The rollers are set with a small gap, typically 1mm to create a carpet of material against the die. This gap improves pellet quality and also increases roller and die service life.
Cooling the Traeger BBQ Wood Pellets and Packaging
After the wood pellets leave the pellet mill they first need to be cooled before packaging. The wood pellets leave the pellet mill hot. As the wood pellets still contain between 7-10% moisture if they are placed in a plastic bag hot they will sweat and break apart. The reason plastic bags are used is it’s very important to protect wood pellets from moisture. Therefore it’s very important to let the wood pellets cool before they are packaged up. Large counter flow coolers will be used where a fan pulls air through the pellets and vents to the outside.
In the screenshot from the video above you can see the operator fill standard 20lb bags. This is a typical bag size also used for fuel pellets. However, you can also source Traeger BBQ wood pellets and other brands in small pouch bags. These can be purchased as part of a set to try and range of BBQ wood pellets in a smoke pot.
Conclusions on How Traeger Wood Pellets are Made
Generally, the process is very similar to how I describe the pellet production process in my other posts. The main difference with Traeger wood pellets is the wide range of different species they have to deal with. Furthermore, they are producing a food-grade product. As Traeger have to source a wide range of wood species, the logistics of getting those different raw materials to their pellet plant in sufficient volumes must be a challenge.
However, it’s important to remember, BBQ wood pellets are very profitable. Therefore while it will take more time and effort, and their raw material will cost more, the results are worth it. I must admit as well, after I used BBQ wood pellets for the first time, food produced on my gas BBQ just seemed a bit boring!