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Grill baby, grill: Americans choose gas over charcoal

(Flickr user Rich Anderson, under Creative Commons license)
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As Americans, we love to sort ourselves into opposing camps, don't we? Democrats vs. Republicans. Coke vs. Pepsi. Boxers vs. briefs. How about charcoal vs. gas?

Like seemingly everything else in America these days, the Grilling Wars are dominated by two fiercely partisan sides, each certain of the righteousness of their cause and the moral depravity of the other guys. There are myriad dimensions to the argument — taste, convenience, carbon footprint — but I'm not going to adjudicate those disputes today. Rather, I'm interested in one thing: how Americans are voting with their pocketbooks.

Fortunately for us, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (there is a trade group for literally everything, it seems) has tracked gas and charcoal grill sales going back to 1985. And their data paint a pretty clear picture of the decline of charcoal and the rise of gas, with the two lines crossing at about 1995.

I spoke with Jack Goldman, president and CEO of the HPBA, about the overall trends. He told me the rise of gas grills is due to their convenience, plain and simple. While gas has been the clear preference since 1995, Goldman said that charcoal has been closing the gap with gas in recent years. "Charcoal hasn't overtaken gas again but it's having a second life. People are liking it because they think the food flavor is better."

Overall grill sales for both gas and charcoal are down sharply since 2007, for the same reason that sales of just about everything are down since then: the recession. "Like everything else, people are holding on to what they have," Goldman said. "The vast majority of people who want grills already have them."

But if the Google Trends data below are any indication, 2014 might be the year grill sales start to rebound — interest in both gas and charcoal grills in the U.S. this year is higher than at any point since 2004.

For the record: I'm a charcoal guy. What's your preference?

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