Hookahs Hookahs

Romancing the Smoke: Coal Talk

If you’re just tuning in to Romancing The Smoke, this is a blog following my journey to becoming a hookah know-it-all. If you’re also a beginner, or a pro who wants to offer some advice, then I hope you’ll follow along!

I'm discovering that much of the hookah life is based on preference - ice in the base, when to pass the hose, shisha flavors- these are just a couple of the many variations that we all make in our hookah practice. However, there are a few non-negotiables, and heat is one of them. Obviously, within that category there are a variety of options, so it's time to break down the world of charcoal and see what we can learn!
  Natural              vs. Quick-light
In my opinion, quick-lights are great if you're somewhere that doesn't allow you to properly heat natural coals. If you're camping, if your stove is broken, etc., then these little guys can simply be lit with a lighter. However, make SURE that the coals have gone gray before you place them on your bowl - otherwise not all of the accelerant will have been burned off and a nasty taste/potential headache will ensue. No bueno. And don't forget to use tongs!

If you want to be taken seriously by the pros, you're going to be using natural hookah coals as your standard option. These do not have an accelerating agent in them, so they will take longer to light, however they will last longer and have little to no effect on the flavor of the shisha. So from here on out, when I say coals, you think natural. Ready? Coals. Natural! Coals. Natural! Go, go, fight, fight, now let's learn to heat them right!

(This is an awesome guide <- to the different kinds of coals  that are available.)
Okay, but why charcoal?   
Heat management and maintaining the heat transfer is the key to gaining the perfect hookah smoke. A common misconception about hookahs concerns the burning of the tobacco. When smoking a hookah, you are never trying to burn the hookah tobacco, you’re merely trying to evaporate and vaporize all the honeys and sugars in which the shisha tobacco is marinated in. Thus the reason for using charcoal instead of an open flame (as with smoking cigarettes or a cigar). This also explains why the spent hookah tobacco is still in the hookah bowl, unlike cigarette or cigar tobacco burned to ash.Natural coals do not emit as intense of a heat as quick-lights do, which enables you to have a longer, more consistent session. There is more, awesome information about heat management in this blog. Charcoal is most often made out of pieces of pyrolyzed wood, or wood dust, that is heated and compacted into briquettes. However, the hottest (pun intended) hookah coals on the market right now are made out of compressed coconut shells. Coconut charcoal burns hot and clean,  and produces a mild,  sweet, but unique smoke.  Gaia Coals, Coco Nara Coals, and now the Starbuzz variation, Coco Buzz, are the most popular and effective.
Let's Heat Things Up A Bit!
NOT ready
Just Don't -The one drawback of natural coals is that they cannot be lit with a standard lighter; they need a more direct source of heat. I'm serious when I say that, don't be that dude who tries to hold the lighter (or even a torch) under the coal for 20 minutes, you're just going to end up burned and blistered with inefficiently heated coals. I'm new to all of this and even I would make fun of you.
Coils - The easiest way to light the coals is on a standard electric stove top or a single coil electric hookah charcoal heater. The portable coil heater is great - all you need to do is plug it in, put it on high, place a few coals on the coil, flip after 5-7 minutes and let them sit until the coals are a nice, ashy gray. This works the same on an electric stove.

Ceramic Top -I've heard that you should not put coals directly on a ceramic stove top because it might do minor damage to the aesthetic of the surface. You could put them in a pan (this will take a little bit longer) -honestly, I've put them on a ceramic stove top, and it was fine, but don't do it if you don't want to take the risk of messing up a nice stove.

Gas Top -There are numerous ways to create some sort of conduit for holding the coals over a gas stove, but none of which we recommend. If you decide to attempt one of these, please do so at your own risk.

And that about sums up what I know about coals. If I missed something or if you have some wisdom to impart - please feel free to leave me a comment!
Until next time, happy smoking! -Katie
To see tutorial videos on this subject, and others, check out our How-To Playlist on YouTube!

Comments (11) -

  • When lighting natural coils a coil burner will always be better than lighting a coal than on a smooth top because a coil burner will heat the coals up faster. This is because of the small gaps in between the coil which allows air to flow underneath and hit the bottom of the coal unlike a smooth top. Although the also depends on the power wattage of the device you're using.
    • That totally makes sense, thanks for sharing, Geoff!
  • Also, as a note on the coil burner.  You do not always want to set it on high heat, most of the time high is fine but with some coals on the market that are more prone to breaking it is best to heat them on a medium heat.  It will take a small amount of time longer but you will have a whole coal rather than one that split in pieces.
  • I use only Coco Nara coals. They burn longer than any other coal I have tried and I have never had an issue with them breaking. They also burn at what seems to be a lower temperature because heat management is always easier when I use them versus other coconut or bamboo coals.

    Touching on what Geoff said, because an open coil allows air flow, the coals will heat up faster. That being said, if you have a solid plate heat source, gently blowing on the coals every couple minutes will actually get them to the ready point quicker.
    • Yeah, I started with Coco Naras, so I think I got lucky not having to deal with crappy coals first! They are definitely awesome.
  • I've been using exotica natural coals for a few years now and I just use a blow torch works fine for me and doesn't take more then a minute or two
    • Yeah, that method can work, and since you're a pro and have been at it a while I'm sure that method is great! But I definitely wouldn't recommend it to people who are still learning about coal preparation and heat management - I'll leave the blow torch to the professionals like you!
  • Just to remember! Dont try to lit'em in the microwave!!!!
  • So do you think an Iron(to iron clothes) would work to light natural coals? Because I have a gas stove.. and that's hard to do haha
    • Hmmm, I would say to stay away from the clothes iron! But if you have an old pan, you can put the coals in there and put them on top of the stove. Might take a little longer, but it'll get the job done!
  • I bought a pan just for the coals, then the very next day i saw a coil burner for cheap.  Now that pan is for eggs.