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Vertical Charcoal Smokers item created by bmudd14474, Oct 19, 2010
Pros - Maintains temp very very nice over a very long period.
I've had the AS300K for about 2 months. I've successfully smoked 3-4 whole chickens, 2 pork butts, and a couple of fatties. So far, I love this. It doesn't take up a ton of room in my garage. It's easy to move. I only bring it outside for cooking, so I'm sure it will last a very long time, not being exposed to weather.
The real beauty is that it will maintain temps all day with very little fuss. For a smoker that takes up a very small footprint, it would be hard to find another that will hold steady temps with little fire maintenance for as long as this one will. Of course, the Weber Smokey mountain is a very similar smoker, but I like how this is more versatile. I'll explain more below about this versatility, which is why I bought this over the WSM.
I'll fill the coal basket completely with unlit charcoal (briquettes or lump) with 3 wood chunks buried within the outer edges. Then I'll pull out enough coals from the center (ala Minion method) to create about a 5-6" hole. Light these coals in a chimney, put them back in the center, and then a 4th chunk of wood goes on top. After about a half hour, I'm up to 225. All vents wide open. The beauty of this Minion method is that the lit coals in the center will slowly light the rest of the coals throughout the day, leaving you with a very very long steady fire.
If I don't choke down the bottom vents, then the temp will keep rising, but I usually choke the bottom vents down to 1/2 or 1/4 to maintain between 225-250. The last time that I smoked, I started my fire at 9:00 am, and I had a constant 225-250 temp until around 5pm and I only adjusted the vents twice! Very impressive. If I wanted to keep going, then I only would have needed to add more coals.
(regarding the paragraph below, make sure to read my edit at the bottom of the review....my use of water has changed)
I do recommend that you do a couple of "dry runs" to figure out how to properly maintain temps. If I had started cooking food with my first attempt at maintaining a fire, it would have been a disaster. I do use the water pan filled with water, but be careful. If you are low on water, and you add a gallon or so (even hot water), you can drop temp real significantly. I like to have the water pan completely full at the beginning, and this way, you can cook all day without losing water completely, generally. But if you do get low on water, don't add water unless you really want temp to go down. Remember that the water pan is not necessary for a good cook, it's just a nice way to maintain temps, and bring temp down if you need to, and it will definitely do this! If you do add water and your temp goes really low, fear not...it might take about 15 mins to get back up to temp, but the smoker will get back to temp as long as your fire is good.
So why did I go with this over a Weber Smokey Mountain? Mostly due to the fact that it's more versatile.
1. The Apollo smoker comes in 4 main parts. The lid, 2 rings, and the bottom. If you want to smoke at a hotter temp, remove one ring, and the smoker is smaller (although I haven't tried this yet). If you want to remove both rings, the lid will sit on the bottom, and then you have a charcoal grill about the same size as a Weber Jumbo Joe.
2. The 4 sections are linked with latches on the side. This keeps them together, and allow you to lift the entire unit from the side handles, or top handle. Or if you want, you can release the latches on any of the sections, and lift off whatever section(s) you wish. Some people have mentioned that the latches seem cheap, but I don't see them failing anytime soon. They don't have to be amazing quality to function faithfully.
3. Handles on the side rings. If you ever need to add more coals during a fire, this could be downright dangerous with the WSM, which has no handles. There is a real risk of the water pan spilling 250 degree water on your feet, or maybe onto your coals. Of course, the risk is there with the Napolean, but the handles make this a hell of a lot easier. Now granted, you could open the front door, and add coals this way, but I would rather take the unit apart so I can properly shake ash out of the coal basket, take a good look at my fire, and then add my coals. I will put out this caveat - I don't own a WSM, so I've never tried to remove the large ring during a cook. But I'm pretty sure that one unit having handles, and one unit not having handles makes this pretty easy to figure out.
4. Built-in temp probe grommets. To keep an eye on your internal temp, you simply stick your probe into the grommet. There is no need to attach the probe to the cooking grate, which could take up some room if you are filling the grate with food. The grommet is positioned right at grate level. No need to fish the probe through the top vent, or through the front door. There's a grommet on both the top grate, and the bottom grate, so if you want to cook on both grates, you can monitor temps in both locations.
5. Much larger water pan than the WSM. I can smoke all day and not need to refill water.
6. The coal basket is all one piece on the Apollo. My understanding is the the WSM is a ring, and grate that are not connected...one just sits on top of the other. It's very easy for me to grab the Apollo coal basket by the handles, give it a shake, and ash falls to the bottom. I also hear the WSM owners will oftentimes buy a second coal grate and put the two grates in a cross-hatch pattern to keep coals from falling through. No problem with this on the Apollo.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a big Weber fan. I have had a Genesis Gold gas grill for 12 years, and I love it! I love Weber's customer service. Once I had a problem with a part on my Weber side burner. Even though the grill was 12 years old, I called them up and they sent me a replacement part for free! Pretty amazing. I don't have any experience with Napolean customer service in comparison.
But when I did all my homework on vertical smokers, I came to the conclusion that the Apollo was the better smoker, and I still feel this way. If my opinion changes, I'll update this review.
Very happy with this smoker!
EDIT AFTER ABOUT 3-4 MONTHS OF USE.....
Still very happy, really nothing has changed, except that I now prefer to not use water in the water pan when I start a fire. I have found that water definitely acts to absorb a lot of heat. If, in the middle of a cook, you realize that the water is absorbing enough heat that it's tough to keep a temp of 225 or so, then you're kind of out of luck.
It's not easy or at all safe to remove this very very hot water. You can add more coals, but I found that even with a very very hot fire, there were a couple of times that I hovered at low temps no matter what I did with coals or vents. The water pan had too much water, and I couldn't safely remove the water. So what I do now is start cooking with no water in the pan, and then if my temps get higher than I want, regardless of the vents being totally choked down, I add about a quart or two of water at a time, monitoring temps to decide if I need more. Much easier to do this, then it is to remove very very hot water.
For those of you thinking that water is necessary for moist food, it is not at all. After all, offsets, drum smokers, pellet smokers, electric smokers, pretty much every other smoker out there will cook without water in the cooking chamber. The water is strictly for temp control, and doesn't effect the moisture of the meat.
I go with no water at the beginning of a cook, as it's much easier to add water to lower temp than it is to remove water to raise temp.
Also, no water in pan = less heat required to keep a desired temp = less coals needed = longer cooks per basket of coals.
Pros - Nice Design, Stacks latch together, eyelits for thermometers.
Cons - Some heat and smoke loss. Coal door small
I bought this slightly used (only used twice) plus I got an extra stacker for it that was brand new all for $300. It was a really great deal. So first the pros since there are a lot more than the Cons.
I had been wanting a WSM but after seeing this and reading some other reviews online I couldn't pass it up for the price. This setup would have cost me $500 new. I have it under its old UK name of the ProQ Excel 20. So size wise it is right in between the 2 WSM models. I really like the coal basket design which seems to be much nicer than the WSM. Most people who own the WSM buy a second grill grate to put perpendicular to the fist to keep coals from falling through. This has that design built in. Also the water pan is very large compared to the WSM. Many WSM owners upgrade their water pan to a larger one. So that is another point for this smoker over the WSM. You can add additional stacks to this smoker making it larger as I did. So if you look at the picture of this one image in it with one more layer for three cooking racks instead of two. Also since this one is made up of sections you can break it down and remove the water pan to use as a small grill or just add one stack if your only cooking one item but the more you cook the more stacks you can add. Also there are latches that allow you to hold the stacks together and you can move the whole unit like this. There are also small whole to stick a thermometer in at each grill level for good temp readings through out.
Now Cons. I did find that some smoke and I would guess heat was escaping at the points where the stacks join together. Not much but enough. I used aluminum foil tape to seal these sections. It was an easy and effective trick. The doors are smaller then the WSM which is not bad but it does make it a little harder to add coal. Not a big deal though. Also I think due to the large water pan it was a bit harder to get the temp up. I would recommend either using a little less water or just open the bottom door just a crack to get more air in there. Once you get your temp up you can shut the door and mess with the dampeners.
All in all an excellent smoker for the money.
Pros - Modular design so can be used as a charcoal grill too.
Cons - Maybe some heat loss due to the modular design.
I'm new to smoking and have only done 3 smokes with this smoker so far. The last one was an overnight butt smoke which was successful. It's taken these 3 attempts to get the temp control figured out, but it seems to work pretty good.