What comes to your mind when you think of coal? Something dirty and smelly that’s bad for the environment and the climate? Yes, that might be true for fossil fuel and especially for brown coal, but there’s a very different sort of coal! At one of the world’s best restaurants, Noma in Copenhagen, it could actually happen that you have your food served on pieces of white charcoal. White charcoal is one of the purest forms of carbon available and the Danish brand Sort of Coal produces it according to ancient Japanese traditions. Their so-called Kishu Binchotan is probably the most aesthetic way to turn tap water into delicious drinking water.
We all know that drinking tap water is good for us, our wallets and the environment, but sometimes “drinkable” tap water has the slight taste of the tubes it comes from and in some places even chlorine. Thus a beautiful piece of Binchotan in your water jug is the solution: It removes all sorts of smells or tastes and purifies water from chlorine, pharmaceutical and drug residues while releasing vital minerals absorbed by the living tree, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus.
For producing Binchotans, pieces of oak wood are carefully harvested and then baked in hand-built clay kilns—slowly at first and then at extremely high temperatures with restricted oxygen. This allows carbon to be captured in the wood by a process called pyrolysis. Perfecting the difficult ritual of making the Binchotan charcoal requires patience and dedication. The craftsmen know exactly which wood to cut and from where, how to build and control the fire and when to stop the baking process. It is from the last step of this process that white charcoal gets its name: To quickly stop the burning and trap the carbon the craftsmen roll the charcoal in a soft white ash thereby turning the charcoal, albeit temporarily, white.
Besides purifying and mineralizing water white charcoal can also remove steam and smells from the air. The branches and trunks turned in Binchotans are very beautiful objects in themselves and Sort of Coal offer them in all shapes and sizes to simultaneously clean the air and decorate your rooms. Once you’ve finished using your Binchotan, nature will gladly take it back. This true cradle-to-cradle product is an excellent fertilizer, so you can just crush and mix it with potting soil where it will add nourishment and regulate the PH balance for your plants.
The natural byproduct of white charcoal production is char essence. It has been used for medicinal purposes throughout Asia for centuries and is highly valued for its deodorizing and deep cleansing effects, as well as for its skin-softening properties. The personal care products by Sort of Coal are handmade from this char essence, using only natural oils free from any harmful
Being a fan of the Sort of Coal products myself, I have asked one of the founders, Pernille Lembcke, some questions via email to find out more about the brand, its products and their philosophy.
What do you think comes first for most of your customers who buy a Sort of Coal Binchotan, the design and aesthetics of your products, or the philosophy of ancient Asian traditions and an awareness for the eco-friendliness of this waste-free water filter/air purifier? Do you think most of your customers become aware of all of these aspects step by step?
I think people are attracted by the aesthetics but convinced by the fact that it offers an elegant alternative to bottled water. Many people are looking for ways to live in a better contact with nature and I think the binchotan offers a beautiful, transforming and natural process in the home.
What can you tell us about the emissions of CO2 or other gases during the production process of the charcoal?
Binchotan is made out of a special kind of oak (Japanese Holm Oak). When the branches grow the tree absorbs CO2 from the air and turns it into carbon. Our Japanese partner Katayama san harvests the branches that grow out again, and by baking the wood in kilns and controlling the fire carefully for two weeks, the carbon is turned into carbon in a more solid form. Only five percent of the carbon in the wood escapes during this process, meaning that ninety-five percent of the carbon is turned into solid carbon. This is why the Binchotan has its unique, shiny surface, like pearls. When we use the Binchotan as a purifying remedy and don’t burn it (not turning it into CO2), and by recycling the Binchotan after use, we then give carbon back to the soil which is a reversed process balancing our broken carbon circle.
How do you ship the charcoal and its side products to Europe? Have you ever thought about shipping the coal in a more climate-friendly fashion, maybe even by sailboat, which might specially fit the philosophy of Sort of Coal as I understand it?
We ship the binchotan by ship. I don’t think it is possible to do it by sailboat. Is it? Love the idea:-)
Are there any other aspects in your production chain or the sales process that you would like to make more eco-friendly and are already working on?
I would love to have the production in Europe, but we have not been able to find anyone who would be able to do it here. The Japanese craftsmen are highly specialized and the quality of the wood is also fundamental.
Do you think having Noma using your products gained your label more attention from people who normally wouldn't have gotten in touch with the benefits of white charcoal but who use and buy it now?
Noma was among our first clients. They served dishes directly on pieces of charcoal (as serving plates) and they used the charcoal as decorative air purifier. It has definitely helped us create awareness for the material and connecting charcoal with purity and not something dirty. Later, another amazing gourmet restaurant in Copenhagen, Geranium, has done so as well, by using our kuro powder (edible charcoal powder) in their recipes.
Last but not least, a question that is very interesting to me personally, as I've also worked in commercial film production for several years: How did the encounter with the ancient Asian method of charcoal production change your everyday life as a commercial producer? Can you still tolerate the pressure and stress agencies or clients like to create around promoting an irrelevant product like a new chocolate bar or new plastic sneakers?
I loved working in the film industry as it’s full of inspiring, creative people and dynamic work processes. I loved being a part of those teams. But at the same time I felt I was lacking the feeling of doing something meaningful. As I discovered the Binchotan and instantly was attracted to the material and the transformative powers of it, it felt like a mission to share my new insights with others. I believe that it was some sort of spiritual search that lead me to getting into this adventure.
And you are right. Visiting our Japanese supplier for the first time and experiencing the way that the craftsmen, with perfection and patience, turned wood into carbon gave me a sense of presence and deep connection with nature from which I am still fed.