Made in Michiana: Cotton Gin Smokers

Made in Michiana: Cotton Gin Smokers


NILES, MI.-- The Made in Michiana series continues this morning and might just get your testbeds to start waking up because were talking BBQ!

Everyone does barbecue differently and that's no exception in Niles.

The Cotton Gin Smokers call themselves the "Quarantine Cookers" and here's a look at why.

If you hear "BBQ" does your mouth start watering?

From Memphis to the Carolinas, Texas to Kansas City, it seems like every major city has laid claim to a famous taste.

One city you probably don't think of Niles, Michigan.

“I think people need that around here," says Stephen Hedges.

Hedges helps manage Cotton Gin Smokers in Niles and the barbeque pit is his passion.

"Yankees don’t know how to do BBQ, that’s known by the Texans. So we want to introduce something new to the area and it’s something we’re passionate about,' says Hedges.

A new way for Michiana to smoke meat.

“Here we make single barrel smokers," says Hedges. "So basically we take a 55 gallon steel drum and turn it into the coolest drum smokers.”

Matt Messer owns the shop and has come up with the unique way they do barbecue after a lot of trial and error.

“So I built my first smoker in my metal shop class as a senior in high school. I rolled it out of the shop on graduation day," says Cotton Gin smoker owner, Matt Messer.

From there Messer got further involved with a smoker team out of Mississippi.

“We were spread across the country, I was here in the Michiana area and running things from here and we took a shift in the direction of the business and started going more towards back yard cookers, competition cookers," said Messer.

His experience with that team led to his own way of smoking.

“So I built one out of a used 55 gallon drum in my basement for myself," says Messer.

After making one for a friend and posting it on social media, fans and supporters did the rest.

“So uh just one at a time in my basement," said Messer. "Drill holes out, bolt them together. I painted them by hand at that time. We switched to powder coating now, and now we’re in a 40 by 40 shop shipping them all over the country.”

What started as a simple idea in the basement now has a national following.

“You know the furthest we’ve shipped one is Alaska, and we ship them to California, Florida, Georgia, we’ve got one in here going to Maryland," says Messer.

Even in the middle of a pandemic sales are on fire.

“I set a goal to build one a month as a hobby, I built 26 in year one. Then year two we tripled our sales over tripled now," says Messer.

He credits it partially to a new need for homeowners wanting to stay-in, save a little, and cook god food from home.

Messer calls them quarantine cookers.

“In a lot of regards COVID, as unfortunate as it is for people, people are really getting creative with ways to cook from home. And so BBQ is just this growing phenomena, like I said earlier, It’s really sparked an interest in people, like I said charcoal companies can’t keep up with the demand. And grills and smokers are flying off the shelves so really has taken my business to the next level," says Messer.

But what makes these cookers next level?

The 55-gallon barrel used can hold, hang, and cook a range of different meats and foods.

To do so, you light a coal-wood chunk mix at the bottom of the smoker which then produces heat and smoke that, with gravity's help, cook the meat before being vented out through the top.

While that hot air rises and escapes, new air is being brought in through a bottom vent allowing the meat to cook for hours, efficiently on end.

“People love them because we tend to be the only company people come to to get a smoker personalized to them," says Hedges. "You can’t go into Lowe’s or Home Depot or your average BBQ supply store and get a smoker that’s you. Yours. Your logo. It’s your smoker, it’s completely personalized. 

Personalized just like the barbecue recipes you'll be smoking inside.

“I grew up eating it and like the name it reminds me of my roots and where I came from," says Messer. "So getting to share that with people up here and getting to share that experience with people and just seeing them take that first bite of brisket or first good bite of a rib. That drives me, it keeps me going.”

But what's next for Cotton Gin Smokers?

They have a few things up their sleeves and are working on their website so that customers can completely customize their smoker from home!

They even are expanding the smokers they make up to a 500 gallon propane tank style Texas cooker.

With plenty of opportunities on the horizon, if you have any questions or are looking for your own personal cooker:


Instagram: @cottonginsmokers

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