A Pipe Tobacco Primer

I recently started a Pipe and Cigar Club with my good friend and fellow piper and aficionado, Tad Seymour.  The first meeting took place in my house, and was attended by six local enthusiasts.  We discussed the goals of the club, and what we were all going to get together to do and for the time being have decided to meet monthly to try out a new tobacco or cigar.  To facilitate this, monthly dues are collected and used to purchase the smoking products.

So, in the Facebook group that Tad created for the Okanagan Pipe and Cigar Club, he and I began to post some tobacco recommendations for our group to try, picking one by popular consensus for the next group meeting.  It was then pointed out to me by one of the members, that most of our membership are enthusiastic but uneducated.  In other words, like art, they know what they like, but they don’t know if it’s art.

Then it dawned on me, that there are probably a lot more people getting into the pipe enthusiast hobby who don’t know the difference between a Balkan and an English, couldn’t identify Flue-cured, or Sun-cured, and have no idea what a Cavendish or a Perique tobacco are.

Hence, here is an article to explain all that;

First I’ll start with curing.  There are four principal methods of curing tobacco, as follows; Air-cured, Fire-cured, Flue-cured, and Sun-cured.

Curing?!  What the <bleep> is that?!  Curing is the process of preparing the tobacco for consumption, either through smoking, ingestion or inhalation.  OK, moving on…

Air-cured tobaccos are commonly used in cigars, as well as with Burley leaf, by hanging up the tobacco in ventilated barns and allowing the air to dry it out.  Air-curing results in a sweet tobacco, that is high in nicotine content.

Fire-curing is commonly used in pipe tobacco, chewing tobaccos and snuffs.  It is created by placing the tobacco hung up in specially designed barns where low, smoldering fires cure the tobacco, over a period of days to months, with the heat of the flames.  Fire-curing results in a tobacco that is low in sugar, and high in nicotine.

Flue-cured tobaccos are most often used in cigarettes, though occasionally you will find them in pipe tobaccos as well, and are created by placing the tobacco in specially created kilns with external fireboxes that smoke the tobacco over the period of about a week, producing a tobacco that is high in sugar and possesses medium levels of nicotine.

Finally, there is Sun-curing.  Sun-curing is most often done in the near-orient, around Turkey and Romania, and places like that, to produce a low sugar, low nicotine cigarette tobacco.  It is done by simply placing the tobacco out in the sun to dry.

Which now brings me to processing.

Processing creates the different types of tobacco that we recognize as “Virginia”, “Cavendish”, “Burley”, “Perique”, “Latakia” and the like.

These are some of the more common processed pipe tobaccos;

Burley –Burley tobacco is credited to a Mr. Webb around middle of the 19th century grown in Ohio from a seed that he brought with him from Kentucky.  The leaf is lightly shaded, and the Air-cured tobacco is most often used in cigarettes in North America, but you may find many pipe tobacco blends with a Burley base.  Burley tobacco has a low sugar content, and it’s very non-sweet, and therefore is often cased (flavored) with sweet sugars.

Cavendish – Cavendish tobacco is a process of curing, and cutting the tobacco and not a type of tobacco itself.  Often made from one or more of Virginia, Kentucky, or Burley tobaccos the fermenting process is designed to bring out the natural sweetness of the tobacco.  Cavendish is said to be exceptionally mild on the palate.  Before pressing (part of the curing process) the tobacco is often cased (flavored) and used in aromatics.

Fire-cured Kentucky –Fire-curing Kentucky tobacco is often used as a condiment in pipe tobaccos and is renowned for its light, floral scent and rich flavor.  It is also used in chewing tobacco, snuff, and cigarettes.

Latakia – a form of Fire-cured, Turkish/oriental tobacco, Latakia is renowned for its smoky-peppery taste and rich clouds of smoke when you smoke it.  It is started out in a Sun-curing process, like other oriental tobaccos, but finished over a smoky fire of local hardwoods found in Syria and Cyprus.  Considered too strong to smoke on its own, Latakia is often used as a condiment tobacco in other blends, though a high Latakia content is not uncommon.

Oriental –Oriental, or Turkish tobaccos, are a Sun-cured variety of tobacco commonly used in North American, and European cigarettes as well as a staple in many tobaccos used for pipe smoking.  As a matter of fact, early European cigarettes were made mostly, if not entirely, out of oriental tobacco.  Sherlock Holmes in his original incarnation by Sir Walter Conan Doyle smoked Turkish cigarettes that were specially made for him by his tobacconist.  The tobacco is small leafed and considered highly aromatic and makes for a very pleasant smoke.

Perique – Perique tobacco is a variety of tobacco that was smoked by the Choctaw and Chickasaw native tribes, for 1000 years before the introduction of the Europeans.  When the Acadians came to the area in the mid-1800s a local farmer named Pierre “Le Perique” Chenet is credited with having convinced the local natives to part with the secrets of their tobacco.  The tobacco is now only made in Saint James Parish in Louisiana.  Far too strong to be smoked on its own, but once used as a chewing tobacco, Perique is considered the “champagne” of tobaccos and is very popular with modern pipe smokers, especially in Virginia/Perique (Va-per) blends.  A cut of about 10-20% Perique is most common..  The tobacco is peppery and sweet and one of my personal favorites.

Virginia Brightleaf –called “Virginia” tobacco regardless of where in the world it’s harvested, Brightleaf tobacco is the absolute staple of all tobacco blends.  Canadian cigarettes are usually 100% Virginia Brightleaf tobacco.  Virginia is the tobacco around which all other tobaccos center their blends.  It is uncommon to find a blend of tobacco that does not have Virginia tobaccos in it.  When they say that tobacco is “spicy” or “has a high nicotine content” they are comparing it to Brightleaf tobacco. Prior to the early 19th century, American tobacco was all Fire-cured dark leaf, then sometime after 1838, a slave owned by Captain Abisha Slade of North Carolina accidentally discovered the curing process of Brightleaf tobacco, lighter, milder, and more aromatic than Dark Leaf, now the industry standard. 70% of all North American tobacco is Virginia Brightleaf

Which brings me to tobacco cuts, and how you smoke them;

Broken Flake –when tobacco is cut into flakes, many times those flakes will break up into smaller chunks, this is called broken flake.  Broken flake is smoked exactly like flake tobacco, by rubbing out the tobacco between your palms.

Cube cut –sometimes flakes are chopped up into very fine cubes.  This is called cube cut tobacco.  The cubes can be rubbed out between your palms but are most often simply loaded into the pipe loosely pushed down and smoked.  Many people will find that cube cut tobacco is hard to keep lit, and takes a particular technique to smoke.

Flake –one of my favorite cuts of tobacco, flake is simply plugs of tobacco that have been cut into, well, flakes.  Like little sheets of tobacco there are many different ways to use it.  You can take a flake, and fold it up and stuff it in your pipe.  This method is called folding and stuffing.  Or you can crumple the flake up into a little ball in your hand, and roll it between your palms until the entirety of the tobacco falls apart into tiny leaves. This is called rubbing out.

Loose cut –this cut of tobacco is probably the most commonly found in modern pipe tobaccos.  It is simply the various ways of chopping up tobacco into fine leaves.  There’s shag cut, wild cut, long cut, you name it.  Ultimately, much of this doesn’t really matter, the tobacco is simply “loose cut” and easily packed into a pipe.

Medallion –much like flake, medallion cut tobacco is little sheets of tobacco.  Unlike flake, the sheets are round, and often have varying layers within them.  They are smoked by simply balling them up and stuffing them in your pipe, or rubbing them out like flake.

Plug –plug tobacco is simply uncut flakes.  Usually bought in small 1 ounce bricks, the tobacco needs to be cut with a sharp knife into a flake and smoked like a flake by folding and stuffing or rubbing out.  The blend of the tobacco is caused by the layering of the tobacco before it is pressed into the plug, and to appreciate the mix, you need to cut it through the layers, instead of separating the layers themselves.

Ready-rubbed –this type of tobacco is tobacco that has been made into plug, then cut and rubbed so that is ready to smoke.  It is the lazy man’s answer to flake or plug.

Twist –I’ve never had the opportunity to smoke twist tobacco yet.  Apparently, the tobacco is blended much like a plug, but the leaves are rather rolled up into long twisted rope, and cut into medallions when you go to smoke it.  I understand it is a great smoking experience.

And finally, that brings me to distinctions of tobacco;

Is your tobacco aromatic, English blend, Balkan mix, traditional, cased, etc.

Really, these are all words for various things that are very similar.  There’s not a lot of difference between the English blends and a Balkan mix, aromatic and cased are the same thing and most English mixes are labeled as “traditional”.

The first distinction I will make, is the distinction between an aromatic (cased/topped) and the traditional mix.

This is the biggest distinction in tobaccos.  Aromatic, or “In-law” tobaccos are often sweet-smelling, sweet tasting, and leave incense-like smoke about the room.  “Traditional” tobaccos are unflavored, and only have the natural tobacco taste.  Aromatic tobaccos can possess more oils in them that can to lead to something called “tongue bite”.  If you’re not careful, the oils on the tobacco will cause a burning sensation on the tongue that is often very unpleasant.  It is more common in aromatic tobaccos than in traditional tobaccos.

A Balkan mix is a blend that includes oriental tobaccos, but is otherwise a traditional mix.  Distinguished from an English mix by the inclusion of Turkish tobaccos.  These old-fashioned tobaccos often do not have the incredibly pleasant “room note” of the aromatic tobaccos.

As you can see, there’s a lot of information to be absorbed about the hobby of pipe smoking.

Ask questions, talk to your fellow enthusiasts, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

Feel free to contact me with any more questions you might have, I love sharing my hobby with people.

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

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