Let’s start with a little disclosure, or maybe housekeeping would be a better term. I know that at first glance it probably doesn’t jump out at you but this post was one I had in mind when I wrote the recent article on doing reviews for yourself; this is one way the notes you take doing the “review” can help you later. And this may seem a very newbie-oriented post but I think we all can benefit from it. Finally, before we get into the body of this post, I want to thank the many other pipe men/women on the forums, and other places I’ve learned so much from. This community is well-known as a giving one and things like writing these articles, and ones elsewhere, are one way for me to give back a little. Now, onto the post which beings, by no coincidence, with the forums.
Take suggestions with a
large bag pinch of salt
When I first decided to seriously learn about the right way to smoke a pipe, after a long hiatus and never really knowing what I was doing to start with, I found the internet was a super, huge, almost-overwhelming resource for everything (and more) I could need or want to know to delve into what was to become my new hobby, not habit (I’m an ex-cigarette smoker, thus my phrasing here).
I lurked many of the forums for weeks or more before I placed my first order for anything other than tampers from an eBay seller. Devouring all the information I could, I quickly learned the various forums are a real wealth of knowledge and resources.
My local B&M caters to cigar smokers, barely acknowledging us pipers, so I had no access to anything locally other than “gentleman’s blends*” that are readily available in my area and a dozen bulk aromatics from the cigar store. Though I was warned against them by well-meaning folks, I experimented with different gentleman’s blends and a few ounces of these local bulks until I felt I had enough information to place my first tobacco order.
Going from a list of “great for beginners” blends I’d amassed via searches and asking questions, I placed my first tobacco order … and waited anxiously for my bounty to arrive.
Somewhere in the area of 90% of pipers smoke aromatic blends (if I recall right) so the majority of the suggestions I received were for aromatic blends, probably great choices for most folks but I’m not most folks. Soon after my package arrived I began to realize I’m not a big fan of aromatic blends. It took quite a while to figure out what I do like, mostly Virginia and Virginia/Perique blends and burleys with little topping or casings. Unfortunately almost everything I ordered was heavily cased and/or topped; thank goodness for that tin of Orlik Golden Sliced and Dunhill Nighcap I threw in not even really knowing why!
I’d have been much better served, and this is what I recommend to new pipe smokers now, if the suggestions were more varied: get an aromatic or two that sounds appealing, a couple of different Virginia blends, and a couple of English/Balkan blends. As I stated I the article I referred to earlier, all our tastes are different – and very subjective – and change over time. You may well not fall into that 90% of pipers that like aromatics but you may not. By trying a variety of styles of blends you will be exposing yourself to many new and different tastes and experiences and will get a decent idea of where your tastes fall, initially at least. Don’t fence yourself in by starting off with only one type of blend; you’ll enjoy yourself and have a much higher chance of staying with the hobby starting out this way.
*In my opinion, which I’m the leading expert on, the old blends many of our fathers and grandfathers smoked daily, often called codger blends and/or drug store blends are a terrible moniker that has been unjustly applied to them. Most of them have been around for decades and they are still around because people still buy and smoke them so they can’t be that bad. Don’t turn your nose up at a blend because it is in a pouch and available at the local cigarette shop!
Watch the hype of the community
I have learned over the years that there tends to be a certain amount of hype around the introduction of new blends in the pipe community. Sometimes this hype is surely well deserved, sometimes, maybe not so much. Things we have to remember include, but aren’t limited to: some folks are fanatical over a specific blender, some of the hype can be driven by the blender giving out samples to review, and (most importantly) that new must-try blend may not even be a style you normally would like! By all means, if you are absolutely certain the blend sounds right up your alley, get in on it as soon as is practical for you. But if you have any doubts wait a bit, see what folks say after a few months, or (best yet) make a trade with someone from a decent sized sample (another great trait and maybe even tradition of this community) before going “all in” on it.
Beware the “deal”
Generally speaking, the more of a particular blend you buy, the cheaper it is. That is great if you like it. But if you’re trying a new-to-you blend no matter how cheap that pound of tobacco is if you don’t really like it it is not a deal! After much experimenting, I personally think that two ounces is a great amount to buy try a new blend. I find it takes several bowls, sometimes many bowls, to really “get” a blend and know if it is a keeper for me or not. You may have to, and probably should, try different pipes, different drying times, and different packing methods to find the sweet spot for that blend for you – if there is one. A single ounce is probably not going to be sufficient and 4 ounces or more (the general “price drop” number for many online vendors) is going to be a lot more than you’re going to want if you end up finding you and the blend just aren’t a match, though it may make a good trade opportunity for you.
As I pointed out, you will want to experiment with how damp/dry you like each individual blend. You will also find you will like some blends/styles better in different pipes: it may be the shape, the bowl size, or the material the pipe is made of that makes your new blend sing. One of the blends I like to always have some on hand of is C&D Old Joe Krantz. The first several times I smoked it I thought I hated it. After trying at least three different packing methods, and several pipes I found that, for me, my Kaywoodie 13B made Old Joe shine; I rarely smoke anything else in that pipe now or Old Joe in any other pipe. And it took me almost two ounces of tobacco to find the combination that made me “get” the blend. (Hmm, seems like I’ve heard about this two-ounce-thing somewhere before …) And for goodness sake, do not, as I initially did, dismiss a Missouri Meerschaum pipe as a novelty item! They are super affordable and wonderful for testing new blends, as well as building a pipe rotation!
A cautionary tale
Not knowing much of the things I mention here and in the previous article, my first order was 90% aromatic blends. On the high recommendation of a few well-meaning folks and “the deal” running at the time brought me nearly a pound of Scotty’s Butternut Burley; I found another mason jar of the stuff just last week from that first order. While it has a wonderful room note, it just doesn’t fit my tastes and never did. Don’t order a pound of anything on another person’s taste buds – ever– without trying it first! I might add here that you could find that your wife/significant other is the only other person in the world, besides my wife, that thinks Lane’s 1-Q smells terrible; remember, taste smell, they are all very relative, very individual