Eric Berk and NEPW: a pipe review by Jose Ruiz

Well howdy to everyone! I truly hope you and your family are doing well today. Once again Mother Nature is playing around with the weather last few days as it has been rainy and chilly as we get into May here in Wisconsin. I guess I can’t really complain as we need the rain and whenever gets very hot I’m sure I’ll be asking for this kind of weather instead. I am starting to barbecue already for the season and a pipe whilst manning the grill is an awesome thing. So to put yet another spin on my reviews I was thinking of doing something a bit different for a review this time around and hope to do more of them if possible. Today, instead of reviewing a tobacco I will instead review on an Artisan Pipe Maker. I wholeheartedly feel just looking and owning an artisan pipe is only half the story of the creation and many smokers may not really know much about the creator of such wonder pieces of functional art. So today instead we will take a glimpse into the realm of the true artisan pipe and maker.
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The artisan pipe maker I have chosen is someone I have known for a few years and have firsthand seen their progression in skill level from good functional pipes to true handheld artistic marvels to behold with each pipe they have poured their heart and soul into. I have been blessed to get to know quite a few artisan pipe makers of all skill levels and styles and their passion for creation and one thing that intrinsic in the ownership is that you get the story behind the creator as well as the fantastic craftsmanship and dedication and attention to detail that you just cannot replicate with a factory made pipe. Please, don’t get me wrong, there is a place for factory made pipes and many are great smokers and have many price ranges that make a pipe accessible to all pipe smokers, but you don’t get the personality or quality control or passion from the maker as you would from a great artisan pipe maker. You may or may not know what it takes to create an artisan pipe but when you do, you begin to appreciate the pipe a lot more with each puff you take. It becomes an interactive experience when you start to envision what the maker wants as an end result, then picking the correct type of briar, carefully contemplating the stem material that will also be hand made, the loving agony of choosing the correct stain to be used, all the materials and tools needed and the choice of whether this pipe turn out smooth, sandblasted, or rusticated. Each outer appearance style, smooth, sandblasted, rusticated has their own specific tools to create that effect. Now imagine all those important decision being made for each step of the process and the skill needed to accomplish all while thinking how each step will end up and mesh with the next step needed and all that responsibility and pride and passion shown in their hand crafted creations. Now that you have a better idea of the dedication of the artisan pipe maker I would like to introduce you to (drum roll please). Eric Berk from New England Pipe Works.
I’ve know Eric for a few years now and seen his progression and passion of the love of pipe making, but before we get more into the pipe making side of his life I think it’s important to also know Eric more on a personal level. He has been blessed with many loves in his life. His most precious is, of course, his wonderful family. Eric has been married for 24 years to his wonderful wife that puts up with him on a daily basis. Now that is one strong, patient lady indeed! [laughs] In the realm of family, his wonderful kids and grand-kids keep him busy  and happy and keeps him smiling every time he talks about his family  in Connecticut. Family time is a necessity of Eric’s life as they bring him such joy.EB family
Recently, and quite sadly his best buddy is now off now running the fields and chewing all the bones he wants is his other family member of the 4 legged kind is Spanky.
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Believe it or not Eric also owns a painting company and is a professional painter for over 42 years and his crew does amazing work. So his business acumen translates well as his very company, while practical is also artistic in nature. Add to Eric’s list of loves is his hobby of Bonsai and a deep affinity for Japanese art. I can see those arts coinciding together very well and adding yet another layer to his artistic eye when it comes to pipe making. Lastly, Eric has some domestic skills also. Like me, he also loves to cook for the family and has been doing this for over 24 years also. I just might have to challenge him to do a cook off, my friend to test your cooking skills out [hehehehe].dinner.jpg
One of the other loves that you should know about is his woodcarving. For over forty plus years, Eric has honed this hobby so it’s a natural transaction into pipe making as the skills can overlap each other.EB carved stick
So what got Eric into pipe making you may ask? It was Eric’s father who is a seasoned pipe smoker of over seventy five years. Naturally, his father showed him the enjoyment a pipe can bring to your life. In this case, what better way to learn all that is pipe related than to enjoy smoking a pipe and making your own pipes. I think a great way for a pipe maker to hone his craft is to be a pipe smoker himself with range in knowing how a pipe should smoke as well as how the product should fit his, or her hand. Eric knows intrinsically how a pipe should exist to produce the best smoke possible for the smoker. An Eric Berk Pipe is a thing of beauty to behold as is evident by my new pipe shown below.

As I stated earlier I have been watching Eric’s progression and the passion he presents in his craft with just a few of his earlier works so you can see for  your self the skill and drive to be a better artisan pipe maker with each pipe he creates. Even his earliest pieces have a style an panache that is eye catching and unique to view. Here are two of his early pipes to view and compare.

Now that you have seen his early works these next pictures show his progression and improved skill in the pipe craftsmanship. His style is of the earthy and rough, the yin and yang of life if you will. His pipes are very well balanced for the perfect mouth feel and comfortable in the hand and smokes like a freight train. The mechanics of the fit and tenon and mortise is always spot on as well as the draft hole and diameter for the perfect draw every time. This may sound simple but many pipe makers have a hard time achieving this technical feat. Also, making a hand carved stem is a skill in itself as this needs a lot of attention to detail to make it perfect. Any one can just buy a pre-molded stem and just fit it into a pipe and call it good enough, but it takes an artisan pipe maker to have the skills and artistic creativity to make it perfect. Add to that the nuance of knowing what colors or final stains that will enhance the overall pipe and make you say “wow that’s one damn freaking great looking pipe, I want that pipe now !” You all know what I’m talking about. I know you have seen pipes that evoke such a visceral reaction. This innate ability to create pipes of this caliber, along with his natural drive to always improve his skills as many other artisan makers I know do also is what pushes him into the next realm of pipe maker. Eric took the time and investment to learn from other master pipe makers so he can continue to learn new styles and techniques. What has impressed me was he knew he needed to search out further education and sought it out. He knew his limitations and accepted them and used that to inspire his craft to get better instead of plateauing on his skill level. So  Eric sought the tutelage from master pipe makers Steve Morrisette as well as  G. Batson. Now if you never heard of these gentlemen they are some of the best master pipe makers in the pipe community and great guys to talk to. As you can see with some of Eric Berks newer pipes he’s creating as shown below, he’s expanded from his earlier work but still has a unique flair that makes him one of a kind.
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At this point you may be thinking yes that’s all great and nice and the pictures look great , nice to get to know Eric Berk on a personal level but do you own any of his pipes and how do they smoke? To answer those questions I have been lucky enough to own two of them. One of his earlier works and a recent one which makes is super easy to compare the progression. I have been primarily smoking his recent one he made for me which is a Cavalier and used it for the testing. My pipe is made from Strawberry Briar with the stem cap and bottom foot cap made from a beautiful Birdseye Maple, the stem is a hand cut piece of vulcanite.  I put this pipe through a lot of testing with several types of tobacco, from aromatics, English, non aromatics, ribbon cuts, medallion, coins, flakes. Smoked it fast and hard to see how it reacts to heat and moisture with different tobaccos. What makes this pipe a little different compared to other cavaliers is this pipe doesn’t have a well at the bottom to collect the moisture or a typical dry system. His reason behind this choice, which I agree with, as a typical dry system does collect the moisture and spittle it can get real nasty and odorous and grow bacteria if you don’t maintain and clean it on a regular basis.To do that you have to remove the cap often which in turn can lead to threads wearing out or getting lost or broken. So what Eric did was to make his version or spin if you will on a dry system as it has no well in it. His choice in doing this makes it an easy to maintain pipe and achieves a dry smoke especially during this testing. Below is my newest Eric Berk pipe as it was being created just for me!

I wanted, for testing purposes, of course and in the name of science [insert cough here heheheh] to use this pipe a lot. Or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it, stop laughing already or you will spill your drink. Okay, where was I? Oh yeah some of the tobaccos used  were as follows: Capstan – blue original flake – Virginia  non aromatic
Orlik – Dark strong Kentucky- Dark fired Kentucky, Virginia- non aromatic- Flake
G.L. Pease – Navigator- Dark Fired Kentucky, Virginia- non aromatic – Flake
Mac Baren HH Vintage Syrian-Syrian Latakia, Turkish, Virginia, Dark fired Kentucky- Balkan- Ribbon course
Tsuge- Gunjin: The Samurai God-Virginia, Perique, Orientals, Cavendish- non aromatic- mix cut
G.L Pease- Gas light – Latakia, Orientals, Virginia – English- crumble cake
McClelland – Frog Morten original – Latakia, Virginia- English- ribbon cut
Tsuge- The mystery of Autumn- Black Cavendish, Burley, Virginia-Vanilla- Aromatic-ribbon
Sutliff – Tobac Noir- Black Cavendish- wine-aromatic- course cut
Sutliff- Molto Dolce- Black Cavendish, Burley, Virginia-Caramel ,honey, vanilla- aromatic-ribbon. Now talk about some fun in the testing, yeah baby! I spread this out over quite a bit of time and to help out so my palate didn’t get too fatigued. Also, as an aside, I often enjoy these tobaccos with with Yuban coffee with cream and sugar. For me it sure helps on stronger blends as it helps coat the tongue and mouth creating a subtler and more rich experience.
So after  a lot of testing for the name of science [cough] I guess I better go see a doctor as I’m sure you all think I’m sick with a bad cough [haha]. First and foremost this cavalier Eric made is one badmommajamma of a smoker!! Did it ever get hot? I’d say it got warmer to near hot yes under hard use but never so hot that I couldn’t hold it. During my testing phase I sometimes force a pipe to try and overheat it and this one passed that test with flying colors. Did it gurgle? It did slightly once, but that was my fault as I usually clean between bowls with a pipe cleaner and that day I had a few bowls sans cleaning. How easy was it to clean? it passed the pipe cleaner test for sure as I made sure to clean it between different types and class of tobaccos so flavors wouldn’t muddle each other. No hot spots at all also if you’re a clencher this feels very well balanced in the mouth. I wouldn’t say I’m strictly a clencher but for testing I made sure to dedicate days just as a clencher and must say I didn’t get too fatigued holding it. Also, to add to that, just so you know Eric Berk guarantees his work.
What I also noticed, as I do with some of my other pipes, this Cavalier brings a certain something to some tobacco as far as making it pop a bit more as it heightens the flavor of the tobacco. For this pipe it is the flakes in the English styled and full bodied non aromatic blends that benefit most from this pipe. So, I have decided to dedicate it to those type of blends for the most enjoyment for me and  to justice and give it the respect it deserves. I know Eric Berk well enough to know that he will never think himself as a master pipe maker although I think he is as he is a very humble kind of guy [get off the floor and stop laughing] but the way he is improving with each pipe he is well on his way to greatness for sure! In my opinion, the pipe community knows what they like and dislike but they may not know what is all involved  and as a reviewer I have an added responsibility to the community to present different perspectives and share knowledge with everyone. After all the pipe is only half the story of the creation. To date Eric berk is working on his New England Pipe Works website but the actual website is not up and running yet, but you can get a hold of him through Facebook under the same name. Feel free to stop by his page and give him a hearty hello and get to know him and use the groups of Facebook to find other artisan pipe makers. Keep the community strong and support your artisan pipe makers as they do great work and have family’s also; they are real people you can actually talk to.
Keep On Puffin !!!

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