Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What about a cigar?

  Why not a cigar?  I've never really been an enthusiast of them. They're big, they smell pretty bad, the smoke settles into absolutely everything, and most of all, they're expensive. Like really, really expensive.  Upwards of $12 for a good one, at times.  O.K., not always that expensive, but still exponentially more than pipe tobacco. Well, lately I've been feeling like trying it out again. I bought a cigar in town with the intention of convincing myself of why I never got into cigars before. It didn't work.  I loved the thing.  It was slow, cool, flavorful, and didn't smell too bad, either.  Damn.  So I picked up a couple different sampler packs of high end cigar brands from my favorite online tobacconist, warmed up the old humidor, and gave it a whirl again for the first time in well over a decade. 

  First off, there is a whole lot of stuff about cigars I didn't know. Different tobaccos, different rolling styles and techniques, different nationality, all of which is supposed to have a dramatic effect on the cigar itself. Second of all, most of it seems like hogwash to me. Maybe my pallet isn't tuned to cigars, but one cigar pretty much tastes (and smells) like the next one to me. The big (read: huge) difference is strength. A mild cigar is a little flat in the flavor department, but fun to smoke for an hour, or more depending on size. Then there's a scale moving up to "full", which is like a torture session involving a mouthful of flaming black pepper until I can't take it anymore, and abandon something I shelled out money for. Experience is a good thing to HAVE, but getting it can really suck.

  I plan on following this up later with a brief recap of what I've read up on about cigars. Fillers, binders, and wrapper tobacco. Sizes, cuts, and lighting. Even the Cuban embargo. And the awesomely ridiculous existing and proposed FDA regulation. Now go smoke something, you've wasted enough time on me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


According to industry leaders, you are wasting your time. I mean right now, by reading this. In my recent trolling of tobacco blogs by professionals in the field, (blenders, writers, retailers, etc) I have noticed a recurring theme in the last few months. It was well summed up in the most recent post of a noted writer for a pipe magazine. "...and the opinions posted by internet bloggers, whose opinion is most likely invalid, should be disregarded....". Wow.
  That hurt me. On an anonymous, yet somehow still personal level, it hurt. Without knowing me, or anyone like me, who writes for the joy of it instead of for a paycheck. Without knowing our experience, background, talent, or time invested, we have been cast aside. Apparently, the only opinions of value are those of professionals.  Is there such a thing as an invalid OPINION? Can a personal view be wrong? Our tastes, likes, and dislikes differ. This is what makes us unique. Even while reading the opinion of others, though, we should be careful. That particular writer's opinion differs from mine, obviously, but I will not stop reading his work. If we only pay heed to views that already agree with ours, we cease to grow. If we can't at least try to see things from another's point of view, we stagnate. That's how creativity dies. Not every religious type is preachy and anti-evolutionary, just as not every athiest is pushy and self-superior. Give the other guy a chance. Try not to get angry at their supposed lack of education on the matter. Don't assume they have a lack of insight because it opposes your insight. Try, just try to look at things from the other side in a caring and understanding way. You might come out of it a better person. Oh, and looking at it through a cloud of pipe smoke may help you ease into it. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tastes can change

  As I sit here smoking a rather copious bowl of Virginia / Perique flake and listening to dixieland jazz, I can't help but think that 10 years ago, I never would have seen this coming. My taste in tobaccos back then was mired in aromatics and Burley blends, and my taste in music was well outside of acoustic. Now I still enjoy a bowl filled with a good Burley cube cut, or Lane 1-Q, and Electronic and trance music still have a home on my playlist, but neither is a dominant force anymore. Is it age? Is it experience?  Is it some cultural shift that we all experience? There's only one answer that is universally correct when it comes to a shift in preference. It goes for me , you, and anybody either of us know. Who cares? Seriously, does it matter WHY we like something different? I don't believe it does. There's no accounting for taste, after all.

  The point of all of this chicanery is, maybe it's time to try something again that you might not have liked so well in the past. Who knows? It could be an eye-opening experience. The first time I reviewed this particular Va/Per, I hated it. Now, it's one of my go-to blends. You might feel the same way about an old album that you once regretted buying, a dish that you didn't care for in your youth, or the acting talent of Steve Guttenburg. O.K. I'm sorry. Nobody's going to spontaneously think that Steve Guttenburg can act. Outside of that, anything's possible.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why spend more money on tinned tobacco?

  I raise a good point! Why would you buy a tin of tobacco that costs 2 to 5 times more than loose tobacco? Is it better? Is it stuff that's so good that I'll never see it again? Is it better just because it's in a can? The answer to ALL of these questions, 90% of the time, is no.
  You heard me right. No. You can find the equivalent, if not the exact same tobacco much cheaper buying it "loose". Of course there are exceptions. G.L Pease simply doesn't do bulk tobacco. Dunhill doesn't either (any more!), and there are certain blends that you just won't find elsewhere. Are they really that much better? Some will tell you yes, some will say no. But that's still not the reason to buy tinned tobacco. Do you want to know now?
  Patience. Patience is the answer. Patience is why you should buy a tin of your favorite tobacco, and buy it now. Get the tin, then hide it. Hide it so well, that you forget you ever bought it in the first place. If it's lost for a year, you've done yourself a great service. Two years: you'll wonder why you only bought one tin. It's called cellaring, and it's nothing new. Tobacco matures as it ages. It ferments, it sweetens, it mellows, and it does it all at the same time. It just get better. It only matures in the right conditions. New air is the enemy. Light is the enemy. Sudden changes in temperature are the enemy to cellaring tobacco. Sounds tough, doesn't it? Keeping all those enemies at bay while maintaining perfect aging conditions? Luckily, there's a place ready made for you to age you tobacco! The inside of a tin!
  Not every tin is for aging. Aromatic tobaccos, on the whole, won't really get much better. The casing (or flavor sauce) sees to that. The wide, flat tins that have screw on lids that will fit in your pocket don't have enough air to let the tobacco "breathe". They're designed to be opened right away......assuming you have a screwdriver or something. Those lids are REALLY on there. Any tin from Peterson, CAO, Villager, and the like are just too small, the good stuff packed in too tight for it to happen. McClelland, G.L. Pease, and Hearth and Home are companies that pride themselves on the right amount of tobacco in the right amount of air tight space to facilitate the air exchange necessary for good aging.
  I like having a small tin or two on hand for traveling. You know your tobacco is good and safe from the elements. It won't dry out like can happen in a pouch, it won't be ruined in the rain or from a sweaty pocket, and the kids can't get into it. It's good and safe from anything that's not carrying a wrench. Christ, they can be hard to open.
  Once you get hooked on a certain blend, it may not be worth your time to find it's equal out-of-box, but I guess that depends on your budget. and just how much of the stuff you plan on smoking!
  Now that you're done reading this diatribe, one of those tins should be nicely aged. God knows, it took me long enough to getting around to writing it. Once you smoke something that you already like, and then compare it to the EXACT  same thing, but fresh and shiny from a brand new tin, you'll understand the point. Let it age. Be patient. Let the tin do it's job, then you'll get your money's worth.

  Of course, there are ways to cellar your own loose tobacco, too. Maybe I'll  get around to talking about that in another two years.........

Talking pipe Volume 3: It's called what?

  G.L Pease is a noted Tobacco blender. Some would say he's an artist. He's definitely passionate  about his work. I had the fortune to run across one of his articles while researching for this particular thread. For years of pipe smoking, I have known the names and types of my favorite blends of tobacco. Aromatics, Virginias, English, and so on. And I was wrong. It turns out that Americans are a little myopic (GASP!).
  What we call English blends........we're the only ones that call them that.  I'll start with some common (American) nomenclature, and then explain our American vanity.

 Common Types of Tobacco blends:

  Aromatic:  A sweetly scented blend. Normally a blend of Burleys and Virginias, Cavendish pressed, and cased with a flavoring "sauce". Sweet flavors and smells define these blends. Captain Black, Lane 1-Q, anything with a title containing "cherry" or "Vanilla" definitely falls into this group. For locals of the Fresno area, our beloved "Pipe Dream" is a well known aromatic (and one of the few aromatics I still love.)

  English: A definite "Non-Aromatic" blend consisting of Orientals, Virginias, and a healthy dose of Latakia.  There may be other notes as well, such as Burley or Perique, but the Latakia is the defining note in these blends, and what gives them their "campfire" aroma. In some of the stronger blends,  "tire fire" would be a more accurate description of the smell. McClelland 5110, Cornell & Diehl Epiphany, Dunhill 965, and Samuel Gawith Squadron Leader are some, to name a few af the more recognizable English-type blends.

  Virginia: A straight forward name for a blend consisting of.....Virginias!  Naturally sweet, unflavored Virginia varieties are the only ingredient here. You will see many other names in several of these blends: Carolina, Kentucky, Malawi, etc. These are still Virginias, but grown in different regions, and imparting different qualities to the leaf. You'll also see a rainbow of colors here: red, brown, yellow, orange, all denoting how high off the stalk they were picked. Then there are the different cures: flue, sun, air-dried, etc. and of course, how it is cut: flake, spun, ribbon (but I've talked about all that before, haven't I?) Everyone seems to have a different favorite Virginia blend, so I'm not even going to try to name any.

  Virginia/Perique: or VaPer for short is another literal name for a blend. Two ingredients: Virginias (see above) and that mysterious and rare leaf : Perique. If you'd like to know more about Perique see my previous posts. These have much of the sweetness of Virginia blends, with the fruity, pungent flavor and odor of the perique.  As an added benefit, it is said that the mysterious qualities of the perique diminish the "tongue-bite" of other tobaccos. Is it true? Sure, why not? McClelleand 2015, Stokkebye Luxury Navy Flake, Hearth and Home Louisiana Red, and Cornell & Diehl Bayou Morning are just a few of the better examples of this type.

  Scottish: Similar to English, but the orientals take a back seat, maybe they are left out entirely. Also, it is quite common in this type to see an unflavored cavendish to sweeten the blend. These are close in flavor and aroma to "English" blends, but softer, sweeter, and easier on the olfactory senses.  McClelland "Frog Morton" is the most popular and easily recognizable Scottish blend, though usually mislabeled as "English".

  Balkan: So named after ONE blend. One blessed blend SO universally beloved, that it changed the way the whole world talked about pipe tobacco. Or at least what we called one specific niche of blending. Balkan Sobranie was, from what I've heard, the best. period. It's also damn near impossible to get any. It's still out there, but the ingredients have become rare, so they can't make much. The term "Balkan" has come to mean an English-style blend where the orientals take the lion-share of the flavor credit. The same type of ingredients as in an "English" blend, but in different proportions. In typical "English", Virginias take the most space, followed by the Latakia, then the orientals present to balance the mix. For Balkans, reverse that.

  There are more categories than I've mentioned here, but I wanted to hit the big targets while I had your attention. Now that you know the names, let's talk about how I've just lied to you.

  Did you notice how I kept putting "English" in quotes like that? It's because it's misleading. In the early days of Tinning and shipping tobacco, blends from England were called English, while those from America were American. Still with me? England had these nifty regulations called "Tobacco Purity Laws". They said, among other things that if you wanted to sell tobacco, it had to be tobacco. Nothing else. ABSOLUTELY nothing else. No casings, flavorings, or preservatives. Americans had no such compunctions. So, Brits would buy American blends that were sweetened with flavors that defy computation, and in some cases, reason (tonquin bean, anyone?), and Americans would buy English blends that were pure and hearty. Soon enough, the purity laws were repealed, and imitators arose, calling their blends "America Style Tobacco". Of course, that worked both ways, and American producers made "English Style Tobaccos" that WEREN'T flavored. Have I lost anyone?

  The British had a simple system. Virginia blends were so named, Burley blends were called "Burleys", and blends laden with Latakia were called "Latakia Blends". Hell, they still are. Look at tobacco tins from england, there are plenty. You'll never see a "latakia blend" refered to as an "English Blend" by anyone but an American. When did English come to mean what it does? Sometime in the early 20th century is anyone's best guess. Who decided to call them that? Doubtlessly, some dumb American. HOWEVER: the British do still call aromatics "American". Go figure.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Stand Back! While I elucidate.

  Didn't think I'd be back so soon, did you? Good, like to keep you on your toes.  I may be changing the description of my blog soon. As I said last time, I've been spending more and more time with other hobbies, plus, I haven't had the stretches of time necessary to enjoy a pipe as often as when I started this thing. To that end, I may be throwing in yammering about music, modern culture, science, or why at times I wish I could have been gay (Today's my 10th anniversary, by the way). Is that O.K. with everybody? I'll still try to focus on the pipe stuff, but this may get me to the keyboard more than twice a year.

  Speaking of pipes, I'm currently smoking a Virginia/Perique concoction of my own.....concocting..... out of a Peterson Shamrock billiard. The blend is something I have started calling "Virginia Assembly" because it's several other blends (which weren't great on their own for one reason or another) thrown together, and then balanced out with a measure (or several) of Perique, and a breath of Oriental. Learning from my own mistakes (See "The Terror and Delight of Blending your own" an earlier post) I mix in a larger container now, before stuffing the blend into a jar. The English melting pot has mellowed out through the same practice. I call it "English commonwealth" now. Clever names seem to help distract me from the mediocrity of the tobacco. I smoke them because they don't upset me like their individual components, and they make me appreciate the actual GOOD tobaccos that I have. I am also too cheap to throw anything away.

  Speaking of cheap, don't shy away from from the so-called "drug store" blends. They are often affordable alternatives to fancy tobacconist choices, and several are quite good in their own right. Captain Black is always popular, and easy to find. It comes in several varieties, all aromatic, but none are too sweet. If you are lucky enough to find Half and Half, Carter Hall, Granger, or Kentucky Club, give them a chance. These are all Burley or Burley/Virginia blends with a long history of quality and consistency. In the case of Kentucky club, it is a cube cut Burley. These can be tricky to smoke the first time out, but once you figure out how to keep it burning without  plugging up your pipe, I find it mild, pleasant, and just downright fantastic for the price. Walnut is a rare blend, but one of the only off-the-shelf English blends around. I haven't tried any yet myself, but I've heard it compared to Frog Morton, a perennial favorite among English smokers. I'm not saying you'll love them all, our opinions are bound to differ, but those little pouches behind the counter hold a world of delight for the pipe smoker. If it comes in a two pound bag, it's probably not worth gambling on, though.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I found my notebook

  Welcome back! Sorry I haven't been on in a while. A real long while. There's been a whole lot going an, among others, I got distracted with other hobbies. Guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, shooting, reloading, reading (mostly about hobbies), and looking for a job. I've cut down on looking for a job. A fellow can only handle so much rejection. But enough about me, let's talk about your pipe!

Talking Pipe, Volume 2: Your Pipe

  First and foremost, get to know the thing. There are only two parts of most pipes: the bowl, which can be made of a number of different materials, and the mouthpiece, usually made of a hard rubber. There can be a band or collar of metal or other material around the wood where the mouth piece joins. The most important thing to remember here is to never remove the mouthpiece from the pipe while it is still warm. There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is, it could crack the neck of the pipe.

  There are is a wide choice in materials used to make the bowl of the pipe: Briar is the most common, being the best wood for even heat distribution and not absorbing liquid from tobacco."Briar" is actually the root burl from a heath shrub, which grows along the Mediterranean sea. It grows very slowly, and usually in loose sandy soil, so pits form in the wood where sand is trapped during growth. The most desirable pipes have no pits, and are perfectly smooth all the way around. These may later be finished rough, but the lack of pits ensures a more even burning smoke. Recently, a process has been developed to harvest pieces of burl without killing the shrub, ensuring that older, more dense root is available for use.

  Next comes meerschaum, a clay like substance (actually a sort of petrified microscopic dendrite sea creature) that is also only found in certain Mediterranean regions. It absorbs no flavor, and allows exceptionally clean burning smokes, but must be handled with care. it is very fragile, and shouldn't even be touched with bare skin while warm. The exterior is finished with a blend of special oils (containing whale oil!) and the oils stick to skin when the pipe is warm. The oils SLOWLY change color while the pipe is being smoked, so the entire pipe darkens with careful use. It is a mark of pride among meerschaum smokers to have a perfectly darkened pipe with no inconsistencies (blemishes, blurs, or fingerprints) to mar the wonderful golden red color  that can cover the pipe. It is rumored that the type of tobaccos smoked can vary the aging color, but this is yet to be proved. It is important to remember with briar and meerschaum that you rest the pipe at least 24 hours between use. Both materials can retain heat a deceptively long time, and abuse can cause the bowl to crack.

  My favorite pipes are probably my clays. They absorb no flavor from previous smokes (as long as you keep 'em clean), they burn exceptionally clean, imparting every bit of flavor your tobacco has to offer, and you don't need to worry about resting a clay pipe. Ever. You want more of that last smoke? Load up and go again. It'll be fine. Sure, you can't hold it with your teeth. Heck, if it's like mine, you can't hold it with your hand anywhere near the bowl, either. Does that stop me? Of course not.

  There are other materials you'll see at the pipe shop, too. Corn cob pipes have been around forever, and they're not going anywhere. Do they work? Yes. The work pretty well. And they're cheap. I keep a few around for camping trips and parties where I may drop my pipe, or forget it on a table. Eventually, they'll burn themselves away anyway. So if you need a disposable pipe, and don't mind the taste of flaming corn (I kind of like it once in a while) pick one up. There are hardwood pipes, too. Cherry, maple, there are others, too. I group these with corn cobs. Throw away pipes. They look just funny enough to be cool, and I wouldn't worry about loosing one, I just don't care for them. My opinion, I guess.

I would stay away from other materials. Aluminum, glass, and (Blech) brylon. Aluminum overheats and puts other chemicals into the smoke, glass get the tobacco too hot, and won't trap any of the tars, and brylon? Blech. Brylon is a material pipe makers came up with in the late '60s to make cheap, customizeable pipes out of. It's just a heat resistant plastic, so it can be shaped and colored however they feel. One problem: It's shit. Enough said.

  Last important note, them I'll stop. If you like your pipe, treat it right. Clean it every time you smoke. EVERY TIME. It doesn't take a lot of work. While it's warm, pass a pipe cleaner all the way through the mouth piece. In to the bowl if you can manage it. This is pretty simple with straight pipes. With bent pipes, it can be tricky if not downright impossible. Luckily, it's not necessary. Get the pipe cleaner as far into the pipe as you can, pull it back out, blow through the mouthpiece (to blow out any debris you may have dislodged, any any excess moisture) and run the pipe cleaner through again. Simple, right? If you like (and I do) now is a good time to rub the pipe down with a soft cloth. I use the bottom of my shirt more often than not. It buffs the pipe, removes unwanted oils and whatever may have been on your hands, and keeps the mouthpiece clean and black. Once per year, I use bristled pipe cleaners (they look like candy canes with a VERY thin red stripe), dip them in a pipe sweetener (any good whiskey or rum will do) and clean every bit of the inside of the pipe. Bowl too. You shouldn't clean the bowl too often. You actually want an even layer of "cake" there to protect the wood. I inspect this "cake" during my annual cleanings, and ream it back if it's more than 1/8" thick.
  Whew. That's pretty much it this time. Don't expect any more essays like this. I'll the rest fairly trim. I didn't talk about "gimmick" pipes (moisture traps, filters, exchangeable bowls, or carbureted models) because I don't care about them. Stay away from them. See "Brylon". I forgot meerschaum lined briar pipes. These are magic. If you have one in good condition, treasure it. It combines the best of both worlds.Thanks for hanging on 'till the end. Until next time: Smoke well.