Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Talking pipe, Vol. 1: Know your tobacco

Here are the basics: Pipe tobacco is usually ALL tobacco (with few exceptions, which I'll get to later). If you've been smoking cigarettes, and nothing else, you're missing that. Brand name cigarettes, at their worst are only 82% tobacco. What's the rest? Filler. Don't take my word for it, go to the R.J. Reynolds website (camel, etc.), or the Philip Morris website(yeah, you know who they are). They don't list percentages, but thanks to an ever nosy uncle Sam, they've got to tell you what they add. Go ahead and look, I'll be right here when you're done.
  Find it yet? The fillers? It took me a while to find it, too, but there they are :water, vegetable matter, and celluloid. CELLULOID! This is why I took up the pipe. Well, that, and because it looks, tastes, and even smells better. Probably due to the lack of celluloid.
  Enough of the moral abjection, on to the lecture. Know your basic tobaccos.
Pt.1 BASE tobaccos
Virginia: There are a lot of different strains, each having their own name, but they are all the same leaf deep down: red, orange, lemon, Carolina, Brazil, and so on. Several are simply named for where they were grown (something you'll see again.) This is a smoker's bread and butter, if you will.The base of most blends, and at least 80% of what IS tobacco in a cigarette. Hot burning, mild flavor, medium nicotine, High sugar content, and a sponge when it comes to added flavors.
  Burley: More nicotine and sugar than Virginia's, harder to keep lit, but warm and pleasant, with a nutty flavor and aroma. This will also soak up introduced flavors, but it keeps more of it's original character. It's said that this tobacco won't ferment the way Virginia's will, but just "mature" This crop started life as a Virginia tobacco, but sprang mutated in one lucky farmer's crop in the late 19th century. About 10% (give or take, depending on brand) of a cigarette is Burley.
  Orientals: considered a "spice" tobacco because of it's high level of flavor, it has the lowest nicotine content of all the tobaccos, and only makes up about 5% of a cigarette, if you're lucky. Again, the different strains are named for where they are grown. Turkish, Xanthe, Smyrna, Samsun, and so on. Coming form an area not known for it's high rainfall, productions is limited, and cigarette companies snap up what little there is, leaving tobacconists to squabble over what's left.
Pt. 2, The other "base" tobaccos
  Cavendish: Not a separate strain, but rather Virginias that have been cured and fermented to bring out their natural sweetness. Another common base for many blends.
  Latakia: A specially cured Oriental tobacco, named for the only port that once exported it. the leaves are hung in special barns where smokey fires are fed to smolder for months, imparting the smoke from native hardwoods and herbs into the tobacco. The nicotine level raises, and the leaves turn a tarnished silver or black color. A very pungent tobacco, the smell of the smoke reminds me of a wet tire fire. Blended sparingly with other tobacco's it cools the smoke, and adds a mellow, earthy aroma. 
  Perique: This is a specially fermented Virginia Tobacco, produced only in St. James Parish, Louisiana. It's secret has supposedly never left those borders. Extremely strong, both in flavor and nicotine content, it should be blended very lightly indeed. In hotter burning blends, it is said to alleviate "tongue bite" that ails many new pipe smokers.

Thanks for staying with me through that. I'm not sure what I'll discuss next time, but eventually I'll continue the lecture series with tobacco cures, cut styles, base blends, and pipes themselves! But there are SO many tobacco blends to sample, I can hardly wait to try another!

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