G. L. Pease
Winter burst through the door this year with a battering ram. Here in California, we’ve seen some record low temperatures. Not that I’m complaining; I realize that a cold winter in the Bay Area is laughably balmy for those in more Arctic climes. Like Minnesota. Still, when we see temperatures below 20˚F this early in the season (that’s -6˚C for the rest of the world), people talk about it.
For me, some of the good things that winter brings are soups and stews, braised meats, root veggies fragrantly roasted in the oven. This year, that last thing would be a bit of a problem, since my oven broke down some time during the spring, and I never got round to either fixing or replacing the thing.
It was an old stove, a hand-me-down given to me when the previous, much older stove was acting out in nefarious ways. But it served well for a few years, and though I wanted something newer, shinier, better, maybe even with an oven that didn’t conspire to cremate everything I put in it if I didn’t watch it with an eagle’s eyes, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. When the thing decided to go out on strike, I simply moved to the grill when need arose. It was warm out, after all, a perfect excuse to spend some time outside with pups and pipe, tending the grill in that manly way that we men adopt when playing with fire. Who needs a freakin’ oven, anyway? We’re men. Manly men. With fire.
Then November crept up and beat me over the head with an icy cudgel. Thanksgiving was round the corner, and for that I’d need an oven. Grilled pies work only marginally better than grilled cookies, which don’t work at all. Not one to put things off until the very last minute, I boldly went out on Monday, yes, the Monday before Thanksgiving, paid my money, and accepted the earliest delivery for Wednesday morning. We all know that Thanksgiving falls on Thursday, right? (Now is the time when you might be wondering, “What the hell does this have to do with pipes and tobaccos?” I’m coming to that.)
The new stove has big burners with electric igniters and a touch panel to make the oven do ovenly things. The technology, I sussed out pretty quickly. The big burners? Not so much. Suddenly, the “medium” position on the dials took on an incendiary new meaning. The biggest burner goes from take-off to afterburner with an effortless twist, and for the first time in years, I incinerated things. Quickly. I never considered the fact that I might actually have to learn how to fly this brand new plane, and only had one day before taking on passengers. Long story short, the house is still standing, Thanksgiving flew by with only a few recoverable stalls, and I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with the new jet range.
Often, when we get new pipes or a new tobaccos, we treat them as though we know what we’re doing. Sometimes, we’re thrown a curve. Getting to know new things is part of the fun of the exploration of briar and leaf. A new tobacco might be stronger than what we we’ve become accustomed to, taking us on a spinning ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Or a new pipe may have a different chamber geometry from what we’re used to, requiring different packing methods, different smoking techniques. The variables are many. There’s the lesson from the new range: Take a little time with the process, approaching things slowly, mindfully, getting familiar with the controls. It might make those first flights more enjoyable, and keep you from burning the turkey.
On to the Q&A.
Jose writes: I am new at this site and I would like to ask. What are Vaper Tobaccos?
A: The list of abbreviations, initializations and acronyms regarding tobaccos can be dizzy-making, and seems to be growing. I often find myself scratching my head when reading the forums and some new shorthand appears. This one, fortunately, only required a little context, not the Rosetta Stone to decode.
Vaper refers to blends of virginia (VA) and perique. It’s a rich category with many representatives. Typing virginia/perique blend would get tiresome pretty quickly, so some somewhere along the road, I think within the last ten years, someone coined the term “Vaper” to describe them, and it quickly made its way into circulation, becoming widely used, predominately by the on-line pipe community. It’s brought a whole new meaning to “getting the Vapers.”
Michael D. wants to know: Would you ever attempt to recreate a blend like Bohemian Scandal without ready access to the requisite tobaccos? Have you matured beyond that point as a blender? Is Westminster proving to be superior as your skills develop and you become older? I would really love to hear your thoughts.
A: Bohemian Scandal simply cannot be made without the source leaf that made it what it was, in particular the vintage Syrian Latakia that we lost in the warehouse fire of 2004.
Syrian and Cyprian are very different beasts. They’re not different in the way that Cabernet grown in Napa is different from Cabernet grown in Bordeaux. They start as different leaf grown in different soil and climates, and after initial curing, they’re fumigated with different woods. The result is that Syrian is somewhat stronger, has a more terpene-like, piney character, whilst Cyprian is more earthy, more like leather and the smoke of a damp driftwood fire. Cyprian is also somewhat sweeter and less intense, so it works differently with the blend. They’re not interchangeable, so, there’s just no way to reformulate a blend like Bohemian Scandal using currently available tobaccos and have it taste anything like the original did. I’ve tried. I’ve played with different approaches, but nothing has satisfied me as even being close, and I’d much rather retire a blend forever than produce a shoddy counterfeit of it just to trade on the popularity of the name.
As for my “moving on,” there may be something to that, but it’s less a matter of maturing as a blender, though I certainly hope there’s some truth to that, and more a matter of just looking in new directions all the time, wanting to break out and try new things, new ways to present mixtures that have interesting and unique characteristics. Westminster was a bit of folly, my having a go at the original Dunhill London Mixture, and I think it falls fairly close to the mark, though only time will tell. (There’s an article on my site, “The Road to Westminster” that chronicles this blend’s development. With other blends, it’s more of a case of constant exploration coupled with easy boredom. I would say that if my skills are improving, and I hope they are, it’s likely by way of making it easier to hit those elusive mental targets with fewer shots.
From Bill: Are Lakeland mixtures classified in a separate category, like Balkan or English mixtures?
A: It’s tough to pin that one down. I think in most peoples minds, the “Lakeland style” is hallmarked by certain general strength and scent profiles, though I think that sells the tobaccos, as a group, a bit short. The two manufacturers in the Lake District, Gawith Hoggarth & Co. and Samuel Gawith, do a wide range of products that range from very floral to straight ahead latakia mixtures, and many things in between. Is there a “Lakeland” style? Arguably, yes, but it seems like a big stage with a cast of many different characters dancing about wildly.
What do the readers think? Please share your ideas in the comments section.
Brian asks a burning question: I see a lot of references to people smoking a pipe down to “dry gray ash.” For some reason, I don’t find that possible, or even desirable. At some point, the tobacco gets too hard to light and tastes harsh. Is smoking to the bottom really all that important? Am I doing something wrong?
A: This is a great example of how similar we can be in our objective (enjoying the pipe), and how differently we might approach the act itself.
I almost always smoke to the bottom of the bowl. I don’t tend to pack very tightly, tamp delicately, and relight as often as I need to, which is sometimes 4 matches, sometimes more than a few more. On very rare occasions, meaning I think I might be able to count them on three fingers, I’ve managed to get to the bottom on a single light. But, this isn’t to say that mine is the right way; it’s just the way things have worked out for me over the years. I know other guys who pack more tightly, smoke more slowly, and still burn to the bottom. (I sometimes watch them in amazement, hoping that someday I’ll learn how to smoke a pipe like the grown-ups.) Still others only like the first half or three-quarters of the bowl. Bowl size, tobacco choice, technique and preference all play a part.
Once in a while, some tobacco just refuses to cooperate with my “technique,” and I end up with something in the bottom of the bowl that seems to be made from ground, creosote-soaked railway ties; at some point, the taste just turns a bad corner, wandering into a dark, thug filled alley, and I abandon the smoke before I get mugged. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, and it’s always the tobacco that’s to blame, of course. Nothing could possibly be wrong with my inattentive, neglectful packing methodology or sloppy smoking technique, right?
Another thing to consider is that the possibility of tongue bite seems to increase during the final part of the bowl, so it might actually be beneficial to those who are prone to suffer from this particular malady to stop short. If you experience any change for the worse in your smoke, let it go, and don’t tempt the fates. (Another lesson I should learn myself.)
On those occasions when I can’t smoke to the bottom, I don’t consider it a waste. To my mind, if someone smokes beyond the point of pleasure, either because they’re working too hard at keeping the stuff lit, or because the taste has abandoned them, continuation strikes me as more wasteful than valorously proclaiming it the end of a good smoke, dumping whatever’s left, pressing the “Boldly Go” button and moving on. It’s about enjoyment.
When I worked at the tobacconist’s shop, I smoked a lot of cigars. Usually, when the cigar would reach the half way point, or a little farther, it would be building up more than I enjoyed, so I’d put it in the ashtray. A guy once asked, “Are you going to waste the rest of that cigar?” It seemed a peculiar question. I wasn’t wasting anything. I’d had a wonderful smoke, and to dilute the memory of it with even the possibility of the foul, acrid “puff of no return” would be the greater waste.
The only problems with not smoking to the end is the fact that your pipe will tend to accumulate more moisture, resulting in the dreaded “wet heel” or “soggy dottle,” and it will never develop a good bottom cake. Careful cleaning and letting the pipe rest well will solve the first, and if you never smoke to the bottom anyway, maybe the bottom cake doesn’t matter so much. Just be sure to keep the cake that does form neatly maintained to avoid strange thermal stresses to the wood.
All that to say, there are many ways to enjoy the pipe, and most of them are probably good. We all evolve as pipe smokers, and our tastes and techniques can change over time, especially if we’re chasing those wonderful, mythic smokes. The important thing, the only right thing, is to fasten your belt and enjoy the ride.
With apologies to Click and Clack, it’s happened again; you’ve squandered some perfectly good time reading another installment of Ask G.L. Pease. Keep those cards and letters coming, boys and girls. I need the work.
Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.