I’m often asked, "How do you taste so good?" to which I reply that in a former life I was a chocolate éclair. Seriously, though, reviewing tobaccos for publication is a bit of work, but perhaps not as trying as one might think. People often tell me they don’t have as refined a palate as I do, or some other such nonsense, like, "I don’t know how to describe the taste; I only know what I like and what I don’t." To this I say poppycock and balderdash. If you can discern the difference between blend A and blend B, or hot dogs and chocolate éclairs for that matter, then your palate is refined enough. If you truly can’t, then stop reading right here and buy the cheapest tobacco available, because it won’t matter what you smoke. For the rest of us, our own rich experience is all the background we need for tasting—that, and a willingness to trust our own judgment.
To borrow a line from PipesMagazine.com’s own Brian Levine, we are all experts of our own opinion. The main qualifications in being such an expert are a confidence in one’s perception and the desire to define it, which I believe all of us are capable of doing when we allow ourselves to be. Whether you’re interested in simply keeping your own journal of tasting notes, chatting about the latest releases with the guys at the pipe club, or learning how to more effectively communicate to others for publication, you’ll find it remarkably easy to equip yourself with the tools and strategies necessary to fully interpret and profile your tobaccos. My own pipe taste-testing regimen is evolved and adapted from what I learned during my time in the specialty coffee industry, as well as a hobbyist’s experience with wine, spirit and food tastings.
When I tell people that I believe pipe smoking is a remedy for many modern ills, I get some pretty diverse reactions. Smoking pipes aren’t as popular now as they were 5,000 years ago, so it may be justifiable to call me old-fashioned, but old isn’t always bad. Allow me to persuade you that we’re talking about much more than a piece of wood with holes in it. We’re talking about a simple practice that strengthens relationships, improves a man’s disposition, and is just plain fun! I’d also like to contest that we are on the brink of a renaissance for pipe smoking. Get ready to bust out your grandfather’s old briar!
One day wandering the streets with a friend, I notice a lady selling tobacco accessories and ask to see her imported tobacco selection. She walks to the neighboring shop and, from a drawer under a display of jade jewelry, pulls out a small bag filled with maybe ten different varieties of foreign tobacco. Like most places, the bags consists of primarily Captain Black and Sunday’s Fantasy, the latter of which is for some reason the primary tobacco offered consistently around here. But there is also something a little different, two plastic-sealed corrugated-cardboard pouches of tobacco I’ve never seen before. On closer inspection they claim to be pipe tobacco from Shanghai. I haggle the owner down to around $5 for one pouch (there are two available, but I don’t want to get carried away). She’s angry with me and claims she’s selling them at a loss, which is disconcerting to me, because if that’s true she must be having a serious problem moving the stuff. But nonetheless I take home what I hope is a prize and not a shame.
Later, I’m sitting with this lime green pouch on my desk and my fellow American pipe-smoker friend is sitting next to me smelling the pouch and complaining it smells of peat moss.
Corrugated-Cardboard Pouch Note: Peat Moss.
Running a small and quiet bar next to a lake in the northernmost part of the city is an averaged sized vegetarian man in his sixties. Old Gan (as his friend’s call him) is the earliest pipe smoker I’ve met in Southwest China, having partaken of the hobby for close to twenty years. When asked if he really is the oldest pipe smoker in town he makes sure to spend a good bit of time telling me of the people in villages who have been smoking home-grown and hand-cured tobacco from pipes for hundreds of years in China. But that said, he believes himself to be one of the area’s earliest smokers of a Western-style pipe and imported tobacco. Before pipes he was a cigarette smoker but then made the switch when he heard pipe tobaccos lacked the chemical additives so common in cigarettes.
In a downtown market in the capital city of the southwestern-most province in China, Mr. Zhang shows me his extremely limited imported pipe tobacco selection. He jokes with me about a shop he ran a few years ago where he sold exclusively fake tobacco. He giggles a bit, it’s a short halting giggle suitable for a 75 year old man like himself, and says, "You just make more money when it’s fake."
Welcome to the world of tobacco in the earth’s most populous nation. A land where cigarettes sell for as little as a dollar a pack, or as much as several hundred dollars. A land with Great Wall brand cigars which taste more like a wall than anything great. And, much to my good pleasure, a land beginning to fall in love with the pipe.
"Could you pass me a match, too, Dave?"
The thermometer reads seventy degrees in January down here in Florida, and I’m quickly running out of my own matches in the breeze of an afternoon on my uncle’s patio. We’re enjoying some of his tobacco from the never-ending tub of Half & Half, which I’m finding quite agreeable for the weather. I offer him some of the Peterson Nutty Cut that I’ve brought down with me for the trip, but he passes on it with a wave, saying, "Not just now; that stuff smells too good. I’ll try some after dinner." And he’s right: the burley and bright Virginia blend we’re smoking is the perfect tobacco for the season, and it amuses me to realize how much of a tobacco snob I’ve become. The light and effortless drugstore blend proves to be an ideal companion to our afternoon chat, allowing for several refills without overdoing it on the nicotine, and burning easily in the mild atmosphere. This trip is a thankful reprieve from the grind of a long Manhattan winter for me; more than that, though, it’s a chance to reconnect with the family history, to listen to our stories, and to find something of my identity and legacy within that.
How refreshing it is to see, let alone a public figure, but a presidential candidate that dares to smoke his pipe in public, and have the newspapers capture it. Now that’s the good ole’ days brought back to modern times!
The January 25th Wall Street Journal had an article about the Czech Republic presidential race with a large photo of the 2nd place contender, Karel Schwarzenberg smoking a pipe. He is not just posing. He is actually smoking. You can see the smoke rising around his head, there are several other people in the room, and not one of them is confronting him about his pipe smoking.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! There are still small, tiny, little, infinitesimal pockets of sanity in the world when it comes to smoking.
This was sent in by Composer and pipe smoker Dan Locklair. Dan said; "How refreshing to have a distinguished current political figure photographed with his pipe AND the newspaper to show it with pride!"
Too bad Schwarzenberg didn’t win the election.
It’s quite interesting that the article says; "But one of the main reasons his backers believe he is more likely to be honest is that he is rich-and therefore above seeking financial benefits from his office."
That sentiment sure didn’t translate to the last US presidential election.
Here is the article and photo from the WSJ. Click it to enlarge.
Snobs, snobs, and more snobs are everywhere … and Reverse-Snobs too! … even in the small, little, teeny-tiny pipes and tobaccos community! It’s hard to decide which are more annoying. I have disdain for both, but I am leaning towards Reverse-Snobs being slightly more annoying. But wait. That’s not really correct. They are both equally obnoxious. For a moment, I was thinking of some of my friends and acquaintances that have some high-end pipes, and how cool these guys are … but they are not snobs. Hence the title of this article; paraphrased from the line in the movie, Forest Gump; "Stupid is as stupid does." "Gump’s ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ is a rejoinder, and a rather intelligent one. It means that calling a person stupid doesn’t make him stupid, that we know a person by his actions.
So without sounding too sappy or too grandiose—here is the simple fact, Your pipe smoking is making magical memories… .that’s right, I said it… it isn’t an annoyance, but rather an aroma we look for. It indicates you are close by and relaxing. As a grown-up who spent her childhood in the presence of "the pipe", I now long to smell that beautiful scent waft in the air. I see a guy on the street leaning in to light his pipe- and I linger, sometimes just come to a dead stop… just to catch a wiff of "my past". I stand there with a dumb grin and looking ridiculous I am sure. But I could care less because for that brief moment I am 8 and I am in my Grandfathers wood shop with him and he just finished making the most beautiful cabinet. He and I are sitting back admiring his work while he takes a break with a well deserved smoke.
Back then I never even gave that fleeting smoke billow a second thought. Years later, I long for it, I miss it. That soft billow of puff represented peace and stability for me. It gave me reassurance someone who loved me more than life itself was nearby. Now, just as that smoke drifted and disappeared ever so softly, sadly- so has my Grandfather. Life changed and I find myself longing to go back in time on most days.
So guys, know this; for me your smoke is not any sort of nuisance or annoyance, but rather a transparent memory drifting by me, transporting me to a time in life that was all perfect. Many people I speak to also agree with me as I blurt out in public- "Ahhh someone is smoking a pipe, and I LOVE IT!". Many people smile and will agree. I will always recall with a distinct warm fuzzy feeling, the smell of my Grandfather’s pipe-smoke. It causes me even now, to drift off to my happy childhood place- and enjoy the safety and serenity the sweet scent of hand packed tobacco being burned in that dark wooden pipe of his brings.
Someday, hopefully in a far off time, there will be people who recall your pipe smoke with a bittersweet ache in their heart and big goofy smiles, as they long for just a moment more with you. Rest assured your pipe’s smoke will cause some girl to stop dead in her tracks as it evokes a pleasant memory for her of you. Face it, you are creating the memory which will stand frozen in the mind, hearts and noses of those who love and treasure you. There is something about that aroma that gives us instant calm. It strangely is your calling card long after you are gone from this life.
The "old world "charm of a pipe’s aroma is the secret guilty pleasure we all silently welcome and value. It will become in many cases part of the description of your sweet presence and how you will be recalled to mind after you are gone, by those who love you. Part of your wonderful legacy will be your pipe’s wonderful aroma.
From the Publisher: Most times, us pipe smokers deal with the merciless vilification of all things tobacco. We get lumped in with cigarettes, lung cancer, air pollution, and the corruption and harm of small children. The general public, which is uneducated on tobacco, and immensely brain-washed by the "antis" propaganda constantly preaches and screeches of the evils of tobacco—pipe smokers included.
Today, something really nice happened. The author of the brief article you just read is a former neighbor and childhood classmate of mine. We haven’t seen each other or spoken in decades. I still remember riding my bike down Wood Avenue, and crossing Washington Place (near Farrington Lake) and peddling up the hill on Miriam Drive where she lived.
We "Friended" each other on Facebook last year, and occasionally "Liked" or commented on a post here and there, but nothing more, which seems pretty common with former schoolmates that haven’t seen each other in many years.
Well, I guess she has been following along with me a little more closely than I realized. (She is on my personal Facebook, and I don’t put a lot of pipe related stuff there.)
Pipe smokers are a small group. For most, if not all of us, we have more friends that do not smoke a pipe than ones that do. It’s probably also true that even though our friends put up with our pipe smoking, they most likely don’t get it.
Thank you Denise for getting it!
I am touched by your commentary, and for thinking of me and my publication for expressing your kind thoughts and memories.
- Kevin Godbee
My music teacher always smelled of pipe smoke. I started taking piano lessons from Charlie Rose (no association to the Channel 9 talk-show host) when I was only five years old, so I did not really know what the smell constantly lingering on him was, but I knew that it was there. I knew that it smelled great. It was as much a part of him as his cracked leather jacket and perfectly maintained trumpet.
I never had the grandfather that smoked a pipe—at least, not while I was alive—nor did I have the uncle or father. I had Charlie.