G. L. Pease
Decades ago, a talented blender in a small town Tobacconist’s Shoppe, in a land known for its fragrant and delicious blends, produced a magnificent mixture of such unique characteristics that pipe smokers in the town were soon belting out its praises. Stories of this special tobacco spread, and pipemen from neighboring towns were soon found visiting the shop to experience the tobacconist’s fame-gaining smoky elixir. Its popularity rapidly grew.
One day Nigel, a passionate pipeman who had been living across the ocean for many years, discovered this marvelous mixture on a rare trip back home. Smitten, he bought as much of this new blend as he could stuff into his luggage for his return journey, and arranged, at some expense, to have his brother send him four tins each month so that he would never be without his new favorite.
Such was the nature of this magical mixture. Demand for it soon grew beyond the tobacconist’s limited production capability, and if he was to continue, he realized he’d have to make arrangements with a larger facility to supply his growing legion of fans, and to further increase his mixture’s availability. He contacted another firm, known for the consistency and quality of their tobaccos. He worked with their experts to ensure that the ingredients and the processes involved in the blend’s production were as true to his original as possible. He knew that some small changes would be inevitable, but after months of cooperation, the deal was sealed, hands were shaken, and production began. The town tobacconist would continue to make his mixture for local trade, and the larger factory would produce it for the rest of the country, and ultimately, the world.
Months later, Nigel, on visiting his local pipe shop, was delighted to find his blend on the shelf. The packaging was a bit different, but he attributed this to export marketing, and the description read the same, so he bought a tin, and immediately filled his bowl. He did find it slightly changed from the tobacco he’d been enjoying for so many months, but it was still excellent, and certainly close enough to satisfy; the convenience and lower cost of being able to get it locally were sufficient to motivate him to contact his brother and discontinue his monthly shipments. He contentedly smoked tin after tin of his mixture, and remained an ardent fan.
Over the years, small changes had to be made to the blend. Tobacco, being an agricultural product not unlike wine grapes, are subject to the whims of nature and economies, two of the more mischievous of consistency’s many hobgoblins. The manufacturer’s blendmeisters worked hard to minimize these differences by carefully selecting leaf, warehousing large quantities for years, and blending different vintages carefully to increase consistency.
Ultimately, the factory was bought by another, larger firm, a conglomerate of many smaller tobacco companies, and the new management sought to “rationalize” their many offerings by producing “Master Blends” of basic ingredients, simplifying the production of the dozens of blends in their catalogue. These changes were made slowly over time, with the hopes that each new recipe would be similar enough to its predecessor that the differences would lie beneath the threshold of perception of the average pipe smoker. The strategy was successful. A few “Golden Tongues,” hangers-on who held court on the weekends at their local pipe shops, whined that it “just wasn’t what it used to be,” but most either didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care. If Nigel recognized the changes at all, he simply acclimated to them, and remained a contented piper.
During this time, the highly popular pastime of pipe smoking began a slow descent into comparative obscurity. Fewer newcomers had the patience to practice the art of pipe smoking when cigarettes were so much easier, and many of those who did take up the pipe gravitated towards the heavily sweetened, highly aromatic, mass-produced blends that were more widely available and had greater “crowd appeal.” The more natural, luxurious tinned tobaccos were hard hit by pressing market forces, and ultimately, the factory’s bean counters were forced to make the decision to discontinue many of their premium blends in order to focus on the more profitable bulk ranges. Nigel’s fave fell victim to the winds of change.
But other winds were blowing. Within a few short years, the increasing popularity of the Internet found a new, enthusiastic population of pipe smokers, old and new, able to discuss their pastime in virtual, almost cult-like communities. Chatrooms, newsgroups and forums became the virtual pipe shops of old, and small boutique blenders began to rise from the ashes, producing quality blends in small batches, both attempting to recreate lost classics and innovating new ones, and selling them through a growing number of on-line stores. A new renaissance of pipe smoking was born. New smokers soon learned of some of the great blends of yesterday, and sought to experience them. Prices for old tins skyrocketed on auction sites.
Reacting to this apparent increased interest in traditional mixtures, a different manufacturer acquired the recipe and rights to produce Nigel’s favorite. Not having access to the same machinery, the same stores of leaf, the same blendmeisters, this new tobacco, though very good, was quite different from the original, but fans were delighted to see it available again, and enthusiastically bought it up. Amongst some of the old-timers, songs of nostalgic lament were again sung. “It’s not what it used to be.” Many had already replaced their old standard with something new that they liked nearly as well, only occasionally indulging, when they could find one, in an expensive vintage tin. Others either didn’t seem to notice the changes, or just didn’t care about them, and embraced the reincarnation. Newcomers, without the benefit of having experienced the classics when they were young, were thrilled to be able to smoke what they thought might never again be available to them, and quickly took up the torch. On-line forums were soon filled with smoke and mirrors and discussion about this recent resurrection…
Sound familiar? The story is apocryphal, of course, but it’s not quite fiction. Similar things have happened time and time again. As Heraclitus noted about 2500 years ago, nothing endures but change, even within the world of our sacred pipe tobaccos.
For many reasons, tobaccos change over time, sometimes slightly, sometimes considerably. Ingredients, such as rare varieties of oriental tobaccos, or Syrian Latakia, become unavailable. Farm management practices change, often driven by the cigarette industry’s requirements (compare this with the grapes used to make mass market wines versus those that are estate grown, used to produce the low-volume great growths of Burgundy, for instance), and market forces often result in fewer grades of specific leaf being available. Pipe tobacco is a tiny speck on the map when compared to cigarette tobacco, and growers have to go where the money is if they’re going to continue making a living.
Production methods, too, are subject to change. To satisfy the world’s demand, as relatively tiny as it is, and to remain profitable, large producers often have to scale their manufacturing to maximize output and minimize costs, sometimes leaving out time-consuming steps that, though subtle, were important to the original formula. And, of course, there’s the continuing issue of yearly variation in tobaccos. Again, as with wines, some vintages are just better than others. Manufactures continue to minimize vintage variation by blending leaf from different years, from different sources, but some characteristic changes will always be inevitable.
This isn’t intended as a tale of gloom and doom. It’s a fantastic time to be a pipe smoker. There are thousands of blends being made today, some by large companies, some by boutique blending houses. The breadth of choices currently available is staggering, and new things appear frequently. Quality leaf is readily available, and some experienced, creative blenders are bringing new ideas to the tobacco jar, informed by their deep knowledge and understanding of the classics. There’s something, or more likely many things, that will appeal to any palate, providing its owner is not stuck in the past, unwilling to release a death grasp on dusty old memories of tobaccos past.
But as the other shoe drops, the question swinging from its laces is this: How important is it for a reincarnated blend to be true to the original? Brands, cultivated over years or decades, represent something. They become inexplicably associated with a group of experiences in the experienced consumer’s mind, and establish a set of definite expectations.
When that familiar tin again appears on the tobacconist’s shelves after a long absence, we have an immediate internal representation of what it’s going to look like, smell like, taste like. If it’s at least close, we can be forgiving, consoling ourselves with the understanding that things change, or accepting the possibility that our memory of what it was might be flawed, perhaps colorfully enhanced by the romantic folly of nostalgic reminiscences, perhaps faded by the passage of time like a snapshot left in the sun. If we like it well enough to continue smoking it, our small disappointment will dissolve over time as a new set of expectations replaces the old.
If we’re promised a steak and get a hamburger, on the other hand, disappointment will grow deeper roots, and rightfully so; the brand has failed to keep a promise forged over years of prior delivery, becoming, instead, a mere palimpsest of what it claims to be, related to the original by little more than name alone. Most often, things fall somewhere between these extremes. The new tobacco is good enough, but it’s not special in the way the old one was.
Newcomers to the brand have little beyond the stories they’ve heard on which to base their expectations, and so rate the brand on a personal scale of preference. If they like it, the “new” brand can hit the ground with a little wheel spin, gain traction, and blast up the track. If they don’t, it’ll stall on the starting line. The new adopters will either sing its praises, believing they now, finally, have the opportunity to understand what all the old-timers were talking about, or condemn it, wondering what all the historical fuss was about, their opinions derived solely from their perceptions of the blend’s current merits. In time, we’ll hear from the old-timers.
I’ll freely admit to having more than once been the grumpy guy in the back room complaining about things changing beyond acceptable limits. Even if the “new” version is good, it’s not the “old” version, the one I expected, dammit, and it sometimes makes me cranky. Being involved in this crazy pastime of pipes and tobacco for something over thirty years, having a cellar full of vintage tins, and having had the good fortune of tasting different eras of many of the now legendary lost blends of yore, I feel like I’ve earned the right to complain once in a while. Sometimes, I’ve softened over time, accepting that the “new” thing, though different, is still quite good, and just needs a different yardstick with which to measure it. Other times, my crankiness persists. If the old blend was somehow “special,” and the new one is simply “good,” I’ll likely never find much forgiveness.
Why sell something new and different as something that’s gone missing for a while? Why not create a new classic, rather than trade on the name of an old one?
Marketing boffins have the answer at hand, of course: leverage the cost of the brand’s acquisition by taking advantage of the inestimable value of its name’s recognition. Put lawn clippings in the right tin, and you’ll sell thousands of them before the library books are due. In some cases, the branding on the tin is simply more special, more unique, more valuable than the product within it. (Still doubtful? During the “rationalization” days mentioned above, one factory produced the same tobacco under several labels. Devotées of each continued to insist that their brand was the better one, unaware of the bill-of-goods being sold them.)
The motivation is obvious. I’ll leave you with a question: Is it right?
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.