Adam J. Smith
Liner Notes: A bold flake of dark-fired Burleys in a well balanced unity with Flue-cured Virginias. This flake is Hot Pressed, meaning that during the pressing, heat is added by steam to the tobaccos which causes to the tobacco to intensify the marrying process giving us a bolder tobacco. The robust, earthy flavour of the dark-fired Burleys shine through in the taste, and you will experience a deeply satisfying smoke indeed.
There are times when I truly wonder if all of our modern advances are really a good thing. Gone are the days when people communicate regularly face-to-face, preferring the instantaneous and impersonal phone call - or, god forbid, text message. The lure of the ease of telecommuting, net-meetings and online shopping have nearly made the need to leave ones home all but obsolete. Often, I hear people complain that they have lost the sense of community, lamenting that they don’t know their immediate neighbours other than to nod to in passing - and even then, only when in the driveway. In fact, it seems to me that the human psyche has evolved (or perhaps devolved, depending on one’s viewpoint), allowing us to form tighter social bonds with those hidden behind avatars on the internet, despite often having but one common interest than with those whom we can actually meet in person.
And yet, the benefits do outweigh the detractors. Because of the internet, I (and I suspect many of you reading this) can say that my network of friends is global. Certainly, the chances of my meeting many of these people "in person" is slim to none - however that doesn’t mean that we haven’t developed friendships beyond the passing-acquaintance level. As people who partake in a somewhat esoteric hobby, the ability to communicate with our often few and far between brethren, and purchase tobacco and pipes from around the world has proved invaluable. Through internet forums and special interest blogs, we get the opportunity to tour factories, delve into the minds of industry luminaries, and, of course, attend pipe-shows vicariously.
But, unfortunately, we don’t get the swag. Most of the time.
I was very fortunate in that a good friend attending the Chicago Pipe Show this year happened to think of me whilst wandering amongst the booths and tables; even going so far as to assemble me something of a care-package. Nothing too extravagant, mind you - a few samples that he figured would pique my interest - and a tin of the newest offering fromMac Baren: HH Old Dark Fired.
Now, I should back-up for a minute before I go on. As you may or may not know, PipesMagazine.com first debuted this blend in mid-April. If you haven’t read the article yet, I would recommend you do so now - go ahead, this article isn’t going anywhere, I’ll wait.
As Per Jensen notes in the above mentioned article, this blend is marketed as an ‘English’ type tobacco, despite the absence of Latakia. Rather than an abundance of the stinky leaf, Mr. Jensen notes that this blend conforms to the production methods used by the English for centuries; when the British Commonwealth Tobacco Act limited flavourings and additives, forcing blenders to utilize leaf varieties, heat and pressure to create different blends. Not that anyone cares, but I quite like this definition of an ‘English’ blend, it helps to alleviate the confusion we’ve generated with our over-classifications of categories that really make no-sense; but that’s another story.
The simple rectangular 100g tin holds a special place amongst my collection. While the label might not be the most visually stunning, featuring simple cursive script over the Mac Baren watermark on a burgundy/brown background; there is a clean attractiveness about the presentation. Of course, as I noted earlier, my tin also happened to come from the Mac Baren booth at the Chicago Pipe Show; and as such is signed by Per Jensen himself - making it that much more interesting.
Carefully removing the lid reveals a heavy gold-leaf card-stock, pressed with the words "Mac Baren Flake", and the company website address. Folding this back reveals three parallel rows of tightly pressed, beautifully formed dark flakes measuring approximately 3" x 1". Comprised mainly of dark and nutty browns streaked with tans, these dense flakes do ship on the moist side - however, perhaps due to the density, Mac Baren was able to slice the plug to very exacting specifications (less than 1/8" thickness and extremely uniform). I found that this allowed me to both smoke the blend directly from the tin; but also that if I set anything out to dry, I needed to watch it like a hawk to ensure I didn’t end up with it being too dehydrated.
When I first opened the tin, the prevalent aroma was that of green olives. Fortunately (for me at least), this dissipated rather quickly, settling down into a rich, musty aroma assailing one’s olfactory senses with hints of moist-soil, wet leaves, and leather. An almost hickory-smoke aroma dances fleetingly in the background, not growing assertive, just slightly noticeable.
The Old Dark Fired flakes allow the pipe-smoker to utilize pretty much any packing method with great success. Rubbing-out reveals a fine-cut ribbon, which seemingly highlights the sweeter-notes in the blend, while providing the least body. Folding-and-stuffing (or rolling-and-stuffing) brings more depth of character to the deeper notes, however some of the sweetness seems to be lost. Cube-cutting offers a happy medium, but let’s face it, if you’re not sitting at a table or desk, this preparation can be a bit of a hassle.
A cold draw on the stem will reveal very little discernible flavour over drawing on an un-packed pipe; at best I discerned a slight note of cinnamon, although I did only detect this when smoked in my clay.
Although this blend does burn very well, like most flakes it does take a bit of time and effort to create an even burn. Once going, however, minimal relights are required to keep billowing clouds of smoke swirling around ones head. In fact, on one occasion, I was able to utilize the breath-smoking technique (as outlined by Mr. G.L. Pease in his blog) to smoke down a couple of these flakes without a single re-light - no mean feat, to be sure!
This blend is billed as being on the full-side of medium-bodied, and I honestly cannot decide whether to dispute or defend that statement. Certainly, an abundance of the wonderful dark-fired flavours one would expect from a blend of this ilk are present - however, with the exception of the charring light, this blend begins rather mild, growing in intensity as the bowl progresses. I suppose the rating given would likely reflect the mean, across the entire bowl - as it starts off rather mild, however finishes as a powerhouse.
With that in mind, the charring-light brings a hint of things to come. I suspect this is due to the finer cut (read: dust and shards) being used as kindling; providing a flavour packed punch as they smolder away.
Earthy and animalistic, bold flavours of wet-soil and leaves combine with a musky, almost equine nuance to provide a deep and rich base for the more subtle blends to build upon. Sweet nutty Burleys and hay-like Virginias interplay with the heavier dark-fired flavours, providing a touch of sweetness on the back of the palate. This is topped off with the mildest of floral notes; so fleeting as to have disappeared almost before it is detected.
As true-light is applied, the blend does settle down some. The main body of the flavour profile reveals the wonderfully meaty, musky and rich flavours of the dark-fired tobacco, underpinned with the nutty, cocoa-esque Burleys. This is interspersed with hints of grassy-sweet, slightly citrusy Virginias, which dance in and out of the forefront of the flavour profile. Occasional floral hints can be detected, however these are extremely mild.
At around the mid-way point, this blend undergoes a change towards the dark-side. The heavy and dark flavours of the dark-fired and Kentucky leaf grow into something reminiscent of a well aged cigar sporting a Maduro wrapper. The grassy Virginias undergo a change towards the baked-goods end of things, taking on a caramel-like flavour that intersperses itself amongst the flavour profile at various points. But through the mid-bowl point for me, it’s the Burleys that shine. Providing subtle nuances of cocoa and coffee to the main body of the flavour profile, the somewhat unpleasant (to me) woodiness remains so deep in the background as to actually provide a pleasant nuance. This is all piqued by a very slight and subtle piquant note, which begins growing deep in the flavour profile; while any hints of floral essences seem to have disappeared completely. I should also note that it is around the mid-way point that I begin to notice the nicotine in this blend.
As one reaches the final third of the bowl, the meaty dark-fired flavours grow even more assertive. Musky and earthy, with just a hint of saddle-leather; these rich and creamy notes combine with the coffee and cocoa notes in the Burleys and the almost brown-sugar note from the Virginias providing a flavour profile that wouldn’t be out of place on tap as a stout or porter. The piquant note detected around mid-way continues to grow, providing a not unpleasant spiciness on the back of the palate.
The nicotine level of this blend is definitely on the high side. No, it isn’t going to floor someone like Tambolaka, or even the blend that it will draw obvious comparisons to, Petersons Irish Flake; however it is a potent beast and care should be taken if you are going to delve into this on an empty stomach.
As noted earlier, the burning qualities of this blend are exceptional, often requiring very few relights to produce thick, creamy voluminous smoke. This blend does burn down to the ubiquitous fine ash…indeed, when smoked in narrow chambered pipes, the ash grew so fine and dense that I had to remove some for those occasional relights.
The unobtrusive room-note likely won’t get anyone too excited, however it isn’t likely to drive anyone off. I found it too mild all together to ascertain any aromas above what I associate with "classic pipe-tobacco". My wife, with her terrible sense of smell, notes that although she smells something in the air after I’ve smoked this, she couldn’t tell me what. This also goes for the latent smoke left upon ones clothing and facial hair - while there is an aroma, it is unobtrusive and inoffensive.
So, how does Mac Baren HH Old Dark Fired stack up to Peterson Irish Flake?
Well, I’m glad you (ok, I) asked that question - because I am sure that HH Old Dark Fired will draw comparison from the community. Certainly, there are some similarities, particularly to the older, rectangular tins of Irish Flake; however these are really just on the surface. But, for the sake of adding a few more words to this column, let’s take a look at both. For these purposes, I have dug back in my cellar, seeking out my supply of said older, rectangular tins. Unfortunately, I am not able to provide an exact age; I purchased the tin early last year - but I also based my selection on the thick layer of dust the tobacconist had allowed to settle on it. Suffice it to say that visual bloom has begun.
This blend offers something for everyone. Despite being a self-admitted Latakia-phile; the deep, creamy, rich flavour profile completely satisfies this pipe-smoker. Burley and Virginia lovers will find that their leaf of choice features prominently throughout; while the darker flavours add a bold note of character. Of course, fans of dark-fired tobacco should find this blend exceptional.
I highly recommend it!