Spring is nearly sprung, or at least I sincerely hope so. With a couple of warmish days in a row (if you can consider temps in the mid-forties warmish), a little bit more sunshine each day, and geese timidly returning north to make goslings, it seems high time to stir myself out of hibernation and get back into the swing of things. Cracking open a tin of Mac Baren’s HH Old Dark Fired, dusting off a few burley-dedicated pipes and letting the needle drop on some Frank Sinatra records serves to complete the scene.
You may recall that PipesMagazine.com broke the news in April 2012 of Mac Baren’s curious new project, an English style flake, steam-pressed but without Latakia. Per Georg Jensen had a few tons of vintage dark-fired leaf kicking around the warehouse and had the idea to offer it as the centerpiece of a new blend. The “dark fired” appellation encompasses a range of burley varietals, hearty and disease resistant, mainly used in cigar blending and chewing tobacco, and condimentally to round out and give some strength to pipe tobacco mixtures.
As the name suggests, they are dark tobaccos that are fire cured, though the curing is actually a multi-step process. The initial cure is immediately after harvesting, with bundles of leaves, or “hands”, left to wilt in the sun for a few hours to set color and initial sugar content, which is relatively low. Then the harvested hands of leaves are spiked, left to field wilt a bit longer, and eventually hung in a barn to begin the yellowing process, which takes about a week. Once the majority of the leaves are a uniform yellow color the firing process begins. Hardwood and sawdust fires are stoked and wetted, and temperature closely regulated around 100 degrees—low heat, and plenty of smoke. This process can take from a few days to several weeks, often with repeated firings. The temperature gradually increases, during which time the tobacco cures to a uniform caramel brown and deeply imbibes the flavors of the smoking hardwoods. The leaf is then dried to brittle, rested, and finished with a final round of extremely smoky firings to complete the process.
Check out the Michael Breeding documentary “Farming In The Black Patch”
for a look at the art of dark fired tobacco HERE.
Tobacco is obviously a labor-intensive endeavor, from start to finish. Old Dark Fired is processed as an English style blend, meaning that it’s made using traditional English methods like the steam press and free of added synthetic flavors; it contains no Latakia, though with its smoky character it certainly approaches the feel of a Latakia blend. The freshly pressed blocks of Old Dark Fired take a full thirty days to marry under pressure, a timeframe which, despite an unexpected shortage immediately after release, Mac Baren wouldn’t abbreviate in order to accommodate restocking—the blend needed that time in the press to become what it is, and that’s just how it was going to be made. As I’m keeping the ember lit in my bowl of ODF, I marvel at the hundreds of hands and decades of time that went into my hour’s worth of relaxation.
Mac Baren’s stock of tobacco is profound and extensive thanks to the foresight of owner Henrik Halberg, a point that Georg Jensen made emphatically while I was chatting with him at last year’s Chicago show. As you can see in the video interview with Jensen linked to above, some of the leaf in this blend is vintage 1983. Thirty years will certainly take the edge off, and it presents well in this rich, dark tobacco. Opening the classy brown and gold 100g tin reveals three stacks of sharply cut flakes as well as a gorgeous full bouquet, redolent with the stewed fruit aroma of red Virginia coupled with the chocolaty baritone of burley and the crisp smoky edge of the dark fired. I tend to think of ODF as the Black Forest cake of tobacco blends, and it’s every bit as hearty and filling as the dessert, if not quite as sweet.
This is an ample, robust blend for sure, both in flavor and effect. The nicotine content is substantial, though not overwhelming, and makes for a good smoke to sit and read or listen to music with, which is exactly how I’m indulging myself now: listening to Old Blue Eyes sing “That Old Black Magic” as I sip my bowl of Old Dark Fired makes for a swinging afternoon. While not a complex smoke—it ends much as it begins, with its basso profundo flavors holding steady from char to ash—it satisfies perhaps because of its simplicity rather than in spite of it. The flavor profile is musky, earthy, leathery, with a profound tannic character imparted by the dark fired that lays heavily on the palate. A beverage accompaniment is a must, and ODF pairs well with strong black teas like pu-erh, Lapsang souchong or Keemun, which serve to compliment the smokiness and draw out some fruity notes. It also fares well against wines that have some oaky finish; think Syrahs, Merlots, and Malbecs. And it’s certainly hearty enough to hold its own against beer—the choices in microbrews are myriad and left to personal preference; I’d go for a Guinness myself, though the Danish may prefer a Carlsberg or a Mikkeller Imperial Stout. The room note is as warm as the mouthfeel, yet surprisingly innocuous considering the strength of the smoke. For a fuller explication of the flavor profile, I highly recommend Adam J. Smith’s definitive review, published here, shortly after its debut at the Chicago show. I also highly recommend finishing a good meal, clearing out a couple hours for your pipe and easy chair, putting on Sinatra’s 1961 Come Swing With Me, and savoring your time with some Old Dark Fired as you wait for the snow to melt and the leaves to bud.