Ask G. L. Pease March 2012 (Volume 11)

G. L. Pease
It seems this month’s mail was dominated by questions and comments about aging.
I’m glad we’re talking about tobaccos, here, and not me, because I simply refuse to comply with the universe’s insistence that I grow older, dammit. Call me Peter Pan. (What’s that confounded ticking, and who let a crocodile in through the out door?)

I reached deeply into the mail bag of Neverland, and pulled a few interesting questions out for this month’s installment, so without further ado:

Eric queries: Here’s the situation: Aside from your Westminster, I really love Balkan Sasieni Pipe Tobacco. Last year I began buying a shop’s Balkan Sasieni Pipe Tobacco in bulk, instead of the tins.

Now the question is are these one and the same? My palate says no, but both have the same description:

"Original formula Balkan pipe tobacco smoking mixture was created in London at the beginning of the century by a gifted family of Master Tobacco Blenders, who first combined the aromatic pleasures of the choicest of Macedonia and Latakia leaf with the richness of Old Virginia, to give the pipe smoker an unrivaled smoking pleasure. Old timers know this blend as Balkan Sobranie".

Furthermore, do you think the current Balkan Sasieni resembles the Balkan Sobranie? I know there were several iterations, but I am referring to the original blend as you remember it?

[Editor’s notes: 1. Balkan Sasieni is not officially available in bulk, with the exception of Cup O Joes. 2. The last line in the above description is not on the tin. It is a selling point being iterated by the dealer. Mr. Pease’s answer below is still valid.]

A: Even if they were 100% identical in every respect at the point they were manufactured, by the time you get your hands on them, a tinned blend will be different, however slightly, from its bulk equivalent. There are several reasons for this.

When the tins are manufactured, they are partially evacuated to create a tight fitting seal between the rubber gasket around the lid’s circumference and the top of the bottom part of the tin. The tobacco is also packed much more tightly into the tins. This effectively does something similar to pressing the leaf, creating greater contact between the strands of different tobacco types, and the depletion of available oxygen encourages a different type of "aging" process. The tobacco, once produced, spends quite a bit of time in those tins before it finally gets to you, just because of shipping and handling times, so a lot is happening inside those little flat Petri dishes.

The bulk blend, on the other hand, is just bagged and shipped. No evacuation, and the thin films of the bags, though relatively impermeable to water, are less proof against gas exchange, so the internal environment is not as stable as it is within the tins. After as little as a few weeks, the differences can be pronounced, and it’s certain that much more time than that passes before the tins or bags reach you after their manufacture.

So, though I cannot say with certainty that they are identical to start with, I will say that definite differences between the two would be readily detectible by the discerning smoker after a fairly short period of time.

As for it being a recreation of the old, original Sobranie, to my palate, nothing is, and I have thoughts about why this is the case. As is often posited, the tobaccos available today are not the same as those readily obtained 40 years go. Varietal orients are difficult to obtain, especially the fabled Yenidje that Sobranie was famous for, and even though we have superb Cypriot Latakia today, it’s not exactly the same as that produced in the 1970s. I’m not saying better or worse, here; just different. But, perhaps more importantly, I believe the methods and process of yesterday were sufficiently different, and that Sobranie House, specifically, had their "little secrets" that made their products unique.

For instance, Robert McConnell was reputed to have large gas-heated copper "toasting cylinders" that would tumble the ribbons during the re-drying process and, that these were partly responsible for the unique taste these tobaccos exhibited. I don’t doubt this. The crusting and toasting caused by the heat of the drum’s surface, especially in combination with the chemistry of the damp tobacco and the oxidized copper of the drum, would certainly impart a distinctive taste and aroma to the finished product. There’s little doubt that the blenders of Sobranie House had similar tricks up their sleeves.

Tobacco blending is a sometimes mysterious art, one that is much more than just tossing some leaves together in a bowl and calling it a salad. Attempts to recreate the great blends of the past seem to ignore what lives in the realms of the unknown, and that, even over tobacco selections, is probably the primary reason they never quite hit their mark.

Cortezattic asks: Do pipes with a lacquered finish suffer from not being able to breathe? This discussion came up in an old thread; and has never really been resolved.

A: There’s a lot of controversy around this that’s raged on for years. Some insist it makes not a whit of difference, that briar does not "breathe" anyway, and that it’s just folly, while others are equally solidly encamped on the other side of the river.

A lot of the smoking characteristics of a particular pipe will depend on the tobacco being smoked in it. The flavors of a delicate Virginia, for instance, could be easily drowned out by an off-tasting piece of briar, while a more assertive aromatic might beat the bad wood’s unsavory character into submission. This is likely the phenomenon at the core of many of the discussions regarding whether or not a "better" pipe provides for a better smoke. Much depends on what you smoke, how you smoke it, and what you expect from the combination.

The problem is that most lacquered pipes tend to be of the "Drugstore" variety. Yes, people love them, and to some, they provide an entirely satisfactory smoking experience (see above), but the chances are pretty good that these pipes are not made from the finest briar available, boiled perfectly then aged and seasoned for years before being fashioned into a pipe. So, how can we know how much responsibility the lacquering of the pipe can take for the overall smoking experience? And, perhaps more importantly, what sort of "lacquer" are we talking about? Is it nitrocellulose, acrylic, or a plastic coating, like a polyurethane? Each would offer different characteristics of porousness and breathability.

The only way to gain any real information would be to sacrifice a couple pipes. One, a good smoking pipe, could be lacquered to see what impact it had on the taste. Another, a previously lacquered pipe, preferably one that smoked well, could be stripped of all finish, and the results compared.

Over the years, I’ve done both halves of this experiment, though inadvertently and not in a very controlled way. Early on, I had a fairly inexpensive but good smoking rusticated author shaped pipe whose dull and drab finish never really appealed to me. I can tell you with absolute certainty that spraying it with Varathane did not do its smoking characteristics any good. How much of the resulting noxiousness was from the wood’s no longer being able to breathe and how much of it was from the stench of the solvents used in the spray, I cannot say, but the pipe, nevertheless, was ruined.

I’ve also removed the "lacquer" finish from a couple of estate cheapies, and they seemed to smoke cooler afterwards, but this could be simply due to the fact that I smoked them more once they looked more like pipes than raven attracting "shiny objects."

I’m sure the debate will continue until the zombie apocalypse renders it moot, but it certainly gives us something to discuss, and that’s a good thing; you know how hard it is to get pipe smokers to share their opinions about anything.

From Arno: I am a big fan of your tobacco’s but I live in The Netherlands. Luckily I have my connections so I can obtain your tins. The nearest "dealer" is in Switzerland. But according to EU regulations tobacco may not be shipped through mail.

So why is it so difficult to buy your tobacco’s in Europe? Why can’t I go to my local tobacconist and buy/order your tobacco? Are European Tobacco dealers not willing to sell your tobacco? Is it too expensive? Is it of tax-regulations? Are there EU regulations which prevent certain kind of tobacco’s/ingredients to be sold in Europe? For instance, the new Balkan Sobranie is made in the UK but they can’t sell it in Europe itself!

A: Thanks for asking, Arno. As you know, there is a hoard of misguided and arguably malevolent garden gnomes sitting behind desks in Belgium deciding what’s good for you and the other poor citizens of the European Union. These Gnomes of Brussels pass laws allowing things like different labeling requirements for every country, arbitrarily huge import tariffs, and the gouging of the population for astronomical tobacco taxes, making it virtually impossible for a small US tobacco producer to deliver a competitively priced product to that side of the Atlantic puddle. To call this a form of unilateral protectionism would not be far off. We can get tobaccos from the EU onto our retailers’ shelves without difficulty, but pipe tobacconists in the EU are not afforded a reciprocal luxury.

In order for a distributor to carry my blends, they’d have to pay all the duties and taxes up front, then store the tobaccos in a bonded warehouse until it could be appropriately labeled for the destination country, and shipped. By the time the tobacco arrived at its final destination, it would carry a price tag that would make Dr. Evil blush. I’m not giving up on the idea. I’m just not very hopeful.

Fortunately, you do have options, but you know that already.

From Gareth: I have a question about aging. The advice is always to keep tobaccos completely sealed to age, either in their tins or in well-sealed jars, and to never break the seal until you want to smoke it. Yet with cigars, the advice seems to be that they shouldn’t be in a totally sealed environment, and that if you go for long stretches without smoking one you should open the humidor for a moment every now and then to air them. What’s the reason for the difference?

A: Cigars and pipe tobaccos are different beasts, yes, and though I know the conventional wisdom is not to store cigars in an air-tight environment, I’ve also read the opinions of more than one expert that indicate this is just not the case, that all that is necessary is to give the cigar a little breathing room before smoking it if it’s been incarcerated for a long period of time. My experience echoes this, but I like long-aged cigars, generally. Let’s rewind the tape a little, and see if we can figure out where this advice may have come from.

Some cigars tend to exhibit an ammoniac character in their youth, and keeping them tightly sealed during the first months, or even years of their lives, depending on the cigar, will certainly exacerbate this condition. All it takes, though, is a few days of breathing to rid them of this volatile noxiousness, and make them pleasant, and ready to enjoy. Could this be the source of the notion that cigars need to "breathe?" Possibly.

Today, most leaf, at least that used by quality conscious marques, undergoes sufficient fermentation before being rolled to render the ammonia issue irrelevant. But, these modern cigars are shipped ready to smoke, and don’t go through the "sick period" that many Cubans, and some older non-Cuban brands were prone to exhibit. (Cuban cigars traditionally do not go through the same level of fermentation and sweating before their production. Some are even shipped with labels instructing the purchaser to either smoke the cigars immediately, or leave them to mature for a minimum of six months or a year in order to enjoy them more fully.) So, it would seem that to the cigarista of yesterday, allowing cigars to breathe was friendly advice, and useful if s/he wasn’t going to age them for the long term. Today, things are different. But, what if we don’t give them air?

Kept in a sealed environment, whether glass or porcelain jars, as some cigars have been historically shipped in, or well sealed and lacquered cabinets, cigars will retain the byproducts of their maturation. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on the smoker. It’s generally held that exposure to air, the "breathing" that some speak of, will accelerate the maturation process, but it will do so at the expense of depth, and that if long-term aging is the goal, meaning ten years and beyond, it’s better to keep the cigars well sealed. In fact, the goal of the humidor jars that were once more popular, especially amongst some Cuban brands, was just that; to retain every bit of goodness the cigar was capable of delivering for as long as the seal was intact. Think of a great wine. The best Burgundies can withstand decades in the cellar, under proper conditions, developing greater complexity and nuance as they age. Once that cork is pulled, though, you’d better drink it, ’cause it’s not going to get any better.

The greatest risk of sealed storage, it seems to me, is mildew or mold, and if only because of this threat, I do tend to keep an eye on my long-term storage, checking to ensure that no off odors develop. But, other than periodic checking, I tend to leave them alone.

And, how do they fare? I love well-aged, very mature cigars. They’re not for everyone. They develop subtle nuances and complexity that is absent from their youthful cousins, but they do lose intensity and exuberance. For those who like the punch of young smokes, it’s probably better to give them some air once in a while, just to keep the potential for ammonia at bay. (Certainly, I’ve experienced some relatively recent cigars that exhibited an ammoniac quality when I bought them. A few days out of the cellophane, and they were good to go.) [Editor’s note: For more wisdom on cigars from Mr. Pease, see his "Up in Smoke" column on Cigar Chronicles.]

Pipe tobacco is quite different. The leaf is cured differently and carefully aged long before it ever finds its way into the tins. Though it’s possible for some leaf to develop an ammoniac nose, most won’t, and the more important goals in aging are the retention of the lovely volatiles that are created and are responsible for the characteristic aromas and flavors of aged tobaccos, and the preservation of the environment in which the aging is taking place. As fermentation occurs, free oxygen is consumed, and CO2 produced, killing the microorganisms responsible for the first stage of maturation. At this point, anaerobic fermentation can take place, creating an entirely new set of yummy byproducts. If the seal is broken, everything changes, effectively stopping whatever goodness was going on in that little tin. As the environment changes, so will the reactions taking place. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t ever be the same again.

If you’re willing to do a longish term experiment, take two identical tins of tobacco, and put them away for a couple years. At the end of that time, open one, and transfer its contents to a jar. Then, after a couple more years, open them both, and see just how different they are. If I’m wrong, drop me a note…

And, if you’re a cigar smoker, I’d suggest doing something similar with a few cigars. Put some in a relatively sealed environment, and some in a place that "breathes," and let them be for a year. Then, see how they taste. My bet would be on the sealed sticks as the more interesting ones.

Anyway, that’s my short answer…

Jim wants to know: I recently passed up an opportunity to buy a 70 year old tin of Edgeworth Ready Rubbed. Is it possible that the tobacco would still be good. How old is too old for a tobacco?

A: How long a tobacco blend can survive in its tin is dependent on many factors, such as storage temperature, the blend itself, the moisture content when sealed, and so on. It’s almost impossible to predict a meaningful "use by" date for most tobaccos, though some tend to last longer than others. Virginia blends, especially those with some Perique, seem to be like the Energizer bunnies of the tobacco world, and keep going, and going, and going, while Latakia heavy blends do lose some of their spunk after a decade or so. That doesn’t mean they’re not still good, or even great. That depends on whether the original blend relied on the enthusiasm of young Latakia to make its statement, or if there was sufficient structure underneath the smoky stuff to stand up to the test of time. A Virginia dominated blend spiced with Latakia, for instance, would fare better over the long term than one dominated by the Latakia itself.

But, you’re asking about Edgeworth, a burley blend sweetened with molasses, and whether or not it was still good. Tobaccos don’t "go bad," and I have a feeling that if the seal was intact and the tin was in good condition, that stuff would have been pretty darn good. It wouldn’t have developed the richness and complexity of a well aged Virginia tobacco, but it would certainly have smoothed out any rough edges, and the chances are good it would have provided a very good, if not highly memorable smoke. If the price is right, and the tins seem to be in good shape, it’s almost always worth the gamble to try old tobaccos.

That’s it for this month. There are still some really interesting questions in the queue, and I’m looking forward to getting to them, and to the new ones that continue to come in. I hope this column is as much fun for the reader as it is for its author. Keep ’em coming! In the meanwhile, I’ll climb back into my hermetically sealed humidor and bid you adieu.

Until next month, smoke in peace.



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.

See our interview with G. L. Pease here.


12 Responses

  • Informative as always, and a great entertaining read. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience!

  • Ask G.L. Pease is one of my favorite features of PM. A very interesting edition this time around -Thanks!

  • I’d like to see your blends on sale in England. If there is a way round the EU octopus I for one hope you find it.

  • I’ve always subscribed to the “briar needing to breathe” thesis and have never had enjoyment from a lacquered pipe. Recently though I’ve bought some moderately high quality pipes of a very popular brand that has now started finishing selected lines with some sort of lacquer; not being good smokers (and nowhere near their favourite older predecessors), I removed the finish and waxed them. The result? – a modest improvement but still not good.
    It seems to me that the above point that it’s not just the finish but the greenness of the briar is a good one. The hope may be that, without the shiny coating, they may, in time dry out (but that’s another discussion).

  • With regard to the 70 year old Edgeworth brought up in Jim’s question, I recently purchased a small tin of Edgeworth Sliced that was from the early 1950’s, in a tin similar to the one pictured above. The tobacco was drier than when new as one would expect, but it certainly was not tinder. It smelled like an old attic, but boy was it a good smoke! When I started pipe smoking over 38 years ago I smoked Edgeworth Sliced when it was still manufactured by Larus Bros. That was great, but the old Edgeworth I purchased was far superior. And would you believe it cost me less than $20!

  • A late-comer to the magazine. Enjoyed your article. Would like to locate a good tobacconist who might be able to duplicate the old ‘Whitehall’ pipe tobacco.
    Also, a good ‘substitute’ for the original ‘Rum & Maple’ Pipe Tobacco.
    I miss my home-blend of Borkum Riff, Rum & Maple, and Whitehall. Very aromatic and pleasing to the ladies. As you know 2 of the above three have been discontinued.
    (I have a reasonable supply of Borkum Riff)
    Any help would be appreciated.
    ‘Rick’ Sansoni
    San Rafael, CA
    (San Francisco Bay Area)

  • This is a footnote question which has only come up recently. I’ve often bought five pound bags of Balkan Sasieni bulk. My order prior to the last one came with the five pound bag actually folded in half so that it could be squeezed into a small box. Even so, not much damage was done. To be on the safe side, when I made my last order I mentioned this to the person taking the order and she wrote as a comment on the invoice “please do not squeeze into a small box or it makes a lot of shake” and she highlighted this with colored ink. It was shipped appropriately but the tobacco itself mostly consisted of broken bits of what once had been a ribbon cut. I’ve found no one who can answer how this was possible, especially since the tobacco was not dried out. My question is would putting this tobacco in mason jars and aging it improve the smoking quality?