G. L. Pease
In many cultures, the number 13 is considered an unlucky one, and there are fascinating tales of how this digit pair, the sixth prime, the "Baker’s Dozen," has come to be an omen of grave and imminent portent, and to this day, many buildings don’t have a 13th floor, but, we’re not a superstitious lot, right? So, go ahead and grab your black cat, break a mirror, sit under a ladder, and read on. On the other hand, if you’re truly cursed with a debilitating case of triskaidekaphobia, you’d probably better just close the window now and move on to something else, onaccounta this is the thirteenth edition of this column, and I don’t want to be responsible for any consternation you may be caused as a result of its appearing on your screen for too long. For the rest of you, without further rambling ado, let’s get on with things.
From Alfred: Greg, the closet where I keep my tobacco cellar of a few dozen tins has a subtle tobacco aroma when I open it. I know you and C&D use the pop-lid tins which are excellent for cellaring tobacco. But I want to know what your experience is with older square tins you have had in your own collection of tobacco’s. In unsealing a decades old tin of Benson & Hedges OVF, for example, (or any Sam Gawith tin), have you found them to be good long term storage vessels? If one has a lot of these type of square tins cellaring would you advise transferring to mason jars? Is this a practice you have made over the years, or do you just take your chances? Thanks.
A: Personally, I’ve had what is apparently pretty good luck with the old rectangular tins, and have only had a few lose their seal, and with those few exceptions, I’ve found their contents fantastic after years of storage. But, I realize my experience is not the same as that of many others, and set out to do some investigation as to what the problems might be. First, a look at how are the tins sealed in the first place.
The lid of the tin has a rubber gasket bonded to it around the outer edge. When the tins are filled, and the lids placed on to, they’re placed in a chamber where they are exposed to a slight vacuum. This pulls the lid down tight, and seals it against the lip of the tin. The partial vacuum in the tin, presumably, keeps it tight. Some have said heat is involved, but I’ve not been able to ascertain this.
Over the years, the gasket can dry out, compromising the seal. Additionally, if the tins are subjected to severe cycles of hot and cold, the changes in internal pressure that results could cause the seal to lose its grip, or, if the tins suffer mechanical shock, all bets are off. It seems these may not be particularly reliable for long-term storage, and I’ve just been lucky. So, what to do?
I don’t recommend transferring to jars, in these cases. First, if the tobacco already has some years behind it, you’ll interrupt the process, and the result of additional time in the jars may or may not be found satisfactory years in the future. Second, jars are excellent as storage vessels, but they’re fragile, and if not absolutely clean, may introduce unwanted microorganisms to the tobacco, like yeasts or mould spores. Most of these are benign, but some may cause unwanted results, especially over long periods of aging.
Though, for a variety of reasons, I do not normally advocate the use of using food-saver type vacuum packaging for tobaccos, this sort of device is probably the best way to prevent potential problems. Put the entire, sealed tin in the bag, cycle the processor to suck the air out, and seal it up. The evacuated bag will serve as extra protection, mechanically, and will also help to retain the seal in the event of excessive thermal shocks or gasket failure. The better machines aren’t inexpensive, but considering the investment many of us have in vintage tobaccos, it can be thought of as pretty cheap insurance. And, there’s no reason not to further amortize its cost by using it for its intended purpose, as well.
J enquires: Tell us about Patina. I have a great old Comoy Tradition from the 1930’s. It has a rich warm patina that I had assume came from long years of smoking. The pipe has that great look that you just can’t buy new. However, last year I bought a Downie that has a dark stain and although I only smoke it twice a week, it has already begun developing a patina. Now, I know briar colours as it absorbs tars etc. but I have a couple more pipes that have seen years of loyal service that are pretty much the same colour now as the were new. The only difference between my pipes that seem to darken and those that do not, is that the pipes that developed the patina all have a dark stain to begin with while the ones that haven’t darkened yet have a relatively light stain (think Northern Briar Premier). Somehow that seems backwards to me. So, what’s up with that?
A: There’s more here than meets the eye, so to speak, as there’s patina, and there’s colouration, and, though related in an oblique way, they’re not quite the same thing.
It’s probably easiest to address the changing of hue, first, and, yes, your observation does seem backwards from what I’ve generally experienced, but there may be a reasonable explanation. Depending on how a pipe is finished, whether dark or light, whether stained with natural dyes, or none at all, and what is used for the final finish—usually hard carnuba wax, though sometimes shellac is used as well, either alone or in combination with the wax—the pipe can take on new shades as it’s smoked. From what I’ve seen, simply waxed finishes, or those with only a light stain are those most likely to change quickly. I’ve actually watched pipes darken during the smoking of the first bowl. In fact, in one case, I could almost see on the outer surface of the pipe the level of the tobacco smouldering inside. After several bowls, things reached some sort of equilibrium, and the pipe has remained fairly consistent since, but those first few bowls were really entertaining to watch.
On some pipes with the so-called "contrast stains," which some of the older English makers referred to as "take-off" finishes, a very dark dye is applied, sanded almost completely away, leaving only the softer wood stained, and then over-coated with a lighter shade. These pipes, in my experience, don’t change very much over time, as the more porous grain is already as dark as it’s likely to get. A pipe with a golden stain applied, or none at all, on the other hand, can change dramatically over time. We often see grain "pop out" as the pipe is smoked, and those changes are part of the beauty of a well loved and long smoked briar. Periodic re-waxing seems to enhance this characteristic.
On the other hand, not all dark finished pipes are treated with a contrast staining technique, and these will generally deepen and darken over time, just like a light-finished pipe will, only more slowly, or at least less obviously. But, what about your experience with lighter pipes not exhibiting the darkening phenomenon? Here, I can only speculate. If the grain is somehow sealed by the finish, it’s conceivable that the colouration is slowed. Or, possibly, a bowl coating was applied that precludes the absorption of tars into the wood; if you plug one end of a straw, you’ll find it quite difficult to force water through it. (It’s important to remember that it’s the combination of heat and the oils in the tobaccos, and probably the handling of the surface that results in the darkening. Some have stated that briar "is not porous," but that’s simply not true. Filling a pipe with water doesn’t tell us anything. Many pipe makers have told me that in the process of finishing their pipes, they often find the dyes seeping through the wood into the bowl. So much for the non-porousity of briar!) I don’t know what sort of finish is being applied to your Northern Briars Premier, but I’d bet Ian might tell you if you asked, and his answer would be revealing.
Patina is a different kettle of cod. I’ve had many pipes that are bright and shiny when new, develop a dull, lifeless finish after a couple of smokes. Examination under magnification revealed the culprit; a sloppy, rough finish, "hidden" by a thick application of wax. When the pipe heats and the wax melts, some will rub off, some will soak into the wood, and the actual surface of the pipe will be revealed. Think of a shiny, smooth metal surface dulled by the application of fine sandpaper. I think one of the reasons very old pipes exhibit their beautiful, rich patina is simply the result of years of handling and polishing. Over time, the micro-scratches smooth out, and a lovely, luminous sheen is revealed.
On the other hand, a pipe with an exquisite finish requires very little wax at all to display a beautiful lustre. And, here’s where the rubber hits the road with respect to the patina and colouration. Over time, these pipes will get richer and more beautiful in every respect, and it’s one part of what we are paying for, or at least it should be, when we purchase fine, hand-made pipes from the best makers, and one area where shortcuts are often taken on machine-made pipes.
Mike A’s question is: I can not taste any difference between smoking a flake blend either completely rubbed out or smoked folded and stuffed. I’ve been thinking about the way the leaf would burn through the entire bowl and wonder of the myth that there is a flavor difference is true or not. It seems to me that the flake has more to do with marrying the blend’s component parts rather than how the ember releases the taste. Am I missing something?
A: You’re not really missing anything, Mike. You’re spot on that the pressing of the tobacco has more to do with the way its flavours and aromas develop over time. It’s more than simply the "marrying" of the component parts. It also has to do with the way the tobaccos ferment during their press time. The difference between a tobacco that’s been under pressure for a week and the same components that have remained, shall we say, more relaxed is remarkable. Then, once sliced and packaged, they will continue to diverge from their ribbon-cut counterpart. A great example of this can be seen between my own Quiet Nights and Blackpoint. Though the blends are actually quite similar when they begin life, the former, being pressed and sliced, takes on entirely new dimensions by the time it’s in the tin. So, yes, how the tobacco is processed has a great deal to do with how it tastes. So does preparation, but that tends to be more subtle.
From Chrono: Hi, Greg. I was recently at a pipe club meeting that included a couple "industry" people. We were discussing the moisture content of tinned blends, and how Propylene Glycol can be unpleasant in tins from companies that use it. I stated how nice it was that you and C&D only use distilled water, and I was told that can’t be true, and the blends made by C&D definitely have PG (even though your website and theirs state only distilled water is used). I didn’t argue, but essentially I was told everyone uses PG and/or vinegar in their blends today, otherwise they’d have a mold problem. Can you address this? Do your blends or C&Ds have anything other that water? Is a separate mold inhibitor used? And what other companies, if any, do you know of that don’t use PG? It would be really nice to know what’s in our tins besides tobacco. Thanks!
A: It’s amazing how many things people "know" without having any actual inside knowledge at all. I can’t speak for other manufacturers, and wouldn’t feel right about discussing their methods even if I knew. I can tell you that I do not use PG in my blends, as there is simply no reason for me to do so. If I produced aromatics, or bulk tobaccos that might dry out too quickly if improperly stored, I might find a reason to change that, but in my current range, there’s no need for this or similar humectants, so I don’t use them.
On the other hand, PG has a far worse reputation than it deserves. Yes, it can be over used, and a lot of the goopy blends on the market probably have a fairly high percentage of the stuff, but used carefully, subtly, and only in the minimum amounts necessary to do its’ job, it’s hardly the liquid devil that some think it to be.
As regards mould inhibition, vinegar is often discussed, but the fact is, it simply does not work. I did a lot of experiments addressing these issues years ago, and it was fascinating to watch huge cultures of fungus grow on every tobacco sample treated with different concentrations of vinegar solutions. On the other hand, the industry standard, food grade inhibitors (fungistatics) that are used routinely in not only the tobacco industry, but in baked goods, cheese and so on, were very effective at checking outbreaks, even at very low concentrations. For several years, we’ve used this product at the lowest effective levels to minimize the risk, without imparting impurities to the taste or aroma of the tobacco, or effecting burning or aging characteristics. Nobody wants to find fuzzy, stinky tobacco in that tin they’ve been cellaring for years, so it’s a good tradeoff.
Assaad wants to know: It seems that most big name companies make a cherry blend of tobacco. Is cherry especially easy to use as a flavoring compared to other fruits?
A: It’s really no easier to use than anything else. Cherry is cheap, widely available, and to many people, apparently, inoffensive. It’s used for everything from Jolly Rancher candies to cough medication, and as an additive to some sodas. Who doesn’t like Cherry Coke, or the ubiquitous maraschino perched proudly upon the peak of the whipped cream mountain adorning a hot fudge sundae? Cherry is probably, through the result of the arduous task of market research and focus groups, considered a nearly universally loved flavor. Personally, I loathe artificial cherry, though nothing even approaches the sadistic horrors of artificial grape. Bet you’ll never see that in a pipe tobacco. (May lightning strike anyone who even attempts to prove that last sentence wrong.)
Spartan, in tiny little tap shoes, danced wildly on the keyboard to write: I have heard more than a few times of pipe smokers using their pipe tobacco interchangeably as chewing tobacco. I personally don’t see the appeal of chewing tobacco, but I can’t help but be interested to know if there are any blends on the market that would be suitable for using this way. Also, have you munched on any pipe tobacco blends? I would like to know your thoughts on the matter.
A: I often taste leaf in order to assess various qualities it may possess, but as a general rule, it doesn’t go farther than that for me. I was once coerced to try snus when at sea with a Swedish captain who had a penchant for the habit. I’m not sure, to this day, whether it was sea-sickness or the tobacco that caused me to lose my herring, but I can say with some certainty that the overall experience, whilst certainly memorable, was far from one of my most pleasant in my 30 history with tobacco. No offense meant to those who seem to really enjoy their tobacco in this form, but I, for one, simply do not. Not. At. All.
Happy puffing, and keep ’em coming!
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.