G. L. Pease
Spring is here, it seems. My chiles are sprouting in my makeshift hot house, though it’s not been warm enough for them, and their growth is slow. I’m particularly excited about a Guyanese variety called Wiri Wiri. I’ve grown these successfully in the past, but it’s been a couple of years. They’re a bit challenging to grow, but well worth the effort. Each little berry, about the size of a small grape, is fiery hot (about like an orange habanero), wonderfully fragrant, and very flavorful. When I slice into these, their perfume fills the air. I can hardly wait for mid-summer when they, hopefully, begin bearing fruit.
But, what the hell do chiles have to do with pipes and tobacco? Glad you asked.
Chiles, all peppers for that matter, are in the same plant family (the nightshades, or Solinaceae) as tobacco. So are potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines. And, like tobacco, there is abundant variation both in the flavor profiles and intensity of different varieties. Where one pepper or tobacco type might be sweet and mild, another might be pungent and powerful. Each has its time and its place, and it’s that very variety that makes these things so interesting, and exciting. And, I know from my correspondence that there are a lot of pipe smokers who are also fans of the fiery fruit. It sort of makes sense, in an oddly oblique way.
I do promise not to grind up chiles into a tobacco blend (even if the thought has crossed my mind), though I’m not sure that I won’t go the other direction at some point. Latakia smoked habaneros, anyone? Dark fired poblanos? Hmm…
With that, on to the questions.
Arno, who always has interesting questions asks: I have a couple of home-made mixtures created from all kinds of blending tobaccos. Some people really like them and ask if I can make some more. Well, I got the recipes and for a part I can get the same blending tobaccos but some ingredients are no longer available. Of course I can replace those by similar tobaccos from another brand but I have never done that before. So how do you cope with the constant changing availability of blending leaf? Or the changes from year to year in one species of tobacco? I can imagine that for example you have a certain Virginia from a specific location for a blend that you always use. Suddenly it is no longer available or a new batch is different from the old one. How do you (and other tobacco manufacturers) work around that and let the blend taste the same? To what do you pay attention with a new batch? I know a lot is done with casings and light toppings (right?) but that is not an option for me since I only have basic blending leaf.
A: For sake of discussion, let’s look at three basic approaches to consistency. In cases where a lot of casing and flavoring is used, the base tobaccos are not quite as important to making a product that tastes and smells the same year after year. As long as the base leaf is close enough in terms of overall flavor profile, nicotine content, color, texture and so on, the result will be fairly similar over time. In other cases, where the additions are not as dominant to the character of the blend, other techniques must be employed. Not surprisingly, I find an analogue in the wine world useful.
There are large wineries who make millions of gallons every year, and sell it to an audience that is seeking something they’ll enjoy, but are not necessarily chasing the most interesting wines. They control their quality and consistency by grape selection, production methods and blending during the final stages. This is similar to what the larger tobacco producers can do, with the added factor of the warehousing large quantities of leaf from different vintages. This allows them to maintain a fairly consistent product from year to year, and, more importantly, to make changes incrementally over time that are not significant enough to be noticed by their regular customers, but that sampled over a longer period of time may result in more dramatic differences. Of course, the only way we could objectively know how much change has taken place would be to have samples of both new and old that had somehow been kept in stasis, preventing the natural effects of time from playing a part in the equation. Since that’s not likely to happen, we can only rely on our experience, and since most of us don’t have eidetic taste memories, and since our tastes and preferences occasionally change, we end up relying more on the fact that we like, or don’t like what we’re tasting to subjectively determine whether or not a wine, or a blend, is consistent enough for us.
Then, there are the small boutique wineries and blending houses, which is where my blends would fit. Working with the best quality ingredients available in a given vintage, whether grapes or tobaccos, we work to maintain the character of the product, expressing a particular style as best we can without spending too much time considering absolute consistency. Fortunately, tobacco crops are a bit less finicky than grapes, and vintage differences are not usually severe, so my job as a tobacco blender is somewhat easier. Even so, if you were to compare any of my blends from a couple different years, you’d likely find noticeable, albeit small changes. I recently tasted tins of Renaissance from 2001 and 2002, a time during which one particular leaf source changed. At this point, both of these tins have evolved to the point where an added year of tin age isn’t really a factor, and though very similar, the two tins were detectably different. Would I have noticed the difference were I not critically smoking the two side by side? Hard to say.
So, consistency isn’t something that you, as a home blender, will have a lot of control over if you’re relying on commercial leaf sources, but you shouldn’t have to worry too much, either; as long as they are consistent, your blend should stay fairly true to form. You may have to make minor adjustments from time to time, but that goes with the territory, and of course, when things disappear from the market, you’ll either have to work harder to get your blend back in line, or move on to the next thing. (Remember Bohemian Scandal?) I say just enjoy the ride.
Forwarded from Floyd: Good day Mr. Pease. I enjoy many of your tobacco blends as well as blends from other makers. I like most styles of tobaccos with the exception of aromatics. Many aros just smell so good in the tin or pouch, but rarely taste anything like they smell.
I think it would be great if it were possible to create a pipe tobacco blend that actually tastes like some of the aromatics smell. Can this be done? Have you ever tried to achieve this? Could you? Would you? Please?
A: That’s always been the great irony of aromatic tobaccos, hasn’t it? They may smell great to those in the room, but the smoker rarely enjoys the full benefit. Sure, they’re often sweet tasting, but usually in a sort of nondescript way, rarely delivering the full character of the aroma in the taste. And, it actually makes a certain amount of sense. Burning something and sucking the smoke into your mouth is a very different thing from eating it. If we chopped up a box of KrispyKremes and added the result into our pipe tobacco, the result wouldn’t taste anything like doughnuts, other than, perhaps, my late Aunt Millicent’s, which were always burned to a crisp, and never creamy, but that’s another story.
Some aromatic components, vanilla and maple, for instance, do translate fairly well in the smoke. Others, like coffee, don’t. The problem is with the way that those aromatic components reach the smoker’s palate. If you take a draw from your freshly loaded, unlit pipe, you’ll get a very different taste experience than you do when smoking it, and will probably pick up more of the aroma as flavor. Remember, flavor is the full effect of both the five basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami—sensed by the tongue, and the aroma as it is picked up by the olfactory gland via the retronasal passage at the back of the throat. But, how those volatiles arrive in your mouth makes a big difference to how you’ll perceive them.
As your tobacco is smoldering, you’re getting a complex cocktail of smoke particles, water vapor, and all the various flavor/aroma components that are either byproducts of combustion, or volatiles being carried along in the warm vapor trail, and a lot of those smell-good things change their character as they heat up, and ultimately burn. Sometimes, they are overpowered by the natural tobacco tastes, other times, the heat transforms them into something very different. In other words, it’s complicated. Can it be done? In some cases, yes. But, generally, it’s more important to the blenders of these tobaccos to arrive at a flavor profile that’s enjoyable than one that attempts to accurately recreate the taste of of a brownie sundae, an apple pie, or a root beer float, all of which, by the way, are probably impossible to achieve…
Emilio Quezon pens: Which liquid do you prefer for dipping pipe cleaners into when cleaning your pipes, and why?
A: Being a pipe cleaner is a thankless, often dirty job, and good ones are hard to find, so I treat mine with all the care and respect they richly deserve. I allow them a daily dip in the hot-tub during the winter, and the olympic pool in the back yard when warmer weather dictates, so I guess the answer to your question would be water.
During their off days, I give the pipe cleaners, along with the rest of my household staff, free access to my subterranean bar, providing they don’t get too sloppy. On holidays, they each, along with their families, are invited to join in the elaborate banquets I host at the castle. It’s been a good strategy, so far. Jeeves, who is my top man, and like a grandfather to me, has been cleaning pipes for my family for two generations.*
Eric wants to know: Are there any blends of yours that don’t get as much attention as you think they should? I ask this as a longtime Kensington lover, which seems to get little love compared to others in the range for reasons I’ll never understand. Also, since I’m enjoying Gaslight so much, can you tell us anything about what may or not be in development?
A: If I could suss out why one blend becomes wildly popular whilst another languishes on the shelves, I’d hire myself out as a consultant and make a lot more money than I do blending tobaccos. Sure, there are blends I’d like to see get more love. Kensington is one, for sure. Ashbury and Samarra are a couple more. They’re great blends, and they have their devotées, but they just don’t get the press. (If there’s a sudden uptick in the sales of these guys, I’ll know that people actually read these things.)
As to leaking early intel on secret projects, all I will say at this point is that I’m working on a couple of really interesting things that I’m very excited about, but given the way I work, I have no idea how long it’ll be before they’re ready for prime time, so I’m not going to disclose any details. Got to keep the competition trying to second-guess me.
*Okay, okay. My preferred fluid is Everclear, as it has a high absolute alcohol percentage and is neutral in aroma and taste. In a pinch, I’ve used rum, whisky, vodka. I don’t, however, like or advocate the use of non-potable alcohols, like rubbing alcohol or isopropanol. If it won’t go into me, it doesn’t belong in my pipes.
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.