Bad Advice?

Bad Advice?

When I first started with the pipe as a quirky and precocious teen, the only tutelage I had at my disposal were scenes from old movies in which a well dressed chap would stick his pipe into a pouch, scoop tobacco into the bowl and press it down unceremoniously with his thumb. Then, with great flourish, he’d strike a match and light the thing with all manner of cinematic excess, puffing up vast clouds of smoke falling just short of completely obscuring his visage. While it may look good on film, it’s a terrible approach to actually enjoying the thing. Somehow, though, this “technique” seems to have survived in the contemporary vernacular, at least to some extent, even with bit-loads of information handily at our fingertips that should dissuade us from the practice.

But, at the time, this misguided approach was all I had; it’s no wonder my early days of puffing were fraught with difficult lighting, harsh, bitter smokes and tongue bite, all culminating in a fireproof mass of ye old soggy dottle in the bottom of the bowl. Ultimately, the resulting frustration made me give up the pipe, at least for a while. While the idea of it was still very appealing, the practice of it was not. 

It wasn’t until a few years later when, still full of curiosity and romantic notions of pipe smoking, I wandered into a real tobacconist’s shop, and learned my “method” was a long way from the techniques that would bring me to any sort of pipe smoking bliss. So, after my poor start, and under the guidance of someone who actually seemed to know how to do it right, I was given the opportunity to approach the process anew, this time with much greater success. It was only because I was both perseverent, and fortunate to have a local shop staffed with knowledgeable people, that I’ve been able to enjoy the experience ever since. At least mostly… 

How many fledgeling pipe smokers have simply given up on an enjoyable pastime because of similar early mis-starts? Fortunately, today, it’s not hard to find helpful guidance at the press of a key or ten. But, at the same time, not all roads lead to Valhalla, and sometimes the advice offered might well be labeled with, “Here be dragons.” 

The other day, I came across a short video on-line in which a well-meaning tobacconist suggested packing a bowl of an “English” mixture “nice and tight.” Perhaps somewhat ironically, I was smoking, or trying to smoke a bowl that I’d filled on auto-pilot, packed too tightly, and not only was having the devil of a time trying to keep it lit, I really wasn’t enjoying the acrid smoke the tobacco issued during the brief periods in which it was actually burning. 

“No, no, NO!” I found myself muttering at my pipe, and at the figure on the screen, my protests joined by the guttural growling noises that sometimes accompany my discontent. Defiantly, I grabbed a pipe nail, shoveled out the dense, asbestos-like clog from the bowl, swabbed out the shank with a pipe cleaner, more out of habit than need since I hadn’t actually smoked enough of the mass to foul the shank, and started over, this time paying proper attention to what I was doing. (For as long as I’ve been doing this, I still screw it all up sometimes.) 

Much better. This got me thinking about a couple things that are so important to the maximal enjoyment of our pipes, yet not often enough discussed, namely how different tobaccos respond to variations in filling density, and moisture content; two separate but related parameters.

Once I’d been shown the proper way to fill the bowl, or at least a proper way, everything had changed for me. I also began drying my tobacco down as a matter of course. Suddenly, there was greater cooperation between leaf and flame, the smoke was rich and flavorful, and it burned mostly to the bottom of the bowl with few relights. Given that, at the time, I smoked latakia mixtures almost exclusively, there didn’t seem to be a reason to explore beyond my “new” approach.

It wasn’t until my attention turned in the direction of Virginia blends that I had to look a bit deeper. The same technique that worked so well for me with latakia mixtures resulted in bland, and often harsh smokes with Virginias. I attributed this to the tobaccos, convincing myself that I just didn’t like the stuff. 

At one of our pipe club meetings, I was talking with a friend who smoked Three Nuns exclusively. When he offered me a bowl. I thanked him, and told him that I just didn’t seem to get along well with Virginias, that they weren’t for me.

“Maybe it’s the way you pack them. Here, let me fill your pipe for you.” I watched as he rubbed out a few coins to fine ribbons, moister than I was then accustomed to, and filled the bowl carefully in stages, pressing it tighter than I would have. Prepared for a nightmare, I was instead treated to a pipe dream. The tobacco smoldered slowly and almost continuously, delivering a rich, cool, sweet and delicious smoke.

After that, I spent some time exploring the impact of these two variables, moisture content and packing density, on different mixtures and blends, always with similar results. Latakia mixtures, and to a lesser extent, those with a high percentage of oriental leaf, taste and smoke better when they’re on the dry side and the bowl is filled loosely, while Virginia blends tend to work best with a little more moisture and a denser fill. Burleys seem to work best somewhere in between, except for cube-cuts, which don’t like to be packed with much pressure at all. (Gravity fill, tap the bowl to settle the cubes. Repeat until full.) For such a simple act, pipe smoking is filled with undefined complexities! 

The point behind all this? Often I read stories of people who don’t like a particular style of tobacco. Of course, it could be that it’s just not to their taste, but it’s also possible that they haven’t discovered how best to smoke it. If not for the kindness of my old friend all those years ago, I’d probably still be puffing on nothing but a steady diet of “Balkan” mixtures, without ever experiencing the joys of other styles.

Next time you find yourself with a tobacco that doesn’t make you sing, before giving up on it, maybe try playing with it a little. Try packing differently, or drying it out a bit, or both. If it’s a flake, rub it out more or less than usual. You still might not like it, but the knowledge gained in the process is its own reward, and it might open new windows of exploration. And, who knows? You might find a new favorite.

Vintage Capstan and Three Nuns Tobaccos
Vintage Capstan and Three Nuns Tobaccos
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