It doesn’t happen very often – I’m usually a pretty laid back guy – but there are times when I can get really cranky. Usually, it’s over a driver performing stupid human tricks on the overcrowded California highways. Or it can be some loudmouthed wackadoodle, clearly unfettered by even a rudimentary knowledge of the pertinent facts, regurgitating preposterous propaganda. Most often, it’s something I’ve read on the interwebs about things I care deeply about that raises my ire. Maybe I’m not quite as Jimmy Buffett laid-back as I’d like to be. A brief holiday in Margaritaville might be in order, or a cheeseburger in paradise.
If you haven’t sussed it, I’m proudly wearing my cranky pants today. Why? A friend made me aware of comments made by a self-styled expert in which a tobacco was described as “garbage.” No, it wasn’t one of mine; the manufacturer and the blend are irrelevant. What set my neck hairs on edge was the fact that this “expert” hadn’t even finished one bowl of the blend, and felt fully and righteously justified in proclaiming it as worthy only of being consigned to the rubbish bin. We’ve all seen similar comments; they’re all over the interwebs. A brief scan of the review sites for any kind of product reveals similar silliness; the web has made it far too easy for people to say all kinds of nasty things without the restraint of being eye-to-eye with someone when they do it. This sort of thing drives me crazy in general, but when it’s about pipes and tobacco, the twisting of my knickers is soon to follow.
I haven’t tried them all, but it’s highly improbable that any pipe tobacco being made today is deserving of this sort of damning. Every manufacturer of premium pipe tobacco on the planet carefully selects their leaf, and contrary to statements made by someone who should have known better, the leaf available to us today is as good, and in many cases better, than it’s ever been. By the time we make our selections, inferior leaf has all gone on to other products, and we’re choosing from high-quality, carefully aged tobaccos. All of us. We are actually afforded some slight benefit from the fact that our little corner of the overall tobacco market is a small fraction of what it was decades ago. The competition for premium leaf is not as high as it once was, so we get to choose from some really good stuff.
The leaf we’re offered is carefully managed from grower to supplier, is properly cured and aged. It’s then skillfully processed into thoughtfully considered blends. The finished product may not be to our tastes, but that’s okay. There’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t care for; that doesn’t make it bad. Different horses for different courses. Making statements like, “This is just crap,” is not only insulting to the people behind the product, it’s also insulting to the many who might actually like it. Economic forces pretty much ensure that products would not survive long in a crowded market if there weren’t people buying and enjoying them. Garbage? I’d be hard pressed to find anything currently produced that deserves that appellation.
But, the bigger deal, the thing that really gets me het up is this. I’ve said it a thousand times. Okay, maybe not, but I’ve thought it at least that many times. If we smoke a single bowl of any tobacco in a single pipe, we actually know very little about it. Last month, I talked about the ghosts of tobaccos past that haunt our bowls, and in a way, this is sort of an extension of that, and this morning’s bowl serves as an excellent example. I filled a great smoking pipe with some wonderful vintage leaf, and the resulting smoke damn near set my senses on fire, and not in a good way. There are a few factors that might have caused this: my own mood, or the way I packed the bowl, or the lingering effects of my morning java, or what I ate for dinner last night, or, I dunno, maybe cosmic rays or space alien mind-control experiments.
That very same tobacco smoked later in a different pipe was pretty darn marvelous. Neither of these two experiences reveals much about the tobacco itself. I’ll have finished the tin before I would be willing to tell its story, and, to be completely candid, there is not one tobacco that I’ve enjoyedl that hasn’t disappointed me in some way at least once along the road to grokking it.
This doesn’t mean we have to smoke a dozen or more bowls of anything to discover whether or not we like it. But, putting something we don’t care for aside for a while, coming back to it another time still might not be a bad course of action. Tastes change, sometimes with the seasons or the years, and what suits us today may be very different from what brings us joy later, but most of us have a pretty good idea of what fits our tastes today and what doesn’t. I’m pretty confident in my own tastes after all these years, and if someone offers me a bowl of Cherries Jubilee, I can fairly accurately predict that I ain’t gonna like it, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad, and someday, I might change my mind and give it a fair shot. Pronouncing judgment without a trial would be in violation of the Pipe Smoker’s Constitution. (There isn’t one. Maybe there should be.)
If a tobacco is in a style we enjoy, and we decide to try it, don’t we owe it more than a few minutes of our time? More than a bowl or two? After all, for some reason, we were enticed by it enough to buy it. Fact is, no matter how long we’ve been at this, pipe smoking remains an art of exploration. It’s all about experiences, and learning to maximize the potential enjoyment that we derive from the pastime. Sometimes a tobacco in a certain pipe can be just so-so, while in another, it comes alive to deliver a nirvana smoke. Some of us dedicate pipes to tobacco styles, or even to specific blends. Others enjoy smoking whatever they want in whatever pipe they choose. It’s all good.
I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, and that most reading this far are either nodding in agreement, or at least sending good wishes through the aether for my return to sanity. But, sometimes I just have to get something off my chest, and I at least try to do it in a way that is perhaps a bit informative and possibly even entertaining. Now that I’ve done that, I’ll climb down from the high soapbox, exchange the cranky pants for a more characteristic pair of comfy jeans, and go back to laying back, probably with a good smoke. At least I hope it’ll be a good one. If not, there’s always the next.
Photos by G.L. Pease