I hear the rumblings already. “What a load of codswallop, Pease? Of course the pipe matters.” Sure it does, but I can’t count how many times I’ve read similar words to those in the title, and it always makes me a little crazy. Maybe you’re one of those who believes that the briar thing is a load of bogus, that a pipe is nothing more than a vessel in which tobacco is combusted to deliver its smoke to your taste receptors, and once broken in, they’re all about the same. Whichever side of the street you might be on, now that I have your attention, let’s go spelunking a bit, and see what might be found in those dark and spooky caves.
Quite a few years ago, I had a beautiful pipe, made by a well-known artisan. I’ve had quite a few great pipes from this maker over the years. What was surprising, in this case, was that smoking the thing was like sipping sun-baked swamp ooze through a soda straw in July. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Recalling it all these years later, words like “putrid,” “rank,” and “vile” shudder into my consciousness. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as all that, but time has a way of either attenuating or amplifying things that fall outside of the experiential norm; that’s how fish stories work. Regardless, the thing cruelly transformed even the sweetest smoking of tobaccos into a mouthful of roasted awfulness.
I called the maker to see if he might shed some light. He explained that he’d gotten some briar from a different source than usual, and the few pipes he’d made from it tasted “a little bad,” exhibiting that his talent for understatement was as well developed as his skill in pipe-making. I’d gotten one of those. He said he’d send me a new pipe, and insisted I do what he’d done with the rest of the blocks, and burn the other. No dice. Here was an experiment in the making.
I tried everything I could to redeem the thing. I smoked the hell out of it with every kind of tobacco, suffering through each bowl, hoping to rid it of its awfulness. I soaked the bowl in alcohol, and a few other organic solvents. I steamed it. I baked it in the oven. I put it in a microwave. I sanded the walls back to bare wood and sent it to Larry Roush to apply his treatment and bowl coating. I subjected it to every abuse I could think of. Nothing worked. Finally, after over a year of messing with it, I gave in and gave up, and respecting my friend’s original wishes, set fire to the heinous thing.
The point of this tale is not to puff up my own silly perseverance in the name of pipe science, but to illustrate that the briar from which a pipe is made has more to do with the way it tastes than any other single thing in pipe making. So-called “engineering” certainly has much influence on how well a pipe smolders tobacco, and will therefore affect how a pipe smokes, and to some extent the flavors we perceive as a result, but the wood is number one. A bad pipe can arguably be made from great briar, but a great pipe can never be made from bad wood, no matter how much attention is paid to the details.
Pipe makers throughout history have known this, and many have developed their own techniques of preparing the wood to maximize consistency and improve the smoking qualities of the pipes they make, but it all starts in the ground where the burl grows, and continues with the processing of that burl.
Despite all the care taken during the process, not every block will become a pipe, and not every pipe becomes a prized smoker, but today’s pipe smoker is fortunate. Because demand for briar is dramatically lower than it was at pipe-smoking’s zenith, dedicated suppliers can spend more time plying their craft to deliver top-quality blocks. (In the 1940s, tens of millions of briar pipes were made yearly, placing heavy demand on limited resources; today, that number is about a thousandth of that.) Too, modern pipe makers have learned from those before them, and know what goes into making a good pipe, producing pipes of consistently higher quality than ever before. We might well be in a sort of “golden age” for pipe-smokers. A brief discussion of two pairs of pipes might further illustrate.
First up, a lovely pair of Heeschens. Early in our friendship, I asked Peter if he would be willing to make me two identical pipes from the same block. He agreed. They are as close to monozygotic twins as two pipes can be, having the same dimensions, the same internals, both being made by the same man, on the same day, from the same block. For the twenty years I’ve had them, I have smoked them together, the same blends in each, often going as far weighing out the tobacco to ensure each was filled the same way. These two pipes taste as similar as two pipes can, but despite being born and raised together, being treated with the same care throughout their lives, they remain distinctly different from one another. One is slightly sweeter, the other a bit spicier.
At the other extreme, enter the pair of GBD lovats shown, one a Virgin, the other a Straight Grain. I’ve owned many old GBDs, and have found their smoking characteristics to be all over the map. But, as these two are outwardly so similar, they present an interesting illustration. Both are London-made, from two different decades. Both have nice, straight-ish grain. They have the same dimensions, both externally and internally, weigh within a few grams of one another, and each has been “blueprinted” to present similar flow characteristics.
I’ve smoked both of these pipes hundreds of times, yet they remain nearly as different as two pipes can be. One gets on very well with latakia mixtures, but punishes my palate if filled with straight virginias, or virginia/perique blend. The other behaves almost exactly the opposite, expressing itself wonderfully with virginias, but if filled with something dominated by orientals, it’s like smoking the briar equivalent of a plasma cutter. I’ve tried over and over, to coerce these two to be more alike. They’re not playing. Each one is something of a specialist, singing arias with the right tobaccos, squawking like mad cats with the wrong ones.
Today, there are so many great pipes to be had at all points along the price spectrum, from very affordable to astronomically expensive, but they won’t all be alike, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. To imply that the pipe is not an important variable in the equation of a great smoke is both wrong-minded and a bit unfair, especially to those new to the pipe who seek guidance from our collective experience. Sometimes, it might take a little exploration to find the combination of pipe, tobacco and technique that makes sweet music. That exploration is part of the fun, and is time well spent. Of course, sometimes, fortunately rarely, a particular pipe might just be a bad actor, its only redemption to be found in the fires of its destruction. Either way, yes, the pipe matters.
The Author’s Heeschen Pipe Twins – photos by G.L. Pease
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Gregory L. Pease's Pipe Smoking lifestyle meanderings for September 2021