By G. L. Pease
I’ve always wondered a little about guys who claim to know everything they need to about a tobacco blend from only a single bowl, or, in some cases, even less. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? When I worked in a tobacconist’s, I marveled at the occasional customer who would walk in, fill his pipe (singular) with blend after blend from the jars at the tasting bar, strike a match, offer a few powerfully puffed clouds to the breeze, bang the still smoldering mass into the ash tray, and go on to the next jar. This is a skill I did not possess then, and, apparently, still have not acquired. In fact, from my perspective, and this is likely to raise a few hackles, it’s simply not possible to know much at all about a tobacco blend without giving it a much more thorough shakeout than can be found in a few puffs or a single bowl.
While my initial perception of a blend may be slightly more informed these days than it was thirty years ago, it’s still uncertain, unreliable, not to be trusted. There are too many variables at play, and it’s those variables that make the instant assessment impossible. There is one thing we might be able to sus out from a single smoke-we like it, or we don’t-but, even this can be somewhat off the mark as often as it’s on.
What most of us are seeking is a pleasant, enjoyable smoking experience, and it’s certainly not necessary to scrutinize every bowl in order to have that. Most of the time, nothing can be more satisfying than a gentle, relaxing smoke with our pipe there to enhance the experience, not distract us from it. These are those special moments of peaceful bliss when the pipe and tobacco we smoke engage us in a way that soothes rather than challenges. But, there are those times when we may choose to smoke more critically. Whether we’re hoping to extract every nuance from our first bowl of a beautifully aged classic blend, or are trying to decide whether we want to cellar a boxcar full of something new that we want to enjoy through the rest of the century, we need to put those first impressions in their place, and get ourselves into a more reliable mindset.
The pipe itself offers the first obstacle to really "getting" a blend. Since the briar will carry with it the lingering memory of the last several bowls it’s been intimate with, we can’t expect it to paint a pure and accurate picture of the tobacco we’re smoking in it this time. Even if the blends are of the same basic genre, the subtleties can be occluded by the ghost of tobaccos past. And, if the pipe has catted about, finding its fill of whatever blend its owner thought intriguing in a moment’s fancy, things can be even more challenging. (That said, some of the most fascinating and enjoyable smoking memories for me have come from these sorts of "crossover" smokes, but that’s another story.) In any case, only after quite a few bowls of a new blend have been smoked in a pipe will the clouds part to reveal a clearer view of things.
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A new pipe presents different, but similar problems. As I write this, in fact, I’m smoking a tobacco I’m very familiar with in a pipe of more recent acquaintance. The taste of the tobacco itself is hiding behind the pleasant, but boisterous voice of the virgin briar. I love these early smokes in a new pipe, but, they don’t tell the story of the tobacco itself very well. If I were to judge the tobacco from this experience alone, it might not fare as well as it has over the recent months during which it’s become one of my faves.
Then, there are those cases of pipe and tobacco disharmony, when a particular leaf and a particular briar refuse to get along. I’m sure most of us have had an experience where a favorite pipe and a favorite blend clashed like the Sharks and the Jets. Switch the tobacco, or the pipe, and the neighborhood is peaceful again. This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced with more natural styles of tobaccos, especially virginias and latakia blends, and less so with heavily flavored ones. I’ve tried to figure this one out for thirty years, without success, so I’ll just wave my hands, attribute it to magic, and move on.
Beyond the pipe, environmental conditions can dramatically affect the way a blend tastes. Temperature, relative humidity, the moisture content of the leaf, how long the pipe has rested and so on, all make a contribution to the overall experience of a tobacco. When I was in Denmark, I found myself really enjoying a blend that I absolutely cannot stand in California. The difference was so remarkable that I asked the manufacturer if the U.S. product was different from the one sold in Denmark. No, it’s not. Being skeptical, I brought back two tins anyway, just in case. Sure enough, when I returned home, the very same tobacco that I’d been enjoying for weeks, was rendered un-smokable for me in the very same pipes.
Tastes also can change with the seasons. Blends that I crave and adore on cold, dark winter’s nights are too heavy for me to enjoy at all in the humid heat of a summer’s day. In casual polls, this turns out to be a common phenomenon, though far from a universal one. Many pipesters choose what they smoke based on climate, while just as many enjoy the same blends year-round.
Finally, our experience can be influenced by things like mood, other blends we’ve been smoking, what we’ve been eating, what we’ve been drinking, the vitamins we’ve been taking, or changes to medications. Or, perhaps we’ve changed our filling technique, or are drying or rubbing-out our tobaccos out more than we did before, or smoking more slowly or more quickly. Or, the new blend might be in a style that is different from what we’re used to, and we need to let our palate acclimate to the new tastes. There are so many variables to be taken into consideration that it’s beginning to look as though our first impressions may not be of much use at all.
A friend in Italy once jokingly told me that his critical evaluation of any new tobacco is simple: "Mi piace; non mi piace." I like it; I don’t like it. This might be the only situation in which first impressions have real value, but even here, can those quick assessments be trusted?
It’s easy to be impressed by something at first blush. A bold, intense flavor, a dramatic aroma, maybe a little more strength than we’re used to can form a positive first impression, but will it have staying power? I’ve been bitten by this one; based on a single tasting of something "boldly original," I bought quite a few tins for the cellar, only to find, by the time I’d finished the first, that my pipes and palate had become fatigued by the flavors, and the strength turned out to be too much for this confirmed nico-wimp. Tins traded; lesson learned. Until next time.
The opposite can also happen; blends that become favorites are often those that didn’t overly impress initially. These more subtle or complex blends often reveal their true beauty only to the patient. As we get to know them, exploring and experiencing them in different pipes, under different conditions, we may find buried treasure lying beneath a less exciting surface. In those cases, the time we’ve spent in the careful uncovering is well rewarded, and if we hadn’t gotten past the prejudice of the first impression, we might have ended up missing out on something truly wonderful.
Fickle they may be, but if kept in check and appreciated for what they are, our first impressions can offer something of real value. They can guide us towards deeper enjoyment, or away from things that might be objectionable. We just have to remain aware of the fact that they are, in fact, only estimations; given too much weight, they can lead us to abandon something that might have become an all-time favorite had it been given another chance, or seduce us to stock up on something we might end up not liking much at all. First impressions do offer clues, and we should listen critically to what they have to tell us, but be careful not to fall into the trap of relying on them too much.
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.