Function Over Form

Russ Ouellette
Last month, when writing about some random thoughts,
I mentioned that I had been smoking corn cob pipes frequently as of late, because of a project I was working on. Since that article appeared, we broke the news, here on, that the project was the development of four tobaccos that will be sold under the Missouri Meerschaum name. I was honored to have the opportunity to help create new products bearing such an iconic brand name, and I gave myself the added challenge of trying to make blends that would taste their best when smoked in a corn cob pipe. Once I had completed my work on the project, it got me thinking about cobs, and I thought that I’d share my memories and thoughts with you.

When I began smoking a pipe, I stayed exclusively with briars. As I think back, I can’t recall, for sure, why. The most likely reason is that my father only smoked briars in the house. The only time I saw him with a cob was when he was fishing, so I guess that I must have assumed that the reason he did that was because they were inexpensive, and he was concerned about dropping his pipe in the water. Of course, I didn’t think about how light the pipes were, and that with a slightly softer stem, they were much easier to clench than most briars, but I was a novice, and didn’t really give it much thought. My real exposure to corn cobs didn’t begin until a while later.

After a few years working in a tobacconist’s, in the late seventies, I took a job as a wholesale representative for a number of tobacco-related product lines, including a brand of cobs. At that time, I believe, there were still three US companies making corn cob pipes, and I’m fairly sure that they were all in Missouri. The company I represented was Buescher. Since I had never really smoked cobs, I took some samples to smoke, and wondered why I had never tried one before. The smoke was dry, cool, and there was a hint of buttery sweetness that I had never noticed in a pipe before. These inexpensive pipes quickly became a regular part of my rotation. Buescher has long since gone the way of the dinosaur, but my enjoyment of a corn cob didn’t skip a beat, because of the continued existence of the biggest brand, and the only one still operating—the Missouri Meerschaum Company.

As I smoked them more regularly over the years, I learned a few things that helped me enjoy them even more. I found that not allowing a cake to build up made for a more enjoyable experience … for me. Many people prefer to build some cake in their cobs, but I enjoy them better without it.

If I’m outside with a corn cob pipe, it will almost always be with a windcap in place. The only cob that ever burned out for me was one that I smoked on the golf course regularly, and the course I usually played was wide open, so it was windier than courses with a lot of trees. The only thing I could attribute the burnout to was the steady breeze.

Very few blends seem to suffer greatly when smoked in a cob, and I found that intriguing, so I tried to determine what the reason was. Most people describe a cob’s influence on a blend as neutral, but as I noted earlier, I detect a warm and slightly sweet addition to most tobaccos I’ve smoked in one. It makes perfect sense to me, as corn has sugar in it, so it stands to reason that the cob retains some as well. Therefore, when I worked on the blends, I attempted to keep them from being too sweet. They’ll smoke fine in a briar or a meer, but that added flavor from the pipe really makes them better in a corn cob.

Before I became involved with this project, even though I had sold corn cob pipes to distributors decades before, there was a lot that I didn’t know about what goes into making them. By now, most pipe smokers know that the strain of corn grown by the Missouri Meerschaum Company was developed specifically for their purposes. The cobs on the ears from that strain have a thicker, woodier core, and grow somewhat larger than most types. One thing I wasn’t aware of, until recent communication with Phil Morgan, the General Manager of Missouri Meerschaum, is that they actually grow the corn themselves.

Partly due to their affordability, people have experimented with corn cob pipes to customize them in various ways: using pipe mud (a mixture of cigar ash and water) to fill in the bottom of the chamber, opening the bottom of the bowl to fit it with a hardwood plug to extend the life, or by buying aftermarket stems made of vulcanite or acrylic which are more durable than the originals. But most of us just load ’em and light ’em. The appearance of the humble corn cob befits the way they’re used. They’re rustic, and seem to be at their best when treated with less than kid gloves.

I still love my briars. The grain can be stunning, and sandblasted and rusticated finishes are often as beautiful, in their own ways, as a tight straight grain. I still marvel, after all these years, at the often intricate craftsmanship of a finely detailed meerschaum carving. But after spending a good portion of the last year with a corn cob pipe within an arm’s reach, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for this simple, but amazingly functional, development in pipe smoking, and there will always be a bunch of them in my collection, but now, they’re treated with a lot more respect.

If you haven’t smoked one lately, or ever, it’s time to give one a try. It may seem like a quaint anachronism, but a cob is much more than that. It’s a fully serviceable smoking instrument that can deliver years of enjoyment.

I’ve been playing around with an idea that I’m going to talk to Phil about. When, and if, it’s ready, I’ll let you in on the concept.


Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here


21 Responses

  • People, which include this people, many times state their wish that cobs were bigger. Lately I’ve been developing the attitude that I’ll smoke any size even if small, enjoy that smoke and move on to another right away if my smoking yen has not been met. I’ve got 13 cobs and 3 group 3 briars, and I appreciate all of them.

  • There will be a new MM cob coming out soon that will be a little larger than most cobs. Of course, the limitation on size has to do with the size of the ears, and really large ones aren’t all than common. But I agree with you that I don’t mind lining a couple of cobs up when I want a longer smoke.

  • I’m actually gaining more of an appreciation for the smaller cob pipes – just got in from a lunch break, and the Pony Express was just the right size for an after-lunch walk/smoke break. The pipe was down to ash just as I got back to the ashtray outside my building.

  • Great article, and timely for me…. I just finished smoking corn cobs for two straight weeks while I put in a drip irrigation system for my wife’s (too big) vegetable garden. Prior to the project, I searched my collection for a yard pipe when I found a MM Pride and Country Gentlemen that I last smoked ten years ago and put away. Cleaned them up just a little bit, then went to work in the garden. They are marvelous smokers- light in the teeth, cool and dry, and can you can smoke 2-4 bowls in a row without them becoming sour. I should never have taken them out of rotation!
    I too can taste that slightly sweet corn flavor when new. I think this is why I like them so much with burley tobacco- a little welcome sweetness to improve the nutty astringent burley flavor. You mentioned that you prefer yours without a cake. May I ask, do you ream out the cake as it builds or just buy a new cob?
    I can’t wait until your new line of MM tobaccos come out. I have been smoking in my cobs that famous old-time burley-forward tobacco that wants to “get out of the can”. Not bad, but I can sometimes taste an off-putting chemical note and I find this tobacco a little bitter and sour at the bottom of the bowl. I saw a sneak peak of your new corn cob blends here on pipesmagazine, and I can’t wait to try them. Please let us know as soon as they are available to order.

  • I was telling some of the guys at Morley’s Pipe Club that I have been dancing with my cobs more lately. This was initiated by the fact that we actually had nice weather a few weeks ago and I managed to have about 4-5 bowls. With that I had 4-5 pipes to clean. I wanted a bowl but didn’t want to clean another pipe……insert cob. I got to have a bowl, clean my pipes, and when I was done I didn’t have another to clean.
    I am also finding that when I don’t have at least 45 min but I want to get a bowl in I will reach for a cob. I did this yesterday and it was great.

  • Thanks Russ, this is an important essay on pipes and pipe smoking that should resonate well from the very new to the old grizzled vet. When I first got into pipes the common recommendation for taste testing blends was clay. I can’t deal with clay pipes as they are just too fragile for my taste and the cob is bombproof. I also love the sweetness that comes through in even my oldest, hard smoked little MM’s and I don’t fuss with pipe mud or changing stems, (save for one), they are fine just the way they come off the cardboard display. It took some sand to have someone in the “business” to praise the virtues of the once lowly corn cob pipe and I’m not surprised that it was you. Thanks for a great read.

  • I enjoyed reading this article. Your enthusiasm for the cob is infectious, and I can hardly wait to taste what you have created to celebrate the quintessentially American throwback to simpler times.
    This might be a good place to express a desire for MM to develop a larger diameter cob. That, and the chintzy stems are my only true criticisms. I know, better stems are available as aftermarket upgrades, but MM should offer the option themselves.

  • this is a great read, and i have had the same experience. Having a large chamber would be great for me, i love something i can pack and not have to work about. i tend to only smoke at work and find that the cob i used to smoke was nice and sweet once i got on my second bowl. the smell even enhances the flavor in my opinion. Im not use the type of tobacco it is seeing as it was the stores labeled version but it was a nice smoke on the first bowl and when i filled that second one the cob was slightly warm, went and started smoking and i was blown away by how much better that little added sweetness from the cob made the taste and smell of the smoke.
    Sadly it was my first and ended up burning it out after a month of 1-2 bowls a night at work.

  • I’m very excited about the Missouri Meerschaum blends, and also for White Knight. Great news! Thank you Russ, Phil, and

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Russ. There are several blends that I only enjoy in a cob, one being Dunhill EMP. I am sure Dunhill and Co. Never expected to here that! Looking forward to sampling your cob specific blends.

  • A bunch of tried the new MM blends the other night with Russ. We all had our cobs with us and the blends are a lot of fun. There is something for every smoker to like. As for the cobs themselves, they take a licking and keep on ticking.
    Thanks for an informative article, Russ.

  • Later this year, there will be a new entry in the Missouri Meerschaum lineup that should please those of you who want a more substantial cob. It’s a nicely-sized Dublin, and the chamber diameter at the top is over 3/4″ and a bit more than 1 1/4″ deep. It will be called the Mark Twain, and it should make a lot of people happy.

  • I have four cobs that I enjoy from time to time, especially when doing work in the yard or just trying a new blend.

  • Very excited to learn about the Mark Twain. For Christmas this year I bought a bag of the usable seconds and gave them out to everyone I thought would be interested in experimenting with pipe smoking. None of them have really picked up the hobby but most still puff every few weeks.
    With the prices of briar being what they are a cob is an amazing entryway for the hesitant but interested pipe smoker.

  • In a way, it’s sort of like golf. A lot of people derive an awful amount of pleasure from playing the occasional round with an inexpensive set of clubs. It’s not about the instrument, but what you do with it. Corn cobs are sweet smoking pipes that can deliver years of enjoyment at a bargain price, and I’m proud to be affiliated, in my small way, with such a legendary brand.

  • Here’s my question Russ (or anyone else): What about these hardwood maple cobs (or are they really cobs?) that Missouri Meerschaum is offering? A cob or just a very cheap pipe? The price is right on those. Do they miss the qualities of a true cob while having none of the qualities of a briar?
    Not to be redundant, put too fine of a point on it, or put words in anyone’s mouth…

  • Good article. I have one corn pipe in my collection that I use to test a new tobacco or when working outside, like washing the car or mowing the grass.

  • I too have gained a recent appreciation for the cob. In another forum, many hail the tried and true combo of Carter Hall in a cob. In reminiscing, I sought out Sir Walter Raleigh Aromatic because that is what my Dad smoked, and what I’ve discovered is that for me, these OTC blends sing in a cob, and they are just not as good in my briars. I have added a couple more cobs, and some CH, SWR, or SWRA are always at hand for my cobs as part of my regular rotation.

  • Russ said “It’s not about the instrument, but what you do with it.”
    Dead on. I can carve with expensive rotary tools or the pen knife from when I was a boy. Both make art, just a different kind of art.
    Great stories are told both in the fancy, educated language of a doctor with the world’s quintessential detective and also in the common language of a boy on a raft going down-river with a runaway slave.
    Not the instrument, not the tool, not the words, not the pipe — but what you do with them.

  • Interested, too, Russ, in what you said about not liking cake so much. It’s because you want that “buttery” flavor? — I’ve been all in a hurry to get a cake in my cobs, “standardize” them, and protect them (I heard) from burning out.
    Now I’m going to give it a shot the other way round, keep the cake trimmed out.

  • Alright, I went to a local brick-and-mortar smokeshop and bought a Missouri Meerschaum “hardwood” made of maple. Cost: $4.50 plus tax.
    Bowl walls had varnish particles inside acting bumping and granular around the rim. Some light sandpaper alleviated this easily. Without a better tool (dremel-type) I was not going to remove all the varnish. Let’s hope MM isn’t into providing us with toxics, but we have been using their cobs for many years, haven’t we?
    I’ve wanted to check out the new hardwood models they make. 3 bowls smoked so far through this one, and all have been good. Only time will tell how the pipe ages and just how that contrasts with the original cobs.
    I bought an Eaton cob a couple months ago and I’ve smoked much through it. I’ve put a cleaner through it maybe 3 times- the pipe really absorbs tar in an immaculate way and is much more maintenance-free than my briars. I’ve scraped the bowl wall cake once, and if it ever gets gross I won’t hesitate to pitch it on the compost pile.
    But I still have a Legend cob I bought about 18 yrs ago that I’ve never smoked religiously from, but used occasionally. It is still good. I’d never give up my briars, but I know the fancy briar snobs just can’t get themselves to admit that on a certain level, a pipe made of woody/vegetal matter is just that; a smoking utensil.