Some Questions Often Asked
Last Updated 19th August, 2007
Once in a while, I get email asking questions about my blends, about tobacco in general, about aging, storage, pipes, and so on. Here is a collection of some of the "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) to make this information more generally available. It's a little scattered at the moment, and in desperate need of restructuring, but I'll get to that later.
In addition to this page, there's a lot of pipe and tobacco related stuff (go figure) in the Briar & Leaf Chronicles. Some topics touched on briefly here are addressed in greater detail, and there's other stuff to read, too. Light a bowl, sit back, and enjoy!
Q: What about that Burley stuff?
A: Burley is quite the chameleon. It can hide in a blend, taking on the characteristics of the dominant tobaccos around it, while providing increased body, a heavier mouth feel to the smoke. My guess is that you'd be surprised to learn all the myriad places Burley can be found camouflaged, lurking under cover of its surroundings!
And, all Burley is not created equal. Just like any other leaf, there's good and there's not so good. So, it's unwise to condemn all Burleys, as so many do, just because of a bad experience with inferior leaf.
Q: Is Latakia really cured over smoldering camel dung?
A: The only smoldering dung is that used to fuel the myths about Latakia. I wouldn't really care if the myth were reality, since I really love the stuff, but, it's important to understand that a variety of herbs and hardwoods are used in the processing of Latakia, not camel dung. No matter how many times I say this, the myth will probably be promulgated until the Sun stops revolving about the Earth... (That's a joke, by the way, just in case it isn't obvious*.) For more information on the wonderful, smoky weed, read my article, "A Tale of Two Latakias."
* Though some may think to the contrary, I'm actually not intellectually trapped in the second Century, and am at least somewhat aware of the fact that Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe finally died with the Copernican revolution. (That's a pun, too, by the way. Revolution. Get it?)
Q: What is generally meant by "English," "Scottish," and "Balkan" style?
A: The definitions of these terms seem somewhat fluid, apart from the fact that all tobaccos bearing these appellations contain Latakia. To my mind, it's more important to consider the difference between an English mixture and a Scottish one. In the first case, Latakia is a more dominant note, with Virginias and orientals filling in the gaps. A Scottish style blend, on the other hand, is dominated by matured virginias, possibly with small amounts of oriental leaf or a bit of Latakia for spice.
There's been some discussion of late about what a “Balkan Blend” is, and after some poking about in old ephemera - tobacconists' catalogues, old magazines and so on - I'm beginning to believe that the term is meaningless. Generally, people seem to apply it to an English mixture with a greater presence of oriental tobaccos, but this isn't really a fair cop. I suspect the term was probably originally used to describe a blend that is similar to the now venerated Balkan Sobranie. What's interesting is that this particular blend was dominated by virginias and Latakia, with only delicate sprinklings of oriental leaf, which is quite at odds with the current colloquial usage.
Probably better just to think of the two terms as being interchangeable, if we use them at all, since any definitions we create will be similarly aribtrary. For more on this subject, have a look at my article, What IS a Balkan Blend in Pipes Magazine
Q: Which of your Latakia blends is the "fullest?"
A: In order of decreasing "fullness," a difficult subjective description to nail down, I'd rank them, Abingdon, Odyssey, Blackpoint, Charring Cross, Raven's Wing, Samarra, Renaissance, Kensington, Caravan, Ashbury and Piccadilly. Of course, this is NOT the order of decreasing Latakia. Abingdon does have the most, followed by Odyssey, Charing Cross and Raven's Wing, if you add the percentages of the Syrian and the Cyprian. Piccadilly has the least. It's not the percentage of any particular ingredient that matters, but the interplay between the intensities of the flavors and aromas. Caravan has the highest percentage of Oriental tobaccos, which make quite a bold statement. Odyssey, Abingdon and Charing Cross are monsters of Latakia goodness. They're huge, but still quite complex, and each presents a surprising level of subtlety underneath its powerful exterior.
Q: Ribbon, shag, flake, plug, rope, disks...What does it all mean?
A: These refer to different cuts of the finished product. "Ribbon" cut tobacco is generally between 1/16" and 3/32" wide, and forms "strands" of varying lengths. "Shag" is just a very fine ribbon. In the US, "flake" refers to a small, irregularly shaped cut, with no dimension exceeding about 1/8" or so. But, there's another connotation, which will be presented shortly. "Plug," or sometimes "bar," is tobacco that is compressed under heat, steam and pressure into a large block. These blocks are sliced into the smaller bars or plugs. Tobacco in this form is very compact, and stores well. Plugs can be sliced thinly to form the other kind of "flake," also known as slices. Tobacco can also be spun into a "rope "or "lanyard." These can be sliced into thin, coin-like disks; the final product is sometimes called "spun-cut."
Q: I've been smoking Virginia blends, and want to experiment with Latakia, but I don't seem to "get" them. What's wrong?
A: Latakia blends can be truly remarkable, but it does take a little time to understand them, and some of the popular "English" blends may not be the best way to get an education.
To start with, stay away from flavored Latakia mixtures, at least at first. The added flavors mask and hid the subtle beauty of some of the more delicate flavors of Latakia and oriental tobaccos. Stick with something that has a lot of natural flavor present, and smoke slowly. Try letting the pipe go out for a while, and then coming back to it. This intensifies the flavors, and gives your palate a chance to zero in on what you are going to be looking for in future smokes. It takes time for new tastes to be incorporated into your taste memory, which is an essential part of really enjoying any tobacco type.
The same thing is true when going from Latakia blends to Virginias. Give your senses time to "get educated," and the rewards will be more thorough enjoyment of your pipe in the future!
Q: I keep hearing about "cased" tobacco. What does this mean?
A: There are two things of interest here, namely "casing" and "top flavouring." They are two distinctly different approaches to altering a blend's flavor. Some tobaccos employ both.
Casing requires that the tobacco be soaked in or sprayed with a "sauce" that may contain sugar, molasses, liquorice, alcohols like rum or whiskey, and various flavourings, natural or otherwise, depending on the manufacturer. Once the tobacco "drinks" the sauce, it's conditioned in large cylinders that dry it back to the desired moisture level, generally between 12% (on the dry side) and 22% (very moist). Optimal moisture for smoking depends on the smoker, but it's generally in the 13-16% range. The aromas and flavours imparted by casing will remain in the tobacco pretty tenaciously, and will affect the smoke throughout the bowl.
Top-flavouring is added by spraying the finished blend with scents and flavourings. This is usually a much lighter application, and doesn't alter the moisture content of the leaf dramatically. Sometimes called "top-notes," this can be quite ephemeral. Because of the volatile nature of many of the commonly used components, a tobacco left to "air out" may lose a lot of the perfume that's applied this way.
Depending on the casing used, tobaccos can become very sticky. Some producers use humectants to maintain a specific moisture level in the final product. You'll hear people talk about PG, or propylene glycol, the most commonly used humectant these days. It's generally spoken of in rather disparaging terms, thought it's not the PG that deserves the condmenation, but the blending houses who use it with reckless abandon. If the tobacco won't dry out, PG is likely the culprit. In small quantities, it does its job well. In large quantities, it produces a sticky, wet smoking, pipe clogging weed that should never see the inside of a pipe.
Not all flavoured tobaccos are cased, and casing is not always a bad thing, but the term is used incorrectly more often than not, so a lot of confusion has been created.
Q: What specific pipe cleaner solutions do you use or recommend?"
A: When I was working in a lab, I used 95% ethanol, which is about as pure as you can get. Now, I just use Everclear. When I can't get the 190 proof stuff, 151 proof serves just fine. Vodka isn't bad, either. I wouldn't use anything in a pipe that I wouldn't want in my mouth. Even though the denaturants used in rubbing alcohol and so on are volatile, and will not remain in the pipe, why not just use potable spirits? Besides, many pharmaceutical alcohols contain scents, and that will linger in the pipe, effecting the flavour for a few bowls, which is absolutely counter to one of the main reasons we clean our pipes! A bottle of Everclear is cheap enough. Even frequent thorough cleaning doesn't require a lot of the stuff, and that bottle will last a very, very long time, providing you don't drink it...
Q: What's your favorite among your blends?
A: Since it's my goal to create only tobaccos that I really enjoy, I'm not sure I could ever name a favorite. At any given time, the blend I'm developing is the one that gets all of my attention - I can really only concentrate on one blend at a time. Perhaps favorite is the wrong choice of words; certainly any blend becomes my obsession until it's ready to go. When I'm not actively developing something new, what I choose to smoke depends on weather, mood, and the pipe I want to smoke, but I smoke them all!
Q: My pipe sometimes gurgles. The moisture seems to be concentrated at the inlet to the stem. What's up with that?
A: Here's what's going on.
There's always moisture present in the "smoke stream," as a byproduct of combustion. There's a plenum, an expansion chamber between the end of the tenon and the floor of the mortise. This expansion results in a combination of turbulence, rapid cooling, and condensation. This is exacerbated by the temperature gradient between the bowl and the stem. So, moisture forms in the plenum. If the tenon inlet is not tapered, the result is increased turbulence at the inlet, which will concentrate the condensate at/near the inlet, hence the gurgle. (If the condensate simply stayed in the plenum, it wouldn't gurgle unless you REALLY pulled hard on the thing.)
If you "flare" the inlet of the stem, providing a smoother transition, the gurgling will possibly be minimized. You'll still get condensation, of course, but more of it will "stay where it belongs."
Q: Do I need different pipes for different tobaccos?
A: Tobaccos from different categories - Virginias, English blends, Aromatics, and so on - will leave their characteristic signatures in the pipe. If you switch tobacco types in a pipe, it can take anywhere from a few bowls to dozens to begin to get the true flavors and aromas of the new tobacco. For this reason, I recommend at least dedicating pipes to tobacco categories. Of course, a tobacco will reveal more and more about itself if smoked exclusively in the same pipe, but dedicating pipes to the different "families" of tobacco is a good step.
Q: How many bowls does it take to understand a tobacco?
A: It takes time to really get to know a blend. The first bowl will only give you a glimpse of what the blend has to offer. With continued smoking, you'll begin to discern some of the more subtle characteristics, the nuances of the blend. These nuances are often the things that make the difference between a good tobacco, and a truly great one. Of course, if you hate it upon first light, it's not likely you'll ever grow to love it, unless your tastes change - and that DOES happen. Don't give up on a blend after a single smoke. Put it aside, and come back to it on a different occasion. Expand your horizons! There are a lot of great experiences to be had.
Q: What's the proper moisture level for optimal smoking?
A: This is partially a matter of personal taste and smoking style. Generally, a tobacco that is just pliable is ideal for best smoking. If it's too moist, it will be difficult to light, difficult to keep lit and will provide a dilute, "steamy" smoke. This is one of the most common causes of "tongue bite." If the tobacco is too dry, it will burn rapidly, and regulation of the ember can be difficult. It takes a little experimentation to find the your optimal level, but it's worth the effort.
Q: Why are many "drugstore" blends packaged so moist?
A: The most obvious answer is that a tobacco that is packaged dry can crumble during the packing process, during shipping, and while being roughly handled by ruthless stockers. Sufficient moisture must be present to keep the leaf pliable. But, there's another important consideration. In order for a tobacco blend to meld and age over time, there must be sufficient moisture to support these natural processes.
Of course, the pouch tobaccos that are sold at the drug-store must be moist enough to survive rough handling and stay "fresh" on the shelves over time. Most of these tobaccos are moistened with humectants like propylene glycol to preserve moisture over a wide range of storage conditions.
GLP tobaccos are moistened with water only, and are packed at the optimal moisture level for proper storage and aging. If you find the tobacco slightly too moist for your preferred smoking style, just leave the tin open for a short while. Since no humectants are added during blending, the tobacco can be dried to your taste very easily. It's much easier to dry tobacco slightly than to add moisture!
Q: How much water is in there?
A: At 10% water (by weight), a tobacco is going to seem very dry. If the moisture level is increased to 20%, it will be quite damp. Ideally, moisture contents between 13% and 18% are right for most blends and most smokers. Some heavily sauced aromatic tobaccos are reputed to have non-tobacco content that approaches 40%. No wonder some of these seem so goopy! Not all that moisture is water. Various humectants (humidifying agents) are used by some manufacturers to preserve moisture levels at the desired percentage.
Q: How can I tell what the moisture content is?
There are destructive methods to measure it accurately, but it isn't really necessary to know the precise moisture content unless you're just the curious sort. As mentioned above, at about 10% and below, tobacco will be quite dry feeling, and the strands will tend to break when handled. At about 12-13%, the strands will be pliable, and will endure more vigorous handling without damage. If you press the tobacco into a ball, and it stays compressed, it's over 18-20% - too moist for proper smoking. In the 15-18% range, the ball will be springy. Once you find your preferred moisture, you'll be able to tell by feel whether it's there or not.
Q: What should I do about a tobacco that's too dry?
A: My method is to put the tobacco in a large, clean bowl, and cover the bowl with a damp towel. The towel should not touch the tobacco. Check the tobacco every couple hours, and when it reaches the moisture level you like, store it in an airtight container. Glass "bail top" jars work well, but be sure to clean them thoroughly. (See the next item on mold.)
Different tobaccos take up moisture at different rates. The denser leaf, like Virginias and some orientals, take up moisture very slowly. Spraying with water is dangerous, since it's difficult to control the overall moisture level of the tobacco. It's hard to evaluate the difference between damp leaf and soggy leaf. The method outlined above is pretty much foolproof.
Q: Where does mold come from, and what do I do about it?
A: Mold is an unfortunate fact of life. If there's a spore, and the conditions are right, the spore will germinate, and you'll get mold. If tobacco is too damp, there's a much greater risk of mold, but mold can form even on fairly dry substrates. Most commonly, mold develops when tobacco has dried out, been over-hydrated, and put in containers that are not clean. I've often read about using a little vinegar in the water used to rehydrate the tobacco, in order to retard mold. This is a myth. I've seen some pretty dramatic mold formations on tobacco that was literally doused with vinegar. And, besides, tobacco treated this way will taste like vinegar...
Some molds really stink, and even a small colony will render the entire batch unsmokeable. Others are quite innocuous, and removing the damaged area before the mold is allowed to spread will possibly spare the rest of the tobacco.
If you store tobacco in a jar, and end up with a good case
of mold, there's no need to throw out the jar. Just wash with
hot, soapy water with a little bleach, and rinse thorougly. If
you have a dishwasher, it's a good way to get the jar squeaky
clean and ready to use again.
Q: What kind of tobaccos do you recommend for the beginner?
A: I think many well-meaning tobacconists do a disservice to the novice by suggesting a "mild" tobacco, especially an aromatic tobacco, to start with. Until the smoker is used to the mechanics of smoking a pipe, and has cultivated a sense for the flavors and aromas s/he will be experiencing, their sensory response is not dramatic. If they start with a mild tobacco, they will likely puff like a locomotive to attempt to get something out of it that resembles flavor, not to mention the difficulty they may have in keeping a pipe lit. If the tobacco is a goopy aromatic, the problem is magnified.
I generally recommend a full flavored, but not strong tobacco to the beginner. They'll be much more likely to get some flavor from their early experiences, and it will be much easier, then, for them to apprehend the idea of "slowing down," which is crucial to a great smoke. Once they've learned some of the mechanics of pipe smoking, and their senses have become accustomed to some of the myriad flavors tobaccos can present, they are better armed to move into more subtle, or "mild" blends. For the beginner, "mild" tobaccos are generally far from mild!
Q: What is DGT?
A: DGT is an acronym that stands for "Delayed Gratification Technique." The idea is that some tobaccos improve if they are lit, allowed to go out, and left to stand for a period of time, either minutes or hours, before relighting and finishing the bowl. Virginias are most popular for this method of smoking. In my experience, Latakia mixtures do not fare as well, and tobaccos incorporating cigar leaf (such as my own Robusto) are generally not the best candidates. (You wouldn't put a cigar down for an hour, hoping to come back to a rich, wonderful cigar. The same holds true with the cigar leaf in a pipe blend.) If you enjoy an English or Balkan mixture, light it, smoke it, enjoy it. Leave the DGT for Virginias.
Q: What about moisture level?
A: This is a matter of personal taste and preference. I tend to like my tobaccos a little on the dry side, with about 11-12% moisture content, but others like their tobaccos much wetter. Tobacco is packaged in order to assure optimal keeping and aging qualities. The moisture content in the tin can be anywhere from 12-18% for natural tobaccos, and as high as 28-40% for some very heavily cased aromatics. This may not be optimal for smoking. Generally, I'll open a tin and let it air a bit before smoking it. While this does risk losing some of the more volatile flavor and aroma components, the cooler, drier smoke more than makes up for the minor losses. Once a tobacco blend becomes bone dry, however, it can never be fully restored to its original flavor. It's important to store tobacco in such a way that its moisture is preserved. Air-tight is always right!
Q: What's the best way to pack a pipe?
A: This question probably has as many answers as there are pipe smokers. Every smoker has to find the best method for them, but there are some good basic guidelines. The bowl should be packed gently in stages. The ideal fill is even and consistently dense from top to bottom. That's the idea behind the old saw, "Tamp the first pinch with the hand of a child, the second with the hand of a woman, and the final pinch with a manly touch." When done properly, a consistent fill is assured. But, do exercise restraint with that "manly touch." An overly dense pack is difficult to light, and as the bowl progresses, accumulated moisture will exacerbate the problem, resulting in a hot, steamy smoke. It's better to start out a with too little pressure, and adjust as you go.
When tamping, the weight of the tamper is generally enough to settle the layer of ash, and provide a good surface for re-lighting. A common mistake is pressing down too much during the smoke. If necessary in the last half of the bowl, you can gently tap out some of the ash to fascilitate easier re-lighting.
Also, it's much better to re-light a pipe than to try to "puff up" an ember that has faded beyond usefulness. Sometimes, you'll go through a lot of matches, sometimes only a few. While it's a wonderful goal to finish a bowl on one light, few ever attain this level of mastery. I know I certainly haven't!
Q: Will all tobaccos improve with age?
A: Generally, any tobacco with plenty of natural sugars will age wonderfully. Virginia is always a prime candidate, but so are blends with lots or Oriental leaf. Though Oriental varieties don't have as much sugar as Virginias, they do contain enough to go through fermentation in the tin, and will improve over time, developing increasing complexity and a wine-like quality that is hard to describe.
Q: Isn't "fresh" tobacco better?
A: Unless you go to a plantation, or grow your own, you'll never see "fresh" tobacco. By the time it gets into the hands of the blender, it's been cured, sweated, fermented, and allowed to "settle down." Once it's blended, the finished product is allowed to meld for a time before it's put into the tins. Then, the real magic of the aging process begins. While a well conceived blend will be delicious almost immediately after blending, time in the tin will make a noticeable change, adding complexity and smoothing out any rough edges.
Q: How soon is blend "right" for proper smoking?
A: This is dependent upon several factors, including the blend itself, tobacco processing methods, storage conditions and personal taste. While certainly not at its best, a well balanced blend with good structure will smoke very well shortly after it's blended, and certainily by the time the consumer gets it. If it's not good when it's young, it may improve over time, but it will never likely become great. Tobacos that are pressed as part of their processing, of course, have an edge on those that are blended as previously cut ribbons, because the tobaccos have been given an opportunity to get to know one another more intimately. That was part of the motivation behind the Old London Series, and I'm really thrilled with the results.
But, after a couple months in the tin, even with ribbon-blended tobaccos, the various components will "marry," will integrate into a more cohesive whole, rather than present themselves as individual aspects of the blend. Within one to five years, the tobacco will really begin to shine. Beyond this time frame, the changes are much more gradual. While the blend may continue to improve for years, even decades, the changes will not be as dramatic as they are in the first few years. Some people enjoy the exuberance of some blends in their youth, while others prefer the more mature complexity of tobaccos that have been aged for long periods. I recommend experimenting to see what suits you best with each blend or style.
Q: How long can I expect a blend to improve?
A: It really depends on the blend. A full Virginia will continue to improve, though at an increasingly slow rate, over many decades. Most English style tobaccos can go 20-30 years before they begin to go "over the hill." Very full Latakia styles have a shorter life expectancy. Of course, storage conditions will play a part. It the tobacco is cellared at a constant, cool temperature, it will last longer than if it's stored in higher temperatures, or with lots of temperature variations. Despite some popular "techniques," heat is not the tobacco's friend, especially once it's had a little age behind it.
In general, the more virginia tobaccos there are in a blend, the longer it will maintain its composure. Orientals, too, seem to be very long lived, and age quite gracefully. Latakia loses its edge, and becomes much softer after some years, so if the blend depends on that intense, smoky spice for it's character, it's not a good candidate for long aging. But, if there is good structure underneath the Latakia, even though the blend will transform into something different, something less pungent, it'll still have the potential to deliver an amazing smoking experience.
Of course, not all blends are created equal, so not every tobacco will age gracefully, but since I started doing this, every one of my blends has been intentionally designed with cellaring and aging in mind, and on each of the description pages, you'll find my thoughts on the blends as I taste them over time.
Q: What's the best way to store tobacco for aging?
A: Ideally, tobacco should be left in its original sealed tin, and stored in a cool, dry place. It's important to realize that storage in plastic bags and the like, while allowing the tobacco to "meld," will prevent the true aging process. Plastic bags are permeable to small molecules. (Water, while not a very large molecule, is polarized, and has a hard time penetrating the barrier formed by the plastic.) If you can smell the contents through the bag, you're losing flavor and aroma! Mason jars, bail-top jars and so on are good candidates for long term storage, as long as you can resist the urge to open them to "check up" on what's happening. Aging tobacco must be left alone, with no gas exchange allowed. Once an aged tin is open, the contents should either be smoked relatively quickly, or transferred to a jar with a good seal.
Q: What about vacuum sealing?
A: Vacuum sealing is great for vegetables and coffee, but is pointless for tobacco. Tobacco needs some air to be locked in with it , at least to begin with, in order for it to age. A perfectly vacuum sealed container will likely keep the tobacco "fresh," but it may not really age the way we expect it to. I'm more than a little suspicious about the heavy plastic "bags" used by most of these machines. They hold moisture in just fine, but they really don't prevent gas exchange, and I'm not sure they're truly able to stand the test of time. Tins are best. Jars are a close second. The special high barrier bags we used for a while for our 8oz packaging have several layers, each designed to be impenetrable to a different sort of molecule. I've conducted extended tests with this material, and am satisified that the tobacco will age nearly, if not as well as in the tins, at least for the short term. They are only slightly evacuted to facilitate packing and sealing. For best long-term aging, though, I still recommend tins.
Q: I've read about heating the tobacco in a microwave. Is this a good idea?
In a word, NO. Heating tobacco that you like is not a good idea, as it will change the character of the blend. Blenders do it in specifically controlled ways - stoving, panning, steaming - to alter the characteristics of the leaf before, and sometimes after blending. But, if you like the way the tobacco “comes together” now, you may be less than happy if you nuke it. In some cases, you might notice an improvement, in others, the result will be anything but satisfactory. Further, there just is no reason to do this. Sterilize your jars, fill them up, and put the caps on. What purpose will heating serve? The jars will seal fine without the “pop” of the slight vacuum that results from cooling.
Q: So, I've opened an aged tin. Now what?
A: This is a little tricky. Once the seal of the tin is broken, the delicate balance present in that little ecosystem is permanently altered. You can't go back! So, once that tin is open, either smoke its contents fairly quickly, or transfer it to air-tight containers, like bail-top canning jars. The aging process from this point on will be different, but the tobacco will remain in fine condition for your enjoyment as long as it's kept in good condition. (The plastic lids on my tins will keep the tobacco in find shape for anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months, depending on the ambient temperature and humidity. Just keep an eye on it!) This is the reason, by the way, that I cellar 2-oz tins, rather than the 8-oz ones. Once I open that tin, I want to smoke its contents as quickly as possible to get the maximum enjoyment from my years of patience. It's like a fine wine - cellar it for a long time, but drink it fairly quickly.
Q: What abot plastic bags, like zip-locks?
A: While plastic bags can form a reasonably good barrier to moisture, keeping the tobacco ready to smoke, the polyethylene that is used for most plastic bags is quite permeable to gasses. You can smell tobacco through the bags, after a time, and all that “aroma” that's getting out is stuff that you really want to keep in! For my 8-oz bags, I use a high-barrier film that forms a barrier to both water and gasses. These will not only keep the tobacco at the perfect smoking moisture, but will also allow aging to take place. This just won't happen with plastic bags, even those that are used with kitchen heat-sealing machines. For short term, like keeping an ounce around for smoking, plastic bags are fine. For long term storage, fuggedaboutit.
Q: Which of your blends are best suited for aging?
A: From the very beginning, I have always designed my blends with aging in mind. Barbary Coast, being so heavily based on burley, is probably the one blend that will benefit least from long cellaring, though the flavors WILL continue to meld over several years, and there's enough virginia and perique present to offer some significant change. The cigar leaf in Robusto may peak after 5-7 years, but the Virginias and oriental leaf will continue to develop increased complexity. The heavier latakia mixtures will evolve a certain softness after five to seven years, but will continue to become more complex, so whether or not you'll enjoy them old is really a matter of taste. Those that are less dependent on the smoky stuff will go much longer, continuing to develop for many, many years. All the VA based blends, especially those with perique in them, will improve for 10, 20, 30, 40 years or even longer, though after a while, they'll slow down. Ask me again at the turn of the next century…
High sugar virginias “bite”
I can't count the number of times I've read this. For some reason, it's commonly believed that the more sugar in the leaf, the more “bite” the smoker will experience. While it's true that some tobaccos with a lot of sweetness do tend to irritate the smoker, it's not the sugar content that's responsible.
Tongue “bite” is a response to smoke with a higher pH (more alkaline) than the mouth and tongue are used to. Some tobaccos, notably burleys, contain a high percentage of nitrogenous compounds, and produce a more alkaline smoke. The dreaded “burley curse” often results. Tobacco producers will work to mitigate this by adding sugars to the casing sauces. Sugars, when burned, actually acidify the smoke, resulting in less “bite.” Virginia tobaccos are often blended with burleys to perform the same function.
Body chemistry also seems to play a significant role. The same tobaccos that will cause one person significant distress can be a source of bliss to another. And, our mouth's environmental factors change over time, and react to things like what we eat and what we drink. Unfortunately, it's not simple. I've never known a tobacco that "never bit" 100% of the people 100% of the time.
And, worse, we have to add the pipe into the equation. I've actually had pipes that would turn the most mild-mannered tobaccos into flamethower fuel. Tobaccos that are reliably comfortable for me have been rendered into pain-inducing tinder. Add differences in smoking technique, and the complexity of the system is magnified to the point of intractibility. But, it's not the sugar in Virginias that cause the bite.
This leads to questions about casing and sauces...
I only smoke uncased tobaccos.
In fact, very few mass-produced tobaccos on the market today are NOT cased. Casing is the process of adding sugars and flavouring agents before the leaf is further processed. The raw leaf is be soaked or sprayed with a solution of sugars and flavourings like liquorice, molasses, vanilla, tonquin, and so on. The amount of sauce absorbed by the leaf depends on the method of application, the structure of the leaf, and the length of time the leaf is in contact with the sauce before further processing. The leaf is then processed as usual. It can be conditioned and cut, or pressed and held to allow further fermentation. It can be heated, steamed, toasted, or just allowed to “bulk” in the atmosphere.
Many raw tobaccos, especially burleys, are harsh, and can have poor smoking characteristics. Very few smokers have ever experienced virginias or burleys that do not have SOME sort of casing applied. It's not the casing that turns smokers of “pure” tobacco off; it's the over-application of flavourings. When used delicately, they enhance the flavour of the tobacco itself. When used heavily, as in most American style aromatic tobaccos, they can overpower the underlying tobacco flavours.
Q: So, are your tobaccos cased?
A: In some cases, yes. It's can be an important and necessary step in providing the best possible smoking experience, and that's what it's all about, right? Most of the mixtures, on the other hand, are not cased, and Union Square is one of very few, if any, pure virginia tobaccos available anywhere that is produced completely without additional sugars or sauces.
I don't smoke flavoured tobaccos...
Many tobaccos sold are flavoured in some way. Again, raw tobacco is not always the most pleasant thing to smoke, so it can need a little help. Flavourings can be applied with the casing, or after processing, in which case they are known as top-dressings. The difference is subtle, but important. Top dressings provide specific aromas in the tin, but tend to dissipate or flame off when the tobacco is smoked, or even just allowed to air out. The flavourings in the casing is deeper in the leaf, fully absorbed, and is therefore less ephemeral. As with so many things, the dose makes the poison. Just as a little salt can enhance a dish without making it salty, the right amount of flavouring can enhance the taste of the tobacco without overpowering it.
So, you do use flavourings...
Of course. In addition to the flavouring agents in the casing sauces, we do, in some cases, add a top dressing as well. We use natural products. Some of the blends are topped with rum, brandy or whisky. Others have additional natural flavours added. If you're asking the question, we must be doing it right.