Tuesday, January 5, 2010

So you've picked a pipe ...

In your hands is a pipe that feels like it belongs there, looks more beautiful than you thought you could imagine, and can't wait to hold burning leaves so you can inhale the smoke from its stem. It's a good first step. Step 2, well, here's the thing ...
Step 2 is choosing a tobacco. Many pipe smokers have been at it for years, hoping to find that one eureka moment when angels sing and the kingdom of heaven shines dow from out of the circling smoke. I know that moment exists. It happened to a guy that a friend of mine knows. Honest.
The only problem with finding this euphoric moment is that you must smoke a lot of different tobaccos to reach it. Most pipe smokers see that more as a challenge or a quest than a problem. There are different things about different types of tobacco that may help guide new smokers, however. Use these as a guidepost. Your experiences may differ.
Aromatic: When you mention aromatics to the serious, longtime pipe smokers, many of them will give you a condescending guffaw or a patronizing pat on the head. That's because these oh-so-enlightened pipesters have all moved on to more serious tobaccos, usually English, Balkan or Oriental. Good for them. More aromatics for you.
An aromatic tobacco, by popular definition, is one to which a flavor is added. I've seen and tried aromatics flavored with or to smell like whiskey, maple syrup, peanut butter, cherry, chocolate, coffee, pumpkin pie, brandy and a host of others. (Note: As you walk along this smokey path, you'll quickly realize that many of these categories overlap. Not all tobaccos with flavor, or a sugary "casing" added are aromatics. I'm skipping that so I don't confuse you too much.)
What you must realize about an aromatic is that each has a very unique aroma. The proper term of "roomnote" describes the aroma to those who are not smoking. Whenever someone tells me "I can't believe she let me smoke it in the house!", they're almost always talking about an aromatic. What you, as the smoker, must realize is that the roomnote is not the same as the taste. What tastes good to you may smell foul to another and vice versa. Aromatics, in that regard, are sometimes a sacrifice of flavor to appease those around you.
That said, there are aromatics I find enjoyable. It is hard to go wrong with any of the Lane tobaccos, as they are generally smooth and easy on the tastebuds. Altadis makes a host of unique flavors. Practically every tobacco blender tries their hand at an aromatic at some point, so there are plenty to try. And aromatics generally represent the majority of tobaccos sold at a bricks and mortar tobacco shop, many of which (the ones who dish it out from jars) are willing to let you sample before you buy, so bring a pipe with you or grab a corncob for a few bucks.
The down side, if it must be called that, is that aromatics tend to be more moist, which leads to more tongue bite (a reaction in the tongue to heat or chemicals delivered from the burning tobacco through the pipe). Tongue bite goes away with slower, more gentle puffing and with acclimation to the tobacco.
Virginia: You almost cannot smoke without smoking Virginia tobacco, named for the type of leaf and not necessarily for the region where it was grown. Virginias are found in, and form the base of, practically every tobacco I'll discuss today with the possible exception of burleys. These tend to have a decent roomnote, but nothing as friendly and inviting as the aromatics (unless of course you add a casing or flavoring to it, but then it is an aromatic).
Generally, these tobaccos are reminiscent in taste of the outdoors. Lighter Virginias taste of hay and grass, fairly green in taste and smell. Darker Virginias have more of a wood taste and aroma. Both can have a hint of natural sweetness.
To say which is the best straight Virginia tobacco would only incite rioting and looting across the world. Instead, I'll only mention a few that have gained prominence. You have McClelland's 5100 representing the darker, red Virginias. G.L. Pease's Union Square is new but celebrated example of the lighter Virginias. Samuel Gawith's Full Virginia Flake defies most categorizations and is often described as the quintessential Virginia.
One thing to consider about Virginias is their reaction to time. Virginias, above almost all other tobaccos, age well if kept in an airtight container. We'll discuss this more in the future, but I will say now that many people buying Virginias buy two tins: one to smoke now and one to "cellar" or age.
English: These are the tobaccos that are most likely to find you expelled from the house with those nasty smelling pipes. They don't smell bad to the person smoking it, but that's just the way it breaks down. For our purposes today, an English tobacco is one that has latakia, a tobacco with a smokey or leathery flavor, although, as always, there are exceptions.
To me, latakia smells of wood-fired barbecue, a smokey, meaty aroma that, quite frankly, makes me hungry. English blends can include very little latakia to almost exclusively latakia (sometimes exclusively). It can be strong, overpowering, but it is a taste worth acquiring if you can. Just don't expect to take it in the house. English tobaccos are the second most frequent tobacco in stock at local pipe shops. Classic blends include McClellands Frog Morton series, Peter Stokkebye's Proper English and many, many others. 
Burley: There is not a lot to say about burleys. They are what they are. Straightforward, solid, manly tobaccos. These are the farmers tobaccos, the working man's tobaccos. They generally have no frills but are always reliable. You may be surprised to find you remember some of the names, like Carter Hall and Prince Albert. These are the tobaccos that our fathers and grandfathers smoked all day every day all their lives. You probably won't find that eureka moment with a burley, but you won't find too much to complain about either. Although not all of the burleys follow a simple recipe that has never changed. Cornell and Diehl has a notable line of burley tobaccos, headlined by Haunted Bookshop, Old Joe Krantz and Burley Flake #1.
This is a lot to take in, and it can be overwhelming trying to digest so much information. The simple answer to all of this, however, is to try stuff out. Haven't smoked it? Try a bowl. Ask someone you know for a sample. See if you can try it at the pipe shop. Buy a tin and give it a go. You might like it. You might not. Either way, there are plenty more tobaccos to try.

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