As humans, we depend on social interaction for information, especially since 99% of everything is spam. The parts that are not advertisements often consist of other people trying to manipulate us for politics or to make themselves look good, and much of the rest comes from people furiously typing, speaking, filming, and gesturing to promote themselves, a condition where truthful accuracy is secondary at best.
You can find out more from a neighbor about a certain subdivision, for example, than from anything on the subdivision website, published by the HOA, promulgated by government, written on blogs, shown on television, or featured in books. All of those reflect the need to channel their agenda into symbols, and to use those symbols to manipulate you.
Consequently, we have an uneasy relationship with lore, the verbally passed-down information that is divided between neurotic gossip and time-honored wisdom. We depend on it, but we are wary of it since much of it turns out to be blather that is not just wrong but misleading, causing us to spend all our time on some irrelevant nonsense while someone laughs at us for being easily fooled.
Is that a grim vision of humanity? Perhaps so. Many have told me this, but no one has said that I am incorrect, factually and actually, in terms of what is out there in the world outside of our heads that does not go away when we close our eyes. At least, I think it remains continuous and consistent, but I can’t open my eyes fast enough to catch it in the process of drawing itself.
Pipe lore offers many nuggets of wisdom and lots of trends that seem clever, so some hipster or another gets famous for them, then slowly are debunked. What does it matter? He has launched his Tobacco Reviews profile, YouTube Channel, blog, or column at one of the few stragglers remaining in the procession of pipes, cigars, and tobacco magazines. He took the money and ran, in other words.
Among the fake wisdom of the past was the idea that you should not remove a tenon when it was hot; someone pointed out, eventually, that both tenon and pipe return to their normal size as they cool. Another was that plume does not exist and is in fact mold, but that faded away once people started posting pictures of their aged leaf. On and on, South of Heaven.
Right now, there is much confusion over aging. We are told that tobacco prices will only go up and blends die, so we should cellar and age tobacco now. Part of me thinks that this is simply an ingenious campaign from the makers of Mason jars to sell even more of their product, but there is some truth to it: tins and jars that you chuck in the cellar and pull it decades later can often be very, very tasty.
Balanced against that is the knowledge that people love bragging rights, especially on the internet, which is generally where people who are miserable in life go to be the big shots that they will not be in physical reality, with a few lost decent souls (that’s you, dear reader) tossed into the mix because you like prowling around, foraging for information. The internet pipe community loves “unobtanium,” or any blend that is hard to find, because that way for a couple hundred dollars and lots of time, you too can become a big shot on the internet. Very sad, it is.
Looking past the insanity, we can see the basics of aging from G.L. Pease — he’s an old USENET guy, and I tend to trust those — who tells us about the benefits and pitfalls of tobacco aging in his pipe smoking FAQ:
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.
He gently points out here that while sometimes an old-timer will dig out a tin of something from decades ago that will be strikingly delicious, most of that comes from the fact that the blend was great back in the day when it was fresh, too, and that aging has improved it somewhat but not rendered magic. It feels great to be the guy lucky enough to have that 1979 tin of Balkan Sobranie, but how much better is it than contemporary options?
Sometimes the answer might be “a lot better” if the blend has changed for the worst. Business goes through cycles. New products sell at high prices, or low prices followed by high prices once the trend catches on, and then gradually lose value as competitors emerge and the novelty factor fades. Then it becomes a game of margins, namely how to widen profit margins by reducing costs, which is what an MBA degree teaches, for the most part.
An old and storied blend, if handed over to the egghead accountants that MBA tend to be, will lose expensive ingredients and have them replaced by cheaper leaf and more toppings. Every blend ends up as an aromatic made with bulk Burley, if they can swing it. That is where the profit is, once something is no longer new and hip and therefore able to command high prices. That they damage the brand irreparably never occurs to them because the MBA will have moved on to a new job at that point. He will have taken the money and run.
Remember that the ideal product, in the eyes of industry, is soda pop. Add sugar, flavorings, colorings, and fizz to water and you can sell it for a thousand-percent markup. Even if you sell it cheaply, the product is pure profit, and throwing even ten percent of that back into advertising will convince the left two-thirds of the bell curve to fight for it at Black Friday sales and gulp it down enthusiastically even though it tastes like, in the immortal words of Berke Breathed, “malted battery acid.”
For this reason, you have to be careful, since some blends are going to end up tasting like bulk Burley with a ghost of flavoring after a decade. For the ones that use mostly natural tobaccos, flavor may improve quite a bit, but the question remains then how much time is needed. Sure, if you are eight years old and want to smoke something really amazing in your nineties, it makes sense to slam those Virginias into the back of the old family vault, but for most of us, waiting ten years for what would be basically good enough at one or five seems foolish.
Pease nails the question of the Pareto point, which is where aging is 80% effective for 20% of the work, and in my mind this point occurs roughly at a year to a year and a half. It applies mostly to Virginias; Burleys lose some of their vegetal flavors, which are faint but similar to Nicotiana Rustica or more colloquially to lawn clippings, but do not get radically sweeter. Then again, blends with both Virginia and Burley tend to improve greatly, like this tin of Burley Flake #1 that I just popped which emitted enough air to feel like the wing of a small bird against my hand, and tastes like a sweet and refined version of Old Joe Krantz that somehow is still stronger than cold iron on rainy morning. Perique loses some of the spice and starts to taste like wine. Latakia gets less herbal and spicy, and becomes more smoky and rich. Orientals get a bit sweeter. That’s the back-of-the-hand synopsis.
All of this I say simply to debunk the aging myth. Most of what you buy will be perfectly enjoyable as you receive it, since it has already been aged, pressed, fermented, and roasted to the satisfaction of the blender, and they usually know their stuff. You do not need to store away tobacco for a decade before it is passably acceptable enough to grace your pipes; buy what you like, enjoy it, and focus on living instead of autistic internet collecting. For the rest, especially bright Virginias which are highly acidic and sparkling with sugar, a little aging will bring cause the leaf to off-gas some of its acids and ammonias and undergo a process like fermenting or caramelizing where its sugars become richer, more like wildflower honey or molasses than white sugar, agave, or clover honey. Some think that plume consists of the crystalline form of the various contaminants in tobacco, and the reason that leaf tastes so good is not the plume itself, but that it has left the leaf.
For centuries humans have tried to adapt tobacco to our needs, and that means mostly getting it out of the vegetative form and into something that burns easily and smoothly. The first step there, generally, consists of breaking the cell walls so that the various chemical components can mingle like executive assistants at a cocktail party, and off-gas subtly through the leaf. The storied English processes like pressing, stoving, steaming, and tying up tobacco in ropes all seem geared toward this point, which changes the pH of the leaf and allows more nicotine to be released and absorbed. When you think of tobacco processing, think of sauerkraut: you take this relatively vegetable-tasting cabbage, ferment it in its own juices, and you get these limp seaweed-like leaves which are both piquant and sweet. Perique, fermenting, and so on do the same thing.
This makes me suspect that pressed leaf, such as ready-rubbed, flake, curly cut, cube cut, and rope cuts will age the best, with ribbon cut having more of an effect, but only later, as the cells naturally degrade and burst on their own.
With aromatics and smoked leaf (both dark fired Kentucky Burley and Latakia) it seems that some of the dusty nature of the leaf subsides, and the taste loses its herbal or woody flavor for a generally smoky and broader taste. This makes many of us nervous to age English mixtures — made of in descending order Virginias, Latakia, and Orientals, with optional Burley, Perique, and dark fired Kentucky Burley — since they may lose the prized sweet-sour “tang” that comes with a good English, General Joe’s Chicken, or salad dressing. However, this is likely overstated, at least until those Englishes get over a decade old.
Before we get to today’s tin, however, it makes sense to distinguish cellaring from sampling. If you are, like me, a basement-dweller — I mean, a cellar-er — you tend to buy stuff when you encounter it at a good price, and buy a lot of it, since a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (or three on layaway). Then you go to your “cellar,” which might be an over-sized walk-in closet in a back bedroom, and you huck all of those tins in there, pausing briefly to stuff any bulk purchases into Mason jars, and leave it all until you feel like smoking it. That may happen in ten minutes, or ten years. Who knows? But the good news is that all of that tasty stuff will be there, even if the Libertarian Communists take over Washington D.C. and mandate that all tobacco is illegal and you must eat your bean sprouts, quinoa, arugula, and crickets or they assume you will die of disease shortly and shoot you immediately.
I have nothing against sampling. It is the hobby side of pipe-smoking, where those of us on the cellaring side tend to be people who see smoking a pipe as one of those things that completes a person, sort of like knowing how to tie your knots and fix a toilet, or having rugged but suitable clothing, or even being able to whip up an omelette with entirely random ingredients. We smoke a pipe the same way we enjoy coffee in the morning, a cold beer after work, or lemonade when mowing the lawn. Nicotine is for us another useful substance from plants that enhances life. It makes our minds both more focused and more calm, and it gives us a non-food reward that we can sip on constantly throughout the day, feeling somewhat better about things than we might be otherwise. For us, smoking a pipe just fits into who we are.
Samplers on the other hand want a hobby so that after work, when the kids are in bed, they can go to their special chair with their special pipe and then open their special pipe cabinet, in which there are 387 Mason jars, each with a custom printed label, of many different tobaccos to try. Then they select the one that fits their particular mood at that moment, and a pipe with a great backstory to match (“this 1937 silver-banded cutty morta was once owned by the CIA agent who kidnapped Elvis in Vegas in ’61”) and sit down in their chairs and try to focus hard on tasting all of those notes of leather, asphalt, creosote, JP-8, Earl Grey tea, roast chestnuts, dates from the tomb of Ramesses II, crucifix nails, and toasted quinoa bread with raisins that were promised by Tobacco Reviews and YouTube reviews. Good luck to them. This group tend to be pipe collectors who talk about their collections far more than they smoke, so this advice will not apply to them. I will warn, however, that keeping a bunch of jars around to open once every third seder or baptismal means that you will have dry tobacco which will not really ferment the same way that aging it would. However, I smoke tobacco from those constantly-open jars in the pipe shop all the time and have not yet come to regret this.
For today, I have a tin that is guaranteed to be at least eight years old. We know this because the blend officially ceased production in 2012, although this suggests that tins were probably manufactured up through the previous year in order to let supplies die down. Blenders do this just to see if a mass outburst of complaints happens; if not, they figure the blend is dead and go back to making aromatics out of Burley that was otherwise designed to become sheetrock finishing. This tin probably comes from somewhere just short of that final batch, and contains one of my all-time favorite blends, a sweet English designed in emulation of both Presbyterian and Early Morning Pipe, meaning a Virginia-forward mix, named Early Day. For this reason, this particular tin is now (2021) at least ten years old.
Some English tobaccos emphasize the Latakia, and indeed with over a quarter of the mix being that spicy herbal smoked leaf, you can barely taste anything else. Others, called Balkans, have a higher proportion of Orientals for a kind of buttermilk taste. Some, like Nightcap, work in Perique to flesh out the flavor. Early Day is one of my favorites because it emphasizes a mixture of red, brown, and bright Virginias and flavors that with the Latakia and Orientals, ending up with a taste that when new is like a spicy pfeffernusse cookie, with ginger and cinnamon and maybe a little white pepper in there to distract from the sugar so that the contrast makes the sweetness stand out more without becoming monolithic and dominating. I was sad to see it go, but the market was beginning its contraction at that time; the industry has come to rely on pipe collectors who will buy one $16 tin of a blend per year, instead of trusting its future to us unwashed cellarers who will buy three hundred $9 tins because we love the stuff and can’t get enough. You can see where that market model leads, but the MBAs are pretty sure that they’re not blockheads and will turn out to be geniuses; I’ve asked them. Of course, each one was also polishing up his résumé, so make of that what you will.
Opening the tin, one finds that the bright Virginias have turned a nice light brown color with an orange undertone, possibly from marrying with the smoked leaf around them. The red Virginias have gotten redder, almost purplish like Perique. The brown Virginias are still brown, but appear denser, and less like regular leaf than pressed leaf. The smell of the Latakia has mellowed, too, still evoking the tobacconists of yore, but now with a subdued scent, more like entering an ancient hall where you can still smell many days of fires before which the finest warriors must have feasted. The Orientals barely manifest, only through a light waft of their deep earthy scent. Together they smell more like a fine syrup or liquor than tobacco.
First light, of course, brings a quick zap of the Latakia, but the Virginia takes over, a powerful but subtle sweetness with harvest overtones, sort of like eating honeycomb. As if someone in the background has been turning up a channel on the mixing board, the Orientals gradually manifest, giving that combined flavor a slight piquant and spiced attribute. From this comes the final flavor, which is more like mead or sassafras: a sweet, refreshing wave of flavor with an herbal spiciness and hint of brewing in cave-bound casks underneath. This is truly luxurious, but also, very much carries on as the original blend has, just “matured” in the sense of refined and intensified. The Latakia, which is not here in huge amounts, takes slightly less of a presence, and the Virginias zoom forward, but the balance set up by the original blenders remains, delivering a nice velvety melange like a cloud entering our reality from worlds beyond, in the midst of which we can see fantastical sights flying.
Sometimes, the Latakia evokes its original incense and mystical herb-like presence, but then goes back to campfire dimensions and the exotic, paradoxical Orientals zoom to the fore. Something else may be swimming around in there, a warm flavor from the darker Virginias or maybe a touch of Burley the blenders added back in the day to give it body. It hits with quite a subtle taste that can be enjoyed in full without thinking about it, analyzing it, or even writing it down as I have. It just feels right, and in balance, even though it is sweeter and milder. I could easily smoke this for decades.
To really do the comparison correctly, we would need to fire up the Tardis and go find two samples: one that is new as it was sold at the time, and another with a year or so of age on it. I think we would find that the sample I am smoking at a decade old is much less different from the year-old than the year-old is different from the new, but that not much overall has changed. It was always a great blend; the Virginias have ripened, taking on a honeyed flavor, and the Latakia has become more campfire than censer at the rites of a religion so obscure that its name is never spoken, but the proportions and balance intended by the blenders remain. Enough of writing about it; I’m going to enjoy it.