Trial by Fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by Fire


By Tad Gage and Joe Harb

Planta Tabak

This time around, we have the chance to review some of the blends from German manufacturer Planta Tabak. The family-owned firm was founded in 1956 by Dr. Manfred Obermann. The company has a fairly extensive lineup, and while many retailers stock a few blends, you may need to special order certain items, which many retailers are happy to do. The venerable James Norman Ltd. is the U.S. distributor for Planta, so they should be relatively easy for your favorite retailer to obtain. They’re worth seeking out, particularly for fans of aromatic tobaccos that feature quality leaf and natural aromatic flavorings. We sampled several of Planta’s tobaccos of the year—a new blend introduced each year—and two of the company’s non-aromatic English blends.


Anno MMVI (2006) Mixture

Gage: At first glance, this looked to be a promising mixture, if for no other reason than it’s a rare treat to find a flavored tobacco in a sliced, broken flake. While cake aging of tobacco is no guarantee it will be good, this time-consuming process does indicate care and pride in the selection of and processing of the base tobaccos. Manufacturers simply don’t go to the trouble of pressing and aging cheap and mediocre leaf. This predominantly dark brown Virginia mixture also features flecks of bright Virginia leaf, Burley and a dash of black Cavendish.

Cased with a natural Williams Pear extract, the blend carries a light and pleasant pearlike tin aroma. I found it appropriately moist and ready to smoke, although if you like a slightly drier mixture, a few days of air drying brought down the moisture level with no effect on the aromatic flavoring. The fact you are able to dry down an aromatic mixture is always a good sign of a minimal amount of glycerin. I tried it lightly rubbed out and also as-is in the broken flake form. The tobacco lit readily and burned easily both ways, but I liked the slightly more interesting smoke delivered by leaving it in broken flake form.

The Virginia flavor and sweetness dominated the blend. The pear flavoring was subtle, delivering light, citrusy notes—more like a firm, slightly tart pear than a soft, sugary fruit. I don’t believe in a blind taste test I could tell you the flavor was pear, but it was pleasing nonetheless. The pear may have added some sweetness, but the Virginias also contributed quite a bit of sugar, requiring slow and careful puffing to avoid overheating. Blend 2006 is a treat for seekers of both aromatic character and quality tobacco.

Harb: The anniversary mixture for 2006 is a blend of black Cavendish, Burley and Virginia flake, with a topping of pear flavoring added. Planta describes the flavor as that from the sweet Williams pear. The blend consists of medium tan and dark brown tobaccos, with partially broken flakes that some may prefer to rub out more. The aroma is sweet and fruity, and the moisture content is suitable for packing without drying. At the match, the flavors that emerge are sweet and fruity, and the pear flavor is more recognizable in the smoke than the aroma was in the pouch. The burley adds a medium body to the smoke with a nice tingle on the palate, and the Virginia gives the blend a good smoothness. This blend will reward the smoker who uses a slow, light rhythm with a coolness that won’t burn the tongue. By mid-bowl, the pear flavor had subsided so that the underlying flavor of the tobaccos came through more. Overall, I felt this blend burned slowly and was a real treat because of the pear flavoring.


Anno MMVII (2007) Mixture

Gage: This purple-black shaggy ribbon is an unapologetically cased tobacco. Slightly gummy, it refuses to dry out. That said, it was surprisingly easy to light and burned evenly and dry with little need to re-light and left only gray ash, without any glycerin bitterness or excessive moisture. Did I mention blueberry? Indeed, the tin aroma is like inhaling steam from a freshly cooked blueberry tart. The blend is actually flavored with bilberry, which is a European close cousin of the blueberry.

This mixture is almost exclusively black Cavendish—the same Cavendish used in other Planta blends. This dark fire-cured flake is peppery, almost resembling Perique in spice, but somewhat sweeter. Heavily infused with fruit extract, it delivers blueberry taste in the smoke. And the ability of an aromatic tobacco to actually give you the same flavor in the smoking as in the tin or room aroma is worthy of major plaudits. The cut combines ribbons and some slightly larger pieces of leaf, which facilitated burning and lent a bit more complexity than a uniformly cut Cavendish mixture. There was very little sweetness—it was closer to eating raw blueberries than something like a sugary blueberry pie or tart. What impressed me was the amount of aromatic flavor delivered without the cloying character of many flavored black Cavendish blends.

This mixture truly delivers what it advertises—a fresh fruit quality, rather than the more intense dried fruit character you find in aged and stoved Virginias, for example. Only one word of warning: this tobacco leaves a pronounced blueberry flavor in the pipe that influences at least the next few smokes in that pipe. For this reason, I would smoke it only in briar pipes dedicated to aromatics, or in a meerschaum you can wipe out with a rag after the bowl has cooled. It’s a small price to pay for enjoying one of the best aromatic tobaccos available.

Harb: Described as black and mellow, aromatic and smooth, I found this blend, which is flavored with bilberries, to have a compelling aroma and pleasant flavor. The bilberry, which is a cousin to the blueberry, has a brighter and slightly deeper flavor than the blueberry. The black Cavendish lends a bit of body to the blend. The tobacco was a bit too moist in the pouch for my preference, so I let it air dry before sampling. Once packed, it lit easily and burned smoothly, delivering a good level of flavor and leaving a nice gray ash. As with many aromatics, this blend smoked cool as long as I kept the temperature down with a slow sipping rhythm. The slightly different flavor of the bilberry is reason enough to give this blend a try.


Anno MMVIII (2008) Mixture

Gage: The manufacturer says the mixture is flavored with “exotic” fruits, which escaped me, probably because I’m not an expert in exotic fruits. The medium ribbon cut smells like lightly browned butter, with significant and pleasing raspberry and currant top notes. An attractive medium ribbon of tan Burley, light and dark aged Virginia, and a sprinkling of Planta’s spicy black Cavendish, 2008 indeed presents flavors of fresh berries when smoked. I found the earthy Burley flavor to be particularly pronounced, while the Cavendish added only a small amount of depth and spice.

The moisture content was perfectly acceptable, but the mixture does effectively dry down if given an airing. Once again, for an aromatic blend, it lit and burned easily, generated very little moisture and left no residual flavors even in my briars. I wouldn’t recommend smoking it in a briar used for English mixtures, but it’s acceptable for pipes in which you smoke uncased Virginias. The casing in no way interfered with the fine base tobaccos, and that was a real pleasure. The aged Virginia tobaccos complemented the fresh fruit flavors of the toppings with the deep flavors one expects from aged Virginia leaf—dried fig, cinnamon and a hint of ruby port wine. The Cavendish lent a peppery quality and some depth. I struggled a bit with the mixture overheating. Since there was little flue-cured leaf in the mixture, the heat must be generated by the high sugar content of the aged Virginia. While the natural sweetness is a plus, I found it a bit frustrating having to set aside my pipe after just a few puffs. For this reason, this is a much more satisfying mixture in a small bowl. I found it became a chore to work this blend in a larger bowl.


Harb: With the adjectives used to describe this blend—vivacious, contrasting, exotic and exquisite—I didn’t know whether to just look at it, smell it or put it in my pipe. It is a mixed-cut blend with light to dark tan coarse-cut Burley, yellow Virginia ribbons and black Cavendish that is flavored with exotic fruit extracts. In the pouch, the aroma is robust, with tart, sweet, fruity notes somewhat like mango and berries. Once teased with the flame, the aromas quickly scent the room with a distinct and lingering note. The blend is very flavorful, pleasingly so, but not topped so heavily as to overwhelm the underlying flavors of the tobaccos used. The Burley provides good body, and although the blend has a lot of added flavors, it burned smooth and remained cool as long as I kept a slow, even rhythm and left a gray ash and only slightly moist dottle. It should definitely be a blend for a crowd, and the pleasant aroma should please those around you.


Anno MMIX (2009) Nordic Mixture

Gage: This burley and Virginia mixture delivered a powerful and delicious tin aroma of clementine, a tangerinelike fruit. That perplexed me a bit, because the blend is described as being flavored with natural apple extract, but I got more citrus than apple. The blend is also flavored with something I’ve never heard of, and you probably haven’t either—allow thorn or sea buckthorn. This is one of the more unusual pipe tobacco flavorings I’ve encountered, although it is used in hookah blends that are all the rage these days. It’s a hardy shrub that grows throughout Europe and Asia and produces orange-colored berries that have a sour citrus flavor. It’s apparently one of those antioxidant “wonder berries” used in oils, herbal remedies and jam. Putting two and two together, it seems a citrusy berry plus apple flavoring equals something tangerinelike.

The combination of apple and sea buckthorn creates a fresh, light citrus tin aroma that carries through into the smoking. The medium ribbon mixture features Planta’s aged Virginia, what looks like a touch of flue-cured Virginia, Burley and less than 10 percent black Cavendish. It burned nicely, generating bright flavors like lemon grass and orange peel. The name Nordic Mixture was a bit lost on me, although it has a refreshing quality that does conjure up images of springtime, which was a pleasant break from the winter doldrums.

As with other Planta mixtures, it was enjoyable to imbibe the aromatic flavorings while still being able to taste some nicely aged Virginia leaf. The Burley contributed a delicate damp woodsy flavor, and the black Cavendish was barely noticeable except for that distinctive peppery twang. I liked this blend best smoked slowly in a pipe with a longer shank, since I found the heat generated by the sugary Virginia to be a bit overbearing. The light application of the flavoring didn’t leave any lingering residual flavors. Nordic Mixture is definitely an appealing taste experience that I’d highly recommend to aromatic pipe tobacco lovers who enjoy tasting the tobacco along with the topping.

Harb: The annual blend for 2009 came in a very attractive flip-top, embossed tin that quickly found its way to my wife’s sewing table. Inside the tin, the tobacco was in a sealed, heavy aluminum pouch, which retained the moisture well. It was a bit too moist for my taste, so I let it air dry a while before sampling. I felt that the primary aroma in the pouch was similar to that of anise, with tart and sweet overtones. Of the blends in this series, I think it is the most heavily cased. The composition is mostly medium tan to light brown ribbons, with darker brown tobaccos interspersed. Once stoked, the flavoring was quite prominent in the smoke, lingering on the tongue and overwhelming the underlying flavors of the Virginias but still letting the nuttiness of the Burley emerge. The room note was very aromatic. This blend is quite sweet, but I think most of that comes from the casing. Nordic Mixture is of moderate body with the addition of the Burley. Because of the amount of casing, the blend can easily be provoked to overheat. Also, the flavor is just so good you may be tempted to puff too hard or too fast to get as much of it as you can. I advise caution and moderation and close attention to the smoking rhythm. This one, I think, is best savored only on occasion.


Anno MMX (2010) After Dinner Mixture

Gage: This blend features a relatively even mix of red and bright lemon Virginias and black Cavendish, with a buttery honey, orange blossom and dark chocolate tin aroma. I was missing the advertised smoky Scotch whiskey aroma but remained hopeful. I can’t recall smoking a pipe tobacco blend flavored with whiskey that smelled or tasted like whiskey, and I’ve never understood why it’s so difficult to get whiskey flavor into a pipe tobacco mixture. If you place cigars in a sealed plastic container along with a jigger of whiskey or cognac and wait for the liquor to evaporate, you will have a cigar with a very pronounced liquor flavor. I’ll have to figure that out one of these days.

The medium ribbon cut lit quickly and burned easily, delivering excellent smoke volume with little puffing. It was lightly sweet, and the Virginias carried much of the flavor. Despite the significant smoke volume and easy burning, I couldn’t pinpoint whiskey, but perhaps it was simply part of the flavor symphony. I experienced something quite unusual in that upon lighting or relighting my bowl, there was the most delicious honey-orange blossom in the first puff or two, and this may have been the whiskey flavoring taking a quick bow. It was truly amazing, and I found myself allowing my pipes to go out frequently so I could experience this taste sensation time and again. I won’t say this is the most relaxing way to settle back with a pipe, but I couldn’t get enough of this opening volley of sweetness.

That said, After Dinner was a smooth and pleasing tobacco. It was pretty light, and it worked as nicely in the morning as a first bowl as it did after dinner. In fact, I’d say it worked best as a smooth morning or daytime bowl. I’d want something heartier to perk up my taste buds after dinner.

Harb: The 2010 annual blend is described as an after-dinner mixture that features honey-colored Virginia and black Cavendish that is lightly flavored with chocolate and smoky Scottish whisky. The composition is perhaps 85 percent black tobacco that is Cavendish cut, with light to medium tan ribbons being the remainder of the components. In the pouch, the sweet and deep aroma of chocolate and fruitiness overwhelms the underlying aroma of the tobacco. At first light, the aroma and flavor of chocolate emerges and fills the air with a pleasant note that does linger for a bit but is not overwhelming. I had a hard time picking up the peat aroma from the Scotch whisky flavoring, but others may be more attuned to it than I am. This blend, like the others in this series, smoked smoothly, dry and cool, as long as I paid attention to the temperature of the smoke that emerged, and is a very pleasant aromatic blend. You may want to try it just for after dinner, but don’t hesitate to enjoy it any time of the day.


Sans Souci

Gage: In French, the phrase means “without a care.” The tannish-brown mixture features quite a bit of white Burley, some Virginia and a splash of Cavendish. It has a very appealing caramel and butter aroma, but it smoked more like a pleasant but plain straight Burley—somewhat hot burning with some buttery overtones, but not presenting any flavors that grabbed my attention.

I tried blending it with a few stoved Virginia mixtures and was delighted to find the buttery aromatic character came through, while the deeper tones of the stoved Virginia added significantly more complexity that better suited my palate. As a result of this experiment, I’d recommend to the adventurous to use this as a blending component (about 30 percent Sans Souci to your rich Virginia blend, or another mildly aromatic blend that could benefit from a boost) to add top notes and aromatic flavor. I hate to second guess a blender’s seasoned hand; however, I believe Sans Souci brings some great flavor components to the table but benefits from the contribution of a stronger tobacco to fully blossom. This offers a great opportunity to be your own personal tobacco blender, and that’s a great deal of fun in its own right.

Harb: Composed of golden Virginias, Burley and black Cavendish, Sans Souci is presented as a coarse-cut mixture, and Planta chose caramel/vanilla for the primary flavor for the blend. The aroma in the pouch is sweet, and the aromas of caramel and vanilla are prominent but not overpowering. After the charring light, the creamy taste of caramel and vanilla emerged in full bloom: rich, sweet, mellow and smooth. The amount of flavoring used does not mask the underlying tobacco taste. There is enough Burley in the blend to provide body for those who like a little kick from their tobaccos. As I progressed down the bowl, the fruitiness faded, allowing the underlying tobacco flavor to come through more, but the caramel-vanilla flavors persisted through the remainder of the bowl. There are numerous blends that feature vanilla flavoring, and they are popular for their pleasing taste and room note. Sans Souci is a nice addition to the array, and one that burns cool and dry. I would recommend Sans Souci as a blend to add to your to-try list if your preference leans toward the aromatics.


Full English

Gage: A visual inspection of Planta’s Full English reveals a fine-cut ribbon with a balanced mix of Latakia, Virginia and Java leaf, a full-bodied tobacco most commonly found in cigars and cigarillos to add sweetness and body. The tin aroma was of a light Balkan blend, tinged with Latakia but otherwise relatively neutral.

There’s no aromatic flavoring in this mixture. From the first lighting, a Perique-like spice from the Java leaf dominates, generating flavors of black pepper, oaky sweetness and cigar. The Virginias added a touch of body but little sweetness, while the Latakia is subtle. I’d be hard-pressed to call this a full English blend when compared to the many available blends with significantly more Latakia. With a pronounced presence from start to finish, the Java tobacco flavor made this a relatively unique offering in the world of English blends.

Harb: This is a Syrian Latakia-based English blend with Virginia and Java tobaccos added. The preponderance of medium brown tobaccos, with the remaining balance consisting of scattered dark brown and black tobaccos, only hint at the full English character of the blend. In the pouch, although the aroma is leathery and lightly pungent, the smokiness usually associated with full English blends was at a level below what I expected. Once in a pipe and stoked to embers, however, the true character of a full English was quickly revealed. The deep Latakia pungency is abundant but there is less smokiness than encountered with the Cyprian variety of Latakia. There is a spicy, sweet element from the Java and Virginia tobaccos, with a hint of Oriental tobaccos to round out the flavors nicely. This full English blend is smooth, burns cool and dry and leaves a nice, soft gray ash.


Mild English

Gage: A pleasing aroma of Syrian and Cyprian Latakia greets you from the tin, with a hint of light fruit from the Virginias in this relatively fine ribbon cut. There was no aromatic flavoring. While Oriental leaf isn’t mentioned as a component, the combination of Virginia and Latakia produces flavors of cumin and cinnamon bark immediately upon lighting, a taste I associate with Basma. The aged Virginia has considerable depth but little sweetness. However, it has a relatively high nicotine content that packs a pretty good punch, making this tobacco a more appropriate choice for puffing after a meal.

The combination of the two types of Latakia was well done, but very low key. Flavors of smoky campfire and dried fig attested to the Latakia’s presence, but I would characterize this more as a Virginia mixture than a classic English blend.

Harb: This blend is composed of both Syrian and Cyprian Latakia, to which broad-cut grades of Virginia tobaccos are added. The amount of brown Syrian leaf seems more prominent than the darker Cyprian variety, and the Virginias range from light tan to medium brown colors. In the pouch, the aroma is a combination of the leather and earthy notes of the Cyprian Latakia and the mellow sweetness of quality Virginia tobaccos. Once stoked to embers, the blend is smooth and smoky and moderately pungent, with sweet undertones from the Virginias. For the first half of the bowl, the mellow Syrian Latakia held the pungency of the Cyprian Latakia in check, but by mid-bowl the Cyprian Latakia emerged more prominently and held center stage for the remainder of the bowl. Mild English is a smooth blend with medium tones of Latakia complemented by smooth, mellow notes of Virginia in a well-balanced combination. It burned even and dry and left a soft gray ash. For some, it may be a crossover experience to the deeper-flavored English blends, and for others it may be a good change of pace from the more full-flavored English blends.

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Category: Pipe Articles, Spring 2011, Trial by Fire

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