How to review pipe tobacco : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

How to review pipe tobacco

by William Serad


On numerous occasions, I have discussed with fellow pipe smokers how one may go through the process of reviewing a tobacco. This may be for others, or memorializing for one’s own purposes. My particular twist is not important. Note that, to me, the primary purposes of reviews are entertainment and consistency of information. Regardless of motivation, it is important that one develops a way of testing suitable to one’s own tastes and puffing habits; order and method are key. Some will be disappointed that the methods here discussed are not in the wine fancier’s line of critique, reminiscent of describing physical deformity (“It had little nose, was thin on top, but possessed a voluptuous body. It was a modest little wine, and it had a lot to be modest about.”). Tobacco is not wine or whiskey. It has no nose; it has an aroma. It may have a mouth feel or aftertaste. The best analogs are other tobaccos, not figs, leather or what have you. I have never knowingly put figs or leather in my pipes. Burley can taste like chocolate, Virginia like hay; Latakia can be smoky and Perique can produce the aroma of stewed fruit, but there are biochemical reasons for this. Tobacco should taste like tobacco, and the best comparators for blends are other blends. One needs to experience many of the very many available to have an informed opinion as to the best and the worst in this subjective realm.

I cannot let the occasion pass without addressing the issues on the more subjective side of the process. Some have wondered how many pipes are required to do many varieties. I have hundreds, and my wife has threatened dire consequences if any more pass over our threshold, but how can one have too many pipes? Some have wondered how much tobacco needs to be tried. I have a basement full of tobacco (no, you may not have my address, and yes, I have a security system) and tried many blends for years before reviewing them for myself or others. One cannot really know a blend without some adequate experimentation across variations in pipe and humidification, and even season and mood. This requires at least half a tin if the blend gives up its secrets right away and as much as half a pound if it requires Torquemada treatment. There comes a point where you know that there is either nothing or something desirable there, and that suddenly comes upon me based on experience. It may be a slow realization for you. There is the issue of words to describe the purely subjective experience of a blend. I am of the school of thought where one aspires to eloquence to best convey thoughts, feelings and reactions. This is not the same as describing the physical aspects, but the experience those aspects invoke. To quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose equals words in their best order; poetry equals the best words in their best order.” I aspire to poetry. Whether I achieve that is another thing. Writing style befits the occasion. These pages, I think, are worth a higher standard than a blog or a tweet, or a few notes for my own use. I have occasionally solicited opinions from non-puffers regarding tin or room aroma to satisfy the interests of those around me, so I know when to cloister a blend for private moments.

By habit, I never mentioned the contents other than those listed. Those listed may be wrong, as in the identification of what type of Latakia, or incomplete, even failing to mention Latakia. They may have had Syrian in 1940, but now they have Cyprian, contrary to the advertising. For that matter, the label contents are incorrect in some cases. I point as an example to an inquiry regarding Orlik Golden Sliced, which is listed as having Burley and does not, and it fails to mention Perique as an ingredient. Some old blends never contained Burley, but in the absence of Virginias of sufficient weight and gravitas, the current manufacturers add Burley to provide what their current red Virginias can’t. It is more like making champagne, which is a blended and sweetened concoction to achieve a particular taste, than a vintage cabernet, a single year and crop (which still has a sugar manipulation step). Compare like to like. Some have criticized reviews as excessively harsh or forgiving, but things need to be considered in their genre only, among what marketers refer to as the competitive set.

I would tend to apply the scientific method with a social scientist’s tilt, as is my training. That involves two primary things for our discussion: reduction and measurement. First, reduction means studying only a small, circumscribed set of characteristics at once, like flavor, coolness, burning characteristics and the like. These characteristics can become overwhelmingly detailed without much effort. Studying them involves controlling for all other external factors as much as possible that, when uncontrolled, create error in the evaluation or misperceptions. The same tobacco at different humidification levels can taste quite different, for example. Second, measurement means the development of ways to quantify some characteristic reliably. And you thought you were just going to puff a couple of bowls.

Regarding controlling for factors, I would class these in two categories: external and experimental. The external test situation is actually simple and involves doing the testing as you would normally smoke your pipe. So, for me, I puff a lot while driving and therefore test a lot while driving. If you normally light up in your easy chair, don’t give a new blend a whirl rock-climbing during a snowstorm in Antarctica. Make the circumstances as normal for you as possible to remove the atypical effects of wind, humidity, absence of relaxation or presence of outraged bystanders, though hopefully that’s atypical.

The experimental factors are a much bigger issue. These are things you purposefully change to determine their effect. This involves mainly the pipe used in testing as much as the tobacco. The pipe should be reasonably clean, so never try a pipe used with gloppy aromatics to test a delicate matured Virginia. A new pipe is as equally unsuitable as a dirty one is. Some of the physical characteristics are quite important and can be the deciding factor in making a blend work for you. This is why the pipe should be varied to get the best out of the blend for the trial. Just the right pipe can bring out hidden riches in the leaf. If we were to cover types of pipes to give control over the experiment, a list would include:

• A standard pipe—about 6 inches long made from briar with no filters or traps. This should be broken in, which in itself means different things to different people. To me, it means having adequate char in the bowl so you are not smoking wood and having adequate tar absorbed in the grain. It needs to breathe; finishes other than wax are bad, unless bark on cherry. In use, an all-Latakia pipe will be “ghosted” in subsequent smokes, so it should be kept for Latakia. This is truer of aromatics, especially true to me of common humectants. This is most true of the so-called “Lakeland” additives common mainly from old British companies, consisting of various oils and the like. Breaking in a pipe, which some people say is not necessary (not me), is best done with the most neutral leaf, typically Burley.

• A corn cob—this may economically be dedicated to a blend under review, but note (1) it must be broken in with the blend or something neutral, and (2) when you start, you are smoking corn.

• A pyrolitic pipe—like The Pipe or The Smoke, where the bowl is lined with a graphite material from the space program. See the interesting article in P&T regarding graphite bowls (Spring 2010). Overall, they smoke sub-
optimally compared to briar, rather wet, which makes them less preferable for general or definitive use to me, but you can get the most straight-up flavor with them, which is in itself unusual. Note: pack them looser than any other pipe you have ever tried, a tip from an old pipeman in an old store.

• System pipes, which are legion, like Peterson, Kirsten or Falcon.

•  Filtered pipes. I have found that those over-sweetened, unbelievably hot Scandinavian blends involving copious amounts of raw sugar or honey are actually significantly better in a pipe with a filter, which may be the norm in parts of the EU. They remove flavor with funk. There are several types of filters in two sizes:

1) 9 mm—Try with the sweet and sticky, but also with a death-by-
Latakia blend, or maybe something sooty. Surprises await!

2) 6 mm—the familiar paper filters from Medico, Dr. Grabow and others. This also is the size of the triangular balsa wood filters popularized by Savinelli, which capture moisture and don’t actually block the passage of smoke as other filters do.

3) metal trap—I usually take these out but have kept a few on for testing purposes. Try retro blends with one.

• Meerschaum—these absorb quite a bit from the tobacco. I have a few of these, but I am afraid to carry them around, having broken a couple trying to bounce them off concrete. A new one is white, but breaking in produces that lovely golden hue. Some cheap ones are made from a pressed meerschaum composite and do not color well. The coloration, except on Barlings and Petersons that have been colored artificially, is from absorbed juices and tar from tobacco. These may not be the best pipes for testing purposes from a purity perspective (especially calabashes), but if these are what you favor or you have an open mind, they are a requirement.

The other area to consider regarding your testing pipes is the morphology of the pipe. This includes:

• Shape—straight to bent. A bent will have the bowl closer to your nose and affect aroma.

• Bore—not just Uncle Harry or a business dinner meeting, but the size of the airway. Five-thirty-secondths is currently favored; older pipes are frequently smaller. Dirty pipes are always smaller.

• Bowl—conical through straight walled. The size and shape of the bowl are not always related to the size of the pipe. Measure them.

• Size—small through large. Note that large pipes may have small bowls, and thus thick walls. Some think that this contributes to coolness, and I am not convinced.

• Length—Bing liked a long billiard or Canadian, and sports pipes, pugs or vest pocket pipes are all at the other extreme. Longer means cooler generally, and I have a couple of Savinelli Bing’s Favorites that are indeed cool, but I hit the window when I turn my head in the car (almost as bad for driving as talking on a cell phone).

What are your preferences? How do they relate to your tobacco choices? Might a change in pipe change your preferences too? Perhaps a different pipe type, shape or size will open new worlds for you.

Another thing to take into account may be day part, as it is referred to by the broadcasting media guys. Many like a heavy Latakia blend as their last pipe, but I actually prefer Latakia in the morning. It definitely enhances coffee (try it with Kona sometime versus Italian roast). As the last pipe, it leaves me with an after-the-barbecue taste the next day where I was the grill. Late day means Virginia flake to me, but what about you? If you puff after a meal, what you eat may determine preference. I will not comment on the booze/’baccy interaction effect.

And then there is the seasonal factor. The esteemed Craig Tarler of Cornell & Diehl has helped me to understand that the colder the weather, the more I like Latakia. Summer is for aromatics and Perique; flakes are good anytime, especially late-night reverie. But that is entirely subjective, and I would endure the Sahara at high noon in the summer for a great Balkan blend. Spend some time determining other factors that would influence your preferences. This would include matches versus lighters, use of windscreens, pack and a whole bunch of other things that would have an influence on taste and to preference and to your testing.

Finally, we come to the methods of testing. There are two that we will cover here: paired comparisons and monadic testing. There are other methods having to do with choice models (see the work of the Nobel prize winner in economics McFadden) and conjoint measurement (Kruskal, Green, Louviere and those guys), but I promise not to bore you with them nor injure the academic literature. And, frankly, having tried these methods, it takes the fun away. Fun is a big driver to me.

Please read the rest of this article in the pages of P&T magazine or in our online digital edition.

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