Tobacco renaissance : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Tobacco renaissance

•By Stephen A. Ross•

The worldwide pipe tobacco market may be relatively flat at the moment, but don’t tell that to folks at Mac Baren. The largest family-owned Danish tobacco company is excited about the future pipe tobacco market. Staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated tobacco people, Mac Baren has recently introduced 7 Seas, a new line of American-style aromatic tobaccos, and invested a large amount of money to purchase steam presses from defunct English tobacco manufacturers to revive traditional English-style blends.

Approving the additions to the Mac Baren factory and product line is Henrik Halberg, the fourth generation of the family to run the company. To some, making the investments to bring 7 Seas to market and purchase old steam presses may be something akin to tilting at windmills in today’s antitobacco climate, but to Henrik, it’s just a part of the family tradition.

Like many Svendborg families, the Halbergs depended on the sea for their livelihoods for generations. However, a young Harald Halberg decided that he was not cut out to be a seaman. Using some connections through his father, a captain who specialized in shipping tobacco, Harald purchased S. Bønnelycke, a Svendborg-based tobacco company, in 1887. Harald changed the name of the company, which had been established in 1826, to Harald Halberg Tobaks and Cigarfabrik.

It was Harald’s grandson, Jørgen, who would lead the company to international importance in the pipe tobacco market. Stranded in the United States at the outbreak of World War II, Jørgen found work at a series of American pipe tobacco factories. As he worked at these factories, he learned the American technique of aromatic tobacco production, using the casings and flavorings for blends such as VIP, Rum and Maple, Four Seasons and Mixture 79 that were in vogue in the 1940s. These were full-bodied Burley-heavy blends—pipe tobaccos that were unknown to the Danish market. At the war’s end, Jørgen returned to the family business in Denmark. Using the techniques he learned in the U.S., he created aromatic tobaccos for Danish consumption, including Mac Baren Golden Blend in 1950 and Mac Baren Mixture in 1958. The company’s sales soared and the company became synonymous with the Mac Baren brand name—so much so that Henrik changed the company’s name to Mac Baren in 1995.

While Jørgen capitalized on the techniques he had learned in the 1940s, American manufacturers were seeking new ways to flavor tobacco, especially after the U.S. surgeon general’s 1964 report detailing the health effects of smoking cigarettes spurred a pipe boom. Manufacturers had begun to use more food flavorings on the tobacco, but these really didn’t change the fundamental blends that were available at the time.

In the early 1970s a tobacco company experimented with a tobacco that was mostly seen as a filler tobacco—Green River Burley. The tobacco manufacturer discovered that steaming the Green River Burley neutralized the tobacco’s natural flavor and increased its ability to absorb other flavors. With new changes to the top flavor, this resulted in a milder tobacco with less tobacco taste and a nicer room note, and it tended to cause less tongue bite.

The tobacco manufacturer used the discovery in new bulk tobacco blends. With this new process, the American-style tobacco was born. Other pipe tobacco companies learned of this discovery and followed suit, revolutionizing the concept of American-style aromatic tobaccos, with new tobaccos hitting the market throughout the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

With the consolidation of the tobacco industry beginning in the middle of the 1990s, some of those popular aromatic American-style blends began to disappear. With more blends vanishing from tobacco bars at an alarming rate, Henrik; Per Jensen, Mac Baren’s product specialist; and Frank Blews, the national brand manager of Mac Baren for its U.S. distributor, Phillips & King, saw an opportunity to fill a void in the still-popular product segment with the introduction of its 7 Seas pipe tobaccos.

“If you look at what has happened with all the consolidation of the tobacco companies in the U.S., you will see a decrease of product availability and a lack of industry interest in pipe tobacco products,” says Blews, an extremely knowledgeable tobacco industry veteran who worked with Lane Ltd. for years before joining Phillips & King. “We feel like that gives us an opportunity to fill the void. If a smoker gives us a chance, we feel that the quality of tobacco plus the procedures in use make an excellent smoke.”

Mac Baren began working on the 7 Seas concept in 2007. Accustomed to using the flavoring and casing techniques brought back to Denmark by Jørgen in the 1940s, Jensen and the rest of Mac Baren’s tobacco development team had to learn the style developed in the U.S.—not so much the technique that had revolutionized American-style aromatic blends but how it affected tobaccos differently. With a vast variety of tobaccos with which to experiment, the product developed at a slow pace. Mac Baren was committed to developing 7 Seas the right way.

“They’re a great company to work with,” Blews comments. “This is a tobacco company. Tobacco people make decisions here, not some financial person who doesn’t know anything except for bottom lines. They have the commitment to create a great product.”

If anyone wishes to doubt that commitment, all he needs to do is visit the Mac Baren factory on the outskirts of Svendborg. The campus takes up space on both sides of the road, with offices and production facility on one side and several large tobacco warehouses on the other.

While many pipe tobacco collectors acquire their prized specimens by the tin, Henrik gathers his tobaccos by the ton. Each year, he travels the world seeking tobacco. The evidence of his journeys eventually finds its way to Svendborg, where it will age for at least two years before it is considered ready for use.

Cardboard boxes and burlap sacks filled with tobacco are stacked from floor to ceiling in each of the warehouses. Stenciled on each tobacco container are the names of the countries that bear witness to Henrik’s apparently massive frequent flyer account—Brazil, China, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zaire, Zambia, the U.S. and so many others are represented inside Mac Baren’s warehouses.

If that wasn’t enough to satisfy most tobacco men, there’s even a section of a warehouse where Henrik stores the really rare tobaccos that he occasionally stumbles upon during his travels and purchases just because he can. He may not have a need for that rare or aged variety at the moment, but who knows what future blends may demand. In this special section, there are even a number of hogsheads filled with dark-fired Kentucky that was cultivated in 1974 and is used sparingly in Mac Baren’s HH series.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen tobacco packed in hogsheads?” Blews marvels. “The tobacco industry started to phase them out in the 1970s.”

With the vast selection of tobacco available to them and a deep understanding of the tobacco production process, Mac Baren’s product development team worked four years to create the 7 Seas line of tobaccos.

“Jørgen Halberg had a saying—there is nothing scientific to creating a blend,” Jensen explains. “All you have to do is get your thoughts right, follow through with your ideas and then fill one pipe after another until you finally have it. That is what we have been doing; take the tradition of what we knew to create something that we had never done before. That was the challenge, and it involved everyone in the company. The mixture of the raw tobaccos was completely different from what we normally use. Casing was the next item that we had to solve. And then the final step was to experiment with the top noting. We found out that the tobacco needed three more weeks of aging after the top noting was done, otherwise the flavor would not marry properly. Our target was to develop a fully aromatic line of pipe tobaccos that had a consistent taste from when you first lit it to when all the tobacco was gone. At the same time it should be mild, meaning that we had to look very carefully at the raw tobaccos. That was the main task that we had to solve.”

One of the early decisions Mac Baren made was that, instead of using the traditional Green River Burley for 7 Seas, it would use Virginia tobacco, marking a distinct departure from most American-style aromatic tobaccos.

“They have Green River Burley, but they found that the Virginia worked better for what they wanted to achieve,” Blews explains. “They’ve always been tobacco people, and the quality of the tobacco in all their blends is very important. When I first talked to them, they told me that they would not use Green River Burley because they considered it a low-end tobacco. The quality of the Virginia tobacco really complements the blend and gives it a little bit crisper taste and a smoother smoke. The Virginia is fermented the same way that cigar leaves are fermented. Then there is a little bit of heat added to it. That’s pretty unique.”

Currently, there are five varieties of 7 Seas available—7 Seas Royal, 7 Seas Regular, 7 Seas Gold, 7 Seas Red and 7 Seas Black. The tobaccos are available in colorful tins as well as 1-pound and 5-pound bags for bulk tobacco bar purchases. 

“We feel that these tobaccos can sit on any shelf in the U.S. and be accepted by the American taste segment,” Blews comments. “Even though some of them are similar in taste, all of them have a fresh, crisp taste to them that’s slightly different. The bulk tobacco is a big potential market for the product. It’s currently competitively priced in the bulk tobacco market. We’re pleased that the tins have been so well received in the smoke shops. If you look at traditional tins, there are very few American-style aromatics available in tins.”

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

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Category: Feature Article, Other Stories, Spring 2012

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