Ok, I am going to cannibalize some stuff I wrote for another message board. I did a brief re read to make sure it all makes sense, but if there is anything weird in this post it’s because this is a distillation of several posts I made answering specific questions. But there is some good advice and I probably won’t have time to write it all out again fresh.
Then I will be back with brand recommendations and maybe some specific recommendations of stuff I like that I think you will like too, Randy.
First, general info about pipe tobacco.
This is stuff you need to know when you go to the tobacconist (though if they are any good they will help you with learning all this stuff. But I don’t trust random tobacconists these days, particularly if they deal primarily with cigars).
Pipe tobacco falls into two basic large groups with smaller sub groups.
The two big groups are, aromatic and English. This essentially means flavored and unflavored (I am talking in huge generalizations here, there are nuances that I am not really covering). So in the aromatics each item will taste different, and sometimes taste like it’s scent. So vanilla tobacco will taste like vanilla, cherry will taste like cherry etc. Sometimes it won’t. There is a rather excellent tobacco called Christmas Cookie which smells, I swear, just like baking cookies. It doesn’t taste like eating a cookie though. It tastes…more tobaccoey than that, with hints of chocolate and caramel.
On the other side, English tobacco’s are anything that isn’t aromatic. Within that category you have English blends (I not the same as English Tobacco, I know it’s strange terminology) and Balkan blends, which are predominantly flavored by a tobacco called Latakia. Latakia is a middle eastern tobacco that smells (depending on who you ask) either like woodsy incense or like burning camel dung. It has a strong distinctive flavor that is much more pleasant than its smell, but isn’t for everyone. There are also Burley tobaccos which smell a bit like really good smelling cigarettes, and taste vagely nutty and slightly bitter; Virginia tobaccos which are what cigarettes are primarily made from, but pipe tobacco genenerally uses a higher quality leaf so they actually taste much less like cigarettes than burleys do, and Perique which is fermented and has a sort of sweet and sour tang to it.
As for my favorite, it’s hard to pick. I like Red VA blends quite a bit (they are sweet and slightly tangy) I also like cube cut burley blends. There is one blend in particular called Grandfather (made by The Tobacco Barn) which uses the herb deertounge to give it a vanilla-y taste and it smells exactly like what you imagine pipe tobacco should smell like. There is a flake blend called University flake (made by Peterson and widely available) which is a mix of Burley and VA with a very faint blackberry topping which is also quite nice. I found what I liked partly by trial and error, and partly by joining the pipe smoking community and learning from the “old timers”, people who have been smoking pipes for anywhere from 30-70 years.
**On why you should always own more than one pipe, and pipe materials. **
There are many functional reasons to own multiple pipes beyond the simple desire to collect. I would say that anyone who plans to smoke their pipe more than once a weeks needs at least two pipes and anyone who expects to smoke more often than that needs three. The reason is one of maintenance of the pipe. Assuming you are smoking a wood pipe (usually made of briar) you need to let the pipe rest for anywhere from 24-48 hours (depending on who you ask) between smokes. This is to allow the pipe time to totally dry and and prevent it from turning sour. Now if you are smoking a corncob pipe, and there is nothing wrong with that, you don’t need to let it rest as long, maybe only a few hours, and if you are smoking a clay pipe of any sort (including meerschaum) you don’t need to let it rest at all, the same is true with metal pipes, though if you are using briar inserts with a metal pipe you do need to let it rest.
So why smoke out of different materials? Because the pipe itself effects the taste of the tobacco. This one is more subtle than the type of tobacco, but it is absolutely there. Briar pipes tend to round off the edges of flavors giving everything a slightly sweeter mellower taste, corncobs do the same but with more sweetness. Clay and meerschaum pipes to the opposite, providing very little flavor of their own so there is little to no filter on what you are tasting, leaving some things tasting very sharp but also bringing out subtle notes that you might have missed in a briar pipe.
Then there is the issue of flavor ghosting and pipe dedication. Like I said before there are significant differences between some blends of tobacco, and while some tobaccos smoke “clean” many will leave some sort of a flavor ghost behind. This can be purged from the pipe by reaming and cleaning and smoking, but in general people like to at least dedicate some pipes to only smoking aromatics and some to only smoking english. Some go farther and dedicate certain pipes to VA blends (which have the most subtle flavor and are most suceptable to being altered by a ghost) and certain pipes to Latakia blends (which have the strongest flavor and are most likely to ghost.
Some go even farther than that and will dedicate a pipe to only one particular blend so that any ghost will be from that same blend. People who do this say that it gets the pipe in tune with the blend and that the blend tastes better in this particular pipe than it would in other non dedicated pipes. Personally, I am skeptical. I have my pipes divided into Latakia, VA, Aromatic and “other”.
Starter tobaccos for anyone and advice on how to pack a pipe.
I would avoid Captain Black, which is going to be tough since most places it is the easiest thing to find. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but it isn’t a great example of what pipe smoking can be. I would say to look for Carter Hall or Prince Albert. Sir Walter Raleigh is good too but might be a touch difficult to get lit as a first timer. One of those three should be relatively easy to find, and shockingly inexpensive. You will also either need one of these or a nail, or something else that will allow you to tamp down the tobacco without using your finger (which is messy and could lead to you burning your finger).
So, the first thing you want to do after you get all this stuff home is figure out how to pack your pipe.* There are all sorts of elaborate methods you can find online to help you learn to properly pack a pipe, but they all aim toward the same goal, and that is getting enough tobacco in the pipe so that it burns consistently without there being so much tobacco that you can’t draw air through. I find that I like the three layer method when it comes to teaching new folks how to pack and light a pipe for the first time.
What you want to do is take a pinch of tobacco and sprinkle it into the bowl of the pipe (you will make a mess until you get used to how to do this, so put down a paper towel or something) so that the pipe is losely filled with tobacco. Give the bowl a gentel tap on the side with your hand a couple of times to make sure that everything has settledten top it off so that the tobacco is just a little higher than the rim of the bowl. Now tamp this down so the pipe is only 1/2 full. Repeat the process and this time when the bowl is full tamp down so that the pipe is 2/3 full. Then one more time and tamp down so that the tobacco is just below the rim of the pipe. So you are packing the tobacco more tightly as you get toward the top. The saying goes “The first time with the hand of a child, the second with the hand of a lady, the third with the hand of a man” Sexist, but you get the idea.
Now, before you light it, draw through the pipe. There should be some, but not much, resistence. MUCH less resistance than you would get off a cigar or a cigarette. The resistance you feel should be about the same as sucking soda through a straw. If it is closer to a milkshake than a soda, unpack it and start again. If it is too tight you will never keep it lit and you will get frustrated. It takes some practice and everyone has trouble packing and lighting the first time, so don’t worry too much, it will come. It’s easier for me to pack a pipe and then show you what the correct pack feels like then it is to try to describe it.
Then you want to light. Many people will tell you to use matches, but go ahead and use a lighter if that’s what you have handy. You can get into specialty lighting equipment later if you want to. You are going to want to start with a charring light. The first light you are going to pass the flame over the tobacco slowly while gently puffing to draw the flame down just a bit. You aren’t trying to keep the whole pipe lit here, you are just trying to get an even char across the top tobacco so that the pipe burns at an even rate. Once you have the whole top of the pipe lit (you will know), take another couple of puffs and then let the pipe go out. Tap down the ash GENTLY using only the weight of the tamper, you don’t want to ruin your pack now, so that the ash is even across the top. Then you can light it again.
I do one or two bigger puffs to get things started and then follow up with a series of smaller puffs (another two or three) to get it lit, and then put the pipe down for a bit. You probably want to puff at a rate of 1 to 2 puffs a minute. This is a slow contemplateve past time. Don’t speed through like it was a cigarette. Even a small corncob pipe should take at least 30 minutes to smoke start to finish. If you smoke too fast you will burn your tongue, gentle shallow little sips at the pipe are what you are looking for, almost like you aren’t smoking it at all. How do you know if you are smoking too fast or too hard? Well the bowl of the pipe will get warm as you smoke. This is ok, but you never want it to get hot. If you can hold the bowl against your cheek for a count of 15 without it feeling unpleasant, you are probably fine.
If you are already a cigar smoker you are probably smoking at close to the right pace, but will likely draw much harder than you need to, so slow down. Enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with letting the pipe go out and needing to re light. Very few people make it through a whole bowl without a re light. If the pipe goes out just tamp down the ash (gently) and start again.
That should get you started.
Pre Treated vs untreated pipes and pipe cake**
As for Pre-treated vs “naked” I don’t think it makes a difference. Some folks say that they can taste the carbon treatment, but my taste buds aren’t that good. I don’t notice that it makes the break in period for a pipe any easier either, but it probably does cut down on instances of burn out with new smokers. I don’t avoid it, but I don’t seek it out either. Properly breaking in your pipe is something you are going to want to do regardless because, despite claims from manufacturers, I have never noticed that the treatments on pipes reduce the need for break it or make the pipe smoke sweeter right from the start.
Ok, now some background for the people who are playing the home game.
Disclaimer, the following only applies to Briar and other wood pipes. Wood pipes make up the majority of pipes out there, and of the wood pipes in the world most of them are made of Briar wood. But there are many other types of pipe materials, and the following does not apply when you are talking about anything other than wood.
Briar is a very hard wood. It does not burn easily, but, being wood, it will still burn. This is obviously a bad thing if you want to keep your pipe in good smoking condition. New pipe smokers frequently ruin pipes because they smoke too hot and cause the pipes to “burn out”. They literally burn a hole into them (or the start of a hole, you normally notice the burn out before it makes it all the way through the pipe.) So what do you do about this? How do you protect your pipe? Well fortunately one of the things that happens when you light a fire in your pipe is that you create a carbon char that sticks to/is the inside of your pipe’s bowl. Some of the char is from the briar, most of it is remainder from the tobacco. This char that lines the inside of the bowl after you burn the tobacco is known as cake, and cake is a good thing (remember, wood pipes only!) for a few reasons. The primary reason for the purposes of this particular discussion is that cake protects the wood of the pipe. It acts as a natural insulator keeping the actual flame away from the flammable wood. If you get the pipe too hot, even with a good cake, you can still burn the pipe, but it’s harder.
One of the (many) other things that cake does is it cuts down on the “woody” flavor of the pipe. Wood brings a lot of flavors to the mix, some of them good some not so good. The cake tones down all of these flavors so that the not so good ones fade away and all you are left with are the good ones. Because of this many pipe smokers dislike the break in period because the bitter bad flavors from the wood are more prominent and over the years they have come up with ways to help speed the break in process. Some people smear a little bit of honey on the inside of the pipe and let that dry on before the first smoke, instant carbon char on the first light. Some use jelly to similar effect (the jelly dries faster, but doesn’t give you as solid a cake). Some use nothing. Many pipe manufacturers have started making pipes that are “pre-smoked” or “pre-broken in” or “carbon lined”. In my experience, these pipes still need to be broken in for flavor and smoking properties that cake brings to the table, but they are (I think) slightly less susceptible to burn out. I don’t think that they help proper cake build any more quickly, and in some cases I think they make the process take longer. They certainly are not a substitute for having a proper cake (not that any manufacturer claims that, but I have seen pipe smokers who believe it).
Ok, next time I post it will be with new thoughts.