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Put This in Your Pipe and Smoke it: How to Choose a Tobacco

Posted by Man Crates on


All tobacco is not created equal. There are a varieties, cures, cuts and tastes that can all influence the pipe-smoking experience. How do you find out more about these choices? Simply keep reading. We’ve organized all the tobacco info to make pipe smoking for beginners as enjoyable as possible. So place that perfectly chosen or freshly carved pipe aside for a few minutes, knowing that soon enough, you’ll be packing it with juuuuust the right style of tobacco for your taste.

ROOM NOTES
When shopping for tobacco, you may see reviews that include room notes. Tobacco doesn't necessarily smell like it tastes. So room notes help rate the ambient aromas that blends put out for those around the smoker. There's a rating system from one to five stars, with one being the harshest scent and five being the most pleasant. Choose wisely if you're going to be smoking your pipe indoors with someone who may be sensitive to your smoke. 

TOBACCO VARIETIES

If you like the rule of three, you’ll appreciate that tobaccos can be aromatic, non-aromatic or English blend.

Aromatic tobaccos have casings, or flavors, added during the manufacturing process. Some common casings are maple, chocolate, vanilla, rum, apple and cherry. Depending on the amount of casing used, one of these blends can also be deemed semi-aromatic or lightly aromatic.

Non-aromatic tobaccos rely solely on the natural ingredients of the tobacco for flavors and aroma. Frequently, to increase sweetness, the tobacco is specially aged or fermented.

English blend refers to English tobaccos that, up until 1986, didn’t allow additives. Today an English blend is any containing Oriental tobaccos. The most common consist of Latakia, Virginia and Perique tobaccos (more on those in a bit). The overall strength of the blend—mild-, medium- or full-bodied—depends on how much Latakia is mixed in.

TOBACCO CURES

This doesn’t refer to hypnotism, patches or other attempts to quit using tobacco. Quite the contrary. Curing is the post-harvesting process necessary to make tobacco consumable. In its raw, freshly picked state, tobacco is too wet to ignite or smoke. Because, you know, moisture and fire don’t really mix.

  • Air-cured tobaccos are dried naturally in large barns sheltered from the sun. An entire plant or individual leaf can be dried this way, and the resulting byproduct of this three-month process is sugar.
  • Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto sticks hung from poles in curing barns with flues running on externally fed fire boxes, exposing it to smoke while slowly raising the temperature. (The 1960s saw some of these convert to gas-fueled systems.) This process takes about a week and produces tobacco that is high in sugar with medium/high nicotine levels.
  • Fire-cured drying is natural and completed with wood-fired fumigation, traditionally of the oak variety.
  • Sun-curing is applied to mostly all Oriental tobaccos, which are grown in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and adjoining countries.

TOBACCO CUTS

You probably didn’t think there was so much to tobacco, did you? Well, there is. And we’re still just getting started. Now it’s time to cut the tobacco. There are a number of ways to do so, some of which are more fun than others, but all of them make for a tasty smoke.

  • Flake cut tobacco consists of large and flat flakes. Flakes must be rubbed out to separate the flakes. That means rubbing it to loosen the tobacco in the palm of the hand prior to smoking. Flakes are basically big blocks of tobacco sliced into three-inch flakes. There is also a large type, the six-inch flake—sounds like a really bad case of dandruff.
  • Slices are essentially the same as flakes but thicker. Easy.
  • Ready-rubbed flakes, a.k.a., the lazy man’s flakes, have been rubbed out before packaging. Even easier.
  • Ribbon cut is tobacco that has been cut into long, thin ribbons. These are not as long or as fine as shag.
  • Curlies have no relation to Moes or Larrys. These long, thin slices of tobacco are cut from twisted “ropes” and cut into small circles.
  • Twists are made like curlies, except that they are cut into one- or two-inch pieces. Twists are not frequently seen, like a Yeti, so if you do see one, at the very least snap a pic.
  • Shag tobacco is very shredded and very fine. This tobacco is known as Sherlock Holmes’s preference, even though at that time it was considered inferior. Not so elementary after all, eh?
  • Plug tobacco is soaked in honey, which acts as a bonding agent as well as a sweetener. Post honey, the tobacco is molded into round molds before packaging, which is sometimes referred to as “spun-disc” tobacco. A knife is used to flake off pieces.
  • Cube cuts are pressed and chopped into small, square pieces.

But wait, there's more...



TOBACCO TASTES

The pursuit of the right tobacco flavor can be all consuming, but oh so delicious. With so many different flavors, it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s start here.

TypeDescription

Virginia

The mildest of all blending tobaccos, Virginia is a good burner. It lights easily, has the highest natural sugar content and is used in basically all blends. It’s got a light, sweet flavor and ranges from bright yellow to medium brown in color. The lighter colors are spicier and the darker colors are more complex in flavor. About 60% of the American tobacco crop is Virginia.

Burley

Thicker than Virginia, bet less popular—sorry, buddy—Burley has a soft, nutty flavor, burns slowly and coolly and is used in many blends. High in oil, low in sugar, it is the anti-Virginia. Since its flavor is pretty neutral, it accepts outside flavorings (i.e., casings) well.

Kentucky

A fire-cured Burley tobacco produced in, wait for it...Kentucky. Its aroma is not as heavy and is very aromatic and unique. The nicotine content tends to be higher, so it’s used in limited amounts.

Carolina

Similar in character to Virginia, but not as rich in flavor. It is a good way to dilute a blend without changing character.

Bright

Bright is, well, bright. This very light tobacco is grown in the Carolinas and has a mild flavor.

Cavendish

A curing and cutting method, not an actual type of tobacco leaf, but its rakish-sounding name makes it more interesting, don’t you think? This flue- or fire-cured process brings out the naturally sweet Virginia flavor and creates a tobacco that is mild, light in taste and easy to pack.

Perique

A product of a Burley-growing process native to Louisiana. It is a slow-burning dark tobacco renowned for its very spicy flavor. Juices are pressed out of the leaf, fermented and then reintroduced to the tobacco. The process is repeated, which makes a dark reddish-brown tobacco that is tart, spicy and sweet. The nicotine content is kind of overwhelming, so Perique can’t be smoked by itself—about 5% is the maximum.

Brazil

A very dark tobacco that has a robust, sweet flavor.

Latakia

Yet another process/not actual tobacco. Syria- or Cyprus-grown, the leaves are hung in huts above fires fed by wood burning on the floor. Over time, the smoke saturates the tobacco, turning it black and giving it a distinct flavor and scent. Dark and full-bodied, Latakia gives off a smoky aroma similar to burning leaves. Weird fact: When short on wood, peasant farmers would use camel dung for cooking and heating in the winter. How about that?

Oriental

These tobaccos refer to a general group that is spicy and fragrant and usually high in sugar. They’re grown in Western Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Macedonia and Syria, and different types include Xanthi, Komotini, Drama (as strong as its name suggests), Serrus, Samsun, Izmir, Yenidje (spicy, but smooth), Basma, Dubeck, Bashi Bagli, Smyrna and some others.

Cigar Leaf

Although primarily used in cigars, cigar leaf is also at times used as pipe tobacco. This adds richness, sweetness and some spice.

More info on tobacco pipes for beginners...

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT PIPE
From corn cob to clay to burl wood, there are several kinds of pipe materials. Find out which pipe to puff ‘n’ stuff.