Guide to Pipe Tobacco

Originally published on LiveJournal, 4.7.12

Types of Tobacco Used in Blends

All types are the same species of plant: nicotiana tabacum. Compare, for example, with coffee, which is of two species: Arabaica and Robusto. What makes a “type” is actually a combination of choice seeds (a cultivar), geography (growing conditions), cultivation methods, and preparation methods. But, since these traditions have become so localized, simple geography is the best distinguishing marker. Confusingly, since tobacco production has been internationalized, the geographical type does not signify origin: for example, it’s now possible to grow “Virginia”-type tobacco in Europe. The type says a lot about the flavor, texture and aroma of the tobacco, but unique qualities of specific harvests may have an important impact.

So, geography. The main distinction is continental, between American and “Oriental” (also called “Turkish”) types. Of the American, there are two main, very distinct traditions:

Burley: air-dried, aromatic, light nutty flavor. Slow and clean burn. Its dryness means low on sugar. The general connotation is “light” or even “neutral.” It can provide a blend with a good base quality for the smoke, in which other tobaccos provide the flavor.

Virgina: cured by hot air with carefully regulated moisture, such that the sugars remain intact. Results in a sweet flavor. However, the heat does do away with the oil, and so it is lighter on nicotine than Burley.

There are several kinds of Orientals, too, with traditions spanning from Turkey west towards Macedonia and the Balkans, and east towards Syria and Russia. Orientals have considerable variation, at least as much as the Americans, but these are rarely emphasized and known by Western blenders. Orientals are generally known for their pronounced aromas, with flavors ranging from bland to sweet to spicy. Indeed, their stereotypical use in Western blends is to add "spice."

Cavendish is a preparation variety done mostly on Americans, but also on Orientals. It involves adding a sweetener during the preparation process: sugar, honey or maple syrup, such that the tobacco is lightly fermented. The idea is to capture and enhance the natural sweetness of tobacco. But, cheap cavendishes can feel like candy. Heavier Cavendish has a distinctly black color, such that indeed it is sometimes just called "black".

There are also two types of tobacco, which are so extremely flavorful that they are rarely smoked alone, and instead added as flavoring - “condiment” - to blends. These are the famous Latakia and Perique. The former, originally from the Syrian town of the same name, is smoke-cured, with a heavy taste and dark color, since most of its oils are sealed in. It adds quite a punch. The latter is quite rare, grown only in a handful of Lousiana farms. It’s fermented in its own juice, and has a strong, almost vinegary wine flavor. A little of either goes a long way, and they are not everybody’s cup of tea. Or, well, bowl of tobacco.

Types of Blends

The primary distinction is between “aromatic” and “English” blends, two rather poor names that do not describe their differences.

"Aromatic" has nothing to do with aroma, but with flavor: it means that some flavoring agent, called a “casing,” was added to the blend. Common casings are fruit, such as cherry and peach. Also vanilla, whisky, anise and sarsaparilla. The flavor does not have to be overpowering at all: there are many excellent aromatics in which the casing is subtly used to enhance the taste and the nose. Condiments are rarely added to aromatics, since they depend more on the casing for flavor.

"English" is a synonym in pipe tobaccos for “natural,” meaning that no casing was added (though note that humectants – chemicals that help maintain the humidity and “freshness” of the blend – may have been used). Englishes rely on the natural flavor of the tobaccos. Cavendish usually counts as casing for this distinction, though some English blends include some.

Most blends sold in America and Europe, whether they are aromatic or English, are based on American tobaccos. Some add Orientals, and some even emphasize the Orientals. Englishes with a lot of Orientals are sometimes called “Balkan” blends, although this category is not entirely clear. Generally, smokers of English blends tend to care more about the ingredient tobaccos, and Englishes are thus pricier and more pretentious. Because Latakia and Perique are so divisive among pipe smokers, it’s common to note whether an English has them or not. An English with Latakia can thus be called a "Latakia blend."

Both aromatics and Englishes can be strong or mild. They can have a pronounced aroma or not. They can burn well or with difficulty. They can be cut differently, leading to a different experience in pipe packing, as well as a different unburned “pouch nose,” which is also part of the experience and pleasure. They also vary in nicotine content, which is quite noticeable: high nicotine content leads to a “heady” smoke. Too much can induce some dizziness. Heavy blends would rarely be called “everyday” blends, except by longtime smokers used to the head rush.

All of this means that there is so much variation between blends, such that the aromatic/English distinction might not be as sharp as some would pretend. Many smokers like to diversify and smoke blends of both types. It’s good advice, however, to use a separate pipe for the Englishes, so that the aromatics' casing won’t affect the natural flavor of Englishes. This might sound pretentious, but in fact pipes do soak up flavors and later unleash them, and a well-loved pipe can add an extra touch of all the fine blends it burned in the past (or the bad ones).