I know a lot of pipe smokers. It’s my job to know a lot of pipe smokers. If it wasn’t for pipe smokers, I would be out of a job! I also know pipe tobacco – generally speaking. But, if you put me in a room with Gregory Pease, Mike McNiel, Russ Ouellette, Mark Ryan, Fred Hanna, Tad Gage and other famous blenders to take a quiz on the various types of pipe tobaccos and what each adds to a blend, I’d get slaughtered. If you stuck me in a field where Virginia, Burley, Yenidje, Perique, etc, were all growing, I could no more tell you which plant was which than I could explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. And to take it further, if you asked me how to prep each varietal and take it through the process of making a tasty blend, well, I’d have better luck if you asked me to build you a rocket ship for a ride to the moon. But, what I can do is share a little info about tobacco types that I recently researched as prep for this blog. I don’t have the knowledge to get in depth with the descriptions, so what I wrote below is just “general” information.
VIRGINIA – Let’s start with the leaf that you find in almost all tobacco blends, Virginias. Virginia leaf has, by far, the highest sugar content of any pipe tobacco. That is why, when properly cured (and there are a variety of ways to cure it), it is sweeter to the taste than any other tobacco type. I think that most of us also know that it smokes the hottest due to the high sugar content, and that’s why it’ll grab you tongue and shake it if you don’t respect the leaf and smoke it slowly. And did you know that the higher up the stalk of a Virginia plant you go, the deeper and sweeter the taste? And “Bright” Virginia has that hay, grass or citrus like flavor that many people describe, while “Red” Virginia has that tart, bolder sweet taste. And most importantly to us pipe smokers, is the fact that the leaf itself is strong and full of dextrose, or sugar if you will, and that is why it ages so beautifully, mellowing out while retaining that natural sweetness.
BURLEY – Many people, myself included, also like Burley tobacco due to the fact that it adds body and strength to other tobaccos and actually is quite good at absorbing the flavors of other tobaccos and added sweeteners as well. That’s why Burley is so often found in aromatic blends. And did you know that Burley tobacco with the highest nicotine content is one that retains the most stems because that’s where the nicotine is? That’s right, so the more stem pieces left in a Burley tobacco blend, the higher the nicotine content. And because there is almost no dextrose in Burley leaf, it does not burn hot and that’s why a lot of pipe smoker’s with sensitive tongues prefer blends that are either all Burley or contain a lot of it.
ORIENTALS – We often read in tobacco blend descriptions that the particular blend includes Orientals. There are more types of this leaf than any other. We often find out that our favorite blends contain Smyrna, Yenidje, Drama, Samsun, Izmir, etc. Most of it comes from Turkey, the Balkan Islands, Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria. But Oriental tobacco is grown in other parts of the world as well. The great thing about Oriental tobaccos is that each varietal offers a different spicy note to blends, and the great pipe tobacco blenders of the world, such as the ones named at the start of this blog, know which Orientals to add to whatever blend they are making to bring out the richness and overall flavor presentation that they are seeking. The particular Oriental plant that I chose to show a photo of for this blog is Yenidje.
PERIQUE – Another famous condiment leaf that goes particularly well with Virginia tobacco, is Perique. As most of you already know, due to its unique soil, all of the world’s true Perique is grown in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Only 300 acres that runs along the Acadian Coast is used to grow this precious leaf, which is actually a specially treated type of Burley. After a brief period of air curing, the Burley leaf is put in Oak barrels under heavy pressure and then allowed to ferment. Every once in awhile, the tobacco is removed from the barrels to air out, then repacked. This packing and repacking continues for close to a full year before it is fully processed. Just for fun, I loaded up my pipe and smoked a little Perique by itself once. I never got to the fun part!
KENTUCKY – One of my favorite condiment tobaccos is Kentucky (actually a type of Burley), that is fire cured. Fire-cured tobacco is hung in large barns where fires of hardwoods are kept on continuous or intermittent low smolder and it takes between three days and ten weeks, depending on the process and the tobacco, to get it just right. Fire curing produces a tobacco low in sugar and high in nicotine. You can bet that the more Kentucky found in a blend, the stronger it will be. It adds a somewhat smoky taste, but nothing like Latakia.
LATAKIA – Speaking of Latakia; The only kind still being grown is from Cyprus. It is not a unique type of tobacco like Virginia or Burley for example, but rather the name of the leaf after it has been fumigated (smoke cured). Starting with the Smyrna varietal grown in Cyprus, it is first harvested and sun dried before being loaded into smoking barns. The leaf is then smoked in a manner very similar to Dark Fired Kentucky leaf, although more aromatic smoking woods are used. These woods, also located in Cyprus are called ‘Pistacia lentiscus,’ also known as Mastic trees (shown in the photo), that also produce a resin that is used in spices. Research also tells us that a small percentage of Myrtle, Cypress & Stone Pine, are other woods that are sometimes added to the Mastic in small amounts during the fumigating process. In any event, the wood gives the leaf a very unique smoky floral flavor, which has been noted to have uniquely smooth smoking properties despite its bold aroma. The final preparation is exported in bales, allowing the blenders around the world to finish the product by cutting the leaf to their own specifications.
So there you go. The major tobacco types used to make literally thousands of different tobacco blends. All mixed and matched by experts who have spent their lives creating palate pleasing blends for us pipe smokers. Kudos to all of them!