I'm thinking of taking up pipe smoking. What's next?
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
Pipes require a bit more work than cigars. If you like to sit and fiddle, a pipe is for you! Pipes really do provide an entirely different experience than cigars.
First, Some Basics
The following comes from Tobacconist University. The most popular materials for tobacco pipes are briar and meerschaum. Briar comes from burls that form on the root system of the Heath tree while meerschaum is a white, clay-like mineral primarily found in Turkey. Briar pipes are valued by their age, grain pattern, imperfections, and carving artistry. Meerschaum pipes are known for their intricate carvings and ability to change color. Both types of pipe will form cake, which is the carbon that develops along the inner wall of the pipe chamber and acts as insulation for the bowl, as well as promoting an even smoking experience.
Corncob pipes are considered the ‘quintessential American pipe’ because they were invented in America. Hookahs originated in India and were popularized in the Middle East. Hookahs are considered an indirect smoking system because the smoke passes through water before reaching the smoker’s palate.
Some Pipe History
The short version is that the indigenous people of North America smoked tobacco in a pipe while those in Central and South America rolled tobacco (similar to a cigar) for smoking. Britanica.com gives a nice synopsis of pipe smoking's history.
The smoking of tobacco through a pipe is indigenous to the Americas and derives from the religious ceremonies of ancient priests in Mexico. Farther north, American Indians developed ceremonial pipes, the chief of these being the calumet, or pipe of peace. Such pipes had marble or red steatite (or pipestone) bowls and ash stems about 30 to 40 inches (75–100 cm) long and were decorated with hair and feathers. The practice of pipe smoking reached Europe through sailors who had encountered it in the New World.
What About Pipe Tobacco?
While premium cigars are long filler and use half a leaf or a strip from a leaf, pipe tobacco is cut into pieces or strands. Also, premium cigar tobacco is considered dark, with pipe and cigarette tobacco considered as light. Pipe tobacco, though, is not the same as cigarette tobacco. Some pipe tobaccos work very well in roll your own (RYO) cigarettes. Holt's offers a brief explanation of pipe tobacco.
Pipe tobaccos fall into two broad classifications: Aromatic and English (or Non-Aromatic). Aromatic tobaccos deliver sweeter, more sugary flavor profiles. They generally possess a higher moisture content than Non-Aromatic, and include a range of flavors like vanilla, whiskey, rum, cherry, chocolate, bourbon, and more. Non-Aromatic, or English, tobaccos are earthy, woody, and spicy by comparison. They can feature a peaty, mossy, peppery, or hearth-like taste and aroma.
Pipe tobacco varietal families inckude Burley, Oriental, Virginia, Cavendish, Perique, and Latakia. TU offers an explanation of these and the types of pipe tobacco cuts.
Typically, Burleys are air-cured, Orientals are sun-cured, and Virginia pipe tobaccos are flue-cured. Flue-cured tobaccos are exposed to contained heat and used primarily for pipe and cigarette tobaccos.
Virginia varietal tobaccos are a light tobacco which are very high in sugar content. They are typically flue-cured and used for both cigarettes and pipe tobaccos.
Oriental varietal tobacco plants have small leaves which are very aromatic. Their aroma resembles cigar tobaccos more than any other plants.
Cavendish type pipe tobaccos are made from both Virginia and Burley varietals. They are steamed with sugar and/or flavorings in the water, stored under pressure (pressed), and available in a variety of shades/colors.
Perique type pipe tobaccos are an air-cured Burley varietal that are fermented in oak barrels; this process helps give Perique tobaccos their bold flavor and unique spice. Perique tobacco is grown primarily in St. James Parish, Louisiana, USA.
Latakia type pipe tobaccos are Oriental tobacco varietals which are sun-cured then fire-cured with aromatic woods; this process produces its characteristically rich and spicy aromas and flavor.
The primary pipe tobacco Cuts are Cube, Flake, Plug, Ribbon, and Shag. Flake and Plug cuts need to be rubbed out for smoking.
Casings vs Toppings
These terms come up frequently when discussing pipe tobacco. On page 84 of The Tobacconist Handbook, it states in the Tobacconist Tip: Casing is another term for flavorings that can be added to pipe tobaccos, primarily aromatic blends. Casing usually involves applying flavored liquids, like honey, liqueurs, and extracts. Kevin Goodbee, CMT offers some discussion.
Casings and Toppings are two different things. Toppings are actually what is more associated with the stereotypical sweet flavor or aroma of an “aromatic” pipe tobacco blend. For example, a Cherry Tobacco will have a cherry topping. The topping is applied last, at the very end of the processing just before the tobacco goes into the tin or pouch.
Casing, on the other hand is done to ALL pipe tobacco blends – NOT just AROMATICS. Casing happens around the middle of the processing, and it is not meant to add anything that is detectable to the flavor. Casing is applied, and then the tobacco is left to sit for about a day to absorb the casing. So, casing is absorbed into the tobacco, and toppings, as implied, sit on top of the tobacco and quickly burn off. You don’t so much as taste the topping as smell it.
The most typical casings are as follows:
Virginia tobaccos (which are not strictly from VA), are typically cased with sugar-water.
Burley tobaccos are typically cased with a solution that contains chocolate and/or licorice.
Casings serve the purpose of enhancing and bringing out more of the tobacco’s natural flavor. Toppings serve the purpose of adding an additional flavor (taste+aroma) to a blend. The simple way I use to remember the difference is to think of casing as a marinade, as it is added during the processing, and soaks into the tobacco. And think of toppings as a sauce. You could marinate (casing) a steak, then grill it, and after it is cooked, you can put some A1 sauce (topping) on it.
Why Do People Smoke Pipes?
Chuck Stanion of Pipe Line offers an eloquent answer in the Smoking Pipes Daily Reader.
Pipe smoking is a soothing activity. The nicotine may help take some of the sharp edges off of emotions in difficult situations, but the necessary deceleration inherent in pipe smoking is more important to attaining calm and relaxation. We have hectic lives. Pipe smoking offers a comforting envelope of smoke and tranquility. Josh Burgess, Managing Director of Kapp & Peterson, once said, "Cigarettes seem to raise you to the occasion. Pipes, on the other hand, work inversely, lowering the occasion to you." Pipes make situations better, and there's a clear difference between pipe and cigarette smoking.
Some people are fidgeters. Observe, for example, the popularity of fidget spinners. I am more composed when my hands are occupied, and pipe smoking is a simple task that requires continuous but easy monitoring, like driving but without the irritation of other drivers. With a pipe, there's always something for my hands to do, whether shifting it from one to the other, relighting, tamping, running a pipe cleaner through it, or just turning it to appreciate its shape and construction from all angles. If you're the same, pipe smoking is a solution.
I suspect that most pipe smokers enjoy being alone with their thoughts. While it may be a cliché that cerebral-types smoke pipes (Einstein and Hubble were pretty smart), it remains an excellent activity for both daydreaming and focused thinking. Sometimes the solution to a tough problem is just on the other side of a bowl of fine Virginia tobacco.
Bailey's Cigar Room sells everything from corn cobs under $10 to Brigham pipes at $100. We also offer a selection of pipe tobacco by the ounce (including some of our own blends), in tins, or in pouches. Part of the allure of pipe smoking is the ability to easily create your own blend of tobaccos or to build a collection of pipes. We'll help ya with both!