Curing is the cure

curingRecently I realized with a shock that I had never written a proper blogpost about an essential tobacco process: curing. Ok, here and there in older blogposts I told stuff but nothing combined. So I put all the bits and pieces together with some additional info. The primary purpose of curing leaf tobacco is to accelerate the ageing and drying processes under controlled conditions to make it ready for consumption. Trust me, you do not want to smoke fresh tobacco.. Curing allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in the tobacco leaf. This produces various compounds that give cured tobacco the “smoothness” of the consumed end-product. The primary methods of curing include: air curing, flue curing, fire curing (or smoke curing) and sun curing (considered by some people to be the same as air curing).

Air-curing the Burley tobaccoAir curing: here the leaves are allowed to dry by exposure to air in well ventilated barns. Fans can also be used in this process to make the air movement stronger to accelerate the loss of moisture. This air curing process normally takes from 4 to 6 weeks. It is completed when the central vein of the leaf is completely free of sap. This type of curing is used primarily for burley. Light air cured burley and dark air cured burley to be precise. The top grades of light air cured burley, which are yellow, are referred to as “White Burley”. These larger, thinner middle leaves are those most desired for the manufacture of fine pipe tobacco and premium quality cigarettes. White burley has a fine texture, excellent burning qualities and the ability to absorb large amounts of casings and flavourings. The top and bottom leaves are used in the manufacture of snuff, plugs, twist and inexpensive brands of pipe smoking tobacco. The taste is nutty, sometimes with a bit of a cocoa note.

dark air cured burleyDark Air cured burley is mostly used for chewing tobacco, plugs, snuff and inexpensive brands of pipe tobacco. The lower grades (or heavier leaves) are used in some tobacco mixtures to give the tobacco blend more “body”. The taste is earthy, spicy and cigar-like and the colour of the leaves ranges from light to dark brown. Most cigar leaf is also air cured but will undergo an extra step: “bulking”. Essentially this means that big bundles are made of the leaves so that they can be laid to rest in order to start the fermentation process. The pepperiness of  burley and many of the Central American-grown Cuban-seed cigar strains comes from the nicotine that naturally is in the leaf.

fire-cured-tobacco-barnFire curing (or smoke curing): here the leaves are essentially BBQed. In the case of dark fired Kentucky burley they are exposed to open fires (smouldering, not blazing, otherwise the tobacco will prematurely burn up) of hardwood and hardwood sawdust that are maintained on the barn-floor and give off smoke. In some cases, the amount of smoke is fairly moderate.  In addition to drying the tobacco the fire curing process imparts an unusual, modest smoky and wood-like taste and aroma to the tobacco. Latakia is also a fire cured tobacco but has a far more pronounced smoke flavour and aroma. This is due to the intensity of the fumes and aromatic quality of the used woods. Syrian latakia is derived from a tobacco leaf known as “shekk-el-bint.” When it is harvest time the plant is cut and the leaves and flowers are laid on the ground to dry in the sun (essentially sun curing). When they have dried they are taken to storehouses, where they are smoked for a period of 13 to 15 weeks. The smoke is primarily made by using nearby hardwoods and pines, probably from the Baer forest, such as Aleppo pine, Turkey oak and Valonia oak. Also lesser amounts of other aromatic species like Lebanon cedar and Greek Juniper were used.

fire_curedCyprian latakia comes from a Smyrna or Izmir-type tobacco plant that is known as “Yellow Cyprus.” The Yellow Cyprus leaves are harvested by de-stalking them and are made on long poles to be hung in a tobacco shed. The leaves are then smoked over open smouldering fires. These fires are made from hardwoods, some pine and aromatic shrubs and woods such as prickly cedar and myrtle. It has been reported that the Mastic shrub is primarily used in the smoke generation for Cyprian latakia. The following formula may approximate the shrubs and woods used for the fire/smoke-curing process: Mastic 90%, Myrtle 4%, Stone pine (this one or this one) 4%, Cypress 1%, Other 1%. The nicotine content does not seem to be severely affected by the process. Dark fired Kentucky burley with its significant nicotine level is not that much different from the dark air cured variety. The moderate nicotine level of latakia does not vary greatly from the oriental base leaf it is made of.

Flue curingFlue curing: here the leaves are cured by exposure to indirect heat. This is created by moving hot air, smoke or steam through a flue or pipe inside a building (often a barn) thus allowing the heat to strongly warm up the building. The higher heat causes a more rapid drying effect and is the traditional method for curing Virginia. The yellow colour you often see Virginia has comes from the heat exposure. Generally the process will take about a week. This way of flue curing was not discovered until 1839. In that year a slave, Stephen Slade (owned by farmer Abisha Slade from Caswell County NC), fell asleep one night while keeping an eye on the wood fires used for curing the barns of tobacco. Whether it was the stormy night, instinct or just what woke him, no one will ever know. But he awoke realizing that the fires in the tobacco curing barn had almost gone out. Rather than throw wet wood into the dying fire, he rushed to the charcoal pit near the forge. He grabbed several charred log parts and threw them on the embers. The application of the sudden, drying heat, derived from the charred logs, produced an amazing effect on the green tobacco. The result was 600 pounds of the brightest yellow tobacco ever seen.

flue cured tobaccoFlue cured tobacco generally has more sugar, less oil and a lower nicotine content. The presence of the sugar counters tongue bite but can cause heat issues while smoking. Naturally sugars tend to have a higher combustion temperature. Because of the ability of this curing method to maintain the sugars in a relatively stable percentage a form of flue curing is used in making candela cigar wrapper. The heat not only fixes the few sugars present but the chlorophyll as well thus allowing the wrappers to stay green.

Sun curingSun curing: this method is used in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Mediterranean countries which produce oriental tobaccos. Leaves are strung out on racks and exposed to the sun for 12 to 30 days to remove most of their moisture before being air cured to complete the process. The sun’s direct heat fixes the leaves at a yellow to orange colour with a high sugar content. Then they are stored in bales and allowed to ferment.



Additional or supplementary curing can be done by the use of heat and/or pressure after the initial process. A good example of pressure is the technique of pressure-fermentation which is used in making perique. This process remains a traditional craft,  not much has changed since the early 20th century. First air cured tobacco is hand stripped. The leaf which is used  is considered to be pretty similar to burley. The only moisture added is just prior to the stripping to make the leaves pliable. How many moisture is used is up to the craftsmen. You just have to feel it. Then the tobacco is rolled into “torquettes” of approximately 1 pound (450 g) and packed into hickory whisky barrels. These are  topped off with a wooden lid and pressed by using oak blocks and massive screw jacks. Thus forcing nearly all the air out of the still moist leaves. The barrels are unpacked at least three times during the active fermentation phase (around five months). The torquettes are then repacked in the barrels in reverse order (former top bundles on bottom and bottom bundles on top) to permit a little air back into the tobacco. They are then closely monitored with periodic increases of pressure. After at least a year of this treatment, the perique is ready for consumption.

toasting semoisA good example of supplementary curing by the use of heat is the fascinating Belgian leaf, Semois. First it is air cured (after all Semois is a type of burley) and then it is sort of heat cured. This because the tobacco is toasted in what looks like a metal custom made wood-burning oven. Inside is a large drum which is heated by a fire below and can spin around. The tobacco is put inside and while tumbling it is getting toasted.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Vintage Dunhill tobacco made in… Germany!?

IMG_2000A while ago I was surfing on the German ebay, looking for some goodies. There I stumbled upon a couple of vintage Dunhill tobacco tins, one Standard Mixture Medium and one London Mixture. Unfortunately the description said that both tins were opened yet full. I figured that I could probably re-hydrate the tobaccos and since the price was right I decided to take the risk and bought both tins. When I received and opened the package I saw to my utter delight that the London Mixture tin was still sealed. Yesss! Without much thinking I happily put both acquisitions in my tobacco-closet.

Freunde Der Tabakpfeife forum

Freunde Der Tabakpfeife forum

Some months ago I was going through my vintage tobacco stash, looking for something I can’t remember, when I saw the old London Mixture tin again. I took a better look at it and suddenly my eye fell upon a sentence at the downside: Hergestellt In Deutschland. What!? Made in Germany!!?? I always believed vintage Dunhill tobaccos were made in the UK, first by Dunhill themselves and later in 1981 by Murray (and from 2005 until now by Orlik in Denmark). As you can imagine my curiosity was awakened. So I started asking around on international pipe fora. On the forum I did not get much further despite friendly reactions. Kind of logical because that is more American-orientated. Then fellow Dutch pipe smoker Huub came to the rescue: “Arno, I am a member of a German forum, Freunde Der Tabakpfeife, I shall try to gather some information there.” And lo and behold, in no time Huub could tell me several people reacted to my question of the origins of the London Mixture tin. I also became a forum-member there and looked into the thread Huub had started for me.

German made Dunhill tobaccos

Advertisement of German made Dunhill tobaccos

There I found a lot of information and several leads. It turned out that my tin was made under license of Dunhill by German tobacco company Von Eicken who also produced other Dunhill offerings at the time. I barely could believe this and as proof an old advertisement for German made Dunhill tobaccos was uploaded on the FDT forum. In a book about old companies from Hamburg I read more about Von Eicken.

The old Von Eicken factory in Hamburg

The old Von Eicken factory in Hamburg

As early as 1770 Johann Wilhelm von Eicken began trading with colonial countries and produced his pipe and snuff tobacco in Mülheim. In 1866 Carl Heinrich von Eicken took over the management of the company. He discontinued trading with the colonial countries and presses ahead with the production of tobacco products. Another tobacco factory in Hamburg was purchased in 1886. The Hamburg factory was not spared in WWII, it was partly destroyed during air raids in 1943. The plant in Mülheim was completely destroyed during air raids by the US Air Force. Shortly before the end of the war the closure of the factory in Hamburg was ordered by the Nazis in 1944. The building was required for the production of X-ray machines.. Old and sick Hans von Eicken handed over the company to his son Wilhelm just a few months before the war ended.

von_eicken1Official permission to resume manufacturing tobacco was granted in 1949. US Virginia tobacco, essential for production, was available in late autumn of the same year because of the Marshall Plan (93,000 tons of tobacco were shipped free of charge to Germany!). In 1963 Von Eicken was granted the exclusive import and distribution rights for Mac Baren tobacco in Germany and distributed this successfully until 2008. In 1983 the decision was made to relocate the factory to Lübeck. Marc von Eicken was the 8th generation to join the company in 1997. Since then he is running Von Eicken together with his father Johann Wilhelm.

hitler-neville-chamberlainThe most interesting thing I read in the book (and saw on the FDT forum) by far was that Von Eicken already made contact with Dunhill in 1926, permission to produce tobaccos in license was granted in 1938. 1938… With a shock I realized that Adolf Hitler reigned over Nazi-Germany in that year. So one of the quintessential British companies gave a tobacco license to a company in Nazi-Germany?? Yes, but it is not as black and white as you read it. In 1938 most Western countries had adopted an optimistic view about what Winston Churchill later called “the gathering storm of war in Europe”. I mean, a policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler was initiated in Great Britain by Lord Halifax and US president Roosevelt had signed the US Neutrality Acts. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met Hitler in his Munich flat. Later that day he flew home and waved the joint declaration of peaceful intent, which they both signed. He also remarked that “all this will be over in 3 months” and “I believe it is peace for our time”.

Alfred Dunhill jr. sells pipes in the ruins of the bombed store

Alfred Dunhill jr. sells pipes in the ruins of the bombed store

For Dunhill 1938 was a year of consolidation. A royal warrant from the freshly crowned King George VI was received and agencies were appointed for countries around the world. The main agent for Dunhill in London, the firm Abel & Imray, attempted through a local attorney to register the names “Dunhill”, “Rich Dark Virginia”, “Standard Mixture” and “My Mixture” in Germany. Sadly the firm was informed by the German authorities that it could not use its chosen representative because he had been “disbarred from practice” for being Jewish. I guess Von Eicken fitted the bill better. Alas, in the end Hitler’s play for more time (so he could complete his weaponry) was successful. On 3 September 1939 Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and in 1941 the Dunhill store was bombed..

Herr Johann Wilhelm Von Eicken

Herr Johann Wilhelm Von Eicken

Despite the knowledge at the FDT forum and things I read I still had some questions. So I boldly decided to mail Von Eicken themselves in the hope to verify and gain some information. And lo and behold, a couple of days later I got a mail back from the older director, Herr Johan Wilhelm Von Eicken. His answers were very short, sometimes I did not know what he precisely meant but anyway, I was thankful. Below are the questions I had and the answers to the best of my abilities.

Nazi anti-smoking poster

Nazi anti-smoking poster

Why did Dunhill give a license to produce their tobaccos to Von Eicken?
The answer is pretty simple: economical reasons. In 1929 Dresden internist Fritz Lickint presented statistical evidence through a published case-series study which linked lung cancer and tobacco usage. So the Nazis began one of the first public anti-smoking campaigns in modern history. Hence the term “anti-smoking Nazis”.. A motivating factor was Adolf Hitler’s personal distaste for tobacco. Despite the fact that he was a heavy smoker in his early life. He used to smoke 25 to 40 cigarettes daily but gave up the habit, saying that it was “a waste of money”. Another motivation behind the Nazi campaign against smoking were their reproductive policies. The campaign included banning smoking in trams, buses and city trains, promoting health education, limiting cigarette rations in the Wehrmacht, organizing medical lectures for soldiers and raising the tobacco tax. So to get their tobaccos to the German consumer Dunhill first had to import their tobacco into Germany and pay import-duties. And on top of that the increased tobacco-tax made their offerings even more expensive. But with the tobacco made in Germany they avoided the import duties, enter Von Eicken. After the war the Deutsche Mark had little value as opposed to the British Pound thus everything coming from Great Britain was expensive. So once again The Von Eicken factory came in handy for Dunhill.

Original Dunhill London Mixture tin

Original Dunhill London Mixture tin

Did Von Eicken use the same recipes as the original London made ones?
Herr Von Eicken wrote that their Dunhill tobaccos were a close copy to the original. But according to some members the German Dunhill offerings were, uhm, not so good. FDT member Uli says: “As a student I started smoking in 1959. Soon my favourite tobacco became Dunhill Standard Mixture and it was (amongst other Dunhill offerings) made in Germany. One time in Switzerland I bought myself an original Dunhill tin, the difference was striking! After that I never bought a German made Dunhill tobacco.” German friend and walking pipe-smoking encyclopaedia Rainer confirmed this. He told me that an old pipe smoking friend of him said that the German made London Mixture was awful compared to the original.. Great, I thought, I apparently bought a tobacco tin that can rival with the dreaded Clan (by Theodorus Niemeijer)…

To be very clear, this is a fake tin

To be very clear, this is a fake tin

Did Von Eicken kept producing Dunhill tobacco in Nazi Germany until 1943, when their factories were bombed by the allied forces?
According to Herr Von Eicken there was no leaf tobacco available in the war, so, no. Tobacco rationing was imposed in the beginning of the war and almost 70% of the available smoky leaf was diverted to the armed forces for the remainder of WWII. Also I can’t imagine that such a luxury product as Dunhill tobacco was bought by the struggling German population. But one has to admit, it is a tantalizing thought that perhaps some tins were made at the end of 1938 and beginning of 1939. That would really be a kind of sinister holy grail of Dunhill tobacco.

logoWhen did Von Eicken stop producing Dunhill tobacco in license?
Once again I had to lean on Rainer because I did not understand the answer of Herr Von Eicken.. According to Rainer sometime before 1976 when he started to buy pipe tobacco the original Dunhill tobaccos became available in Germany and Von Eicken ceased their production. Perhaps Dunhill noticed that a lot of German pipe-smokers bought their tobaccos abroad.. Who knows.. One thing is sure, when Murray took over Dunhill production Von Eicken no longer made their version.

IMG_2006Back to the tin of German London Mixture I bought. You can see a George VI crest with a reference to the “late King”. So according to John Loring this tin was made between 1954 and 1962. Personally I believe it is closer to 1962 than to 1954 because of the price you see on the tax-seal, DM 7,50. This because Rainer says that halfway the 1970’s such a tin costed around DM 8,00. But still, in the “worst case scenario” my tin is 52 years old, yiehaaa!!!

IMG_2018Of course I had to open the tin. Rainer constantly kept semi-seriously nagging me to “write the blog and afterwards sell the sealed tin for a huge sum” but that is not me. So on one of the last summer days I cracked the still intact vacuum seal. On top of the tobacco was a paper insert placed with the text “This tobacco is packed freshly cut. Many smokers find that tobacco smokes cooler when quite dry. In such cases it is advisable to have the tin open for a while.”

IMG_2023With the paper insert removed the tobacco looked just fine in my eyes. No mould or anything like that, just mostly dark coloured ribbon cut strands with some lighter ones. Despite that the vacuum seal had been intact the contents were a little bit on the dry side but still perfectly smokeable. The smell of the tobacco inside was a bit strange. I noticed that the strength of the latakia had diminished and what was left is best described as a McClelland latakia tobacco with instead of the ketchup odour a bit of a sweet liquorice smell with a rotten edge. The original Dunhill tobaccos were (in)famous for their “rotten” smell so probably Von Eicken tried to mimic this.

IMG_2024I filled a 1962 Root Briar Dunhill prince with the German London Mixture and set fire to the old tobacco. I was aware that people said that the German version was awful compared to the original but all by all I had a decent smoke. Nothing spectacular but just.. Decent.. I had no old original London Mixture tin so comparing it was difficult. Only thing I had was a tin of the Murray version, so in the next days I also smoked that one. In the afternoon the Murray version, in the evening the Von Eicken one. Of course the Murray tobacco was fresher, the latakia more present and pungent. But when I adjusted the taste in my mind I found some similarities. The original description for London Mixture read: “A delightfully harmonious blend of matured Virginia and Oriental tobaccos, soft and mellow, cool and fragrant.” Mr Pease said about the original: “It had a richness, a sophisticated elegance, and a complex nature that kept it from being tiring. It was full enough to satisfy, but never overbearing. It was comfort food for the pipe.” I could find myself in these descriptions. Both blends were very harmonious, one good taste throughout the bowl without a roller-coaster ride of different flavours, comfort food. The Murray version had a certain richness and was soft and mellow. On the other hand The Von Eicken blend bit me sometimes and lacked the complex nature.

All by all it was a fascinating experience smoking the German made London Mixture. Especially with the story behind it. I would like to thank Huub, Rainer, the folks at the FDT forum and Herr Von Eicken for their help and input.

Semois expedition 2014

The group of the first Semois expedition in 2011

The group of the first Semois expedition in 2011

At the Wuustwezel meeting this year I talked to Jan about him organizing another Semois expedition. The last one had been in 2011 and was my introduction to the unique Belgian leaf, the breathtaking landscape of the Ardennes and the excellent beers of our Southern neighbours. I had such a blast then that I wanted to repeat that experience. So somewhere in the first part of this year a date was picked: 24 May. We would meet again before the castle in Boullion and then make a trip past the remaining Semois producers.

Our holiday-house in Corbion

Our holiday-house in Corbion

Back in 2011 Shaun drove together with me and I stayed the evening and night at his place so of course I asked if he wanted to join me again. Unfortunately (for me) he was in the process of moving into a bigger apartment with his charming girlfriend so he could not make it. I wished him all the best and started to think about other options. Perhaps a bed & breakfast? Or a simple hotel room? Hmm.. I knew that from The Netherlands two other forum members would join the group: Rob and Teunis. Perhaps it would be fun (and cheaper) if we together could rent a holiday-house somewhere in the Semois region and stay for the weekend. So I sent a message to the both of them and luckily they loved the idea. After a short search I stumbled upon a few suitable holiday-homes for a decent price. In the end I choose one in Corbion (after the approval of Rob and Teunis) where Vincent Manil and J.P. Couvert reside.

Friday 23 May: At 3 p.m. the holiday-house would be available and it was a 4 hour drive from my home (without traffic-jams). So to be on the safe side I decided I would drive away from home at about 10 a.m.  I woke up pretty early that morning and packed my belongings under which 2 corncobs for the Semois tobacco of course. It was nice driving weather so I programmed the TomTom and began the journey. The first part went smooth until I came in the vicinity of Maastricht. For some stupid reason you have to pass some traffic lights instead of speeding over the highway to the Belgian border. The result was a big traffic-jam which took me about half an hour before I could press the gas pedal properly again. TomTom is not the smartest device so once in Belgium in stead of sending me over the ring-way near Liège I was directed right through the city. Beautiful to see, don’t get me wrong,  but driving there was pretty sh*tty because of all the busy traffic. Once I hit the highway again a real sense of vacation washed over me. This because the landscape became more sloping. In The Netherlands almost everything is flat so when a Dutchman sees hills and slopes, *bam*, instant holiday-feeling. The rest of the journey was smooth sailing under a sunny sky until I arrived exactly on time in Corbion at the vacation-house. There I paid the remaining sum at the owner, got the key and was left alone. I unpacked my belongings, sat outside, lit up a pipe, started reading in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and waited for the other guys to arrive.

Baguette, some Ardennes sausage inside and fries on top

Baguette, some Ardennes sausage inside and fries on top

After almost an hour I heard a car and yes, it was Rob (Teunis would come by motorcycle). We shook hands and chatted away until Teunis arrived some time later. The holiday-house had 2 sleeping rooms, one with a 2-person bed and one with 2 bunk-beds. Because Rob was the oldest of us he could sleep in the 2-person bed and Teunis and I would sleep in the bunk-beds. While Teunis unpacked his stuff Rob and I decided to do some shopping. Fortunately there was a supermarket in the village at which we bought  Belgian beer and already some things for breakfast, fresh bread we would get the next morning. We then picked up Teunis and drove to Boullion to have dinner. After walking a bit through the town-centre we managed to find some kind of luxury snackbar. With the food I guess I made a good choice (no idea what I was ordering, the menu was in French..). This because I ended up with an open cut  baguette which had some Ardennes sausage inside and fries on top! Yummie! Back at the holiday-house in the evening it was becoming too soon too chilly outside so after a couple of beers we moved inside where Teunis more or less managed to get a fire going. We did not know if we were allowed to smoke inside but on the kitchen table stood a small ashtray. For us a sign that the pipe-God granted us permission to puff on our pipes indoors. Besides, the smell of the hearth would mask all odours. Needless to say it was a great evening with lots of great beers and great discussions. Pretty intoxicated we hit our beds late at night.

The group at the café terrace in Boullion

The group at the café terrace in Boullion

Saturday 24 May: Semois D-day had finally come! Without a major hangover we all awoke surprisingly fresh. After a shower Rob and I went once again to the supermarket which had fresh bread and croissants. Back at the holiday-house Teunis had set the table inside (it was too cold outside) so Rob could begin with the baking of some ham and eggs. Nothing better than a sturdy breakfast if you have a long day ahead. At the end of the morning we drove to the castle of Boullion where at a nearby café the other members of the expedition waited for us: Jan, Geoff, Tommy, Joyce, Hans and Herwig and his wife. We warmly greeted them and because the weather cleared up a bit of sun drove away the outside chill. Beers and snacks were ordered and after some cosy conversations we decided to go on our way. First stop was our holiday-house where some group members wanted to grab a quick bite. I made use of the opportunity to step into my own car. This because I like driving on curvy roads in the hills. It is a male thing I guess. Next stop: Vincent Manil.

The attractive daughter of Manil in the store

The attractive daughter of Manil in the store

When we entered the store with the group we were soon nervously greeted by Vincent’s daughter. I had seen her in 2011 but it was obvious to the eye she underwent some pleasant to look at changes. She tried to speak some Dutch but because her Dutch is as good as my French she soon fell back on her native language. At least we were all able to buy some tobaccos and bouchons de la Semois. The daughter then asked if we were willing to go downstairs to Vincent’s workrooms and the museum. Some group members had already seen that in 2011 and decided to wait outside.

Vincent gluing on the labels

Vincent glueing on the labels

Below we met Vincent himself who was working furiously to get a big order ready for The States. For you Americans who do not know this yet, since the beginning of this year Vincent’s Semois is available at The Pipe Guys and in a short time also at & Despite Vincent being busy he generously took the time for us and encouraged us to fill up a pipe with the tobacco laying around. Vincent is a man with passion for his profession and in rapid French (Arrgh! My French is so bad!) he explained the process of making his Semois. For those of you who want to know more about this, please read my Sunny Semois blog-post. Because of the increased demand Vincent tried to speed up the process but to no avail. Three days is the minimum he needs for a big batch. He also bought some “new” machines (building year 1920!) to help him with the packing of the tobacco. But he still has to manually glue the labels on each and every package..

Jan and Vincent looking at ancient Belgian

Jan and Vincent looking at an ancient Belgian tobacco-tax book

In the museum we were left alone for a while so we could watch a video about the Semois-making process. After that Vincent came back and like the teacher he once was sat before us to tell us about his craft and answer questions. Suddenly he went to the other room to fetch something. He returned with some old Belgian government tobacco-tax books dating back to 1900, impressive! After a good look at the also impressive museum (Vincent has collected some rare stuff throughout the years) we said goodbye. Unfortunately the shop of J.P. Couvert was closed. It is only open on Monday and Wednesday because the dear man does most of his business online. So we went on our way to Bohan to Joseph Martin.

The store of Joseph Martin

The store of Joseph Martin

After a magnificent ride over curvy roads with stunning far-sights and lush forests we arrived at the place where the store of Joseph Martin is located. And I must say, the location of the beautiful stone building is jaw-dropping. Just over the Semois river with amazing views on the green hills. I just wanted to sit down, fill up my pipe and do nothing for the rest. But that was not what we came for. We entered the shop where Mr. Martin was a bit surprised to see such a large group. I especially came for his “Langue de Chien” (tongue of the dog) variety. The name comes from the size of the leaf used, it is as large as, yes, the tongue of a dog. These leaves are a bit younger and thus smaller than the regular ones. This makes that the blend tastes softer, sweeter and has less nicotine. I asked if I was allowed to take pictures inside of the man himself and his blends but unfortunately he wanted none of it. Where Manil has a very open and outspoken personality Martin is a bit shy. Lucky for me Joyce, the charming girlfriend of Tommy, just clicked away with her camera without asking. However, Mr. Martin was kind enough to give us all a real Semois cigar which tasted exactly like the pipe-tobacco.

The store of C. Didot

The store of C. Didot

The time had come to visit the last Semois producer of the day: C. Didot in the town of Rochehaut. The ride there, what can I say, I love the Semois region, so beautiful. When we arrived at the store I was a bit disappointed after having seen the nice buildings of Manil and Martin. It just looked like a standard souvenir shop which it basically is. One of the shop-windows displayed some smokers-wares and inside behind the cashiers-desk there were some shelves with tobacco. Here I also bought the Langue de Chien variety, the difference being that this one was produced by Didot. Mr. Didot I did not see, Ms. Didot did the selling. But according to Jan I did not miss much. Mr. Didot seems to be somewhat of a smile-less sourpuss..

Imagine smoking tobacco that grows here

Imagine smoking tobacco that grows here

Rochehaut is famous for its high viewing point on the town of Frahan below. So we walked there and despite the fact that I also saw it in 2011 the view is absolutely magical. You see a valley where the Semois river makes a loop with on its borders lush green fields where in past times the famous tobacco was grown. Now only an old drying shed remains.

Having dinner at La Cabane

The group at La Cabane

Besides the howling of the wind we could also hear our bellies growling, dinner time. We went to the same place as in 2011: La Cabane. Basically an oversized snackbar but that term would not do this business justice. You can also get food like steaks and meatballs. Which was precisely what I took, boulettes de la maison, meatballs of the house. The fries are also a thing which makes the place pretty unique. This because they are still fried in lard and not in some vegetable oil. Not so good for the body but oh so yummie!

Teunis trying to get the hearth started

Teunis trying to get the hearth started

After dinner we all said goodbye to each other and went our separate ways. Rob, Teunis and I went back to the holiday-house where more beer was waiting for us. And Semois tobacco! I was able to smoke some of the Joseph Martin Langue de Chien from Teunis and.. I personally liked it better than the more robust Manil Semois to be honest. Sweeter and softer indeed. A pleasure to smoke. The evening was once again great with lots of interesting conversations. And lots of alcohol of course. I like the personalities of both men. Rob is very witty and has a perfect feeling for timing his often funny and well-thought one-line remarks. Teunis is a well-balanced spiritual man with a lot of experience in life who loves to sit in a chair and play the role of shrink. Before we knew it, it was time to sleep.

Martin's Langue de Chien, Didot's Langue-de Chien, Manil's La Brumeuse and bouchons de Semois

Martin’s Langue de Chien, Didot’s Langue de Chien, Manil’s La Brumeuse and bouchons de Semois

Sunday 25 May: I was the first one to wake up and thus the first to hit the shower. The outside weather was (finally) very pleasant. A blue sky, sunshine and no cold winds. We had some leftover bread and camembert which I thankfully ate. When we all were downstairs we drank some much needed coffee after which Rob decided to head home. Lucky for me Teunis wanted to relax a while longer and said he would clean the dishes and bring back the key to the owner so I also could leave. Back on the road it saddened me to see the hills and sloping landscape slowly become flat again. A good reason (besides the tobaccos, beers and food) to go back sometime!

Thanks go out to Joyce, Tommy and Herwig for the permission to use their pictures!




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The older the better

Ancient Capstan

± 90 year old Capstan Medium Navy Flake

I still can remember the first time I bought tinned pipe-tobacco about 3½ years ago. I checked the tin for the expiration date and could not find it to my surprise. My (twisted) mind went like: Tobacco is a leaf, leaves are like vegetables and they can’t be kept good for a long period (I still remember the withered cauliflower in my fridge started quoting Shakespeare..). So where was the damn date?? At that time I did not know that it is with most tobaccos like it is with most wines, the older the better. My eyes were opened by a story from GL Pease in which he tells that the owner of a store he used to work (Drucquer & Sons) used to age certain blends and sell them later at a higher price. At that time I also became active at some international fora and saw that especially in The States it is quit common to stock up on blends you like. Being a cheap Dutchman, this made me think. Every year the prices of tobacco go up here because of the bloody taxes. So to be able to smoke tobaccos at yesterdays prices and have the benefits from ageing… *big grin*

time_tobaccoBut first of all, very important, it is no guarantee that ageing a tobacco will make it better. A shitty blend will never become ambrosia for your taste buds. It is not a certainty that a tobacco which should age well will actually do so. Having said that, what actually happens when you age a blend? Time makes sure the various components of the mixture will marry, blend together into a more consistent whole. Also lot of tobacco species contain sugars which are needed for fermentation. That process transforms, changes the leaves used. It provides a less sharp, mellower but richer and more complex taste. So the more sugar in a tobacco leaf, the better it will ferment and the richer it will taste after ageing.

fermentationThere are 2 types of fermentation: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic fermentation happens in the American-style pull-lid tins (which contain more free oxygen) and in mason jars with bulk blends. Anaerobic fermentation is what occurs in the European-type vacuum sealed tins. Because there is more air in the American style tins the ageing dynamics are different. It is not so much that they age faster than the European-style tins than that it is just a matter of.. Difference. Experienced cellarers: please let me know that precise difference! Thanks! And when an old tin is opened of course new changes will begin to take place just like a wine is “breathing”.

Let’s take a look at the different species of tobacco and how they react to ageing:

virginia_tobaccoVirginia: Ages the best of all the tobaccos because of their high sugar content. If you have a blend with a lot of Virginias in it you have a good chance it will become more yummie with time. Within half a year you should notices the first changes and within 1 to 5 years it should really begin to shine. After those first years the speed of change will become slower, more gradual, but the blend will continue to improve. How long? I guess it will take 30 to 40 years before the mixture will go over the top and a certain descent might begin. But even then the smoke can be absolutely sublime.

oriental_tobaccoOriental: A high sugar level (just below Virginias) is also present in oriental tobaccos. Because of this they also age very well with the same ageing-expectancy as Virginias.

latakia_tobaccoLatakia: Mixtures with latakia reach their summit in about 5 years and then begin to decline more rapidly. Latakia does not really age but gets softer, loses its edge with time. So if a blend depends on the smoky, leathery and spicy taste of latakia you should not stash away the tin for too long. But if there is good layering of other tobaccos underneath the dark leaf (hello Virginia and orientals) the blend still can deliver a fantastic smoke. Even though it will transform into something more harmonious, something less pungent. The old Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture is a good example of this. It still tastes wonderful despite some pipe-smokers prefer the newer version because of the fresher latakia.

burley_tobaccoBurley: This leaf is low in sugar so there is not much fermentation going on. Just as with latakia it will become more smooth and blend in with the other tobaccos like sweet Virginias who get better with time as I told above. The delicious Estoterica Stonehaven is a prime example of this and will age very, very well.

perique_tobaccoPerique: Because of the pressure-fermentation process with making the peppery leaf it will not change much over the years. But as with burley the combination with Virginia is a golden one. The thought alone of well-aged Escudo makes my mouth water.

cavendish_tobaccoCavendish: In a way the same goes for cavendish as for perique. Because of the double fermentation process it will not really age.

aromatic_tobaccoAromatic tobaccos: Sweetened aromatics do not seem to age well. These tobaccos often have quite a bit of Propylene Glycol in them which serves as a humectant and carrier of aromatic flavours. So over a long time frame, they are pretty stable. The biggest change is that the aromatic components and characteristics can degrade or change over time. So what you find in a tin 5 years from now may not be as pleasing as it is today.

Here are some tips and facts about ageing and cellaring your precious tobaccos:

Sierra Exif JPEG– Preferably tobacco should be left in the original sealed tin. So check it out before storing to make sure it is not damaged. Look for damage to the tin, bumps, pin holes etc. Just make sure the vacuum seal is good. Then you can store it in a cool, dark place without a lot of fluctuations in temperature. An ideal temperature would be in the range of 15-21°C. So DON’T put tobacco in the refrigerator or freezer! That may cause damage to the cell structure of the tobacco. Also pay attention to the humidity, even though the tobacco is in airtight tins. High levels of humidity can cause corrosion and/or rust to the tin-metals and could compromise the seal. You also do not want to store your tobacco where it is exposed to light for long periods of time. Besides the light itself it often means heat, which can cause all kinds of unwanted chemical processes in tobacco. So do not try to speed up the ageing process by heating up your tins or loose tobacco.

Exif JPEG– I would recommend mason jars for the storage of bulk, loose and opened tins of tobacco. I prefer glass because it is a non-porous material and can be disinfected very easily. Airtight plastic containers are also ok but I still prefer glass. I just don’t feel ok with plastic. It’s a personal thing. If I do use plastic I make damn sure that it is brand new and that the tobacco is the first thing to hit the virginal bottom ever. The good thing is, mason, ball and bail top jars are pretty inexpensive and can be bought almost anywhere. They also come in a variety of sizes. That way you can use a small one to put some tobacco in that you regularly smoke and a large one for tobacco that you really want to age. Preparing the jars for storing/jarring/canning/whatever is one of the most important steps in the process of storing. Make sure that you sterilize the jars before you use them. I wash the mason, ball and bail top jars (including the rubber rings) with boiling water. I never use soap or something like that because I am afraid there will be a residue somewhere and my tobacco starts to smell like Lakeland-style blends. Then I dry the jars and rings with clean paper towels and the tobacco can be put inside. It is advisable to label each jar with the contents and put a date on them before storage. Some people prefer to place the filled jars in boiling water to heat them up and then place the lids on to create a vacuum seal. I have never done that and I have had no problems at all. My older jars have created their own vacuum while in storage. Just one more thing, the rubber rings will start to smell like the tobacco inside. So if you want to refill the jar with an aromatic after having smoked a for example latakia-heavy blend out of it, just make sure you replace the rubber ring. Nothing can get the smell out of it..



– Vacuum sealing is great for many things but is pretty useless for tobacco. Tobacco needs some air to maintain the ageing process. A perfectly vacuum sealed bag or container will probably keep the contents fresh, but it may not really age the way you expect it to. So.. Having said that I realize that vacuum sealing is ideal for aromatics! One tip from a Dutch forum member: do not vacuum loose tobacco in a seal-bag. It will destroy and break up the tobacco strands.. Preferably put the tobacco in an unused tin, put that in the bag and vacuum the hell, ehmm, air out of it.

Wish I was able to buy more of these..

Wish I was able to buy more of these..

– When you find a blend you like it is always a good idea to buy 1 tin to smoke now and 1 (or more) to cellar. That way your collection will keep growing with tobaccos you like and you have the benefits of ageing. A win-win situation.

pipe_cigar– Do not store pipe tobacco and cigars together. Cigars are like little sponges and they will eventually absorb any moisture, aromas, and flavours that are nearby.  Having said that, do not store pipe tobacco in a (cigar) humidor. 1. The cedar in humidors absorbs moisture and it will suck all of the moisture from your tobacco like a vampire. 2. It will absorb the aroma of the tobacco blend. 3. The cedar could also add a cedar aroma and flavour to your tobacco.

Aged full Virginia flake © Hermit

Aged Full Virginia Flake © Hermit

– Sometimes you can find so called “sugar crystals” on aged tobacco. Mr. Pease has done some rudimentary playing with them, though no full-scale analysis, and found them not sweet, not very soluble, and not very likely to be sugar. Probably they are organic acids that have surfaced as a result of pH or other changes in the chemistry of the leaf as it ages. But good new, the presence of these crystals usually indicates something good has happened to the tobacco that hosts them! member cgrd took some neat pictures of the crystals on a flake of Stonehaven from under a microscope which you can see here.

My Marcovitch with a lot of mould on top of it.. Argghh!!!!

My Marcovitch with a lot of mould on top of it.. Argghh!!!!

– Mould is the enemy of (aged) tobacco. How do you know it is there? Well, if there is a spider-web like, hairy substance on your tobacco. Bad news… Your nose will offer the second clue. Tobacco with mould stinks in a way that is difficult to describe but once you have smelled it, you’ll never forget it. Imagine the aroma of the sweaty feet of your girlfriend combined with the scent of over-ripe French cheese..

nicot– Nicotine has nowhere to go and it does not seem to break down through ageing. But ageing can change the pH of the smoke which will change how readily the nicotine is absorbed. The more alkaline the smoke, the more nicotine you will get into your bloodstream. My personal experience is that older tobaccos are stronger. Or they just made them stronger in the ol’ days. When men were more manly!

internet– There is a free site where you can fill in all the data about your tobacco collection. This way you can show off to your friends what you precisely have:

± 90 year old Capstan "fresh" in the tin!

± 90 year old Capstan “fresh” in the tin!

In my Pleasures of life in Belgium 2014 blog-post I told you about my ± 90-year old knife-cutter tin of Capstan Medium Navy Flake that was opened by Martin. For more pictures see below.  Astoundingly the condition of the tobacco inside the tin was perfect! Which is a testament to the quality of the old “knife lid” or “cutter top” tins. I had a few of those: a tin of Craven Mixture from the 1930’s, a St. Bruno Flake tin from the 1960’s and the Capstan Medium Navy Flake tin from the 1920’s. All of them were a bit corroded from the outside but clean as a whistle from the inside. Spotless!

Ancient Capstan in a mason jar

Ancient Capstan in a mason jar

Back home from the meeting I had the chance to properly gaze at the ancient Capstan. Unfortunately all the flakes were more or less stuck together because of the age so I had big difficulties keeping them whole. I am well acquainted with the current production and compared to that the old flakes were pretty dark and very thin. In fact I have never seen such thinly cut flakes, only Esoterica’s Stonehaven comes close. The smell from the tobacco was instantly recognizable. Typical (current day) Capstan, but somewhat diminished. I could smell more tobacco than topping/casing. And that was also the case with the taste when I lit up my pipe. The current production leans on the topping/casing while with the old version those flavours had degraded somewhat over the years. Instead the aged Virginia tobaccos had taken the reign and transformed the flakes into an exceptionally smooth mouth-watering whole. But in all honesty, I did like the contents of my 1989 Capstan tin better. That one had the best of both worlds: still intact topping/casing flavours and aged tobacco.

So buy those blends you love and start your own old treasure tobacco collection!

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One Thousand and One Smoky Nights

eastern_smoke_dreamsI always had a love for the Middle East; the pyramids and temples near Cairo, the ancient city of Damascus, the holy places in Jerusalem, the heart of the Ottoman empire Constantinople (Istanbul), mysterious Baghdad and the Muslim centre of Mecca. They all fascinate me to no extent. When I walked through the busy streets of the grand Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo I knew I had to visit more places like that. Unfortunately, just as I was making plans to visit Damascus all hell broke loose with the still ongoing Syrian Civil War.



Talking about Syria, at the beginning of this year I received an e-mail from a Syrian-American named Kai. He had moved to Rotterdam last year for work (he is an architect) and he just got back to pipe smoking after taking a break for a while. Kai used to smoke Mac Baren HH Vintage Syrian in the USA and asked if he could get that blend in The Netherlands. I had to disappoint him but gave some tips where he would be able to buy it. We kept on mailing and I discovered that he was born in the Syrian port-city of Latakia. A word well known by us pipe-smokers because of the fire-cured dark leaf with the same name. Kai then was raised in Damascus until he moved to the USA just a few years before the civil war broke loose. Smoking the HH Vintage Syrian is his way to relate to his roots. Sadly his visa was not renewed by the Dutch government, which pissed me off pretty much, so now he is moving back to the States. But I promised Kai not to say anything about his situation in this blog. His dad always said, don’t get near two things in life: politics and drugs. A wise man. So Kai, this one is for you, enjoy the read.

columbus_tobaccoAccording to an 18th century belief tobacco did not originate exclusively from the Americas but was also domestic in various parts of Asia and Africa. It was also believed that people in the Middle East used tobacco before my ancestors gazed upon the New World. However, since the 19th century the prevailing opinion has been that the Old World, including the Middle East, was introduced to tobacco by the early European discoverers.

Oriental_man_with_pipeTobacco first arrived in the Ottoman Middle East at the end of the 16th century. Which is about 100 years after its introduction in Europe. At the beginning of the 17th century Portuguese and other European sailors, who travelled around the Indian Ocean within the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, introduced smoking to the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps even as early as 1590 to Yemen and the Hijaz. 10 years earlier than tobacco’s introduction into Yemen it was brought to Constantinople by English sailors and traders who personally used tobacco.

Turkish woman with pipe

Turkish woman with pipe

At first tobacco mainly was the interest of physicians and appeared in medical manuals by the end of the 16th century. Its leaves were prescribed as a remedy for bites and burns. Soon after that, in the early years of the 17th century, tobacco also began to be smoked recreationally. In the first decades of the 17th century tobacco already was smoked openly in places where people gathered like markets and streets. These early smokers were probably townspeople who could have more readily afforded the expensive import from America and the Caribbean. A lot of those imported tobaccos came through the Syrian port of Latakia. However, by 1700 the Ottoman market was producing most of its own tobacco because, of course, regional merchants had noticed the demand. Local varieties allowed for the consumption of tobacco to become a pleasurable pastime for people from all levels of society (men AND women! Well, at least in the private sphere..) and the one constant was that it was certainly in high demand.

Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, &c. illustrated. : In a seriesLater a number of regions within the empire became centres for tobacco production and distribution. Varieties of Indian, Syrian, Iraqi and Persian tobacco were imported and smoked in the Arabian towns. Local varieties of tobacco, known as tittun or dokhân were also cultivated and widely consumed within Arabia. Tobacco also was grown in Macedonia, Anatolia, northern Syria (particularly in the hills around the port of Latakia I mentioned before) and after some time in Lebanon and Palestine. Persian and Kurdish varieties, known locally as tunbak, were also prized but were mostly used in water pipes (hookah). This is correct because I asked Kai if he already smoked pipe in Syria. He answered that he did not smoke the tobacco-pipe, but made use of the water pipe. Only, he didn’t smoke the typical ultra-aromatic mu‘assel we associate with the hookah but used tunbak, which is a natural tobacco.

guerrier-fumant-le-chiboukIt was not easy for Middle Easterners to smoke tobacco for quite some time. That was made clear by the number of Islamic fatwas expressed by the Ottoman administration towards the lawfulness of smoking. This because tobacco was not known at the time of the Prophet, it is not named in the Qur’an. Which resulted in a debate over its legality to spread throughout the empire. The main question in debates was “if the consumption of tobacco was harmful to the user and his or her surroundings”. Islamic scholars interpreted general guidelines stated in the Qur’an or the hadith to support their arguments for or against its use. Soon after the rise in popularity of tobacco the religious authorities in Mecca grouped it with wine, opium and coffee. Thus issuing a fatwa banning it as an intoxicant.

3Not only was the debate over the consumption of tobacco religious, but also political. As early as 1610 an English traveller wrote about seeing “an unfortunate Turk riding about the streets of Constantinople….. Mounted backward on a donkey with a tobacco-pipe driven through the cartilage of his nose. Just for the crime of smoking”. I sometimes feel we are close to such a situation in our modern times.. Two years later, Sultan Ahmed I issued a temporary ban on smoking. In 1631, Murad IV began a campaign against the consumption of tobacco and outlawed its cultivation in the empire, but this failed. In 1633, after a devastating fire in Constantinople, Murad IV outright forbade tobacco consumption and inflicted severe punishment on smokers. During this time of smoking prohibition many people preferred to use crushed tobacco (snuff) to avoid being caught with a pipe. Murad IV also banned coffee and ordered the closure of coffee-houses, where both coffee and tobacco were consumed. What a horrible man..

Turkish_coffee_house_on_the_BosphorusFortunately the bans by Murad IV and others before him did not produce the desired results. Thus proving that coffee and tobacco consumption were already well rooted within the 17th century Middle East. In other words, smoking was not eradicated during these prohibitions. In 1646, during the reign of Ibrahim, the Turkish government issued a decree allowing for the consumption of tobacco. The religious legalization of smoking was granted in a fatwa issued in the early years of the 1720’s by Damascene Islamic scholar Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi. He wrote an essay entitled (I hope I type this correctly) “al Sulh bayna al-ikhwan fi hukm ibahat al-­dukhkhan” which translates as “Peace Among Friends Concerning the Legalization of Smoking”. Al Nabulsi’s position on the consumption of tobacco was that smoking is like food. If it hurts stop it, if it does not, then why not smoke? Brilliant. The question regarding tobacco’s harmfulness remained a controversial issue for centuries to come. As it still is today. Nonetheless, it was not until the 18th century that tobacco consumption became a legitimate social pastime practice as was illustrated in many coffee-house illustrations of that time and later.

6From the late 17th century onwards the tobacco pipe became a highly personalized possession in Arabia. With ornamented varieties coming from pipe-maker guilds in Turkey, England, France, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon. Probably every town of any size had at least one pipe-maker. Even potters in villages could turn out a few pipes from moulds brought from bigger cities. A lot of pipes were also produced in Mecca and Medina as smoking was popular in the heart of Arabia. Even the Sharif of Mecca engaged in tobacco consumption: “He sat upright on his divan, like an European, and smoked tobacco in a pipe like the “old Turks”. The simple earth-made bowl was set in a saucer before him, it’s white jasmine stem was almost a spear’s length.” Clay pipes were a preferable means for consuming tobacco. They were very portable and therefore more convenient to the highly mobile consumer (such as a pilgrim making the hajj). Furthermore clay tobacco pipes were readily available in any market and to customers from all levels of society.


© Aimée C. Bouzigard

In the early 17th century two ways of smoking existed: “with water” or “dry”. But (of course) smoking tobacco through a dry pipe was superior to the water method. Which was done through the hookahs I mentioned earlier or narghiles, Middle Eastern innovations. The main device associated with tobacco consumption in the Arabian provinces was the oriental pipe, referred to in Turkish as the chibouk (Arabic: shibuk). The English-style kaolin pipes were likely to be more influential to styles in Istanbul, the imperial centre of the empire, where tobacco and the English pipes reached Turkey by the harbour. The 3-part chibouk arrived from North Africa in the Middle East and was readily adopted as the main instrument for smoking tobacco in the early 17th century. The chibouk consists of three elements: the head or bowl (Turkish: lüle), the stem and the mouthpiece. The bowls were made from a variety of materials including wood, stone, meerschaum or even metal. But the common material was clay. The stems were made of various woods or reeds and ranged in length from about 1 meter to 4 (!) meters. The mouthpieces were usually made of amber but could also be made of coral, gold and enamel. Precious stones could be added according to the taste and purse of the purchaser.

chibouk smoking turkish gentlemenClimatic and cultural differences led to the development of two different types of pipes in Europe and the Ottoman Middle East. The hot weather in much of the Middle East created a preference for the inhalation of “cold smoke”  while in the cooler weather of Europe smokers preferred “hot smoke”. Well, a moderate hot smoke of course. The technical solution to this issue of cooling the smoke within a dry pipe resulted in the 3-part style of the chibouk. For instance, the longer stem length allows the smoke to cool before it reaches the smoker. Wet silk was often applied to cover the stem to even increase its cooling capabilities. The longer stems, up to the 4 meters I mentioned before, were preferred in the hotter climes of the southern portions of the empire. Shorter stems, 20 centimetres to 1 meter, were used in the more northern, cooler climates. The varying lengths of stems are portrayed in numerous illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Abb_2b_05636vToday, tobacco is cultivated and cigarettes are manufactured in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim Asia. But only Turkey ranks among the world’s top 10 tobacco-producing countries. Though many reports claimed that the people of Persia and the Ottoman Empire consumed vast amounts of tobacco, actual consumption seems to have been less than in most parts of Europe. These days the tobacco consumption in Middle Eastern countries is only about one half of that in the West. In many countries most people used to smoke cheap, locally produced tobacco. Now more expensive import brands are popular almost everywhere. Either directly imported or manufactured under licence. Such a shame because it were the locally produced (oriental) tobacco gems that fascinated us pipe-smokers. As-salāmu ʿalaykum!

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Attractive Aromas

Me sniffing at raw tobacco leaf at the DTM factory

Me sniffing at raw tobacco leaf at the DTM factory

Tobacco leaf is the main source of flavour and aroma in any tobacco product (Duh!) But aside from latakia and perique (which are stinky enough from themselves) and orientals, raw leaf itself has little smell or taste. And by raw leaf I mean Virginias and burleys, they are almost always cased. For example, I’ve smelled pure and dry Virginias in the tobacco warehouse from the German DTM factory. It made me think of fish-food in stead of the hay-like aroma I am used to. Also tobacco crops vary from year to year, they are not consistent. So flavouring supplements are necessary to create both taste and aroma and help maintain a consistency in them. In the early days tobaccos had a subtle flavouring, but at the end of the 1960’s the high aromatics came into fashion. You know, the kind of blends that dissolve the glazing on your teeth and your girlfriend/wife love.  Anyway, additives to tobacco products can be classified in two categories: casings and top dressings (toppings).

No tongue bite please!

No tongue bite please!

Casings: Sometimes you read on labels of tins that a blend for example contains unflavoured Virginia and/or burley. Well, the truth is that very few tobaccos have no flavouring at all. Although a casing can be as simple as sugared water or honey. I know that DTM uses honey for the casing of many of their raw tobacco leaves, the factory floor is pretty sticky because of it. Casings are used at the early stages of tobacco processing to ease the negative qualities of a certain kind of leaf. Ehmm.. Some burleys can be somewhat sour and produce a more alkaline smoke, which can lead to the dreaded tongue bite. The use of a sweetener, a casing containing some sugar, can solve both problems. Some Virginias can be harsh, but also here, with the right casing that can be fixed. In general (of course their are exceptions) casings are not used to flavour the tobacco as much as to make it ready for other processing. Like you make a mild marinade for a piece of chicken to slightly give it a flavour, make it more tender and prepare it for cooking.


Casing machine at DTM

The flavour of a casing should be compatible to the base tobacco that is used. For example, white burley has a certain kind of nuttiness and would match well with chocolate. Which is a commonly used casing for burley. The tobacco which has to cased is put into a machine that somewhat resembles a large clothes dryer with little sprayers on the inside. The casing is then heated and injected into the chamber. Through the use of tumbling, steaming and vacuum pressure the casing works its way into the leaf. Casings are often steamed into the leaf. The steam helps to open the pores and insert the added flavour into the tobacco. Because of this process, casings are usually water-based. After the casing of the tobacco it is dried. Often by putting the leaf on a conveyor which passes through a heated chamber. This reduces the overall moisture content of the tobacco to a level that is more manageable. This level generally is between 12% (pretty dry) and 22% (very moist). The ideal moisture for smoking depends on you, the smoker. But usually it is between 13% and 16%.

Rope tobacco

Rope tobacco

The following step will be determined by what the blend is supposed to be. If the intention of the final product is to be an unflavoured blend, for example a Virginia/perique or latakia blend, then the base tobacco is ready to use right after coming out of the heating chamber. The tobacco will be put in a container or something like that in which the finished blend, combined with the other components, is mixed and then is packaged. If the the final product is to be a plug, flake or rope the process starts with raw leaf that will be cased like I told above. After coming out of the casing machine the leaf immediately goes into the press. This because higher moisture is needed to get a good pressing. Or it goes through the drying procedure and is re-hydrated to the right level.

Thanks to top dressings the (in)famous Captain Black White is what it is..

Thanks to top dressings the (in)famous Captain Black White is what it is..

Top dressings (toppings): These are flavourings that most of the time are applied at the end of manufacturing process. That signature flavour, that particular tin aroma, that heavenly room note; all the responsibility of the top dressing. They are usually alcohol-based. When the water based casing is applied, the drying process will bring the tobacco back down to the correct humidity. But at the end of the process the blender wants to avoid having to use heat to re-dry the leaf a second time. So he uses an alcohol-based flavouring and allows the tobacco to rest for a couple of days. The alcohol will evaporate which leaves the concentrated flavour behind with little additional moisture.

Propylene glycol

Propylene glycol

Most casings and top dressings contain a “fixing agent” to assure that the flavourings will stick to the leaf and remain stable until used. In addition to fixing agents hygroscopic agents are used. Hygroscopic agents are chemicals used to control the moisture content of tobacco. They prevent the tobacco from becoming too dry in a dry climate or from picking up moisture in a humid area. The most widely used agents are sorbitol, propylene glycol and glycerine.

Andreas Mund and me before shelves full of concentrated flavours

Andreas Mund and me before shelves full of concentrated flavours

Concentrated flavourings are preferred by most tobacco blenders. This because the extract/concentrate can be manufactured much more uniformly and is less subject to changes while being stored than natural flavourings. When I visited the DTM factory I saw shelves and shelves full with all kinds of concentrated flavourings. According to master-blender Andreas Mund the city of Hamburg (pretty nearby the factory) is the centre of the world for concentrated flavourings. Lucky DTM! It was a strange experience when I opened up some of the flasks and bottles and sniffed the contents. You read something on the label like “chocolate” and when you smell it you absolutely don’t recognize it because it is THAT concentrated. So it won’t be a surprise that some blends use as little as 8 tablespoons of fluid per 100 pounds of tobacco.



Here are some of the most common flavourings:
Chocolate is manufactured as a natural product from the coco bean. It may be fortified with some cocoa which is synthetically produced.
Fruit flavours are obtainable in both natural and synthetic form. Natural fruit flavours are extracted from processed fruit.
Licorice comes from the licorice root and can be fortified with synthetic chemicals.
Menthol can also be made synthetically or it can be used in its natural state which is distilled from peppermint oil.
Rum used in tobacco is most of the time the Jamaican type. Jaaah man! It can also be synthesized.
Vanilla can be used in its natural form but for the most it is manufactured synthetically.
Wine flavours are as varied as the types of wine available: burgundy, sherry, madeira, etc.

Gawith & Hoggarth: Kendal's Banana Gold. One of the few blends anywhere with banana-aroma

Gawith & Hoggarth: Kendal’s Banana Gold. One of the few blends anywhere with banana-aroma

It is very difficult to create a good aromatic blend. You have to take in consideration the natural aroma of the leaf plus whatever the casing adds. Virginias often have a hay-like aroma and if that is not taken into account you could end up with something entirely different than you were hoping for. Also certain flavourings take advantage of other ones. A bit of vanilla boosts the taste of chocolate. Or flavourings have a tendency to overpower others, like coconut. And then there are flavourings that just don’t match with tobacco in general. For example, Paul has always looked for a blend with a nice banana-flavour and has not found one yet. Banana and tobacco.. Should work one would think. Well, I spoke with aromatic master-blender Michael Apitz from DTM and asked him why they did not have any blends with banana-flavour. He took me to the warehouse and showed some old tins with… Banana flavoured blends. “You know, there is a reason we don’t sell them any more and why they are collecting dust in the warehouse” he said. “They just don’t taste good and because of that people won’t buy them.” So it may take a whole lot of trying out before the aroma of a blend is acceptable.

And if you want to know why most aromatics don’t taste like they smell, have a look here: Who’s afraid of chemistry? (by Paul)

keep calmThese days every blender anywhere on the globe can make a high aromatic. But back in the days in the United Kingdom they had the “Tobacco Purity Law”. This law prohibited blenders from the use of large amounts of artificial flavourings and hygroscopic agents in the manufacture of tobacco products. In the early years of the Dunhill store Alfred Dunhill himself used to experiment at home with the creation of new blends. Regularly he got visits from police-officers who thought they smelled illegal things going on.. There was a list of additives that were approved and which had to be dissolved in alcohol or water. BUT they could only be applied at small percentages. For example, it was estimated that less than 0,5% of the weight of any given brand, manufactured in the United Kingdom, consisted of flavourings. This stood in contrast with some brands manufactured in the United States. There sauces constituted as much as 25% of the gross weight of the tobacco product. And in the case of Dutch tobaccos, this number was as high as 35%. So the blenders in the United Kingdom had to use the best quality tobaccos available, primarily the Virginia-type ones, orientals and condiment leaves like latakia and perique. And of course they had to have to skills to create outstanding mixtures. This with the help of all kinds of processing techniques such as stoving, toasting, panning, steaming and pressing. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Tobacco Purity Law was abolished by the Thatcher government so that American tobaccos could be sold in the United Kingdom.

Recommended aromatic blends are:
– Cornell & Diehl: Autumn Evening
– DTM: BiBo, Blue Note, Mediterraneo, Memories of Tuscany, Sweet Vanilla Honeydew
– HU Tobacco: Geniet Moment
– Lane Ltd.: 1-Q, Captain Black White
– Mac Baren: 7 Seas Regular Blend*
– Peterson: Sunset Breeze*
– Planta: Danish Black Vanilla*
– Stanwell: Melange*
– Sillem’s: Black
– Winslow: No. 1*, Harlekin*
– WO Larsen: Fine & Elegant*

* Available in The Netherlands

Cut, cut, cut!

Tobacco cutting machine at DTM

Tobacco cutting machine at DTM

The cut of any tobacco is determined by the product that is going to be manufactured: pipe tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or snuff. Here I only will go into pipe tobacco cuts (and a bit of cigarette cuts). The ultimate goal of any tobacco manufacturer (or home blender) is to get a well mixed tobacco with a consistent uniformity in taste and “rate of burn”. That means it may not burn too fast (in which case it would probably burn hot) or too slow (which will require the smoker to relight often).

close-up-of-tobacco-pipe-smokingThe burning qualities of any blend are determined by the following factors:
1. The type of tobacco used. Thin leaved tobacco will burn better than tobacco with heavier leaves.
2. The moisture content of the tobacco. The degree of dryness affects the speed with which it burns.
3. The type of cut or cuts used. The air circulating around the shredded leaf determinates the rate of combustion. The denser the tobacco, such as plugs, the slower it will burn.
4. The amount of casing or flavouring used. The less casing applied to tobacco, the longer it will burn.

Below I described a lot of tobacco cuts. I am sure I missed some and sorting them out was pretty damn difficult.. Several tobacco cut descriptions are in essence the same. If you think I am wrong somewhere or you know cuts I have not described, please contact me so we all can benefit from that information. Anyway, here they are in alphabetical order:

broad cutBroad Cut: Wide ribbon-cuts which burn at an average pace and pack well are often called broad cut. The thickest cut, about twice as wide as a loose cut. Commonly used with air-cured Virginia which is then used to blend with other cuts.

broken flakeBroken Flake: Flake-form tobacco that has been partially broken up.

cake_plugCake: Cakes (also called “plugs”) are dense, hold their moisture well and therefore are handy to carry with you. But they require a little preparation before smoking. The smoker slices off a bit to the thickness he desires and rubs it between his hands to create a fine or coarse tobacco.  Whatever his preference is. It can also be cut into thicker slices and then cross-cut twice to make a rough cube-cut. Very versatile this one. Also see “Plug”.

cavendish cutCavendish Cut: In older blends, Cavendish was generally referred to as tobaccos which had been treated with flavourings or even sugar water. Sometimes they were steamed and then pressed, cut and rubbed-out. These were the original aromatics. Through the years the term has become broadly used and refers to many flavoured tobacco blends. Most of the times the Cavendish Cut was a long cut, between a fine cut and a ribbon cut, depending on the manufacturer.

4Coarse Cut: Ribbon cut containing some chunkier pieces.

coinsCoin: Thin tobacco circles which look like coins. You get those when you cut a navy plug, twist, rope or roll cake. The terms “Coin”, “Medallion”, “Roll Cut”, “Navy Cut” and “Spun Cut” are all pretty much interchangeable as they are all sliced off round-shaped, pressed (or spun) tobacco.

crimp cutCrimp Cut: This is a slightly smaller cut than the granulated one.

cross cutCross Cut: A broad cut that is cut twice, creating small squares.

krumble kakeCrumble Cake: Cakes that are made from ribbon-cut tobaccos. The smoker can easily break off a chunk, crumble it between the fingers and prepare it for smoking. This form shares the moisture-holding capacity of plugs. With the added convenience of being somewhat easier to make ready. The downside is that this form tends to break into small fragments. Which can clog the airway or burn too quick. So if you load a pipe with a crumble cake, put some bigger chunks in the bottom of the bowl and the small fragments on top.

crushed plugCrushed Plug: This tobacco is cut at right angles to a plug. It may be classified as a coarser and larger granulated tobacco cut.

cube cutCube Cut: Pressed tobacco which has been cut into fine or coarse cube-shaped pieces. The most common type is cube-cut Burley. The thick, chunky pieces burn slowly, so cube-cut tobaccos normally smoke quite cool.

curly cutCurly: Thin tobacco circles you get when you cut a navy plug, twist or roll cake. In my experience a curly cut tobacco is much rougher in appearance as for instance neatly stacked medallions in a tin.

fine cutFine Cut: Usually used for (roll-your-own) cigarette tobacco. This is a variation of a long cut and shag cut. Fine cut tobacco is cut between 30 and 40 times to the inch when it is to be used in pipe tobacco. In cigarette tobacco that is 50 to 90 times to the inch.

flakeFlake: Tobacco is placed under very high pressure with varying degrees of heat. It is then pressed into bricks and sliced into broad, flat flakes. These are typically about 1-2 inches wide and 0.1 inches thick. You fold or lightly rub the flake to put it in your pipe.  There can be many different tobaccos in a flake. These tobaccos benefit from the pressing because it allows their flavours, densities and moisture levels to marry. It will also help them to have a better synergy as they age. The most common flakes are based upon Virginia and Virginia-perique tobaccos. This because of the density of the flake the Virginia will burn more slowly so you get a cooler smoke.

granulatedGranulated Cut: tobacco is cut from stemmed leaf in irregularly shaped, medium sized flakes. Because this cut of tobacco packs quite well with air spaces between particles, it burns slow and cool.

Lanyard: See “Rope”.

Long Cut: See “Shag cut”.

loose cutLoose Cut: A long, thin ribbon cut. Commonly found in many Captain Black and Lane Bulk blends.

Navy PlugNavy Plug: This name was given because sailors would fill a long canvas tube with tobacco (or tightly wrap rope around tobacco) and sometimes add flavourings like rum, fruits and spices. Then the tube was twisted tight, mimicking the pressing process. This technique created a dense roll of tobacco about an inch thick which could be cut into smaller pieces or coins. In essence the navy plug is the same as a roll-cake.

navy cutNavy Cut: The slices you get when you cut a navy plug. Originally these had a round shape. Later tobacco manufacturers used the term more broadly and a Navy Cut could also be a rectangular flake or slice (for example Capstan). Good examples of round Navy Cut tobaccos are Escudo and Peter Stokkebye Luxury Bullseye Flake.

medaillionMedallion: See “Coin” and “Navy Cut”.

mixtureMixture: A term often seen on pipe tobacco packages. It simply is a mix of different tobacco types, cuts and flavours.

Plug: See “Cake”.

ready rubbedReady-rubbed: Flake tobacco that has been mechanically rubbed out so it can be readily smoked or combined with other cuts. Sometimes you see a regular ribbon cut with pieces of ready-rubbed Virginia flake. This way the Virginia can’t burn too fast and hot and the smoke is kept cool.

ribbon cutRibbon Cut: More narrow than a broad cut, this has a steady burn and it packs well. It is a good cut for tobaccos that don’t burn easily. Often you see latakia as a ribbon cut because of its poor burning qualities.

roll cakeRoll Cake: Similar to a Navy Plug, round in appearance.

roll cutRoll Cut: A sliced version of roll cake. See “Medallion” and “Coin”.

rope tobaccoRope: The tobacco is spun by machine into long ropes which can be as much as 60 feet long which are then cut in larger pieces for sale. There are a few of these ropes which are cut into coins before they are finally packed.

rough cutRough Cut: Tobaccos which are cut into larger flat pieces, a heavier version of the granulated cut. This cut burns slowly and can be used to keep hotter tobaccos from burning too fast.

shag cutShag Cut: Tobacco which is finely cut/shredded into long threads. It is thinner and longer than a ribbon cut. It may range from a 19th of an inch to a 16th in width and in length from a half inch to an inch.  Virginia tobaccos lend themselves to this cut because of their large leaf size. A shag cut can easily pack too tightly and burns very well. Just like a fine cut this cut is common for roll-your-own cigarette tobaccos as well.

slicesSlices: In essence the same as flakes. The only noticeable difference is the thickness; slices are thicker than flakes. One of the most well-known tobaccos of this type is (of course) Troost Slices.

Spun Cut: See “Curly” “Coin” and “Medallion”.

square cutSquare Cut: Flakes which are cut in squares, the picture is not so good but the only one I could find. A good example of a square cut is Mick McQuaid Square Cut.

twistTwist: Similar to rope. Leaves are layered and then twisted tightly to mature the tobacco. That is why many ropes and twists tend to be rather strong in flavour and nicotine content. It can be sliced into coins for pipe smoking or cut in thicker chunks for chewing.

If I have forgotten any tobacco cuts or if you have any comments, please let me know!