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-knows 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!

Beloved Burley

White burley

White burley

Burley is one of most loved and versatile species of the nicotiana tabacum strain. It is used in virtually every kind of tobacco, from snuff and chew to cigarettes and cigars to pipe tobacco. It has the unique property that it is able to absorb flavourings readily and to let those really shine. One of the reasons burley became very popular at the dawn of the “aromatic era” in the 60’s.

The leaves of the plant are medium size. It is grown widely from the mid-Atlantic region of the USA, through the South and into the Midwest. Also burley is cultivated in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Malawi and Mexico.

There are a few different kinds of burley with different methods of curing:
1. Air cured burley
(sub-categories  1. Light air cured – 2. Dark air cured.)
2. Fire cured burley.

Air curing

Air curing

Air Curing: About 90% of all the burley tobacco grown in the USA is air cured. The process is simple: after the tobacco is harvested it is strung on long poles and hung in a barn to dry under natural weather conditions. This air curing process normally takes from four to six weeks. It is completed when the central vein of the leaf is completely free of sap.
Light air cured burley: 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 burley: Used mostly 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.

Fire Curing: In the fire curing process the tobacco is also placed on poles and hung in a barn for a period of three to five days. Then slow fires of hardwood and hardwood sawdust are maintained on the barn-floor until the tobacco is completely dry. The process can take as long as forty days if the weather is very damp. In addition to drying the tobacco, the fire curing process imparts an unusual smoky taste and aroma to the tobacco. Most fire cured burley comes from southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee.
Fire Cured Burley: Usually referred to as “Kentucky Burley”. Its production is essentially for the same use as dark air cured burley. The taste is earthy, spicy and cigar-like with a slightly smoky aroma.

White burley tobacco monument

White burley tobacco monument

The origin of white burley tobacco is credited to George Webb and Joseph Fore in 1864. They grew it on the farm of one captain Frederick Kautz near Higginsport, Ohio. Seed was used from Bracken County, Kentucky. The captain noticed a different type of light leaf shaded from white to yellow was grown. By 1866, he harvested 20,000 pounds of burley and sold it in 1867 at the St. Louis Fair for $58 per hundred pounds. In 1880 Kentucky produced 36 percent of the total USA tobacco production. First in the country with nearly twice as much tobacco produced as by Virginia.

For me a downside of burley is that it contains a lot of the ol’ lady nicotine. I do not know much about chemistry but I shall try to explain it.. Burley has an alkaline nature (which means that the smoke tends to have a pH above 7). And one of the things that will cause the body to absorb nicotine more and more is an alkaline (or basic) matrix. Which makes sense if you realize that nicotine belongs to a group called alkaloids (morphine also belongs to that group).

However, if you get sick from the nicotine you can do the following:
1. Drink lots of water (8 glasses if you can stomach it) or other healthy beverages (no not beer you Belgium folks!).
2. Take some extra vitamins. They are good for you! Especially if you are trying to clear your body of nicotine. In particular vitamin C is an antioxidant that is known to help in this process.
3. Exercise! Working up a sweat will burn a good deal of those nasty nicotine toxins out of your body.
4. Eat or drink something sweet. Smoking anything high in nicotine will cause your blood sugar to initially rise and then drop. That  drop is what causes most of the nicotine issues.
5. Lie on bed and wait for the sickness to pass. After 40 minutes the nicotine loses half of its effect.

The alkalinity of burley has an additional effect: the possibility of tongue bite. Of all the different types of tobaccos, the one most likely to cause bite is Burley. However, it is important to understand that tongue bite is a biochemical reaction. Not to be confused with “leather tongue”, what you might get from smoking too much or too hot. When tongue bite attacks, it feels almost like a muscle cramp. The reaction is caused by the high pH of the smoke and because of that having something to drink that is somewhat acidic (like a dry wine or a soda) can help to lessen the discomfort.

Master-blender Steven Brooks in action

Master-blender Steven Books in action.
© House of Calabash

As far as blending goes, little or no sugar is found in the chemical composition of burley. That enables it to absorb great quantities of flavourings or casings. Also, because of the neutral taste and aroma of burley, it blends quite easily with all types of tobaccos. It assumes the taste and aroma of the tobacco or the flavourings with which it is blended. If you would like to lighten a blend you could use some white burley, which will add a bit of sour nuttiness (like a walnut). Dark burley (air and fire-cured) will add a spicy note and maybe a touch of a cigar-like flavor along with a fair amount of vitamin N. So beware if you are a nicotine wuss like me!

There are many, many mixtures that have a bit or a lot of burley in them. So I won’t (and can’t) name them all. But here are some recommended blends:
Bell’s Three Nuns Original*
– Cornell & Diehl: Burley Flake #3, Exhausted Rooster, Haunted Bookshop
Edgeworth Sliced (no longer made, old full and sealed tins can be found now and then on e-bay)
– Esoterica Tobacciana: Stonehaven
– GL Pease: Barbary Coast, Cumberland, Jackknife Plug
– HU Tobacco: Nashville County, Dockworker
– John Middleton: Carter Hall, Prince Albert
– MacBaren: Burley London Blend*, Navy Flake*
– Peterson: Perfect Plug*, University Flake*
– Pipes and Cigars: Scotty’s Bulk Blends – Butternut Burley
– Solani: 660 Silver Flake*, 656 Aged Burley Flake*
Troost Slices*

* Available in The Netherlands