First leg: sow seeds, cultivate, harvest/ hand over. Second leg: cure, ferment / hand over. Third leg: choose and blend, shred, flavour, press, package/ hand over. Fourth leg: transport, deliver, sell/ hand over. Special, personal fifth leg: open, prepare, fill, light ... and smoke!
The long journey from seed to smoke may be described simply in terms of a relay race, although of course the process is more complex than that. You only have to look at some of the stages, such as growing, curing, and fermentation to realise that there are hundreds of different examples, exceptions and variations in the process. The relay model is similar in that the line between each leg is often blurred, and the “baton” may be handed over when needed rather than at a precise moment. For instance, the grower may continue with curing, rather than letting someone else take over. Likewise, those working in the second leg may also continue with activities that would be part of the third leg. Fermentation and curing occur in the second leg, but may also be continued in the third, and less frequently also in the fourth leg. As we shall see, the art of blending is at the heart of the third leg, but may also be found in the fourth and fifth leg. The change of hands during the process may increase or decrease compared to the stages described above. The tasks may be carried out by different companies, or else by various sections within one company. That being said, we shall now try to describe in broad terms what happens to tobacco when it goes from the second to the third leg of the process, obviously also taking into account the variations that may occur. The focus is on the final pipe product.
Once the cultivation, curing, and fermentation stages have been completed, the tobacco is almost ready. Tobacco manufacturers from all over the world offer a wide range of various types of tobacco. The often quite noticeable variations and differences are determined by the plants’ genetic features, climate, soil, growing methods and special treatment. However, the pipe smoker has little interest in this wealth of tobacco types, as the tobacco at this stage is rather unpleasant to smoke and is rarely found in shops. In fact, the tobacco is usually handed over in medium or large quantities to what are known as “blenders”.
A blend is a mixture, concoction, mix. The task of the blender is to blend, mix, and balance together different grades and types of tobacco leaves according to a particular recipe. The reason is two-fold: on the one hand the aim is to provide the consumer with something that is unique, special and attractive, the fruit of masterful combinations and proportions. On the other hand the features of a popular formula need to be renewed each year by varying the proportions of ingredients whose characteristics are modified season by season. This regards the process nowadays. The origin of this process dates back to early seventeenth-century Holland, and the reason at the time was that by mixing different tobacco strains low quality grades could also be used From this eventually grew the art of blending, and the increasingly discerning smoker gradually showed their preference for the smoothest and most fragrant blend.
Blenders are experts that are either self-employed or else work for small, medium or large enterprises, who select and purchase a wide range of tobaccos from various suppliers through their specialists. In some cases auctions are arranged where one lot is sold at a time. In other cases, a company chooses to buy tobacco in bulk holding option rights. It is in the warehouses where blenders work that tobacco of every type and origin is combined and undergoes different processes that will result in the final, packaged product. Some of these tobacco types will constitute the main base for the mixture, while others are used as “condiments” in smaller portions to enhance, attenuate, modify, contrast, balance, or add a nuance that makes a blend unique. However, as usual the rules are not so stringent, and “condiments” may become important in a specific formula. Tobacco leaves are almost always uniform. Sometimes a blender may introduce a type of blend in the cocktail that has already been created.
Let us now examine some of the main tobacco types produced for pipes. Each will be briefly described, although bear in mind that tobacco families often contain various sub-types.
These tobacco genres often make up the base of blends, while at times they can also be just one of the components. They are light, with an unmistakable complex, delicate aroma that is sweet, fruity and sometimes spicy. As they are rich in sugars and essential oils, they tend to burn hotter when smoking. Moreover, the alkaline nature of the leaf may cause tongue bite. The nicotine level is low. Virginia tobacco is flue-cured or more recently bulk cured, but the high sugar content entails further treatment that makes the tobacco more complex and mellow. The most famous Virginia strain is called “bright” due to its golden yellow shade, but there are also the red, and darker “matured” and “stoved” varieties, which undergo longer periods of curing, and the stoved variety is roasted. This treatment helps to attenuate the sensation of tongue bite. Originally grown in Virginia, this tobacco is now produced by countries such as Canada, Brazil, India, China, Africa as well as various states in the USA and Italy.
Burley is another type of tobacco strain that is used as a base for pipe tobacco blending, albeit more sparingly as its full, sometimes nutty aroma tends to dominate other tobacco types. As the leaves are highly porous they have a high capacity to absorb flavourings. They have a low sugar level, thus the tobacco burns more slowly, while the nicotine level is high. The leaves are generally air-cured and produce different varieties. Kentucky Burley, the dark variety that is very different from Kentucky, serves to add body, whereas the White variety, used extensively for cigarettes, which is of a higher quality being lighter and sweeter, serves to mellow blends that would otherwise be too bitter or sharp. The USA produces Burley in different states, and it is also grown in countries such as Brazil, Malawi and Argentina.
This variety stands by itself compared to the other products listed here. This is not a tobacco but is in fact a process used for several tobacco strains. The many varieties of Cavendish are sweet and smooth, with an excellent aroma, being full-bodied and burns well. The tobaccos used to produce this are mainly Virginia and Burley, but also Maryland or a combination of these three. The leaves are first treated with steam so as to open up the pores in the leaves and then flavoured in various ways with rum, maple syrup, liquorice, cocoa and other natural and artificial substances. Finally, the leaves are pressed and fermented for some time. These processes may change depending on the producer and geographical area. For example, tobacco tends to be more flavoured in the USA than in England. The resulting tobacco “cake” is sliced, then shredded finely.
This is the classic “condiment” tobacco, also because being produced in small quantities it is considered the “truffle” of pipe tobacco. With a distinctive strong and spicy aroma, in some respects likened to certain wines, it is dark and oily, tasting of plums and pepper, although this flavour can have various nuances according to which other tobacco types are added. The nicotine level is high, and it burns very slowly. When it is combined with Virginia, the flavour is enhanced. The tobacco used for genuine Perique is a specific plant akin to Red Burley and due to its specific characteristics can only be grown in a limited area in Louisiana, a patch of land measuring only 6.5 ha. whose soil and microclimate are so specific that it is impossible to replicate elsewhere. Similarly, the curing of the leaves is also specific, which in this case involves only two weeks’ air curing followed by fermentation that plays a fundamental role. The stems are pulled out of each leaf and then the leaves are pressed under extreme pressure in whiskey barrels and left to ferment for a long time in their juices for successive periods, during which at certain intervals the tobacco is taken out and aired. Seeing that there is a high demand, several attempts have been made to grow other tobacco strains to produce Perique. Indeed, a satisfying result has been obtained from Kentucky Green River Burley. Blending the leaves with genuine Perique and processing the blend adequately results in Acadian Perique, a fairly good imitation that is not the original, however, but is nevertheless used in current blends.
Dark Fired Kentucky
This is in some way akin to the Burley strain, but quite different as it is classified as condiment and lends a stronger flavor to the blend. The direct fire-cure results in specific aromas and flavours. It is strong and dark, full-bodied and high in nicotine, having a specific smoky aftertaste. It is produced in limited quantities in the USA, as well as in Africa and Europe, including Italy where it is a fundamental ingredient for Toscani cigars.
Maryland and Carolina
To complete the overview of American tobacco strains, these two air-cured, neutral-flavoured types should be mentioned. They serve to counter-balance the characteristics of Virginia and Burley.
Grown in the Eastern Mediteranean countries (Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon) these tobacco strains have smaller leaves compared to the other tobacco types mentioned so far. Some are sweet and spicy, while others may be sour. They all share a strong aroma, being full-bodied and sun-cured. On the whole, in a few cases they may serve as a base for distinctive tobacco blends, but are more often used as condiments. A blend of these tobaccos is more often to be found than one single strain.
A specific oriental variety, whose name derives from a Syrian port city. Indeed, the origin of the plant is Syrian, although nowadays it is grown almost exclusively on Cyprus. Having a characteristic smoky flavor and being highly aromatic, it is the classic condiment to be found in different blends, especially but not only in English mixtures. Since it burns more slowly, it provides a cool smoke and is thus combined with Virginia to counteract tongue bite. The original Syrian version tends towards dark grey and has an incense-like taste, although it is now almost unavailable. The plants used were a semi-wild variety called Nicotiana Acuminata. Left to dry whole outside for a few weeks, the leaves were then fire-cured using pine, oak and other aromatic wood. The current Cypriot variety is dark brown, almost black with an earthy taste. The tips of the Smyrna variety are used, while oriental tobacco is derived from the rest of the leaf. After initial sun-drying, the leaves are smoked over smouldering myrtle and mastic, while the rooms are frequently aired to avoid condensation. Subsequently, the tobacco is tied into bundles and left to rest for at least six months, a kind of curing method that substitutes the original fermentation of Syrian Latakia, which is why the quality is not the same.
These are dark, air-cured and then fermented tobaccos. Their colour varies as do the size of the leaves. They burn well, and have a cigar smell and taste. Indeed, this is why the leaves are grown for cigar manufacturers. However, they may also be used as condiment for pipe blends to provide body and aftertaste. The tobacco is grown in various parts of the world, such as the Caribbean, Java and Sumatra.
For further information, we suggest you refer to the Maurizio Capuano e Daniele Vallesi book "Home Blending"