Centuries ago, sailors would experiment various ways to preserve tobacco as long as possible. One of these methods consisted in steeping the tobacco in a sugar-based syrup, making a ball or else putting it into a rough mould, and subsequently pressing the tobacco tightly by hand. This do-it-yourself method has been abandoned, of course, to be replaced by increasingly industrialised processes adopted by the blenders, which we mentioned in the previous article as being more challenging.
Before using the press, it is essential to moisten the tobacco so that it becomes more elastic and thus facilitates pressing, whereas drier tobacco would crumble to dust.
Plug and Flake – This type of cut is produced by using stripped leaves that are pressed into a mould: sometimes a specific order is followed on the basis of the various types of tobacco bases present, or else all the components are simply combined together. The press that is used is quite powerful, as initially the mass of tobacco is a metre high, which is then reduced under high pressure to a slab that is about four centimetres thick. The first pressing is almost instant, whereas the second takes much longer, involving a substantial number of overlapping slabs. The whole mass is reduced to a much lesser extent, but constant pressure, carried out in controlled conditions of temperature and humidity, can last for several weeks. It is during this stage that the various components combine perfectly together, while the process of fermentation refines the quality of the product. In the end, the consistency of the slab resembles that of wood. The edges, which are ruined by the pressure, are trimmed and the slab is cut into a certain number of smaller blocks or “plugs”. These can be sold as they are, and it is up to the smoker to slice off the thickness required for his pipe. Otherwise, the manufacturer will slice the tobacco into thin, flat flakes.
Cake – Unlike the previous process, the cake is produced with tobacco that has already been cut, so that the different varieties can blend much better together. The remaining process is similar to that described for the plug, except for the fact that the moulds are smaller and round, there is only one pressing and honey is added. Once the tobacco is pressed, it is left to rest under controlled conditions for a long time, which contributes to its fermentation. Like the plug, the cake may be sold whole, cut into small pieces or slices.
Spun or Roll Cut – Cut tobacco is inserted into a metal tube and then put under high pressure with a piston that runs inside the tube. After a period of rest and fermentation the rod is removed from the tube and wrapped with the leaves of other types of tobacco. The rod is then cut into round-shaped slices called “coins”, characterised by the fact that the dense, central part of the coin is distinguishable from the outer layer wrapped around. The sailors used a similar technique in that they would fill a canvas tube which was then twisted tightly to resemble the pressing process.
Rope or Twist tobacco – This is a rope made of tobacco, in which the stripped leaves are spun and twisted in order to obtain fibres that are then braided together to form a rope. The rope is then wrapped in other leaves to provide an outer cover similar to that of cigars. In the past, the process was undertaken by two people, who worked in a small assembly line, in which one person would be in charge of the rope, while the other would be responsible for the outer cover, gradually extending the rope. Nowadays, everything is done with machines. Once the rope is finished, it is coiled and inserted into a steam press in which the rope is “cooked” for two or three hours. While still in the press, the tobacco is left to cool down for seven or eight hours and fermentation occurs. The rope is then cut into pieces or sliced finely into circles, curly cut or bird’s eye, in which the centre is distinguishable from the outer layer, similar to the coin. In the past, this was one of the most common ways to trade tobacco. It is thought that one of the first to create a tobacco rope was the sailors, who were experts in the art of rope making. The rope tobacco was high in nicotine, being used in pipes, as snuff or else chewed. Today it is rather difficult to obtain.
At this point, all that remains is to package the tobacco, after having mixed it well for one last time (if necessary). A long time has elapsed since the sailors packed the tobacco in empty rum barrels (thus flavouring the tobacco) or in fragile ceramic or porcelain containers, or else in tarred canvas, so that the tobacco would then smell unpleasantly of tar. Nowadays, apart from the special cases of plug, cake, spun and rope tobacco, there are two options: a plastic pouch, or else a tin. In the various types of packaging, chosen by the smoker, the tobacco offers a wide array of cuts, which contribute to the smoker’s choice. Smoking one product or another can prove to be quite different, whether for aesthetic or emotional reasons, or for the practical question of packing, lighting and smoking.
The tobacco is shredded and/or fragmented, and a small amount of tobacco is taken from the tin or pouch to pack the pipe. This is the most commonly used type of tobacco cut, as the pipe is easily packed, and it burns well. Indeed, it is ideal for first-timers, but it is also appreciated by experts. There are various types of loose tobacco:
This is a blend, but in the language of connoisseurs it is also linked to a precise type of cut: thin, short pieces and ribbons.
A cut that is similar to the mixture, but more coarsely cut.
Cut more coarsely than that of a mixture, the ribbons are medium to long in length, with variable width size. It is a cross between ribbon and wild cut.
The tobacco is cut into long, narrow ribbons (a few centimetres). This cut is achieved by first cutting a plug, which is then flaked and shredded into ribbons.
A ribbon cut whose strips are wider.
The process is similar to that of the ribbon cut, but the tobacco resembles long threads, being much finer. The cut is so fine that it is not recommended for beginner tobacco pipe smokers, as the tobacco burns well, but if not controlled can burn too quickly.
The result of cutting a plug twice at right angles, which produces small squares.
This is ideal for those who love cake or plug and want a ready smoke. The flakes and ribbons are cut from a cake or plug immediately prior to packaging. Ribbon cuts of various widths and cross cut are also ready rubbed.
This type of product, resulting from more complex processes, is packaged in block of various shapes, or “slices” cut from these blocks, rather than various types of loose leaf tobacco. Tobacco in blocks is less common than loose leaf, also due to the fact that it is designed for expert pipe smokers, who enjoy the ritual of packing, lighting and controlling the pace of the tobacco burning in the bowl, as well as appreciating the interesting features of plug, cake, spun, rope tobacco and their derivatives, which is a source of pride.
Those who buy a plug can act like the sailors in the past, who would cut thin flakes from the plug to smoke during the moments and places allowed by their commander. These flakes are folded in a particular manner and then packed into the bowl, or else are first rubbed into smaller pieces. Occasionally, the flake is left to rest for a few hours after being cut, which serves to reduce the moisture and thus make the tobacco light more easily.
For those who prefer to avoid having to slice the tobacco, flakes that are already cut are available in tins.
These are flakes that are partially broken up to facilitate further the work of the pipe smoker.
Derived from a plug that has been cut into cube-shaped pieces.
This can be bought whole, with a packaging that is different from the usual pouches or tins, as well as being sold in pieces of various sizes and also in thin slices.
A cake made from ribbon cut tobacco. Its special feature is that it is easy to crumble between the fingers, without having to use a knife.
The rods can be bought whole and then sliced when required. Otherwise ready-sliced coins are available.
The same goes for rope tobacco, which can be bought in pieces (price by weight) or again in discs such as curly cut or bird’s eye.
Centuries ago on the ships tobacco was transported in the form of spun shapes (produced by filling a canvas tube with the tobacco and then twisting it tightly), or rope (the tobacco was spun and then twisted into a rope). The Navy Cut was obtained by slicing spun or rope tobacco, and later the name was also applied to the slices of plug tobacco.
Before coming to the end of this exploration of tobacco cuts, there is still one aspect to consider.
If the last lap of tobacco manufacture belongs to smokers, it cannot be ignored that some of them want more than just a smoke: they also wish to become blenders. This is a fascinating hobby, which is a source of satisfaction for those who are patient, determined and have time to spend.
Using available tobacco brands, smokers try to customise them by letting them mature in their original packaging, or else by steaming the tobacco or heating it in the oven (whether traditional or microwave). A favourite blend can be enhanced by adding other types of tobacco (even cigar tobacco), experimenting with flavourings or marinating. However, there are those who go even further by buying small presses in DIY stores or antique markets, adjusting parts, improving home methods so as to obtain in the end their own personal cake or plug.
The flip side of this method is that it is time-consuming and costly, often with negative results, which is why considerable determination is required. However, for pipe blending enthusiasts the final result is all important. Once a satisfying blend has been achieved, the smoker can closely guard his special “recipe”, or else share it with other devotees who are also seeking perfection. The reward for all this effort is a wonderful smoke.