Dogs that Bite

24th January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

I often hear about tobaccos that bite, yet rarely is this quality attributed to a pipe, however much it may be deserved. I’ve had pipes that would take the smoothest tobacco on the planet, and render it unsmokable, turning its smoke into a bite-sized version of a nuclear reactor meltdown on my tongue. No amount of “breaking-in” of these pipes has ever cured them of their nasty temperament. Of course, there are tobaccos that can transform the most mild-mannered pipe into Lucifer’s eternal oven, and we’ve all experienced one or two of those, but, rarely is a pipe blamed for the phenomenon of “bite.” It’s always the tobacco.

Why is this? Do we want so desperately to believe that briar is just briar, that a pipe is just a pipe, that we’re willing to abandon the possibility that our beloved furnaces could cause something that we’d rather attribute to what we stoke them with?

Briar is an organic, natural material. It grows best under harsh conditions, and is subject to the ravages of nature. When a bole is dug out of the ground, cut into pieces, boiled for hours, dried, cured, aged, and finally fashioned into a pipe, we hope that it’s managed to retain its best qualities, while the offensive ones were dumped out with the bath water. But, sometimes, hopes and expectations are not enough.

The largest factories have the advantage of money at their disposal. They buy briar by the ton, and can afford the luxury of letting it sit for years while they continue to turn out hundreds of pipes each day. Savinelli comes to mind. From the least expensive second-tier pipes to their top-graded Autographs, these pipes seem to deliver good smoking characteristics fairly consistently. It may not be the most prestigious pipe brand on the market, but those who love them certainly swear by them, and my experience with the range over the years has been excellent.

Small-output pipe makers can also take advantage of time, carefully selecting the briar they buy, and putting it away for sufficiently long that when a block is chosen for transformation into an exquisite piece of briar artistry, there’s a good chance of the pipe being a great smoke. When I discussed wood treatment with Alberto Bonfiglioli after experiencing a fantastic first-bowl in one of his pipes, he confessed that he did nothing to the briar, other than let it sit for 10-15 years. Each year, he buys briar, and puts it in his shed. He makes pipes from the oldest blocks, and leaves the young ones alone. Luigi Viprati and Paolo Becker also use aged briar to good effect. Their pipes are wonderful to smoke from the beginning, and I believe it is the aging, the curing of the briar that is the cause of much of this. Perhaps, too, some of it is the Italian climate.

Other makers use special treatments to improve upon what nature has wrought. Roush, von Erck, Bill Taylor, Talbert, for instance. Each maker employs his own treatment to ensure the smoker of a great tasting pipe, and each is highly successful in doing so.

Some of the small-output makers also rely on their relationship with their briar supplier to increase the probability of getting the best wood. They select carefully, and are very demanding about what they will accept from the cutter. This, too, seems to work very well for the most part. Few experience bad smokes from pipes with such noble names as S. Bang, Ivarsson, Kent, Heeschen, Chonowitsch and Teddy.

Still, once in a while, a bad tasting, biting pipe appears, even from the best pipesmiths. It’s bound to happen. The greater care taken with selecting and aging the blocks will certainly increase the probability of a good smoking pipe being made, but, nature can be a cruel mistress.

The problem of the biting pipe may exist most commonly within the world of mid-grades that are turned out quickly. Stanwell, for instance, produce about 350 finished pipes per day. They buy tons of briar, selecting and aging it as best they can, but with that sort of output, some bad blocks are bound to slip through. I have one now, a beautiful straight grain piece made from what appears to be excellent plateau briar. The construction of the pipe is nearly perfect, up to Stanwell’s usual high standards. The drilling is excellent, the stem fit is superb, and the alignment of the airway is spot on. The nasty temperament of this pipe simply must be the result of the pedigree of the briar itself.

Despite dozens of bowls, carefully smoked, this pipe simply will not deliver a satisfactory flavor. It is harsh and acrid, its foul taste overpowering even the strongest Latakia blend I can create. Worst of all, even the most gentle tobacco I choose will sting like a mouth full of wasps when smoldered in this pipe. I truly suspect it can never be tamed. Since I have several other Stanwells that are wonderful smoking pipes, I am happy to consider this pipe anomalous. It is likely destined to find itself in a box where it will be ignored for months or years. I’m sure I’ll find it again one day, its poor manners long since forgotten, and once again, I’ll be seduced by its beautiful grain. I’ll feed it with a favorite weed, only to be bitten fiercely as my penance for forgetting.

Some dogs just bite.