Matching Pipes and Tobaccos—Part 2

5th April, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes, Enjoyment, Technique

Read Matching Pipes and Tobaccos—Part 1.

A friend of mine dedicates every new pipe to a specific tobacco. I applaud his rigorous bookkeeping, somewhat retentive attention to detail, and his dedication to methodology, but I’ve always wondered if he’s really getting the most out of his experience, or winding up selling some of his pipe and tobacco choices short. How do we know, at the start, what tobaccos will work best with a given pipe? I wish there was some sort of metric, as the process of discovery can sometimes fill a great deal of time.

I often start a pipe out with a Virginia, but not always. A lot depends on the size and geometry of the bowl, and on who made the pipe. I think some makers’ pipes have certain signature tastes, at least early on, that suggest the sort of tobacco they’ll like. Castellos, for instance, have always been best for me with rich, slightly sweet Latakia blends, or with dark Virginia/perique blends. There’s something about their “brightness” that seems to harmonize well with darker flavors, especially during the initial bowls.

If I’m lucky enough to stumble upon a good combination straight away, I thank the fates for the good fortune, and stick with it, or at least dedicate that pipe to the same genre of tobacco. If the original trials are less satisfactory, on the other hand, I’ll embark on a quest to find the right tobacco for the pipe, smoking a few bowls of something different in the thing, repeating the process until stumbling upon the right synergy.

This doesn’t always work out, but when it does, the results can be delightful. I was smoking one of my pipes, a wonderful smoker, with lighter Latakia blends, and it was providing a consistently excellent smoke. One day, I filled it with Stratford, and the result was sublime - almost magical. It’s a large bowl, one that I normally wouldn’t smoke Virginias in, but this combination is exquisite, and I haven’t looked back. It’s my Stratford pipe, and that’s all there is to it. So far, it has not disappointed, delivering a marvelous smoking experience with each bowl, though the lingering Latakia notes in the first few bowls did provide a delightful spice that has gradually dissipated through continued smoking.

More than once, I’ve found a pipe that really didn’t “work” with one blend or genre, and has transformed from ugly duckling to swan with a different tobacco, so if a pipe isn’t delivering, it’s always a good idea to try a different fuel for its fires before giving up on it.

I still can not find any rationale for this behavior in a pipe. Geometry clearly plays a role, as does the curing method of the briar, I suspect. But, each pipe has its own personality, it’s own preferences, it seems. (Though I still do enjoy my flakes in those wide-bowled GBD pots.)

This confounds the exploration of new blends, unfortunately. It’s hardly fair to smoke a tobacco in one pipe, and believe that the blend can be deeply understood. It takes several bowls in a given pipe to truly apprehend the complexities and nuances of a blend, and if it’s the “wrong” pipe, the tobacco can present an unfairly biased view of itself. Nor is it fair to a pipe to judge it based on a few experiences with a specific tobacco type.

On the other side of things, a great pipe that has been found ideal for a specific blend or type, can positively influence a less-than-great blend toward appearing better than it is. More than once, a pipe has delivered a wonderful smoking experience from a blend that just doesn’t perform in any other piece in my collection. Had that fortuitous combination not been discovered early, would I have dismissed the blend offhand? (I’ve sometimes said that I have pipes I could smoke lawn clippings in, and get a delightful smoke out of them. It’s almost true.)

It is the more subtle blends, often, that seem to be the most pipe sensitive. Powerful tobacco flavors often seem to overcome mediocre pipes, but those blends that rely on a quiet voice to express themselves are quite particular about the briar company they keep. This isn’t always the case, though. In particular, I’ve found Virginia blends, which tend to be more subtle, to be more forgiving of the briar in which they’re smoked than spicy, heavier Latakia blends. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s just another example of the complexities of our seemingly simple pastime.

The moral? With pipes and tobaccos, it’s best to give each a fair shot at delivering what it can, rather than relegating it early to some particular category, or worse, to the dustbin. Whilst some may seek rules and guidelines for choosing pipe and tobacco pairings based on cycles of the moon, the colour of the bowl, or the length of the current president’s term of office, without some pretty complex and rigorous scientific exploration, all this can really be is simplistic hand waving and wishful thinking. There’s nothing wrong with circles and arrows, but let’s not confuse them with science.

There’s a good reason Alfred Dunhill called it the “Gentle Art of Smoking,” rather than “The Hard Science.”