2001 - A Tobacco Odyssey

27th April, 2007: Posted by glpease in Tobacco

In an on-line forum, Paul wrote, “There are comments made, here and there, that if you leave a tin of tobacco in your car on a hot day in direct sunlight that it increases the aging process.” I’m sorry to say this just isn’t correct, and, in fact, a lot of fine tobaccos may find themselves ruined, or at least not as good as they should be as a result of this “technique.”

Recently, a friend sent me a little unlabeled sample of something, and asked me what I thought of it. I wasn’t very impressed. I found it overly sweet, out of balance, lacking life, and overall, rather mono-dimensional. I wrote to him, identifying what I thought was in the blend, and sharing my impressions, explaining that the tobacco tasted like it was really over the hill. His response? “It’s 2001 Odyssey, dude.” What? At least I’d identified the components correctly. But, what had happened to the tobacco that I know so well? Had Kubrick returned from beyond to mess with my friend’s 2001 Odyssey? [Sorry… -glp]

I found a tin in my cellar of the same vintage, and opened it to find a very different tobacco. Where his was dead and flat, mine was still lively and exuberant. Where his was almost overwhelmingly sweet, mine had a lovely complexity and excellent balance. His lacked that magnificent “funk” aged tobaccos begin to get after about five years, while mine could keep company with Bootsy Collins and Parliment. It was like two very different tobaccos.

After discussing this with him, it became clear what had happened. He inadvertently had cooked the life out of the tobacco. He really didn’t mean to, but he did. He boiled his jars, put the tobacco in them, dropped the tops on, and sealed ‘em up while everything was still nice and hot. This relatively small change all those years ago resulted in a dramatic difference today. This whole “aging” thing is a little more complex than most of us realize.

It’s popular amongst some pipesters to “stove” tobacco on the dashboard of the Chevy, baking it in the hot sun, sometimes for days or weeks. I’m sorry to say, the best use for this is as lyrical fodder for a bad country song, not for the eventual enjoyment of good tobaccos. The short term effects may, in fact, be desirable, but the long term damage can be quite real, and you won’t know how bad until it’s much too late, as my experience with my friend’s Odyssey demonstrates. There’s no plastic surgery that can restore the youthful vibrance of old pipe tobacco, either. Time is irreversible. But, what happens?

Cooking tobacco in the hot sun, the toaster oven or the crock pot changes it. It’s likely that it will increase the integration of the different tobaccos into a more cohesive whole, simply by virtue of the increased vapor pressure of the volatile chemicals that give tobacco its flavor and aroma. This is much like the effect of cooking the soup for hours; after a while, all the flavors begin to meld, and it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the individual components. But, there are other changes that take place. In the case of mixtures, these changes may not be for the best, as my experience with the 2001 Odyssey my friend sent me demonstrates.

There are many biological processes and chemical reactions going on in those tins, some of them simultaneous, some of them sequential, with the end products of one reaction being used to drive the next. Increasing the temperature will speed the rates of these reactions, but not necessarily linearly. That is, some reactions will speed up more than others, so the balance of what is going on in that little hermetically sealed laboratory can change dramatically with increased temperature. At or around normal room temperatures, we know pretty much what is going to happen, based on experience, but when it gets to the point where human beings become uncomfortable, things can really change.

This is not to say that heating tobacco is always a bad thing. Home stoving of straight virginias can, for instance, transform a monodimensional tobacco into something much more interesting. But, when dealing with mixtures, there’s a lot more involved, and some tobaccos just don’t want to be cooked. Too, it’s important to understand that these “stoving” methods are not a substitute for aging, nor is the actual, slow process of aging accelerated through these methods, though it certainly may be altered in an irreversible way. You wouldn’t put a fine bottle of wine in the oven to speed up its aging, would you?

Please forgive any illusion of arrogance here, but as a blender, if I wanted a mixture cooked, I’d have cooked it before putting it out to market. As mentioned, there can be advantages to toasting, stoving, steaming, roasting and “panning” tobaccos, but these sorts of processes need to be done precisely, in a controlled manner, and with the final product in mind. It’s not like putting a piece of bread in the toaster or reheating a spiral cut ham.

So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Tobacco should be stored in a cool place. Not the boot of your grandmother’s Nash Metropolitan, not on top of the water heater, not behind that strange extra door in the Wedgewood that no one really knows what its for. Temperatures under 80˚F are fine, but when it goes too much above that, and especially when it fluctuates widely, you’re just asking for disappointment some years down the road. My suspicion is that far more blends will be damaged by excessive heat than will benefit from it.

I realize this isn’t going to stop some of you, and there may be the occasional happy surprise some years down the road that will compel me to eat my words. But, so far, my experience along these lines is not very positive, and isn’t it better to play it safe when it comes to the considerable investment we make in our tobacco cellars? So, if you cook it, plan on smoking it right away. If your goal is long-term aging, keep those tins cool, and be patient. Five years really isn’t that long in the overall time sphere.