Tobacco Reanimation - Bringing it Back to Life

14th May, 2008: Posted by glpease in Technique, Science

The other day, I was cleaning up part of my desk, when my eye fell on an opened tin of State Express London Mixture that had been hiding for a while. This tin dates to sometime in the 1980s, by my best reckoning, and I’d first opened a few months ago. I had smoked a few bowls, taken a few notes, and then had an out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience with it, as it found itself buried under a stack of papers and a few other tins of tobacco - also opened and drying out.

As I always do, or almost always, after I’d opened it, I’d put a double layer of foil over the open top, pressing the lid back in place. This works well for keeping the contents of these flat tins in good smoking condition for a week or three, and I’d fully intended to finish the tin within that time, but the best laid plans, and all that. Had I known I was going to forget about it, the tobacco would have been put into a jar for safe-keeping. On the other hand, I often forget to label these little jars, and once they get shuffled from place to place, usually separating themselves from the original tins on which they are sitting, with the tins ending up on one side of the office, and the jars on the other, I forget what they contain. Maybe it’s a blessing that I forgot to jar this one. But, how did it fare after several months of sitting?

Prying off the lid and peeling away the foil, I found about 22g of very dry, crumbly tobacco. Foil covered tins, it seems, have a shelf life that’s less than months. The tobacco had a restrained, acrid smell, and had lost the fruity notes that had developed from the years of aging. There was almost no detectable Latakia aroma, and the overall aroma was flat and lifeless.

This provided a perfect opportunity to do a little experimentation with re-hydration. Experiments aren’t much good if the results aren’t shared, so here’s the rest of the story.

I filled a little Castello #10 with the crumbly stuff, straight from the tin, and lit up. I estimated the moisture content to be about 8%, based on the average RH (45-50%) over the past few weeks. This is quite a bit lower than the 12% I prefer for good smoking, but I’ve smoked plenty of very dry tobacco, and sometimes, the results are pretty good, so I had hope.

It wasn’t a complete let-down. There were certainly some nice flavours coming through, but the overall balance was off. When I’d first smoked this after opening the well-aged tin, the virginias made a strong statement, with the oriental tobaccos providing interesting background spice. Now, the smoke was dominated by the slightly bitter/tart signature of the Turkish leaf, and the tobacco offered an astringent, harsh smoke that I’d not noted before. Not horrid, but certainly not what it was, nor what it could be.

For the second bowl, I filled a pipe with very similar geometry and smoking characteristics, and blew though the tobacco from the bowl side to add a little moisture to it, a trick I’d learned from one my old mentors during the days of Drucquer’s. A charring light was applied, and I then let the tobacco sit for a few minutes to take up the moisture. When I re-lit, there was significantly more flavour, and a more pronounced sweetness from the virginias. The harshness was lessened, somewhat, and the smoke was less strident, and slightly better balanced. It was going in the right direction, at least.

I then weighed what was left of the tobacco, 16g, and applied 2.4ml of water to it, to bring the moisture level back up to about 13%. After mixing carefully, I sealed it in a jar so the leaf could fully absorb the extra moisture and find its equilibrium. The following day, I opened the jar to see how things were coming along. The aroma in the jar was much less sharp, with less of the dusty, acrid, dried vegetal quality, and quite a bit more of the virginia’s tea-like delicacy. Of course, none of the aged-tobacco lusciousness, that fetid, fruity quality that provides so much intrigue, had returned. Those volatiles are lost forever to the aether. Still, the tobacco held promise for at least a pleasant smoke.

The first pipe was again employed, and after careful filling, I looked forward to this smoke with eager anticipation, both for the information that was waiting in the wings, and for a delightful experience. At first light, the difference was profound. An almost honeyed sweetness danced on the tip of my tongue, with the orientals no longer taking centre stage. And, what’s this? Latakia? It’s back! I could actually taste it. (I didn’t mention the fact that I couldn’t taste it before, simply because it didn’t occur to me, its absence was so complete.) Much of the balance of the blend had returned, and the smoke was actually quite delightful. Smooth, well orchestrated, and brilliant. I remember why I liked this tin so much when I first opened it.

Toward the middle of the bowl, however, the smoke became steamy, dilute, and more than a little hot. What had happened? I’d made no notes of this phenomenon when I’d originally smoked the stuff. After a moment’s thought, I realized my error in a head-banging instant. When I’d calculated the amount of water to add, I’d neglected to consider that the tobacco was already at about 8% moisture. Rather than raising it to 13%, I’d inadvertently brought it up to about 21% - much too high for good smoking. So, I left the tin open to allow what was left to dry down a little.

For the fourth bowl, I used the second pipe again. Pow. The flavour was there, and the interplay of all the components was quite nearly as magical as I remembered, and my original notes indicated. Certainly, some of the more interesting volatile molecules had been lost forever during the drying days, and the smoke now wasn’t as complex or as rich as it had been, but it was still wonderful.

I’d call this experiment a success, not just because it has brought some vintage weed back to life, but because of the information it has provided. Tobaccos that have dried to dust can be restored to provide a wonderful smoke, providing they were wonderful to start with. (A friend once said about wines, “You can age a bottle of piss, but all you get is old piss.” Colourful, and not completely applicable here, but well taken…) Further, my contention has always been tobacco is almost never at its best when smoked too wet or too dry, and this has been well demonstrated here. (I can already hear the groans from those who insist that they prefer their weed like the dried bones that litter the Sahara. Try it. Virginias need some moisture to carry their flavours into the smoke stream. More on that in another article.)

I realize that I’ve said in the past that once an aged tobacco has dried out this much, it’s no longer worth smoking. I was just plain wrong. Ideally, of course, once opened, the contents of that precious vintage tin should be safely stowed in glass, and smoked up over a short period of time to prevent the loss of some of its subtle greatness, but even if it has dried to dust, all is not lost! Re-hydrated, it can be enjoyed to the last crumbs.

I’m going to go out on a limb with another experiment, at significant personal sacrifice. Next time I open a vintage tin of something, I’ll take some notes, then dry it out for a week or so, re-hydrate it, and seal it back up to “re-start” the aging process. I’m curious how aging will progress the second time round. I’ll let you know what happens in five or six years.

Finally, I’ll offer my preferred method of moistening tobacco in a controlled, if not scientifically precise manner. Put the tobacco in a large bowl, and cover the bowl with a moist towel (plain water is fine). Do not let the towel touch the tobacco. Over time, and it can take anywhere from hours to days, depending on how dry the tobacco is to start with, and the ambient temperature and RH, the tobacco will equilibrate with the moisture provided by the moist towel. Check it often, and re-moisten the towel if necessary. This works like a charm, and minimizes the risk of over hydration, and mold. The target is strands of tobacco that are pliable, but don’t stick together when pressed into a ball.


13 Responses

  1. tiltjlp Says:

    Good experiment Greg. I’m one of those bone dry advocates, and while I have rehydrated a few blends successfully, I still like my tobacco much drier than most. Larson’s Kentucky Gold, for example, comes bone dry from the tin, and is a wonderful tasting blend.

    As a test, I slightly rehydrated several bowls recently, and the very life and soul was ruined. So, we should enjoy our tobacco how we prefer it, even if everyone else shakes their head at us in utter disbelief.


  2. Boston Bill Says:

    You just poured the water right into the tin? Right onto the tobacco?

  3. glpease Says:

    Good question, Boston. I did put the water directly on the tobacco, but not in the original tin. I transferred it too a bowl, applied the measured quantity of water over the surface of the tobacco, and then carefully mixed it to incorporate. I then transferred the contents of the bowl to a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

    There’s nothing at all wrong with applying water directly to tobacco, providing you don’t apply too much. Since it takes hours for tobacco to “take up” moisture that’s sprayed on, it can be tricky to determine the correct amount. My error not withstanding, by weighing the tobacco and knowing how much water to apply, I didn’t have to worry about over- or under-doing it.

  4. a11en Says:

    Awesome experiment, Greg! I tip my hat to you as well… it’s rare form for someone to say: “I was wrong” these days… especially those who are used to being right so much!! :)

    Sorry I have been out of touch recently, will e-mail soon- have a funny anecdote for ya.

    Excellent post!!

  5. Neill Says:

    A great post, Greg, and very useful.

  6. namato Says:

    Mr. Pease,

    I am new to pipe smoking, and I am not a very fast smoker (3-4 bowls a week). You mentioned that bail-top canning jars are a great short-term storage container for my open-tinned tobacco. I cannot seem to find that kind of jar anywhere around where I live or online. Do you have a suggestion for a store or a brand so I can streamline my search? Also wanted to thank you for your articles, as I have learned much. Please keep them coming!

  7. Israel Says:

    Hello Greg & Fellow Pipe Smokers,

    Reading a few articles on your site about your moisture preferences and the normal acceptable range of humidity for pipe tobacco a few thoughts hit me.

    It’s universally accepted that cigars need to be stored at around 70% humidity. And almost everyone agrees that once a cigar dries out it’s usually a hopeless case.

    The humidity of most homes makes it impossible for pipe tobacco to ever dry out, it seems to me from reading your articles that if anything, pipe tobacco left out would actually be too moist to enjoy smoking it for the majority of people. And most people say that they are able to rehydrate tobacco that has dried and that it gives a good smoke.

    How do we square the ambient conditions of most homes with these empirical observations about acceptable and ideal moisture levels in pipe tobaccos?

  8. Allan Says:

    For years I have used plastic food containers with pop tops, these are air tight, under the lid I have glued a small sponge which I add 1ML of water with a hypo needle, leave overnight, if still a bit too dry, repeat the procedure, works fine.

  9. Tony Says:

    Hello Greg;

    That was quite the experiment. This was indeed a grand tobacco in its day, as I recall sharing several tins of this stuff with my Dad.

    The fact that it dried out, but was semi-sealed with the foil, IMHO, saved a great deal of the original blend’s goodness. Thinking about some of the great blends that are shipped bone dry in the can, I guess that one cold say that the experiment would be interesting to carry out on these blends, as well, and to compare.

  10. John Lind Says:

    Fine website! For fun of it, when about 10 years old, (60 years ago) an old Ohio farmer told me as he lit his pipe: “if the tabacco is too dry, just add a few drops of whiskey to it. Not too much!” It has worked well enough for me!

  11. Dave Mackie Says:

    Thanks very much for this very useful article!

    How do you calculate how much water to add to the dried tobacco to obtain the ideal RH of around 12%?

  12. glpease Says:

    There’s really no easy way to do this easily at home without sacrificing a sufficient sample to determine the present moisture level. If you know the present moisture content of the leaf, you can calculate what you need to add to get it where you want it. Just make sure the leaf is pliable, and not clumpy, and you’ll be at a good starting point.

  13. alfredo_buscatti Says:

    First, when I open a tin I always transfer the tobacco to a jelly jar. The guesswork of trying to keep an opened tin in its tin, and properly hydrated, is too much bother for me. Not that I have 15 blends open at a time-more like 2-4. I limit the tobaccos I am smoking so that I can, with closely spaced smokes, more ably understand these them.

    Second, in your post I again find your assertion that aged tobaccos need to be smoked quickly lest they lose tastes that are ephemeral. My question, based on smoking two different tobaccos, 100 g each of 5 y/o tobaccos, and finding no difference in the first and last bowls, is how could jarred tobacco loose flavor? Where are these flavors going to go, as they are jarred?

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