Balancing Acts

22nd January, 2010: Posted by glpease in Editorial

Developing a new blend can be an interesting confluence of delight and frustration. When I conceived the notion of the Old London Series, I had some things in mind. The tobaccos would be produced in the style of the old London tobacco houses. Rather than blending cut ribbon, the leaf would be blended as strips - more or less whole leaf with the midrib removed - pressed into cakes to comingle for a few days, then cut and tumbled into ribbon form. The goal was threefold; the pressing would integrate the flavours of the different components a little sooner, and a little more fully, a slight fermentation could take place, increasing the complexity of the mixture, and finally, the cut of the blend would be more consistent.

Chelsea Morning was the first blend in the series, and I was instantly thrilled with the results. Because of this method of manufacture, it’s a very different tobacco than it would be were it made using today’s more conventional methods, and it does remind me in some ways of some of the long lost blends of yesterday. This all lands squarely on the delight side of the equation.

But, now, there’s the rest of the series to consider. I’d originally had it in mind to create blends that seemed appropriate for different times of day. Chelsea Morning, for enjoyment with the morning coffee, Afternoon Tea for later in the day, Cocktail Hour for a nice interlude before dining, and Quiet Nights for the relaxation of the evening, the final puffs before retiring. Sounds good. But, it’s turning out not to be so easy.

The first problem is that I’ve become quite smitten with Chelsea. She’s great company in the morning, and certainly a delight with that first cup of rich black coffee, made in the French press, and enjoyed in the special mug I had made in her honour. But, her charms don’t wear off quickly. After lunch, she’s still alluring. Before dinner? A fine aperitif. After dinner? Why not? It’s not really until late in the evening, when the sun has been put to bed, and a good thick book is a welcome companion that I long for something darker, heavier, richer.

So, Quiet Nights, the recipe for which I’d actually developed some time ago, serves well during its time. When this one was prototyped, long before the Old London Series was even a glimmer of a thought, I’d code-named it Nocturne. The prototype wasn’t made in this new/old way, but, instead, was done as a broken flake. So, there’s the second problem. Should I release it as a broken flake, or produce it in the same form as the other blends in the series? Okay, it’s not a very big problem, but one of those things that nags at me in my sleep. This is one of the frustration parts.

Then, there are the other two blends. I’ve been exploring several ideas, blends with different levels of Latakia, orientals, virginias; blends with different layers of natural sweetness, smokiness, complexity. It’s still fun, even after a decade of building blends, to see how much difference a small change in one ingredient can make. Just a few percentage points, and Latakia can go from being a supporting spice to the dominant player, to a boisterous and brash scene stealer. And, yes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Balance is crucial.

And, there’s that whole thing about the series, about their names.

In a sense, I feel like I’ve painted myself into the corner with the original strategy of this new series. It’s arguably forgivable that Chelsea Morning works so well, at least for me, throughout the day. There’s nothing wrong with waffles for lunch or bacon and eggs for dinner, after all, and I drink breakfast tea in the evening. So, what’s the big deal? But, the names of these other blends seem to make some sort of promise. What if Afternoon Tea is really better after dinner? What if Cocktail Hour was perfect before lunch? Would I face a pitchfork and torch brigade at the next pipe show telling me that I’d misled them?

Okay, so maybe it’s like wearing white after Labor Day. It’s not considered proper, but no one will shoot you over it. They’ll just snicker behind your back. I’m sure I’m just worrying over nothing. People will smoke these whenever they feel like it, and not be compelled by the suggestions in their names. Still, I want the blends to be evocative, at least, of the time of day during which they’re meant to be smoked. Is that crazy? (Rhetorical question. It is. I know it is. Don’t answer it.)

Anyway. Back on track. After dozens of experiments, one of the prototype blends has reached that point where everything plays well together, and the flavours evolve nicely from first light to last puff. The room note is classically English. There is a delightful sweetness from the Virginias, and the orientals offer some fullness and depth. The Latakia is just right, being noticeably heavier than it is in Chelsea Morning, but not fatiguing on the palate. The previous one had been just too heavy - just about 4% too heavy, and that is enough to make a serious difference. It just wasn’t balanced. I smoked a dozen bowls, and with each, before the bottom was reached, my palate was overwhelmed.

I’m smoking the new one now. It’s still very young, and may require some fine tuning as I explore it over the next few weeks, but the early results are really promising, and I have that feeling that the next blend in the Old London Series is very close to being ready for release.  It’s great with a cup of P.G. Tips. I think I know which one this will be.