Befriending those Beguiling Virginias

29th January, 2010: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Technique

A great virginia can be a wonderful smoke, but for many of us, at least for me, getting the most from the experience doesn’t always come easily, or instantly. I recently read a post on one of the forums written by a fellow who enjoyed many mixtures, and liked the sweetness he experienced in virginias, but lamented that, for the most part, that sweetness is only delivered in hints. I can relate. One of the reasons I was a dedicated Latakiaphile for so long was this very phenomenon. I’d puff a bowl of virginia, enjoy it for a while, but before the end of the bowl, I’d find the experience lacking. Where did the flavour go? Where was all that sweetness I was promised?

The sweetness of a tobacco has to do with the levels of sugar in the leaf. This can be naturally occurring, as in some virginias, and especially bright leaf, or added, as is the case with many virginia blends. It’s not uncommon to find sugar levels of 20-25% in bright leaf, and if the tobaccos are cased, it can be even higher. Sugar equals sweetness, right?

Sort of. Many readers will already know this, either from experience, or because they were fortunate enough to have a mentor, early on, who showed them The Way. I hope there may be something of interest here for them, but today, I’m writing to those who haven’t been so fortunate. I struggled for years to develop a good relationship with virginias, picking up tidbits along the way, but never quite getting it. If it can help one smoker, neophyte or veteran, discover the pleasures of the venerable virginias, this article will have served a purpose.

Coaxing the natural sweetness out of a tobacco requires slow, gentle smoking, and it can often take a while with virginias for the smoker to appreciate and acclimate to their more subtle flavours sufficiently to slow down and sip, which is necessary to enjoy them to their fullest. Typically what happens with smokers new to virginias, especially those accustomed to bolder mixtures, or heavily aromatic blends, is that they’ll get that hint of sweetness in the first part of the bowl, and then puff more aggressively in the hopes of intensifying it. Often, what actually happens is the opposite.

Latakia mixtures are, for the most part, pretty easy to smoke and enjoy, providing you enjoy them, if you’ll forgive the brief excursion into petitio principii. The flavours and aromas are bold and assertive. Mixtures are the extroverts at the party. They welcome the smoker immediately and effortlessly, and engage the senses without effort. Not everyone likes them, but no one would deny their forthright and outgoing demeanor. Virginias are different. They are subtle, quiet, and in many cases, demure. They’re happy to engage, but they aren’t presumptuous, so they tend to wait in the corner, patiently, and only offer their hand in friendship when you’ve reached out to take it.

Different tobaccos have varying levels of natural sugars. Brights tend to have the highest sugar content, burleys the lowest. Part of this is a product of the particular cultivar of the plant, part is a result of growing conditions. A lot of it has to do with the way the leaf is cured. When a plant is harvested, it does not simply die. Metabolic processes will continue, using the supplies of nutrients in the leaf and stalk. One of those nutrients is sugar and starch, and as long as the plant’s cells have water and food, they’ll keep doing what they do.

The flue curing of virginias results in a fairly quick kill of the cells. The stalks are hung in heated barns where the leaves will wilt and yellow in a matter of a few days, not the weeks required for the air-curing typically used with burley tobaccos. This leaves more of the sugars intact, and that’s where the virginia tobacco’s natural sweetness comes from. But, we need to coax it out carefully when smoking to get the most from this sublime leaf.

When smoked slowly, a small amount of moisture in the stream, a natural byproduct of combustion, carries the sweetness of the leaf along with it. Some of the more complex molecules are liberated by heat, and are carried in the smoke itself. The full experience comes when there’s a balance between the two, so smoking slowly is essential.

Taking gentle sips, keeping the leaf just barely smoldering, is the key to greater enjoyment. Though it can be tempting to puff more aggressively in an attempt to intensify the flavours, too often, the opposite will occur, and along with diminishing taste, more heat will be created, and a harsher smoke will result. Instead, slow down. Breathe with the pipe. Let your mind focus on what your palate is experiencing, and, in time, those delicate flavours will become more noticeable, more present.

There’s a reason virginias are often thought of as tobaccos for more experienced smokers. Take your time. Learn to slow down and really enjoy what they have to offer, and these beguiling blends will begin to reveal themselves to you over time.

It’s worth it.