Cyprian or Syrian? (Part I)

5th February, 2010: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Editorial

I’m going to grumble a little. And possibly even rant. It’s my column. I can do that. No one will criticize the reader for stopping here, but there may be something informative, and my grumblings can occasionally be amusing, if not downright endearingly sharp-witted, so you may want to read on anyway, forewarned of what is likely to come.

The past five years have hosted continued discussion about the availability of Syrian Latakia, why can’t I get any, who has it, what blends it’s in, why some manufacturers seem to have no problems with supply, whether or not the whole warehouse fire situation was a ruse, and on and on. There seem to be a great many experts who know more about the supply of unobtainable leaf than I do. If you really know someone in whose basement bales of this mysterious supply of Syrian leaf are sequestered, please, be so kind as to make an introduction so I can get some. Seriously.

Does anyone really think that I would not produce my Syrian blends if I could get my hands on leaf of the right quality? One person actually accused me of making the whole “shortage” thing up, that it was some grand deception, nothing but a conspiratorial marketing ploy. How this would actually benefit me continues, to this day, to remain beyond the grasp of my comprehension.

Here’s the deal. Some manufacturers bought into the same batch of vintage Syrian leaf we did, and were able to secure their supply, in their own warehouses, so the fire that took ours did not affect them. They still have theirs; it wasn’t a small quantity. They have a supply that will last a few years. When they run out, the situation might be different, but it probably will not be, depending on what happens between now and then in Syria, and with tobacco production in general. But, it’s not promising. [History bears witness that things in 2017 are no better than when I originally wrote this. -glp]

We’re a tiny minority, we pipe smokers, in the global tobacco trade, and few will listen to us as we bleat our pleas for continued production of something that is not as profitable as other crops. Latakia is not cheap to grow, harvest and fumigate, and there are lots of things that can generate more cash for far less effort. Like poppies.

And, consider the environmental issues. The Syrian government placed a moratorium on Latakia production in 1960 because of the massive toll it was taking on the native hardwoods and shrubs that are burned to fire-cure the stuff. There’s just not that much arable land in the area, and natural resources were being consumed at an alarming rate. Though the moratorium was lifted in the 1980s, and production resumed to some extent, it’s not even close to pre-1960 levels; demand is lower, due both to a decrease in the pipe smoking population, and the sharing of that reduced demand with Cyrpus, where the bulk of the world’s Latakia supply has been produced, beginning with Syria’s 1960 exit from the market.

With relatively low demand, and environmental issues on the table, is it any wonder the stuff is unobtainium? According to insider sources, generally known to be very reliable, Syrian Latakia is simply not being produced, has not been produced for several years, and it’s not likely to be produced any time in the foreseeable future.

Importantly, what is absolutely certain, at this time, is that there is no Syrian Latakia available to me. (That last qualifier is important.) I know two producers who actually have some of the good stuff, and I have tried, to no avail, to get them to cut loose with a bale or ten. No dice. Can’t say as I blame them. They can’t get any more, either, though only one of them tells the truth about that. Even at double the price, they’re not dealing.

There’s more to say, so this will be continued in a future column, but I’ll close here with a bit of advice. We’ve seen a lot of things come and go, and even more things change. Nothing in the world is permanent. With all the pressures against tobacco of any kind, coming from all directions, buy what you enjoy, and buy enough of it so that you don’t have to feel too bad if it becomes unavailable in the future, or if it’s forced to change by external environmental or regulatory pressures. Thirty years from now, if there is still a place in the world where you can enjoy a pipeful, you’ll be glad you did.

[Part II]