Matching Pipes and Tobaccos—Part 1

1st December, 2003: Posted by glpease in Pipes, Enjoyment, Technique

For quite a while, I’ve been attempting to discover some rhyme and reason for why some tobaccos just seem to “work” better in some pipes than others. At first, I looked to the conventional wisdom of my pipe smoking brethren to find answers. “Flakes are better in small pipes.” “Latakia blends are best smoked in larger bowls.” What I found there was a lot of disagreement, both amongst the folklore I collected, and within the context of my own experiences. I had to seek further to find the key to this particular mystery. I attempted to forget everything I thought I knew about the subject, and set out anew.

I have a set of four GBD 9493 pipes, a long shank pot with a short, saddle mouthpiece, that work magic with flakes. “Flakes in a POT? You must be insane!” my compatriots would say. Yet, these four pipes deliver fantastic smokes from any flake tobacco I choose to fill them with. Of course, it took some practice, some patience to learn how to smoke these wide bowls, but it was well worth the effort.

Casting the small/Flake, large/Latakia theory to the winds, I wondered, since these cavernous shapes seemed so well suited for flakes, if the tiny bowled pipes would produce similarly exceptional smoking experiences with Latakia blends. I grabbed a couple of small, straight rhodesians, and smoked them both with a variety of Latakia blends. Superb! Had I found a clue?

At the Richmond show this year, I bought a lovely, large Bonfiglioli, possibly the most capacious pipe I have ever owned. The next morning, it was time for its maiden voyage. Not wanting to dose myself to the point of hallucination with Virginias, which often make my head spin (especially if enjoyed on an empty stomach), I filled it with Abingdon, the fullest Latakia blend in my Classic Collection, yet quite a mild smoke. The flavor was outstanding, and every susequent bowl has been even better. So much for yet another theory—full Latakia in a large pipe tasted just fine.

I began smoking every size and shape pipe with every sort of tobacco I could think of. Still finding nothing conclusive, other avenues had to be pursued. Was it the provenance of the pipe that mattered? Did English pipes work best with Virginias, while Italian pieces had a predilection toward Latakia? It seemed that way to me for a while. After all, I really had enjoyed Latakias in my other Italian pipes. Or, had I? I recalled a beautiful Castello bent bulldog that barked and bit ferociously when Latakia was anywhere near it, yet became as gentle as a puppy with a Virginia/perique blend. It was a small bowl, besides. And, while some Dunhills seemed to work well with Virginias, the majority of those in my collection were dedicated to classic Latakia blends.

Could it be the work of a particular maker, the internal design of the pipe that makes the difference? I’ve smoked the pipes of many makers, and have failed to find that any brand consistently predisposes itself to a specific type of tobacco. The most conistent pipes I own are those of Larry Roush. Every one has been an outstanding smoke from the beginning, with a great clarity of flavor that articulates all that a tobacco has to offer. It’s not long, though, before the pipe begins to speak of its history. Even among Larry’s pipes, I discover that some pieces just take a liking to a particular type of tobacco, while others seem happier with something else. My big bent Roush apple (review) has always been a fantastic Latakia pipe, yet, one day, I filled it with a VA/perique blend, and the thing just came alive in ways I’d never before experienced.

I persisted, trying to isolate the characteristics of the wood from different sources. Curing methods were considered. To date, no consitency has been noted.

Size, shape, wood, maker—not one of these things provides that elusive key. I think Larry said it best when I was talking with him about this. “Every pipe has its own personality.” That’s it. Finding the right tobacco for any pipe is an adventure. Getting to know the pipe’s personality is part of the process of breaking it in.

Some pipes are sweet, some are earthy. Some have a bright taste, occasionally wandering into the territory of “sharpness,” while others are dark, sometimes to the point of being bland. Some have a tendency to add a nut-like taste to the smoke. Every pipe seems to color the flavor of the smoke in a somewhat different way. All of the myriad factors of wood and geometry come together when fire and leaf merge to produce a unique experience.

Wider bowls tend to provide more flavor intensity, with the wood playing somewhat less of a role in the smoke. This makes perfect sense, of course. There’s more tobacco smoldering, and the surface area of the ember increases with the square of the chamber’s radius, while the amount of briar in contact with the ember increases only linearly. Taller bowls result in an increase of the “filtering” action of the tobacco, softening the taste in the beginning of the bowl, and gradually building up greater and greater intensity as the tobacco is consumed. Tapered bowls exhibit somewhat less of this tendency, though if not packed very carefully, they can become so moist at the bottom as to be difficult to keep lit. Shallow bowls seem to hold a purity of the tobacco’s taste longer, if not as intensely.

There seem to be limits, though. A full flavored tobacco in a very tall bowl can build up too much intensity toward the end of the smoke, and can become tiring, or even acrid if everything isn’t just right. Too wide a bowl can yield too much of a tobacco’s nicotine content, if it is high to start with, especially to someone sensitive to its effects.

While I continue to gather data, this whole thing being just part of the enjoyment I get out of this great hobby, I’ll keep hoping to, one day, unlock the door. When I do, I’ll write Part II of this little tale. If others are motivated to play along, so much the better. Keep your logs, look for patterns. But, please, don’t tell me about them. I’ll be too busy enjoying my own experiments to worry about anyone else’s.

Addendum: Over the past several days, I’ve been smoking pipes that didn’t seem quite “right” with the tobaccos I’d been smoking in them. Using the tiny amount of understanding I’ve gained through haphazard “research” methodologies, I’ve been able to predict, with some success, what tobaccos would better suit them. I’m happy to say that a couple pipes with “marginal” smoking characteristics have become brilliant with the right tobaccos. Could there be a method to the madness after all?


Read Matching Pipes and Tobaccos—Part 2.