Now here’s where things can get really daunting and potentially a little intimidating for the new pipe smoker.
Just trying to write a concise summary is quite an undertaking, given the huge diversity of tobaccos and blends available. Rather than go deeply into the subject here, we’ll give you some key points to consider and get you started, throwing in a couple of useful links for those who want to get into more detail.
Despite the global decline of pipe smoking in recent decades, many are noting something of a revival and this is good news. There are new artisan pipe makers emerging every day, reflecting the new dynamic of pipe smoking. Pipe smokers now are perhaps more discerning than ever before and broadly speaking have more disposable income to indulge in cherished pastimes. Decades ago, when pipe smoking was at its height, the 'average' smoker would have tended to stick to a small selection of tobaccos, whatever was available at their local store. They most likely (apart from true collectors) would have had a small selection of pipes in rotation, indeed many would have had just one pipe. Today, with the plethora of online vendors, we have ready access to more options than ever, and most pipe smokers enjoy trying a diverse selection of tobaccos, seeking out new or elusive blends whilst ensuring they always have a good stock of their favourites to hand. Despite the ease of online ordering (in most countries), nothing quite beats the feeling of walking into a proper tobacconist and looking through their wares, taking in the smells and chatting with fellow enthusiasts.
Unfortunately things are not quite so simple for our India-resident members. It's difficult to find tobacconists and even more difficult to find ones with meaningful selections of quality pipe tobacco, even in the main cities. If you do find one, please support them as much as you can. Your patronage is their lifeblood and they are only too happy to help and advise new and experienced pipe smokers alike. Online ordering from within India is also very limited, forcing many to order from international sites like Smokingpipes.com (US site). This brings some additional complexity to the process, regarding importation / duties, but true enthusiasts will go to almost any lengths to find the tobaccos they wish to add to their collection.
Generally speaking, pipe tobaccos can be divided into two main camps: aromatics and non-aromatics. The former are often popular with beginners, though many seasoned pipe smokers will also smoke some, at least on occasion. You will likely detect a certain level of condescension towards aromatics by some self-appointed tobacco connoisseurs but don’t let that direct your choice – you need to decide what you like. Remember, tobacco pipe smoking is all about personal choice. So why the condescension? Some don’t take aromatics very seriously because, by definition, they are flavoured with additives other than tobacco, commonly fruits, chocolate, coconut or vanilla. Some therefore see them as inferior or a little trivial compared to classic full-bodied ‘pure’ tobacco blends. It’s true that some aromatics are sticky sweet with excessive flavourings but many are high quality blends with subtle and natural flavourings and, at the very least, can provide a nice change of pace, even for fans of non-aromatics. There’s no denying that a quality aromatic is as good a starting point as any for the new pipe smoker.
Non-aromatics fall into a number of classifications according to the tobacco varieties used in their make-up. Most are blends, though ‘straight’ tobaccos are also available, using only one variety; for example ‘pure Virginian’. The tobacco types you’ll come across in your research will most often be Virginia, Burley, Cavendish, Perique and Latakia. Each of these is tobacco leaf processed in a different way and the aromas and flavours of each are highly distinctive to the experienced smoker. At first you might struggle to detect the individual notes of each tobacco in a blend, for example the cut grass and citrus tones of a quality Bright Virginia, the nuttiness of Burley, the pepper spice of Perique, or the leathery smoky tones of Latakia. In time you’ll learn all of these and choose your blends accordingly. You can find some additional information on these different varieties in our glossary of pipe terms.
Aside from deciding on your blend, you'll also need to consider the form you want the tobacco to take. We have quite some choice in this aspect as well, largely depending on personal preference regarding differences in how the cut of tobacco smokes but also for reasons of practicality.
The main forms available include ribbon cuts, ready rubbed, flake, cut rolls (also called coins), plug, twist, and rope. Ready rubbed and ribbon cut are the recommended options for beginners as they are easy to load into your pipe and is the version most widely available. Coins are perhaps the next most convenient as they can either be folded or rolled and stuffed into the pipe's chamber, or rubbed out (rubbed between your fingers) to resemble ready rubbed. Flake requires a little more preparation. Whilst it can be 'folded and stuffed' most pipe smokers either cut it into small cubes or rub it out before use. Plug and rope cut tobaccos need a little more work in preparation but many feel the extra effort is worth the reward in terms of depth of flavour and the fine nuances of the blend. Pipe Club of India founding member Shubhrajit Chatterjee shares his technique for preparing twist in his Tobacco, Pipes & Cigars blog.
Buy a couple of ready rubbed tobaccos to start with, preferably tinned as you won't then need to plan for additional storage options. If you buy loose tobacco make sure you have a suitable airtight container available, preferably of glass or ceramic as these won't impart any smell or flavour to your tobacco. See our storage advice for more tips on keeping your tobacco in top condition. Try a quality aromatic without too many flavours, perhaps a light touch of vanilla or fruit. Also take a non-aromatic, ideally something relatively light – so not too much Latakia (a defining content of English blends) or Perique. A blend with a largely Virginian base with some Cavendish and Burley is probably a good starting point. One word of caution … don’t buy too much! There’s no point in investing in 250g of a tobacco, only to find that you don’t like it. Start small and build up a range of tobaccos, experimenting with new blends as you develop and learn your preferences. Most importantly, trust your own taste. Don't smoke a tobacco just because everyone seems to rave about it. Try as much as you can of course, but don't assume that you'll like something just because someone (or everyone) says it's the best tobacco. There is no 'best' tobacco and you'd struggle to find two pipe smokers who could agree on the same top three favourites. Therein lies the fun! Finding your preferred tobaccos is a journey. It can take a little time but it's a rewarding and enjoyable quest. Another wonderful truth is that the journey never ends. Many pipe smokers with decades of experience will still experiment with new blends and sometimes even surprise themselves by finding they like a blend that falls well outside their usual preferences.
Whatever you choose, quality is important. Unless you are on a very tight budget try to source good quality tobacco from a well regarded brand. No matter how good your pipe or your technique, if you are smoking low quality tobacco you’re never going to get the wonderful experience that we all know and love. More likely you’ll find the whole experience unpleasant and be put off. If that does happen, and there’s every chance that your first smoke won’t be fantastic, even with a great tobacco in your pipe, don’t lose heart. Try again and if the tobacco isn’t working for you, try something else and be patient as your technique improves. You’ll soon find that magic moment and then you’ll never look back!!
For further reading and some great perspectives we also recommend that you visit Pipe Club of India's member Shubhrajit Chatterjee's excellent Blog article on pipe and first tobacco selection. Overseas member Simon Lewis has an excellent series of videos where he hand processes whole tobacco leaf and discusses the differences and nuances of the main tobacco types, also very highly recommended: Ariege Pipesmoker Whole Leaf Tobacco Project Videos. There's also an interesting piece on VaPer blends here.
Finally, what to do with the leftovers from a tin or jar of tobacco when there isn't enough to fill your pipe? Create your own Mystery Mix. See our Glossary of Tobacco Pipe Terms for more details.
Additional detailed information on pipe tobacco varieties is available on the excellent Pipedia website. There you will find a full description of all the tobacco types we've mentioned above and some others including Orientals, Dark Fired Kentucky and Turkish. The site is also a very useful resource for information on all aspects of pipe smoking.
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