My Pipe Journey Pt 3, Picking Pipe Tobacco

When I decided to take up the pipe, I thought picking my first pipe was the most important part of the process. Though that’s somewhat true, picking the first pipe tobacco is just as important, if not more so. See, you can have a cheap pipe, like a corncob, and still have a great first pipe smoking experience. If you pick the wrong pipe tobacco, it won’t matter what fancy artisan pipe you have; it will be a terrible experience, guaranteed. I don’t have any scientific data to back this up, but I’d bet most prospective pipe smokers who gave up after one attempt is due to the tobacco they chose.

Bad pipe tobacco is a deal breaker. Trying to enjoy a pipe with wet, goopy drugstore tobacco is a surefire way to take your first pipe and throwing it in the garbage. This is unfortunate considering there is a treasure-trove of amazing pipe tobacco for the beginning smoker to enjoy. There’s just one problem— it’s unbelievably complicated to narrow down the perfect blend to enjoy.

Picking your first pipe is a simple affair; you find one that fits your personal style and buy it. You can’t really do that with pipe tobacco, and to the newbie it’s hard to discern what’s a good starting blend.

I had a good idea for what I wanted in a first pipe, as the pipe itself was what first intrigued me with pipe smoking. When I finally began looking at blends, I was assaulted with a million different opinions and choices. Even when looking at the various pipe forums I lurked, each forum user had a different idea of what a newbie should start with.

There was an entirely new language and terminology I encountered and had to learn. First, there were the different types of pipe tobaccos available. They went by strange names that even when explained were foreign to me. There were aromatics, Cavendish pipe tobacco that had a strong, and mostly pleasant aroma to them. This is usually what most people think of when they hear the words pipe tobacco, blends described with words like vanilla, cherry, chocolate, blueberry, coconut, mango, and all types of fruit. Some forum members swore that these were the blends a newbie should start with; while others abhorred aromatics, and encouraged newbies to search elsewhere.

Then there were blend categories with names like Virginia, Burley, English, Oriental, Balkan, and the mysterious Perique. These were the blends favored by the more experienced pipers. The forum members who sneered at aromatics insisted that newbies try these blends, as these were the real blends with the true flavor and richness of pipe tobacco.

If I thought these categories for pipe tobacco wasn’t complicated enough, then there was the different kind of tobacco cuts to contend with, such as loose-leaf, flake, crumble cake, plug, and rope tobacco. What was a crumble cake? Is there frosting on it? What was plug tobacco? Why is this so confusing? It’s enough for a newbie to throw his or her hands up and say, “I give up! I just want the blend I smelled that the old man who lived next door smoked.” This is what makes the drug store tobacco bags so tempting. There’s no fuss, just a bag of nice smelling pipe tobacco with trusty names such as Vanilla, or Cherry on it.

This is another reason why starting off the pipe journey with a brick and mortar shop is so appealing. Here you can go to the bulk tobacco containers and smell what the shop has to offer. You can’t do that if you’re shopping online like I was. Even here though there are caveats, as what a blend smells like doesn’t always translate into taste. That cherry blossom bonanza might smell good in the container, but in practice it scorches your tongue and leaves it a smoldering cinder. Again, I cannot stress this enough: pipe tobacco is complicated.

Yet I was undeterred, I had the determination to find the blend most commonly recommended by forum goers. I would take the blends into consideration and narrow down to the pipe tobacco I felt would suit me.

After thinking long and hard, I decided that I would focus on aromatic blends. While the old codger smokers might’ve sneer at my choice, smelling aromatic blends in person was one of the main factors that brought me to pipe smoking. If I was going to smoke my pipe around other people, I wanted others to experience what I felt when I smelled them.

One other bit of advice pushed me away from pursuing non-aromatic blends. As the pipe smoker gains experience with blends, their tastes change and adapt to richer and fuller blends. The inexperienced piper won’t taste the hints of hay, earthy tones, and 100-year-old aged cognac in their blends, but will adapt and find it over time. It reminded me of how my taste in steak changed from childhood to adulthood. As a kid, I wanted nothing to do with steak that looked uncooked in the middle. Either it was well done or put it back on the grill! Yet as an adult, I grew to not only enjoy the flavor of steaks on the rare side, but to thumb my nose at well done steaks. I knew the same would happen with pipe tobacco, so I’d start with the basics.

During this time, I stumbled upon a handy-dandy resource that I rely heavily upon to this day: tobaccoreviews.com. Here the inexperienced pipe smoker can find just about every known modern pipe tobacco blend and read thousands of opinions by pipe smokers of all walks of life and experience. This became my guide in the vast world of pipe tobacco, and I spent hours cutting my teeth in research for the right blend.

Now with a site like tobaccoreviews.com, one has to remember that they’re reading the opinions of many people with different tastes than yours. What one person thinks is a one-star blend could be a four-star blend in your eyes, and vice versa. Even a blend that everyone on TR.com, the forums, and Instagram raves about might not agree with you, so I had to take that into consideration.

From my time reading forums, I decided that my first blends would come from the most respected house of aromatic blends on the web, Boswell Pipes from Chambersburg, PA. Even the most hardened of aromatic hating codger smokers confessed to having a Boswell blend or two, so I figured they had to be good. I scoured their blend list and compared notes with tobaccoreviews.com, adding and removing blends from my prospective list. I picked blends with descriptions that sounded like something I would enjoy smoking. I ended up with the following blends:

Boswells Best– a Vanilla blend many felt was Lane 1-Q, often cited as “the” blend a newbie should start with.

Piper’s Pleasure– a coffee blend that had positive ratings.

Bear Blend– a cherry blend that pipe smokers actually liked. (note: most pipe smokers find cherry blends universally terrible, but there are some good ones)

Countryside– a mild English blend

I picked a diverse group of blends to try, including one blend outside the realm of Aromatics. I read that many pipers tried English blends as their first foray outside of Aromatics, so I added that onto my order. I figured this would be a good way to start comparing the different types of tobaccos and see if the old codgers were right about Aromatic blends being terrible. If I didn’t like a blend, I at least had three others to fall back on just in case.

One day after my wife ordered my pipes, I gave a call to Boswell, since you couldn’t just make an online order. The woman on the line was friendly and walked me through the ordering process, making the whole ordeal much easier than I feared. All I had to do now was wait and buy some jars to store the tobacco. This is important, since you don’t want the blends to dry out and lose their moisture.

The day after I received my first pipe there was a package in the mail from Boswell. I sat down at my desk with my jars and opened the small box. Inside were the four bags of pipe tobacco that I ordered. I snatched the bag of Boswell’s Best, opened it, and smelled the loose-leaf tobacco inside.

I had never smelled pipe tobacco that wasn’t already smoldering in a pipe before, so this was my first experience with the aroma. In my mind, I was worried that it would smell like the cigarettes my father would smoke. This couldn’t be further from the case. The aroma of fig and raisin wafted to my nostrils, smells I found comforting and welcoming. Even the English blend Countryside had this nice campfire aroma to it. At once, my fears melted, and I happily began storing the tobacco into their jars. I did my best to get every last ribbon and crumble into the jar until only the faintest tobacco dust remained in the bags. Not a single ribbon was wasted by the time I was done.

I now had all the necessary equipment needed to begin my pipe journey in front of me. I had my Peterson 408, four blends of pipe tobacco to pick from, a pipe tool, a pipe rest, and traveling bag with tobacco pouch. I had hours of research and youtube videos under my belt. The time had come to load up my pipe and begin.

What could possibly go wrong?

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