Conversation With Greg Pease

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A Conversation With Greg Pease of G. L. Pease Tobacco, by Jon Tillman

G. L. Pease Tobacco has become the hallmark of the new era of tobacco blending. A boutique producer, Greg Pease takes an artisanal approach to tobacco, evoking days gone by, when the great shops all had a blender on hand. It is obvious when talking with Greg that he is passionate about his vocation and feels a deep connection with tobacco. Read on to see it in his own words.

JON: How did you become involved in pipe tobacco blending?

GREG: Ah, well that's certainly a story. It goes back to my college days, when I'd hang around Druquer & Sons in Berkeley. It was a short walk from campus, and I spent way too much time there, smoking everything in the shop, absorbing as much knowledge about pipes and tobaccos as I could from the great staff, and the owner of the place, Robert Rex. At some point, I found myself working at the shop, doing pipe restorations, blending the shop's well known house recipes. Druquer's was a place with quite a legacy. They sent tobacco out all over the world. I remember a letter on the wall from someone in Admiral Byrd's party, asking for his usual shipment of "Inns of Court," I think it was, and another letter from Cecil B. DeMille.

I did many experiments, trying to create my own blends even then. Some of those early ones were quite disastrous. But, I did learn early on not to let anyone ELSE taste the catastrophes. Eventually, I did some new blends for the shop. I think Sublime Porte was my most successful in those days.

Then, after getting out of school and spending 18 years in the computer industry, I was on a little forced hiatus from the dreaded Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This was early 1998. I needed something to do for the 8-weeks I was supposed to be recuperating. I was on the phone with a friend, lamenting the passing of yet another of the great old blends, and the whole thing just materialized in my mind, like a vision. I saw the whole thing, and started working on it. The first blends hit some retailers' shelves a couple months later, and things just took off from there. I never looked back.

JON: It must be interesting living in California, a place that is rife with anti-tobacco sentiment, and making ones living from tobacco. Do you get odd looks when you tell people what you do for a living?

GREG: It's a mixed bag. When the question comes up, I'm always prepared for a neon "Merchant of Death" sign to illuminate above my head, but am usually surprised. A lot of people actually seem genuinely interested in it. It's a pretty esoteric profession, and I can always chip away any ice with, "I bet you've never met anyone who does THAT for a living!" If it's looking like it might get hostile, I'll just make something up.

Smoking in public is a different story. Of course, there are always those who do the hacking, wheezing, dance-of-the-hands protest histrionics, but others, even in California, will comment that a pipe smells nice, though I still get a little self conscious, nervously checking my hairline when someone says it reminds them of their grand-dad...

JON: What do you think about the current political climate with regards to tobacco?

GREG: It's exceedingly silly, really. People are getting the idea from the rabid anti-smoke movement that the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke will kill them dead on the spot. People who don't like tobacco smoke swallow the rhetoric wholesale. Yet, oddly, the wheezing-hand-dancers don't seem to pay any notice to the cloud of black smoke belching from the passing bus. Not too long ago, I saw an old beat-up VW bug in desperate need of a new motor, with a nice shiny anti-tobacco bumper strip glued onto its rust infested rear-end. I think people need to get a little perspective. Things have really been blown way out of proportion.

During the push for California's Prop 10, the big tobacco tax initiative, proponents of the bill were citing that restaurant workers were at grave peril from patron's tobacco smoke, suffering from the greatest percentage, by occupation, of "smoking related disease." No one bothered to mention in the political adverts that a high percentage of restaurant workers were smokers themselves. Neither were all the other myriad toxic chemicals that float around the atmosphere of the average restaurant named. Tobacco is an easy target for the prohibitionists, so they all aim their little pop-guns at us.

It would be nice if all these nice folks who think they know what's best for us would find another hobby.

JON: Where do you find the inspiration for your tobacco blends?

GREG: There are many sources. Sometimes, it starts as just an idea, or some particularly interesting leaf will come my way, demanding greater attention. Barbary Coast was like that. I had this amazing burley that was just begging to be the base of a blend.

Sometimes, a blend will be inspired by a memory of one of the great tobaccos I've smoked in the past. Other times, I'll just be playing around, and find the seed of something that needs further exploration. There's really no one "source."

JON: What are the biggest challenges to maintaining a consistent blend? How do those challenges change from season to season?

GREG: I approach tobacco blends in the same way a vintner approaches making a wine. A large house can produce something consistent, year after year, but they may not be able take advantage of the strengths of a particular vintage. The small producer will make the best wine possible from the best grapes of a given vintage.

I strive to compose the best blends I can from the finest leaf available. That said, it's been very fortunate that our suppliers have been able to provide very consistent leaf, so only very small adjustments have ever had to be made.

However, if I can't get an essential component to a blend, I'll drop it from the line, rather than change its character. This happened recently with the Syrian Latakia disaster. I dropped four of my blends from the range instead of altering them. Some day, I may be able to get Syrian Latakia of the quality necessary to produce them again, but until that time, they're out of production.

JON: Has the quality of tobacco changed over the last ten years? Can you explain?

GREG: I think there's wonderful leaf available now, just as there's always been wonderful leaf available. It's how you use it that makes the difference between a great blend and something that's just so-so. I think a lot of what we perceive as changes in quality has more to do with changes in production methodologies than the quality of the ingredients.

Of course, not having access to some of the varietal oriental tobaccos is frustrating, but this problem goes back much farther than ten years, and the leaf we DO get is excellent.

JON: How do you decide what flavor to blend? Available tobacco or market tastes, etc?

GREG: Mostly, I'd say it's my own taste. The most popular tobaccos in the world are the aromatics, but I'm not a big fan of them, so I've never produced one. I continue to experiment, hoping to produce something that would both satisfy my own palate and appeal to a larger audience, but it hasn't happened yet.

In my blends, I strive for a balance between the components, a harmony. I want the smoking experience to be interesting from the first puff to the last. So, if I set out to create something sweet, like the new Montgomery blend, I need to make sure that there's something else on which that sweetness ride, something to give the smoke dimension, and the all too often mentioned complexity.

JON: How do you know when a blend is ready to market?

GREG: Once I have something that approaches a working prototype, I'll blend a few variations of it, smoke them in a variety of different pipes, and explore the way the blends change over time. Then, if necessary, I'll make incremental changes to the recipe, gradually zeroing in on what I am after. The development cycle can take anywhere from a few weeks to many months. Once I get a blend to the point where I'm smoking the same version over and over, and really enjoying it, I know it's ready to go. There's that sort of "Aha!" moment that tells me, "This is the one."

JON: How do you feel about the future of the smoking community in America?

GREG: It's hard to say. The sharp focus of the anti-smoking lobby is on the cigarette smokers, of course, as they represent the vast majority of tobacco users. Pipe and cigar smokers get lost in the circles of confusion. Much of the current legislation is aimed at cigarette use, but I don't think we're far behind if things continue on their course. Sadly, we're a small group, wielding very little power, and we certainly don't have the budget the antis seem to. The battle is very one-sided.

On the other hand, I think we're a long way from tobacco becoming an illicit substance, and as long as it can be enjoyed legally, there's at least some hope. Tobacco is huge business, and creates a huge revenue stream for the government. I don't see that tent being folded any time soon.

JON: Do you think smoking will eventually become an underground activity?

GREG: You mean it isn't?