Pipe and tobacco experts: Are there any?

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By Ben Rapaport, February 2023
Exclusive to pipedia.org

This is a rather novel story not meant to designate specific individuals for attaboys, accolades, or public praise for their knowledge. It is a hypothesis-generating survey to determine who and how someone is qualified to be considered an expert in either pipes or tobacco, based on the narrowest definition of the term. On whom should one rely for their knowledge and advice, especially if one is new to the pleasure and enjoyment of pipe smoking? Asked slightly differently, whose opinion, judgment, or views on these two interrelated topics should one accept and trust?

The fundamental question is how does one become an expert at anything? Is it exposure or experience? Is there a yardstick by which someone demonstrates that he is an expert in the field of tobacco and pipes? Or is it merely the presumption of knowledge that is the sole determinant of someone’s expertise? And at what point does a person transition from being merely good at something to being a bona-fide expert? Unlike a personal property appraiser who undergoes a formal education, takes an exam, and applies for a license, there is no test, no certification process, no online courses, no industry guidelines, no metrics or measures of merit to become an expert. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily make someone an expert. After all, anyone can memorize facts or regurgitate information. Too many questions, too few answers.

First, the obligatory definitions: Expert: “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” Comprehensive: “Having or exhibiting wide mental grasp, comprehensive knowledge.” Authoritative: “Able to be trusted as being accurate or true.” Knowledge, skill, and achievement in a particular field seem to be the generally accepted determinants, all critical components of expertise. People who attain this level of expertise may be called experts or by other terms, such as authority, genius, maven, master, prodigy, or virtuoso. Others identify expertise by five stages of knowledge growth: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Dan Schwabel offered, “7 Signs That You Are Now An Expert And Can Call Yourself One” (socialmediatoday.com). (Former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese is quoted as having jokingly said: “An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home, has no responsibility for implementing the advice he gives, and shows slides.”)

Expert is a term often assigned by people to other people, sometimes without proof, evidence or fact. Anybody can label himself an authority. Search the word “expert” on LinkedIn and you’ll find more than 4.5 million names! Experts are made, not born. How, then, can you tell when you’re dealing with a genuine expert? Real expertise must pass three tests: superior performance, produce concrete results, and successful outcomes, none of which, of course, are applicable or measurable in an informal hobby such as ours. Best-selling author Simon Sinek says: “The best leaders don’t consider themselves experts; they consider themselves students.”

One popular belief is that the key to becoming an expert is to devote at least 10,000 hours to the study and practice of a subject. This idea is based on a 1993 study in which researchers found that the most accomplished violinists at a music academy had spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing their instrument by the age of 20. Indeed.com challenges this conventional wisdom: “However, there is no way to definitively say whether anyone can become an expert.”

Now that I have exhausted the definition of expert, who are our experts? Where should I look, and what will I find? I decided to mine the Web, because that’s where, nowadays, one can find lots of pipe and tobacco commentary. The statements are in no particular order of importance or significance. What they all have in common is the use of the word “expert” or “expertise” to describe certain people, most of whom are, unsurprisingly, unnamed. You might be surprised at what I found. Evaluate the comments and draw your own conclusions.

“I have met some pipe smokers who have only owned 3 pipes their entire life and have puffed on the same Over the Counter (OTC) blend for 50 years. This isn’t a bad thing, but does it make them more of a tobacco and pipe smoking expert than the individual who has only smoked a pipe for 5 years, has a 100 + pipe collection, and smokes just about every blend the market has produced. No. In fact, they both have an expertise and background that would be helpful to anyone looking to get into the pipe smoking hobby” (thepipeprofessor.com).

“It can feel like you have to be an expert right out of the gate and you start to think the question of ‘how to smoke a pipe’ is actually a million other questions” (“How to Start Smoking a Pipe,” tobaccopipes.com).

“Interviews with Pipe and Tobacco Experts”: Bob Knightdor Carter on corn cobs; Phil Rivara on pipes; and Robert Marcos on Markuź pipes (gqtobaccos.com). Does anyone know these experts? I don’t.

“Your greatest smoking pleasure will come from learning and practicing the basic techniques employed by pipe experts … “Our products are carefully created and chosen by experts who travel all over the world seeking merchandise that illustrates our devotion to impeccable quality” (tinderbox.com).

“Thanks to our experts, we gathered on this page all the items essential to the pipe smoker” (pipeshop-saintclaude.com).

Dick Hakes, “A pipe and tobacco guru in our midst” (press-citizen.com, March 5, 2015). The story is about Joe Harb who is a reviewer of tobacco blends, and it begins: “A retired gentleman who is an expert pipe tobacconist quietly pursues his passion from his Coralville home.”

“With years of experience in blending and processing, our experts are able to match any taste” (tobaccorag.com).

“Our team of trained sales experts use their knowledge of pipes, pipe tobacco, and the greater industry to help retailers all across the country achieve their goals” (corporate.lausdisi.com).

From the website of Blue Room Briars, Marysville, Ohio: “This is a great option for convenience, but is a poor substitute for a true tobacco shop, a place where a customer could talk to a competent expert about pipes and pipe tobacco…”

“Today, Peter Heinrichs is known as one of the world’s leading experts concerning tobaccos, pipes and cigars” (fatherfoftheflame.com).

“We’re the pipe experts” (davidsfinetobaccos.com). “Chris Hopkins is tobaccopipes.com resident tobacco expert and pipe aficionado.” According to Royce Davis, “A tobacconist is an expert dealer in tobacco and the related accoutrements” (“The Gentleman’s Guide to Pipe Smoking”).

“Our expert blending department can propose or if requested develop any type or style of blend you might require as: American blend type or English, European and Latino style as well as the new fruity or exotic flavored blend or if necessary even a standard blend” (tobacco.biz).

Tobacopipes.com posted “10 Tips About Pipes and Tobacco from Industry Experts,” but the experts are nameless. Most everyone is familiar with Chuck Stanion (smokingpipes.com) and, no doubt, they follow his monthly column, Pipe Line. Chuck covers the proverbial waterfront, writing about pipes, products, and personalities of today and yesterday including legendary figures, such as Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, and Saint Patrick. He uses the term “expert” prudently … an observation, not a criticism. In “Meet Tad Gage: Publisher, Writer, Reviewer, Collector” (November 2021), he wrote that Gage “…became perhaps the foremost expert on Barling pipes at the time…” In his April 2022 article, “Mark Irwin: Doctor of Pipes and Peterson Researcher Extraordinaire,” he stated that Mark “…would later become one of the foremost Peterson experts in the world. In May 2022, Chuck posted “Tobacco and Pipe Expertise: William Serad,” but did not call him an expert.

Chuck titled his bio about me in December 2021: “Ben Rapaport: Tobacco Literature and Antique Pipe Expert.” On pipesmagazine.com, Sagebrush called me a pipe maven. I’ve been called “an antiquarian of rare pipeology” and “a word craftsman of the first order.” Craig Cobine, the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club Show Director, maintains that I am “one of the world’s best known and highly regarded experts on antique pipes, and pipe literature.” However appreciative I am of these several honorifics, I have never sought or desired accolades or kudos. To dodge the proverbial slings and arrows of those who occupy the Web and enjoy ridiculing or embarrassing those who assert expertise, when asked, my typical response is that I am just someone who likes to write a lot about pipes and tobaccos … nothing more.

According to pipesandcigars.com, “Russ [Ouellette] is our resident tobacco guru around here. If there is anything you need to know about a blend, cut, component or history of a tobacco blend, he is the guy to see. Thankfully he has compiled the following compendium of information for the learning masses.” “You ought to try the Hearth & Home blends from Pipes & Cigars, concocted by Russ Ouelette [sic], generally acknowledged as the most expert blender in America” (gentlemansgazette.com). That description, I would say, makes Russ an expert, but he never self-promoted as one. And I would add Greg Pease, the late Joe Lankford, and Cornell and Diehl to this short list. As well, the Doctors of Pipes and Masters of the Pipe should be considered experts in their respective fields.

There is ample evidence that in this narrow domain, there are plenty of very smart people with experience, knowledge, opinions, and views, but the record—at least the Web record—acknowledges only the aforementioned few as tobacco experts. The lingering question for me: why did I not find any named pipe experts? Strange, indeed.

Where are “the usual suspects”?—loved that movie!—those who have discussed tobacco blends in granular detail, and those who have written at length about pipe brands, shapes, and finishes on pipesmagazine.com, pipedia.org, pipesmokersdens.com, etc.? The word expertise is not associated with their names. It may be that they do not want to be known as experts. I assume that those who are, are humble about their knowledge and, perhaps, do not consider themselves experts, or they are uninterested in labels or titles, however complimentary. Perhaps they are all self-effacing, unpretentious, uncomfortable, or shy about being considered a celebrity. Perhaps they are aware that the label has both positive and negative connotations, that the label feels like bragging, self-promotion or hyperbole. One might call them reluctant experts. Or maybe it’s we who are reluctant to crown some of our very dedicated and knowledgeable people with the title “expert,” although many truly are.

There are freelance (i.e., paid) smoking-cessation experts, tobacco-use prevention and control experts, tobacco- and nicotine-treatment specialists, and tobacco-software specialists but, I am confident, there are no freelance tobacco and pipe experts. Maybe it’s because there’s no fortune to be made as a tobacco or pipe expert, Internet fame in this field is short-lived and it won’t pay the bills, but it’s nice to know that some of us are appreciated for our unique expertise. In closing, may the many unnamed continue to educate, illuminate, edify, and enlighten us about our hobby.