Pressed Tobaccos and Flake Pipes

From Pipedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search


This article origianlly appeared in The Pipe Collector, the official newsletter of the American Society of Pipe Smokers (NASPC), and is used here by permision. It is an excellent group--consider joining.


Like a lot of pipe smokers out there, when I first started smoking a pipe, I opted for flavored tobaccos (Borkum Riff, for example) and later, thanks to master blender Hans Schrch, I was introduced to natural mixtures with Latakia. After a few years of total dedication to the Latakia baccy, I got a little bored and decided it was time to wade my way into different waters. So, naturally, I started to experiment with natural pressed Virginias in all their possible forms. Once I found my own technique and got over tongue bite and frustration with combustion, I never looked back.

As some of you know, I've been running my own online Italian pipe retail business for years now. Italian pipes in general tend to be quite large, and that used to be the case with Cavicchi pipes, which I have proudly carried for years. When I first started dealing with Cavicchi, he simply would NOT make a small pipe, and by small, I mean anything that is comparable to a Dunhill Group 4 and smaller. A couple of years ago, I managed to convince him to make small(er) pipes, and I promised him success. He obliged, and I launched for the first time a line of Cavicchi pipes that I named "Flake Pipes."

Why am I saying all this? Well, the fact that I'm a dedicated pressed VA smoker and that it was I who launched the Cavicchi "Flake Pipes" has led a lot of people to assume that I'm a flake and a Flake Pipe expert! One of these people is my friend Martin Farrent, a distinguished pipe smoker, collector and journalist. Martin asked me recently if I would like to answer a few of his questions regarding flakes and Flake Pipes and told me that he would publish the interview on his website. I accepted. I later thought of summarizing the answers I gave to Martin and re-writing them, with some additions and omissions, and turning them into an article to be published, of course, in our NASPC Newsletter. So, here it goes.

The Ideal Flake Pipe

Any attempt to define the ideal pipe for flakes would tackle two main aspects of a pipe: bowl size and shape.

Bowl Size

First, size is quite relative, and "small" does indeed mean something to me, which is not necessarily the same as it is for someone else. Another point that I need to make is that we should be using the term "pressed tobacco pipe." I know that it's my fault, since I was the one who first introduced the term years ago, when I launched the Cavicchi Flake Pipes. At that time, I was limited by space, and I needed a relatively simple and clear-cut term for people to use and to remember. So, yes, a flake pipe should NOT be large in size. Though I have repeatedly stated that I don't believe in the consistency in the use of the Dunhill size groups, I have to use them anyway, since they're the only ones people are familiar with (and confused by!). I personally see a Dunhill Group 3 as my own ideal size for a flake pipe. Having said that, I have a couple of *small* Group-5 Dunhill Lovats that I quite enjoy smoking pressed tobaccos in. I reserve other pipes that are as big as a real Group 5 and definitely those that are bigger for unpressed tobaccos (mixtures)

A few practical facts have shown me over time that small(er) pipes are more suitable for pressed tobaccos. For example, pressed tobaccos tend to smoke a little hotter and more moist than unpressed ones; this means that the bigger the bowl, the more compromised the taste and flavor of the bottom layers of the tobacco may become and the more taxing the smoke may be on the pipe (as well as on the tongue). Also, they last a lot longer; an unpressed tobacco smoked in a particular pipe, let's say, would last 45 minutes; a pressed tobacco, on the other hand, smoked in that same pipe, would last 60-75 minutes (I know that there are a host of other factors playing a role here). I don't know about you, but I almost never have 2-3 hours to smoke ONE pipeful. Finally, I'd much rather smoke two pipefuls in a row than one in a very large pipe. I believe that this would make the experience a whole lot more fun and rewarding, and also it would reduce the probability of unpleasantness.

Bowl Shape

This is even tougher than the first aspect. Let's ignore what I think for the moment and look around. I believe that most of the people who regularly smoke pressed tobaccos tend to prefer classic pipes when they smoke those tobaccos. Also, when we throw history into the equation, we realize that, in the old days when pressed tobaccos were the norm, pipes were small and of conservative, classic shapes. Now, from my experience, I find that the ultimate bowl shape to smoke pressed tobaccos in is a Billiard and all its close relatives (the Lovat, the Canadian, the Liverpool, etc). This is mainly because of the relatively upright tobacco chamber shape, with a diameter running almost regularly from top to bottom; this is quite conducive to the tobacco burning evenly and more easily. This is a particularly important element in the case of pressed tobaccos, which are more difficult to burn evenly and consistently. I must also add that a slightly conical tobacco chamber would normally work as well as that of a classic Billiard.

Other shapes that come close to the Billiard family are the Apple, the Bulldog, the Rhodesian, the Dublin, and even the Pot, as long as the chamber diameter is not too large. That doesn't exclude Freeform and Freehand shapes, mind you, as long as the tobacco chamber shape is as conservative as that of these classic shapes. A shape I would never use to smoke pressed tobaccos in is the Zulu or the Horn, especially when the bowl is VERY canted forward. Other examples of such shapes include the Stack (Chimney) and the Oom Paul (Hungarian).

A final thought: I would be particularly careful with the chamber diameter, regardless of the shape. I prefer a chamber diameter between 19mm to 22mm, and I'd be very careful when the diameter is either smaller or larger. I once tried to smoke pressed tobaccos in a Pot with a diameter of 25mm, and it ended up being a disaster, over and over again, till I gave up and drew my conclusions. In a case like this, the little lit ember that is ideally in the central chamber will not produce enough heat to reach out to and burn the tobacco that is 12-13mm away!

To Rub or Not to Rub

Both the fact that pressed tobaccos come in a wide variety of forms and the fact that people smoke the same tobacco form (such as flakes) in different ways make it almost impossible to recommend one way over the other. However, and over the years, I have made a few general conclusions that you might find helpful. Pressed tobaccos can be rubbed out, broken, cut-up in pieces of various shapes (with scissors, for example), or simply folded into a plug that is then inserted into the bowl. Every now and then, I hear of an approach I never thought of before, and so the sky is the limit. As you may know, pipe smokers have one heck of a fertile imagination!

Another question I have been asked is whether pressed tobaccos, once rubbed out very well, smoke and behave like unpressed tobaccos. I would say they become quite similar to unpressed tobaccos, mainly in appearance, but, believe me, there are some major differences. They pack differently, they light differently, and, above all, they smoke differently. Pressed tobaccos, regardless of how much you rub them out, always contain a higher level of moisture; also, remember that the pressing process itself chemically alters the ingredient tobaccos by marrying them and transforming them into a new entity that is different from the sum of the individual characteristics of each. Having said that, it's true that the more you rub pressed tobaccos out, the more *similar* they become to unpressed tobaccos; for example, they will not burn as slowly as when smoked un-rubbed, or whole pressed tobaccos. However, in my opinion, they will never burn as fast or effortlessly as unpressed tobaccos (mixtures).

Why Pressed Tobaccos?

There are many reasons why pressed VA tobaccos never cease to intrigue me:

  1. Unlike Latakia mixtures, where you can usually more easily detect and later taste the Latakia, pressed VA tobaccos do give you an idea at first, but you never know what the aroma and flavour of the tobacco will be when smoked. In fact, you could have many different pressed VA tobaccos that smell, taste, and smoke totally differently from one another, with no common element whatsoever. (After all, how many different types of VAs do we have as opposed to Latakia?)
  2. You can smoke them whole, as they come, rub them out in various ways, or even use scissors to cut flakes into any shape you might want and then pack. Each experiment will offer a different experience.
  3. Pressed VA tobaccos come in a wide range of forms and shapes, from the usual flakes through Navy Cut, and all the way to Twists (Ropes) and Plugs. This is an aspect that adds to the excitement of the whole experience of opening a new tin of tobacco, let alone the visual and tactile pleasure.

Final Word

It's sad that pressed tobaccos have been disappearing from the market, one after the other, in recent years. Having said that, it looks like the German and the American tobacco manufacturers do intend to fill the gap as best as they can. Indeed, there are some quality pressed tobaccos emerging from Germany (Dan Pipe, for example) and the USA (though sometimes the tobaccos are made elsewhere, such as Butera's). While we look back with nostalgia to tobaccos that have slipped into oblivion, we look forward with hope to others that can fill the void. That's an integral aspect of our noble hobby. --Tarek Manadily (