The Mysteries of the Briar Break-in Process

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The Mysteries of the Break-in Process By Fred Hanna

There is quite a bit of hidden mystery involved in the outwardly familiar phenomenon of breaking in a pipe. The traditional wisdom says that developing a cake is the primary process through which a pipe eventually attains that nutty, rich, sweet flavor that we all have come to love.

I have come to the conclusion that attributing this great flavor to merely developing a cake is rather like saying that a car reaches great speeds solely because of a great number of cubic inches in the engine. Of course, cubes are an important aspect of what contributes to speed, but this is hardly the entirety of the story. There is also the influence of weight, cams, turbo charging, type of fuel, the exhaust system, aerodynamics, and so forth. If all one has is a big engine in a huge, heavy frame, the car can actually be quite tame. On the other hand, a lot of horsepower can be generated from a relatively small engine, without much in the way of cubic inches. Similarly, the cake in the tobacco chamber of a pipe is but one of a variety of factors. I have put a fine cake on pipes that still never really broke in no matter what I did and never quite achieved that aforementioned great taste. It is clear that there is more to this story.

Before we address the mysteries, however, let us give the importance of cake its due. Cake builds up in the tobacco chamber, as we know, and mostly consists of carbon residue from the burning tobacco. We also know that carbon can absorb hundreds of times its own weight in other substances. The net result in a pipe is that much of the impurities in the tobacco smoke is absorbed or filtered by the cake, which "mellows" the smoke delivered to the tongue, especially if the bottom of the pipe has some cake. However, because of the capacity for absorption, relatively little cake is actually needed for a great-smoking pipe. I believe that we need far less than the traditional thickness of a dime. Thus, only a bit of cake is generally good for break-in purposes.

However, the traditional explanation of break-in stops right around this point. I have been collecting notes on breaking in a pipe for quite a few months now and would like to mention a few observations and speculations. For example, on the topic of cake, I have owned pipes that smoked well from the first bowl, with no bowl coating, but do not improve to any noticeable extent as a cake developed. Curiously, several years ago I bought a Charatan Selected from a guy who loved to ream pipes. He took the cake in that poor pipe down to bare walls, but you would never have known it by smoking it. It tasted sweet and nutty with no cake whatsoever. That was when I began to question how much the cake actually has to do with flavor and taste.

There are some other phenomena that got me to questioning the traditional wisdom. Some pipes smoke great from the first bowl and without any carbon coating in the bowl from the pipemaker whatsoever. And they then continue to get better and better. Contrast this with the fact that other pipes can smoke quite poorly--bitter and harsh--at first but then end up surpassing in smoking quality some pipes that smoked great from the beginning. An example of this is a Castello Collection Fiammata I currently own, as well as a L'Anatra Fiammata. I have had other pipes in which the first bowl was quite good and then the quality of the smoke degraded over the next four or five bowls and only then proceeded to improve. Why is this? What is going on here? I don't have the entire answer, but I would like to share with you a few thoughts on this matter. For the remainder of this discussion, let us assume that all the pipes discussed here are well made and their briar well cured so that we can focus on particular variables relative to the break-in process.

As for curing the briar, the traditional wisdom tells us that sap in a briar block is a bad thing, and there is no doubt that too much of it can clog a pipe and make it heat up and smoke wet. However, I have long wondered if saps may not be as horrible as many of us have come to believe. Breaking in a pipe may well involve heating--cooking if you will--the remaining saps in that briar as well as the wood itself. Wood is vegetal material, of course, but we tend to easily overlook this. Wood will slightly undergo subtle changes in its structure as it absorbs and endures heat from the burning leaf. Heat is one of the most powerful catalysts known to chemistry, and this "cooking effect" may be what is primarily responsible for that highly sought after sweet and nutty flavor to the smoke. Remember that the great taste of Vermont maple syrup (which is actually tree sap) only manifests after it is cooked for a long time and converted into that wonderful liquid. It is quite nasty before the cooking. Similarly, smoking tobacco certainly cooks the sap remaining in the briar after curing, and it cooks the wood itself as well. Just as the taste of a carrot or a clove of garlic changes after cooking or roasting, the taste of briar can change as it cooks or roasts during the smoking process. It can become sweeter and more mellow, and this translates as "breaking in."

I like the taste of briar, and I do not get excited over a pipe brand that seeks to remove all taste of the wood. If I wanted to remove all taste imparted from the smoking instrument itself, I would favor meerschaum. This line of inquiry makes me inclined to wonder if it is possible to "overcure" a pipe, that is, to remove so much of the flavor of the wood that the briar is left with no flavor at all. Some may believe more curing is better because it allows only the flavor of the tobacco to come through. But for me, I LIKE the taste of that briar, especially in those instances when it adds that sweet, mellow, nuttiness.

Unfortunately, not all chunks of briar add that sweet and nutty flavor after being fully broken in. It is a matter of degrees, and, once again, we come down to the variables in the briar itself, apart from brand. Many great grained pieces of briar do not have this flavor, while other plain pieces do, and this is one of the great mysteries of pipe smoking. I recently spoke at length with Rainer Barbi on this subject. He and I both agreed that the soil and climate in which the heath tree grew have a major role to play in how that briar tastes, as I have written previously. There are so many possible variations of climate and soil content that we still have much to learn as to which combination produces the best-tasting briar. However, Rainer and I both agreed that it is not a matter of geographical origin. In other words, whether the briar is from Greece, Corsica, or Italy is not an issue on the factor of taste. Each of those regions contains within its borders many microclimates and soil variations. And, of course, even though the briar is from the best environment, it must be well cured, and, as a pipe, it must be well made, or it will not produce a satisfying smoke, as we all know. And just for the record, I would not dream of using honey to break in a pipe.

There are quite a few variables involved in the break-in process that I have not addressed. I would like to hear the views of other pipe lovers on the various aspects of this fascinating part of our hobby.

This article was originally published in The Pipe Collector, the North American Society of Pipe Collectors newsletter (NASPC), and is used by permission. It's a great organization--consider becoming a member.