What Differentiates Quality Pipe Tobacco vs. Rough Trade Tobacco

Taste can mean many things to many people (just Google it) and pipe tobacco is no different. You can buy low grade pipe tobacco at just about any convenience store or corner market in any city in the U.S. 

But in most cases, in a convenience store on the corner you don’t really have any selection – you are getting the best pipe tobacco loaded with artificial additives and preservatives and you are frequently purchasing a product that is just dried tobacco that has been repackaged as pipe tobacco.

We use tobacco exclusively grown in Virginia in our own OHM Pipe Tobacco for a couple of reasons: first 60% of all tobacco grown in the U.S. comes from VA for good reason, it has a sweet almost delicate flavor and second, it lends itself well to blending; using different types of additives to flavor the taste. 

One caveat when you are assessing Virginia tobacco: because it has a sweeter taste (with a higher sugar content) it does have a tendency to burn hotter than other tobacco grown elsewhere. But we may be splitting hairs a bit.

pipe tobacco airing in a barn

Why Burley Tobacco is a Popular Source for Many Manufacturers

Burley tobacco is a light air cured tobacco used frequently for cigarette production and pipe tobacco. Here in the US  burley tobacco is often almost always grown in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, North Caroline, Ohio or West Virginia, with Kentucky producing the largest volume of Burley pipe tobacco (about 70% or all Burley tobacco).

When you smoke burley, it will start with a light, mellow and slightly mild nutty flavor, with no bite or sharpness: it’s a very smooth tasting tobacco. Some burley aficionados believe they can taste a rich, full flavored somewhat sweet taste like granola or oatmeal, with caramel overtones in the taste. 

But this may be splitting hairs a bit, kind of like tasting wines that are north of $150 or more per bottle – the inferred tastes are somewhat subjective based on the actual taster.

When smoked as pipe tobacco, cased burley starts light, mellow, and mildly nutty, with no sharpness. If it is of good quality and has been stored and handled properly, it produces a rich, full flavor somewhat like sweet oatmeal or granola, with a caramel character coming from the burnt sugars.

  • Here in the U.S., burley tobacco plants are started from pelleted seeds placed in polystyrene trays floated on a bed of fertilized water early in the spring – transplanting begins in late May and progresses through June and into the summer in some cases. 
  • Tobacco plants are harvested by “topping” –  removing the developing flower head at approximately 60 days from transplanting and treated to prevent the growth of side shoots called “suckers.” Topping allows energy that would have produced a bloom to promote leaf expansion and it enhances the final product and overall taste of the pipe tobacco. 
  • At approximately four weeks after topping the tobacco is stalk is cut using a knife that is shaped like a tomahawk. The plant is speared, spiked or “spudded” onto a stick topped by a metal spear, spike or spud that fits over the top of the stick.
  • Barley tobacco is air cured for a bare minimum of eight or more weeks, with the colors of the actual tobacco turning from the normal pale green to yellow and then to a rich brown.
  • Barley that cures too quickly will retain some of the yellow pigments as well as chemicals that normally break down with a slower cure and this is not an optimum condition.

pipe tobacco worker

Spice Tobaccos can be Flavored for any Taste Under the Sun (no pun intended)

Spice tobacco is not really a single type of pipe tobacco, it’s just a comprehensive term –  It’s a mixture or blend of several different types of tobacco and available in a wide variety of flavors: cherry, strawberry, blueberry and apple.

Oriental is a aromatic, somewhat spicy pipe tobacco that comes from Turkey or Greece and/or other Eastern Mediterranean countries. It’s commonly referred to as “Turkish Tobacco” and it has a unique spicy taste, and it can be mildly sweet with a herbal or spicy character and in some cases, it can impart an aroma that is similar to burning incense.

Periqua is a Red Burly type of tobacco grown in and around St. James Louisiana, outside of New Orleans. It’s a somewhat rare, slowly burning, strong tasting tobacco. Because of limited production it is used sparingly in blends. It’s rich with a black color and an almost leathery texture.

Latakia refers to a curing process utilizing fire curing for the tobacco leaves over controlled fires of aromatic woods and fragrant herbs. It’s grown exclusively in Cyprus and Northern Syria and after the leaves are cured they are hung in barns filled with smoke comprised of pine and oak wood which helps to impart more flavor into the final product. 

Some think it causes too much dryness in the throat and avoid it for that reason; but, this assessment is only applicable for specific types of Latakia that have been cured differently. 

You’ll hear the term “English blends” used by some tobacco aficionados; many of these blends use Oriental or Turkish tobaccos, which use smaller tobacco leaves that impart a bigger flavor and aromatic qualities.

So, like cigars, pipe tobacco products come in all different types of flavors and styles. Also, like cigars, it’s worth your while to experiment with different brands and types of pipe tobacco to understand what appeals to your tastes. 

Speaking of tastes, these are always a moving target and as you try different blends of pipe tobacco (flavored or classic taste) your tastes will evolve over time.

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From the Gourmet Front Lines: News for Pipe Tobacco & Cigar Afficianados