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Types of Tobacco

Pipe tobaccos come in vast array of styles and flavours; this is the result of centuries of cultivation, fermentation and experimentation. Today we have a rich and diverse range of tobaccos from around the world. Over the years different regions developed their own styles due to available tobaccos and flavourings, just  like wines and spirits; however, nowadays these traditional styles are produced all over the world.

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To help identify the difference from the natural smoky, earthy English blends, to the sweet and creamy American aromatics; Different blends are classified, based on the composition, curing methods and flavouring; these classifications can be as complex as you want, or as simple. 

The most basic form has split the tobaccos as Flavoured (Aromatics) or Unflavoured (often called English blends). Although this is great for simple classification, it still doesn’t reveal much about the tobacco blend itself. We can then therefore, divide them up even further; based on the aforementioned tobaccos used, processing methods and flavouring.

Unflavoured Blends

 

These were once called ‘English’ blends as a result of the old purity laws imposed on English manufacturers; as only natural flavourings such as rum, whisky, Port, floral oils and spices were permitted in regulated doses. As the story goes, many small manufacturers would produce tobaccos with high ratios of wet flavourings and sell them by weight. This often saw the smoker having to dry out the tobacco which would only leave a very small amount of tobacco they could actually smoke. With the purity laws in place in order to produce complex and unique tastes, unflavoured blends can often contain exotic spice leaves as well as the common Virginias & Burleys. 

Virginia Blends 

Virginia is one of the most versatile varieties of tobacco; there are so many different characteristics which can be achieved through curing and other processes; they were originally cultivated by the native North Americans, and this tobacco can be light & sweet or strong & earthy.

Gold, red & brown Virginia tobaccos are flue cured. The tobaccos are subjected to heat; short durations produce a light (in strength & colour) and sweet tobacco, whereas longer periods produce a darker, stronger and less sweet leaf.

  •  A mixture of flue cured, or bright Virginias, create a light and sweet tobacco, often with a hay or grassy flavour. A skilful blender can produce tobaccos with honey and citrus flavours, naturally. The light nature of the tobacco makes for easy combustion, but can burn hot if smoked too fast or poorly packed. Pressing into a flake, thicker cuts or even sliced twist help reduces the heat. With a little practice and gentle smoking, you will be rewarded with a complex, subtle and gentle tobacco.
     
  • Red & brown Virginias fill in the middle ground of the Virginia spectrum. Thanks to the darker leaf from the extra curing time, these tobaccos burn slower and cooler. Red Virginias hold some of the sweetness and come across as slightly fruity; the browns on the other hand, are much more nutty, woody and earthy.
     
  • Dark Virginia is subject to more direct heat through being hot pressed or stoved (literally, cooked). This removes most of the sugar and gives the tobacco a very deep, almost black, colour. Dark Virginia is favoured by experienced smokers, as it is strong, cool, slow burning and packed full of earthy, smoky, leathery flavours and is produced in a wide array of cuts: plug, twist, flake, spun cut, ribbon and shag.

Virginia & Burley's

Virginia is commonly blended with other tobaccos, the array of flavours act as a backdrop for some of the more aromatic leaves. Still classed as within the Virginia category, we have blends with Burley, Maryland & Kentucky. Like Virginia these are all different.

  • Burley has almost zero sugars, (usually) moderate in nicotine and a nutty flavour profile, sometimes with cocoa notes. Burley is a very absorbent tobacco and picks up surrounding flavours from tobaccos and flavourings. When mixed with Virginias, it has very little flavour, but slows down the burn rate and adds a little nicotine kick. Often it can’t even be detected in the taste, but in the body it’s there. Air cured in open barns, the Burley is a golden brown colour and known as White Burley in North America.
     
  • Dark Fire Cured Burley is also known as Kentucky, a rich, pungent tobacco. Like Dark Virginia, Kentucky packs a big hit, with a complex flavour to match. Filled with earthy, smoky, woody and almost cigar tastes. Often blended with Dark Virginias, for a smoke you know you have had.
     
  • Maryland is a rare tobacco these days; it crops up in blends from time to time, with all the same characteristics of burley, but this air cured tobacco is noticeably milder. With that said it’s surprising to see how this tobacco has fallen out of vogue.

VaPer (Virginia & Perique)

Perique is a rare tobacco, originally only produced in St James Parish (Louisiana), but now produced elsewhere within the state of Louisiana. What starts as Burley is subject to a long fermentation process under pressure in barrels. Over the 12-18 month period, the tobacco takes on a very rich and pungent aroma. To smoke on its own Perique is a very dry & spicy tobacco, with a figgy and almost vinegary edge. Commonly used in strong Balkan & English blends (see below), it is also mixed with bright Virginias to produce a VaPer (Va =Virginia & Per = Perique). Due to its rarity and power, VaPer blends often only use up to 5% Perique. The low volume of Perique combined with the flue cured Virginia produces hay/grass-like flavours, with a slightly peppery and pungent twang. To keep the smoke cool and smooth, these are commonly produced as a flake or sliced twist. Due to the high Virginia content, these have to be smoked like Gold Virginia’s to avoid tongue bite. Many favour taller and narrower tobacco chambers, as this build up of ash is faster and keeps the smoke cool. 

Oriental & Latakia Mixtures

So far we have only talked about tobacco varieties from North American descent; the Mediterranean/Middle East also have some interesting tobaccos. Commonly produced in Turkey, with a few coming from Greece and Cyprus; these small leafed tobaccos are air cured and then fermented to remove any acidic tastes; the result is a highly aromatic flavour.  With a different method of curing, Orientals can be from the dry and creamy Turkish Izmir to the beautifully smoky Cypriot Latakia (originally produced in Syria). 

Usually blended with Virginias, Cavendish and Burleys and grouped by the tobacco content, these tobaccos are popular among experienced smokers as the flavours are often very rich and pungent. Latakia is the most widespread and widely used Oriental; due to smoke curing, this tobacco has very oaky, smoky flavour. The tobacco leaves are strung high up in barns and pine and herb fires are lit at the base. The fragrant aromas from the smoke penetrate the leaf turning it black. Like peated whiskies, Latakia is not for everyone and when smoked produces a strong aroma. Even though Latakia has a big flavour, it is not overly strong (nicotine wise) and smokes very cool. 

The march of history has seen these names developed and no real distinct definitions of English, Oriental, Balkan or Scottish now exist. These definitions are given after centuries of debate, but not everyone agrees...

  • Oriental blends. Often contain no Latakia (but sometimes do) and are made up from Virginias/Burley with a high Oriental content. These blends tend to be a little mellower with highly aromatic flavours, but without anything being added to the blend. Not so common in the UK.
     
  • Balkan Blends. Thanks to the success of the iconic ‘Balkan Sobranie’ in the last century, these mixtures are still very popular today. Made up from a base of creamy Orientals and Virginias, topped off with a dash of Latakia and from time to time Perique. Balkans are smooth, generally medium in strength, based on the Virginias used and quantity of Perique (if used). A wide variety of Orientals can be employed, from Turkish to Macedonian leaf.
     
  • English Blends. Not to be confused with the general style of unflavoured tobaccos. In England most blenders only use Latakia and a few use a little Turkish Izmir (or other Orientals). As a result, an English mixture contains more Virginia with a little Oriental, compared to a Balkan blend. These tend to be similar in strength to the Balkans, but are often woodier and less creamy too.
     
  • Scottish Blends. These do not differ massively from English blends; they are usually higher in Virginia content with (Virginia based) Cavendish tobaccos added for extra sweetness. Most people group Scottish and English together into the same category.

  Flavoured Blends

 

Due to the UK’s restriction (now lifted) on using most flavourings, these tobaccos are widespread all over the world and like unflavoured tobaccos there are many styles; from the dry Dutch Cavendish, to the floral English Lakeland blends; and all as different as the tobaccos above. Most flavoured blends are referred to as Aromatics and feature (usually) natural fruit and sugar syrup flavourings. These flavourings can be either “cased” (tobaccos are soaked in molasses and pressed) or “top dressed” (flavoured with alcohol extract, sprayed over the tobacco at the end).  The sweet and fragrant aromas produced by tobaccos can make heads turn when smoked; fruit flavours fill the room with fruity smells.

Tobaccos such Kentucky, Perique, Latakia and other Orientals are rarely used in aromatics. Due to the nature of the taste of these tobaccos, many of the flavourings are “drowned out” and lost in the final smoke. Burleys and Virginias are the most common, but often made into Cavendish. Cavendish is not a tobacco strain like the others; it’s more a process to ferment the tobacco. The tobaccos are either steamed for a milder smoker or smoked for a stronger taste. Molasses are added to give the Cavendish a sweet taste and a cool, creamy smoke.

Dutch Aromatics

The Dutch favour a more golden Cavendish and have some complex blends of Virginias and Burleys, but occasionally Perique or Kentucky are used too. These tobaccos are either cased in molasses and cold pressed (golden Cavendish) or steamed and pressed (darker or black Cavendish). These tobaccos tend to be a little dryer compared to the American style and as a result need to be treated like a light Virginia. Poor packing and smoking too rapidly makes for a hot experience, slowing down and puffing slowly is the way to go. No cherry or apple flavours here, just a sugar sweet addition to the natural taste of the tobaccos.

North American Aromatics

Like Dutch tobaccos, the North American aromatics can be gold or black Cavendish based, where they differ is the flavouring used. The tobaccos are often heavily cased in very sweet fruity concentrates and are very common with those new to the pipe as they burn slower and cooler thanks to the sticky molasses. Often these tobaccos are mild and very easy to smoke, and they tend to leave a sticky mess in the bottom of pipe. The high amounts of flavourings can leave traces/ghosts in the carbon of the bowl, too. Blends such as all gold or dark Cavendish are used; along with some bright Virginias with black Cavendish to improve combustion.

Other European Aromatics

Not quite a hybrid of the Dutch & North American styles, some utilize complex blends of Virginia, Cavendish, sliced twist and Burleys. These are consistently dryer, like the Dutch blends, but sweetly flavoured like North American aromatics. The dryer nature of the tobacco makes for an easy smoke, but they can be prone to tongue bite if not treated with care. Akin to the Dutch Cavendish, these aromatics often use the flavourings only to accentuate the tobacco’s natural taste.

Top Dressed Virginias/Burley

Often not classed as an Aromatic, and not a natural Virginia/Burley either. Like the unflavoured counterpart the two can be blended together to create a cool and smooth base of varying strengths. Sweet extracts are then sprayed over the leaf at the point of pressing for flakes, hand rolling (for twist), or after cutting for ribbons & shags. Unlike casing; top dressed blends are not as strongly flavoured and should be smoked like Virginia & Burley blends. Virginia based tobaccos were originally more common here in the UK & Europe, whereas Burley blends were more traditionally a North American thing (but not exclusively any longer). The lack of molasses makes these blends less sticky/gloopy and doesn’t leave such a mess in the bottom of your pipe. 

One of the earliest forms of these tobaccos was English twist; the tobacco leaves are spun into a rope and often soaked in rum or other such alcohol. This was to keep them moist during transit from the North American colonies to the rest of the Empire. Twist tobacco was often chewed during these journeys as smoking on a wooden ship is not the best idea. Navy Flakes/Plugs are in essence the same as Twists, but rather than being hand spun, these are pressed into bars (plug) and then sliced (flake).

Lakeland Blends

The idea that all English blends are unflavoured falls apart here, some flavourings were allowed to be used, not sticky cherry or chocolate flavours, but more floral and spice based. Gawith Hoggarth is the largest producer of these tobaccos and some of the recipes date back over 150 years. Virginia in varying forms from gold to black is used, with the addition of Burley and/or Kentucky to give the tobacco some body. Flavours such as rum, whisky, vanilla, liquorice, maple, honey, geranium, rose and other floral extracts are used. These tobaccos have a unique taste and are not for everyone, but are more common than you would think. Brands such as St Bruno & Condor are, in essence, Lakeland blends. Depending on the volume and specific flavours, Lakeland blends can leave a strong ghosting in your pipe and a dedicated pipe is suggested for all Lakelands.

 

While these categories are great to identify a tobacco’s style and expected flavours, many blenders do not like to stick to them and they should only be treated as crude guide. Similar to beers and whiskies, the rules are made to be broken and many tobaccos fall into two or even three categories. Some are so hard to classify that heated discussions continue between smokers and manufacturers.

No matter what you smoke, each of these tobacco styles has a long history and many smokers stick to one category. Usually an Aromatic smoker can’t even stand the smell of unlit Latakia and vice versa.

A complex assortment of styles, but in return there is something for everyone to enjoy.    

©Glynn Quelch September 2013

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