In the last of our series, pipe maker Michael Parks spends a few minutes talking about something not directly pipe-related: the process of creating an Art Deco inspired seven-day set of cigar holders.
In the second installation of our Parks in the Workshop series (I just made that up now) we hear about the process of making the “tsunami pipe” for the Pipes and Tobacco Magazine museum.
In this video, recorded at our September BBQ, pipe maker Michael Parks discusses the art and technical challenges of the making of calabash pipes.
This article was originally published on my personal website back in 2005. Since then it garnered over 30,000 hits. Probably one of the surest signs of the article’s success is the simple fact that many of my pipe smoking friends went out and bought the same box and use it as the solution to their open-tin tobacco storage problem! (I even use a little one for snuff.) Since its original posting I have modified my own use of the “Lexador” so I’ve given the article a complete overhaul so that it now aligns to my current experience and practice.
When I bought my first pipe tobaccos I naively presumed they would keep perfectly well in their respective little tins. Much to my dismay, after a few weeks my precious little containers of cargo were becoming as dry and crispy as the grass on my front lawn. As it turns out, pipe tobacco is best stored roughly the same humidity as cigars: 70%. Fortunately, pipe tobacco is a bit more resilient than cigars (e.g. it won’t split or start to unroll!) so a humidor for pipe tobacco needn’t be as scrupulously maintained. (For an exhaustive link on building humidors, try the Cigar FAQ.)
I went on the Internet and researched what other pipe smokers were using: invariably it was Tupperware, mason jars, or some other kind of small lidded contraption. This was fine and dandy, but I didn’t want to have a dozen different jars sitting around my room—especially since it isn’t particularly convenient if I want to take a tin with me to the local patio. (Not to mention I’m rather fond of the little tins they come in.)
I decided that my ideal humidor would be airtight, easy to monitor and maintain, but most importantly, it would be able to hold several individual tins of tobacco. After some thought and research, I came up what has been the ideal solution for me:
The Lexan Humidor (aka the “Lexador”)
This is an airtight container made of high quality plastic with a hygrometer and humidifier. Together, they keep the humidity level so constant that I only have to add water to the humidifier only after several months. (In fact, if the tobacco starts off at the right humidity I usually don’t even have to add the humidifier.)
- It is probably good practice to open the box every week or two in order to replace the stagnant air inside the box.
- It is a good idea to buy two boxes: one for your natural tobaccos (e.g. Virginas) and one for any aromatics. (And, heck, why not a third for your cigars!)
The ideal humidor will not impart any foreign taste or smell upon the tobacco and seal perfectly. (Tupperware never seems to, and it also takes on the smell of what you’ve put in it.) Lexan, on the other hand, is a very hard and clear plastic that, like glass, will not absorb any moisture, flavors or odors. I bought a Lexan box at Mountain Equipment Coop, though most stores that sell paddling gear will likely stock them, or something similar. This particular one has a gasket around the lid and seals airtight with two sturdy latches.
This is the little device used to monitor the humidity level inside the box. Digital hygrometers are now very common and can be purchased at your local or online tobacconist—or you can use a household one from RadioShack. Dial hygrometers are also an option but are usually more unreliable.
If you’re incredibly thrifty you can make your own: Pick up a block of green florist foam— be sure to buy the ‘wet’ kind or it won’t absorb water—from a florist or craft store and cut it down to fit into small Tupperware container. You can also spend a little more on specialized humidifying sponge made specifically for humidors: your tobacconist will stock several kinds of these sponges, and some of them will cost up to 50 bucks! (These ones are supposed to be very high quality, but personally I think that they’re the same as any other, but people who spent thousands of dollars on their cigars aren’t about to start cutting costs at the sponge.)
In either case you then should buy a bottle of humectant that will help keep the humidity at the proper level. This is important because if it gets too humid inside then you may eventually start encouraging mold growth, not to mention your tobacco will be awfully hard to light and hot to smoke! There are many different brands of “cigar solutions” but they are invariably a mix of propylene glycol and distilled water that, together, help keep the humidity at the proper level. Again, these branded solutions are stupidly expensive and if you look around you can probably buy a big bottle of propylene glycol (a hydroscopic liquid used in everything from foods to shampoos) from on its own and it will last you decades. (Mix together at a ratio of about 60/40 of propylene glycol and water.)
For the last couple of years I have been using hydroscopic crystals—you just top them up with water when they dry out and that’s it. They’re cheap, easy to use, and (most importantly) work great!
Whether you’re using a sponge, crystals, or something else you will need to top it up with fresh water on occasion. When you do, it should be distilled water so it doesn’t clog up your humidifier with the minerals left after evaporation. You can buy distilled water at a grocery store for a buck or two, or make your own by capturing the steam from boiling water. (Good luck with that.)
The article below is a reprint from my personal website. When I wrote it back in 2005 I was still relatively new to pipe smoking and couldn’t find much information about aging tobacco. Even after all these years the article is still relevant — and it the variety and divergence of opinions is quite amusing, if not disconcerting.
IS THERE A “BEST BEFORE” ON TOBACCO?
I’ve always heard stories of some lucky person finding a dusty, 20-year-old tin of their favourite tobacco tucked away in the back of a drugstore somewhere. These aged tobaccos are purported to be absolutely wonderful to smoke. So, needless to say, I blithely stocked up on several dozen tins of various tobaccos… until one day I came across some information on the Dan Pipe website recommending that tobacco be kept from only 1-3 years.
EXPERTS AGREE… OR NOT
With this kind of conflicting information I wrote to several people in the pipe and tobacco industry asking their opinion. Stephan Sales, of Brigham Pipes, wrote, “Do not believe everything that you read. I recently found some tins tucked away on the back of a shelf that were from 1964 … and found the tobacco to be perfectly humidified and extremely well aged.”
Craig Tarler of Cornell and Diehl tended to side with Dan Pipe, writing, “Pretty good advice except that you can keep English blends a lot longer. Some store them for over 10 years. I tend to believe they peak at about five years and then age slowly after that.”
AND WHAT DID OTHER PEOPLE THINK?
A gentleman from Samuel Gawith gave an unofficial guess (“But don’t quote me!”) that if the tobacco is in a properly sealed tin, and cellared in the correct conditions, that it should keep for about 2 years with no great detoriation in the smoke.
Patrick Blatter, one of the brothers of Blatter and Blatter in Montreal wrote, “The aromatic tobaccos, for the most part, contain natural sweetening agents and cannot be kept for more than a 1 1/2 to 2 years.”
Greg Pease was more optimistic, writing, “It seems that most any tobacco will do just fine for 5 years or so, perhaps even 10, providing they are kept in hermetically sealed containers.”
So how can all these confusing and often contradictory opinions be explained? The first step is to understand what happens when tobacco ages. On his web-site, master blender Greg Pease explains that, “Aging tobacco is all about the delicate, complex dance of life in a microbial ecosystem.” In other words, while the tobacco remains sealed in its original tin, a fermentation process will take place over time, slowing with age.
NOT ALL TOBACCO AGES THE SAME
How well tobacco ages also depends largely on the tobacco itself. Let’s look at the three different categories and two opinions on them:
Greg Pease: Generally, any tobacco with plenty of natural sugars will age wonderfully. Virginias, especially those with perique, will age for longer than any of us will, it seems.
Dan Pipe: The flavours will change due to fermentation processes — tobaccos get milder, smoother with more full-bodied character; flake tobaccos (some blended with Perique) may also get stronger.
Greg Pease: English blends seem to fare less well, though 20 years appears safe for just about anything.
Dan Pipe: Natural leaf mixtures in the “English style” (with Latakia) … can well be stored for 2 or 3 years.
Greg Pease: It’s depends on how aromatic the Virginias are. Three Nuns, I am quite convinced, has a top note added, and it doesn’t hurt it in the least. However, even sauced tobaccos won’t go “bad” over the period of a few years. The stuff just may not age properly.
Dan Pipe: With Black Cavendish serving as the flavour carrying base the aroma additions are most probably affected and often decomposed by the fermentation process and may change or even spoil the mixture’s original flavour.
YOUR BEST CHOICES FOR AGING
At the conservative end it’s suggested that tobacco, especially aromatics, could be at risk after a mere year of storage. Yet, interestingly, very few companies actually date their tobaccos. It’s anyone’s guess how long your one-year-old tin of tobacco really is: It’s not a stretch for a tin to have been sitting at the manufacturer and then a retail store for a year or two even before you bought it. The most optimistic viewpoint gives these aromatic tobaccos from several to countless years all depending on the blend. Overall, the only thing one can safely say is that these aren’t the best choices for cellaring, but should be able to withstand at least a couple of years on your shelf without much harm.
For long-term aging, the general consensus is that Virginias and English blends are the better choices, though even here the opinions vary from 2 to over 20 years. With all this information I’m sure it’s as clear as mud how long you should keep your products. In the end, it’s up to your own personal experiences and, well—guessing—as to how long to keep your tobacco around!
HOW TO CELLAR
Lastly, the easiest part of all: storing the tobacco for the long haul. First of all, it should be noted the opening of a tin will end the natural fermentation process—and it will not begin again. Likewise, pouched tobacco will not age properly since the packaging is not a perfectly sealed environment. That means that sealed, unopened tins are the only ones to bother aging. These need only be stored in cool, dry and dark place to keep the containers as safe from corrosion and large temperature changes as possible! Once open, your best bet is to keep it moist and smoke it quickly: It will slowly lose its flavours and properties much more rapidly.