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Air Pocket Packing
A packing method emphasizing an open space at the bottom of the bowl
by Fred Hanna
The traditional methods of packing a bowl are tried and true, and quite acceptable of course. However, it may well be that we could benefit from an alternative. I have never been fully satisfied with the entire packing process and have often pondered the possibility of other methods. During the past few months, I have been experimenting with a different method of packing a bowl of tobacco. It flies in the face of our assumptions about what proper packing is supposed to be. This article is not intended to replace the traditional methods, only to offer an alternative. I recommend that you try this method on one of your pipes that doesn’t smoke so well. It could produce an improvement.
I am not referring to the interesting Frank method that many pipe smokers in Europe and America have been trying over the past year and a half. And I admit that when our German friend Achim Frank (www.pfeifenstudio-frank.de) described his method to me in Chicago back in 2004, he inspired me to rethink the entire enterprise of how we pack our tobacco chambers with our favorite flakes and blends. But I do not share Achim’s enthusiasm about the use of torch lighters on pipes.
Frankly, the Frank method was not satisfactory to me. Nonetheless, Achim Frank is a smart, outspoken and interesting guy, passionate about and highly dedicated to our hobby. I admire him for questioning the assumptions of a century-old tradition of bowl packing. He inspired me to analyze, examine and rethink all of my own assumptions about how a bowl should be packed. Eventually, an alternative dawned on me, one that is not only more efficient than other packing methods, but easier and faster, and may even add to the tobacco flavor and overall smoking experience. Of course, it is possible that a few folks have been doing this or something like it for years. If you are one of them, please let me know. But I do not know of anyone who packs their bowls in this fashion, and I wish someone had told me about it years ago.
I call this new technique the Air Pocket packing method. This method is unique, and different from all other packing methods that I know of, due to the simple fact that it is specifically designed and intended to leave an air pocket in the bottom of the bowl during the initial packing and lighting. In other words, after packing the bowl, there should not be any tobacco at the bottom of the bowl at all. Of course, the bottom does eventually become filled, but in a way that makes it burn a bit easier. At first glance, the Air Pocket seems counterintuitive and downright unnatural, but the more one uses it the more it seems like plain old common sense. The bowl can be packed quickly in this way, in just a few seconds. It consists of six easy steps. But do not use a tamper for this method of packing. The tamper comes back into play after the pipe is lit.
STEP ONE: Grab a large portion of tobacco from your tin, bag or humidor. Get a good grip on it, squeezing it into a clump between your thumb and first three fingers. The clump should be large enough to fit tightly into the upper half of the bowl of your pipe. This step is the same whether with a Virginia flake or a ribbon-cut mixture. If it is a flake, you may need to fold the slices and roll them into a ball between your palms in order to keep the clump short in length, so that it does not extend into the bottom of the bowl. The clump can also be a rubbed-out flake if one prefers. No matter the cut, it all compresses into a clump when you squeeze it and shove it into the bowl.
STEP TWO: Shove the clump into the upper half of the bowl. Leave the lower half empty. Force the tobacco into the bowl, quite tightly, so that the upper half of the tobacco chamber is packed. Yes, I did say force it in there, but not so much that you are using excessive muscle. Place no tobacco in the bottom of the bowl! There should be no tobacco in the bottom half except for the few insignificant strands that fall to the bottom by happenstance during this step.
STEP THREE: A natural and spontaneous extension of step two—immediately after shoving, twist the remainder of the clump of tobacco into the bowl, screwing it in, so to speak, so that it goes in just a bit farther than it had been by shoving. You could combine the two steps by shoving and twisting at the same time, if you so choose. At no time should you press the center of the tobacco into the bowl. It should be placed as an entire clump. Make sure that the clump twists into the bowl deeply enough so that lighting the tobacco will not burn the rim of your pipe! If there is a bunch of tobacco sticking out the top, either you did not shove and twist it in far enough or your clump was too large. You can remove the excess or go ahead and push the entire clump down into the bowl using the flat of your thumbs, but like I said, avoid pressing the center of the tobacco.
STEP FOUR: Tidy up the top of the bowl as you would do so normally, joining wayward strands into the bulk of the tobacco, or removing them as necessary. Once again, if need be, push the clump down a bit with the flat
of your thumbs. Hopefully, a bit of space exists between the top of the fill and the top of the rim. The tobacco should now be tightly packed, very hard, and not springy or spongy at all, as in traditional methods. The packing part of the method is now complete.
STEP FIVE: Try out the draw. If it is difficult to draw air through the pipe, you have packed the bowl too tightly. If so, I recommend emptying the bowl and trying the process over again. The Air Pocket method obviously requires some practice, but it is well worth the effort. The draw should have just a bit of resistance. Do not attempt to smoke the bowl if the draw is so tight that you will have to use effort to puff. It just doesn’t work.
STEP SIX: Light only the center of the packed tobacco. But give it a good number of puffs to get it burning well. Once burning, the tobacco tends to stay lit quite well. Don’t worry about lighting only the center, as the tobacco will naturally burn outward toward the walls of the bowl. If you do a charring light, lightly and just barely tamp the burnt ashes of the first light. When you first tamp, you may be surprised at how hard the tobacco surface has become compared to other packing methods. From here on, do not attempt to press the tobacco down into the bowl at all.
You may be surprised at how easy the draw is when the Air Pocket method is properly done, in spite of the fact that the tobacco is so tightly packed. Not filling the bottom of the bowl is the secret to the easy draw in this method, as there is no tobacco in the bottom of the bowl to interfere with the draw. You may also be surprised at how well the tobacco stays lit, requiring few or no relights. You may notice an increase in the intensity of the flavor as well.
As the tobacco burns for a while you will find that at some point well into your smoke, your tamper will eventually move effortlessly right through the clump of tobacco, and the clump will collapse into the bottom half of the bowl. Once again, do not press the tobacco down with the tamper with any excess force, only lightly touch the tobacco here and there to keep it arranged and organized. It will now likely be in the form of a few clumps pressed together, and it will still be burning. The clump(s) will be mostly charred so that the continued burn will be easy and natural. There will also be a fair amount of ash mixed into the tobacco at this point, but as you might expect, this is not a problem. The tobacco now at the bottom will continue to burn well with few or no relights, to the bottom of the bowl. This makes it easy to cake the bottom of the bowl. The tobacco will remain quite tasty, and it will be quite an easy process as well. I have found that this method is far more conducive to leaving nothing but ash at the bottom of the bowl after your smoke is finished.
I may be wrong here, but to me and others, using this method makes the tobacco burn slightly cooler. It also seems to provide a more intense flavor right from the beginning, perhaps because the smoke itself is not filtered by the unburned, packed strands of tobacco that are usually placed at the bottom of the bowl in all the other packing methods that I know of, including the Frank method. I believe that the tobacco packed in the bottom of the bowl by traditional methods absorbs and dilutes the flavor of the tobacco that is burning at the top
of the bowl. As I see it, the Air Pocket method intensifies the flavor through the combination of the empty bottom air pocket, the easy draw, and tight packing at the top. It also seems to make the tobacco burn more evenly (eventually) and more completely, and requires fewer relights. But all of this is up for debate, of course, and your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.
The key to this method is keeping the bottom half of the bowl free of tobacco until the clump collapses into the bottom during smoking. As far as I can see, the process of forming a cake is not changed by this method. But I should add that the clump of tobacco seems to be more likely to slide down to the bottom in an unsmoked pipe or in a pipe that otherwise has little or no cake. Because of this, it is better not to use this method on a brand-new pipe. On the other hand, if you find the clump to be sinking or sliding into the bottom of a caked bowl (without collapsing) as you smoke and tamp, it is probably because the clump was not thick enough. I should also mention that this method has been tried mostly in larger pipes and thus I am not sure how this method would work in a group 3 or smaller bowl.
It takes some practice to get the tightness of the pack correct. When packed too tightly, the entire smoking experience will be a miserable failure. A bit of trial and error reveals the proper degree of tightness of the pack.
For those who have never strayed from the traditional techniques, even being willing to try the air pocket takes some reorienting of one’s conceptualizing and envisioning the packing, lighting, burning and tasting of tobaccos. As for me, at this point, the Air Pocket method is now another way of enjoying great tobacco in a great pipe. P&T