P&T Readers Respond
More on aging tobaccos
Amongst all the tasty delights during the holiday season, I devoured (nay, drooled over) the Winter 2007 issue of P&T magazine. Wow, this has to be one of the most enjoyable issues in toto that I have seen (and, yes, I do have every single issue)! Every article in this issue struck a resonant chord with me. The historical piece by Ben Rapaport is the most singularly concise and informative treatment on �origins� that I have seen. The article on briar-cutting is fantastic�as regards both the narrative and the visuals. As we all know, the briar �background� is ever so fundamental to good puffing! The item on Oak Ridge �atomic carvers� really touched me personally. While a student at the University of Tennessee in the 1970s, I lived in Oak Ridge and worked part-time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at the Y-12 Plant. This was the time in my life when I started smoking pipes, and I actually bought a pipe from a Y-12 machinist who made natural-finish briars as a hobby. This was the first �custom-designed� pipe (a Canadian stem piece, of sorts) in my collection � I don�t remember the machinist-carver�s name, alas.
On another note, it is great to see Tad Gage�s expanding involvement in the annals of P&T magazine. As you well know, he brings to the fore a veritable wealth and diversity of knowledge on pipes and tobaccos. I have been a fan of his since I came across The Compleat Smoker back in the early 1990s, and I have savored many of his writings on topics galore over the years. Of late, I have enjoyed Tad�s contribution to the �Trial by Fire� column in P&T magazine. Recently, I made the careful decision to acquire an early (�pre-transition�) Barling pipe. Guess what was the primary research source I used, in helping me with my Barling selection? Yep, it was Tad�s wonderful article on Barlings in the Spring 2000 issue of P&T!
In the latest issue of P&T, Tad gave us his take on the fascinating and multifaceted topic of tobacco aging. As one who is firmly committed to aging my tobacco, I was keenly anxious to read Tad�s communication thereon. I found his article very informative regarding the practical and logistical aspects of the tobacco-aging enterprise. I wholeheartedly agree with his professed take-home message, that one must age tobacco a minimum of three years for proper benefit! Notwithstanding, Tad�s attempt to address the subtitled question of �what really happens when you age your tobaccos� is fraught with scientific inaccuracies. As a pipe smoker with a Ph.D. in biochemistry (pardon my pedantry), I feel compelled to clarify, respectfully, some misconceptions in Tad�s engaging article.
It is readily apparent, from whatever source one peruses, that the �science� of tobacco aging is an exceedingly complex and largely ill-understood field of study. However, there are some general biochemical principles that can help us, at least, to organize the discussion in a meaningful way. The elements that define the sensory character of our embering pipe-weed originate predominantly from three generic chemical constituents of the tobacco plant: carbohydrates, proteins and secondary metabolites. The term �secondary metabolites� is an umbrella expression for a host of organic substances (some of which are oily in nature) that are generated peripherally to the core metabolism of the plant organism. There are thousands upon thousands of these naturally occurring chemicals in the plant world. While we know the biological role of some of them (as anti-microbial agents, deterrents to destructive insects, attractants to pollinating insects, etc.), the function of most of the �secondary metabolites� is unknown. Be that as it may, these mysterious components (or their �aged� breakdown products) most certainly contribute to the gustation and olfaction of our favorite tobaccos. Terpenoid compounds called duvatrienediols, mentioned in Tad�s article (as well as Chuck Stanion�s piece in the Winter 1999 P&T issue), are just one example of such �secondary metabolites� that add to a good smoke. Many more substances in this category are (or likely will be discovered to be) important to pipe tobacco.
Aside from water (much of which is removed during the curing process), the most abundant matter in tobacco leaf, by far, is found in the protein and carbohydrate constituents. Proteins play a wide variety of structural and functional roles, and they are located throughout all plant tissues. Chemically speaking, proteins are long polymeric molecules consisting of linkages of nitrogenous building blocks called amino acids (of which there are about 20 kinds). The carbohydrates in plants are of two types, which textbooks dub �simple� and �complex.� (I will restrict my discussion just to those carbohydrates thought to be of interest to tobacco aging.) Simple carbohydrates are what we commonly call �sugars��the most abundant ones in plants being fructose, galactose, glucose, maltose and sucrose (plus several others present in lower levels). Complex carbohydrates are large, long-chain polymeric molecules formed by linkages of the simple sugars. The two most plentiful complex carbohydrates in plants are cellulose and starch, both of which consist of long chains of glucose units. In his P&T article on tobacco aging, Tad confuses cellulose and starch and gives the impression that they are interchangeable terms. They are not. And the distinction is significant in our understanding of tobacco aging and smoking properties. Cellulose serves as the basic structural component of the cell walls in all plants; not surprisingly, it exists in a rather stable, solidlike state in the outer region of the plant cell. Comparing different tobaccos on a weight-for-weight basis, the amount of nascent cellulose per leaf will not vary all that much. Starch, on the other hand, is a transitory storage form of carbohydrate, serving as a mobilizable reserve of carbon and energy for plants; it exists within the interior of plant cells in the form of large granules. Some tobacco varieties (for example, Virginia types) have much higher amounts of the starch granules than others, as well as higher localized levels of the simple sugars; and there is much focus, appropriately, on this �sweetening� feature in the aging and smoking character of our tobacco blends � To avoid confusion, in reading Tad�s P&T article, one should simply replace the word �cellulose� with the word �starch� in virtually every instance � Though, interestingly, cellulose may contribute to the long-term aging of tobaccos�but in a way that is not obvious from Tad�s article.
Tad concentrates heavily on the fate of carbohydrates in tobacco aging. Pondering the chemical changes that occur when tobacco leaf is curing and aging, one must be cognizant of the fermentative breakdown, not only of the carbohydrate components, but also the protein ingredients�and, also, the interplay between them. The array of chemical end products that ensue, over time, is staggering. The natural decomposition of complex carbohydrates (such as starch) involves the cleavage of the bonds linking the glucose units, followed by the breakdown of the glucose into a series of carbonaceous fragments�proceeding all the way to carbon dioxide (a gas) under some conditions. The decay of protein entails, initially, the breakage of the bonds connecting the amino acid elements. Next comes the liberation of the nitrogen from the amino acids, producing ammonia (a gas). The remaining carbon skeletons from the amino acids (remember there are about 20 different ones) are then degraded to various carbon pieces�also proceeding all the way to carbon dioxide under some conditions. The multitudinous chemical reactions involved in carbohydrate and protein degradation can occur spontaneously over time, albeit very slowly. Living organisms (both plants and microbes that feed on plant products) contain enzymes that accelerate these processes. However, some of the chemical reactions important in tobacco aging are non-enzymatic. An example is the famous Maillard reaction (cited in the P&T articles by Tad and by Chuck), which occurs between amino acids or ammonia and many of the carbon intermediates generated during the breakdown of both carbohydrate and protein�leading to copious flavorful substances. The basic laws of chemistry teach us that environmental factors will enhance the rate of chemical reactions�in particular, heat (arising, for example, from the initial leaf-curing methods, from stoving during manufacture of tobacco blends, or from high storage temperatures in our home �cellars�) and concentration (which is enhanced in pressed flake and block tobaccos, as compared to loose tobacco blends). There is also pressure, which has a similar effect on chemical reactions as increasing the concentration of the interacting substances. Perhaps the most striking effect of pressure is seen in the time-honored method of Perique tobacco preparation.
At the moment the tobacco leaf is cut from the plant, there is a finite amount of carbohydrate and protein material contained therein. Tissue necrosis results in the release of plant digestive enzymes that begin to break down these components. Even after the plant cells are technically �dead,� the enzymes continue to act. This auto-digestion is arrested, to a large degree, by the initial curing methods (involving drying and, in some cases, controlled heating). Among the many purposes of the curing process is the destruction of such bitter-tasting elements as chlorophyll and other plant pigments. (This change is evident visually, as the chlorophyll green color changes to yellow and eventually to brown.) In addition, heat-curing will boost the Maillard reactions at this early stage. Importantly, heat-curing leads to the conversion of stored starch to simple sugars. Particularly for Virginia-type tobaccos, heat-curing (or flue-curing) has a dramatic effect on the starch-to-sugar alteration�and, hence, the �sweetening� of the tobacco. Specific information on this conversion process is readily available from a number of tobacco-related Web sites on the Internet.
Now, what about the role of microbial organisms (yeast, fungi, etc.)? As perhaps evident from Tad�s article, this is one of the most unpredictable and hard-to-define factors in tobacco aging. One thing is certain: microbes are present everywhere, for better or worse! When manufactured tobacco blends are tinned, microbial contaminants are most certainly enclosed. And the microbes flourish on plant products. These tiny organisms release digestive enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates and proteins in the tobacco; and they absorb the simple sugars, amino acids, etc., and degrade them in similar ways that a living plant cell would do. Also, the microbes can actually break down the cellulose in the rigid plant cell walls, producing simple sugars in the process. Tad gives the impression, at a number of points in his P&T article, that microbes must have oxygen to grow and to produce carbon dioxide. This is untrue. Many microbial organisms thrive under anaerobic circumstances. A good example is common baker�s yeast. The large bubbles appearing inside �rising� bread dough are carbon dioxide gas pockets that are formed by the embedded yeast cells growing anaerobically on the flour starch. Carbon dioxide is not the only gaseous substance produced during the aging of tobacco. Microbial anaerobic fermentation of carbohydrate and protein material generates methane, ammonia and hydrogen gases as well as carbon dioxide�all of which can contribute to �tin-puffing� in our tobacco cellars. Provided tobacco tins are sealed reasonably air-tightly by the manufacturer, any oxygen that is initially present will not last long; it will be consumed right away, either by microbial respiration or by spontaneous reaction with various materials in the tobacco. Chemically speaking, oxygen is a very reactive and potentially destructive substance. Some kinds of �secondary metabolites� are especially sensitive to oxygen-related changes, in some cases for the good and in other cases for the detriment of the tobacco flavor character.
Broadly speaking, microbes can be viewed simply as catalytic agents that speed up the very kinds of beneficial chemical reactions that we have discussed throughout this missive. Unpredictability�in the initial levels of carbohydrate and protein in various blends (or vintages) of tobacco leaf, as well as in the extent of the microbial �contamination� during tobacco processing and tinning�makes it difficult to assess the exact role of microbes in the aging of our tobaccos. Indeed, I would say that the most important take-home message from Tad�s absorbing P&T article is that variability�in all things large and small�defines the mystery of tobacco aging. Such is the lore and the lure of the craft!
Thanks, P&T, as well as to Tad Gage, for bringing to us this and so many other captivating topics. Here�s to a great year for Pipes and tobaccos in 2007!
On pipe packing
A few months ago, I would have laughed if anyone had told me I could learn a thing or three about packing a pipe. C�mon, basic stuff, right? But recently there have been some enlightening discussions about various ways to pack a pipe. I realize that there are, indeed, methods of pipe packing that are for the slightly more �advanced� pipe smoker because you need a feel for the tobacco you�re working with and the size of the bowl. I�ve tried some of these methods, but none really captured my fancy until I tried Fred Hanna�s method, as described in the last issue.
I�ve become a great fan of this method. It didn�t take me any time at all to catch on to getting the right size hunk of tobacco. If the clump ends up being too large, I just pick off the bits from the top of the bowl. The key is to insert that clump of tobacco so there�s space at the bowl bottom with no tobacco. It�s amazing how tightly you can cram the tobacco in, and how easily it draws, as long as there is that air pocket!
I like lighting only the middle of this clump�the lighting process is much faster and the flame never gets near the rim, so you lower the risk of charring your bowl rim. As you puff, the heat does indeed work its way to the edges of the bowl with almost no assistance. The tobacco burns cooler and it stays lit without puffing for longer periods. I�ve never been very skilled at keeping a pipe lit, so this method of packing reduces the number of re-lights I need.
However, this is a messy process. I can�t do it without a piece of paper under the pipe because inevitably tobacco spills out. So I resort to the old standby method when out and about. I can�t make the method work with a really large, wide bowl because I can�t hold a large-enough wad in my hand. But it has to be a pretty darned big bowl. And it�s definitely trickier with partially broken flake or slices than a finer ribbon mixture. But with practice it works. It obviously doesn�t work with dry tobacco because of the cramming process.
I�ve found this method works well with any standard shape pipe, but it�s an absolute godsend with Dublins, bulldogs and horns�any pipe shape where the bowl walls tend to get thinner at the bottom of the bowl due to the design. Since the tobacco doesn�t collapse into the bowl bottom until your smoke is nearly done, the bowl bottom stays very cool and you can still smoke your pipe to the end without worrying about burnout or getting a hot acrid blast during those last few minutes of smoking.
Finally, it is much easier and neater to swab out any moisture that precipitates at the bottom of the bowl or in the stem. You can run a pipe cleaner all the way down the air hole and into the bowl without immersing it into the tobacco itself. Thus, the pipe cleaner is more effective, swabbing up the moisture but not getting laden with other gunk. I never knew of this method until I read Pipes & tobaccos. How much fun to learn something new about something so simple and basic. Thanks for running the article.
Big pipe ad
This billboard just went up just down the street from my office. It is intended to advertise the Magritte exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)�which is located on the next block.
Los Angeles, California
Pipe Smoker of the Year 2006 in Germany�Joachim Poss
On Dec. 13, 2006, Joachim Poss, vice-chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the German Parliament was honoured as Pipe Smoker of the Year 2006. The honorific speech was done by Dr. Peter Struck, chairman of the SPD in the German Parliament. The award document was presented by Marc von Eicken, chairman of the Tabak Forum.
The Pipe Smoker of the Year award began in 1969 with one of the most famous politicians at that time, Herbert Wehner (SPD), and was continued with authors such as Nobel Prize winner for literature G�nter Grass, politicians like Helmut Kohl (ex-chancellor), entertainer Thomas Gottschalk, director Claude Chabrol and actors like Tobias Moretti.
The Tabak Forum represents the German manufacturers and distributors for pipe tobacco, pipes and accessories. Its goal is to transmit the positive image of pipe smoking in public and to provide broad information of the world of pipe smoking.
Pipemaking in Iraq
Thought I'd send you some pictures of the pipes that I made over here in Iraq the last six months�it helps keep my mind off all the unpleasant things, the stress I have to deal with. I'm the battalion surgeon in a remote base. I purchased the supplies from PIMO and gained inspiration from P&T magazine. If you notice, the brass pieces I used are the butt end of a .50 caliber round. The bone for the one tamper is carved from a lamb bone that I found on a mission. It has the battalion mascot, a wolfhound, carved on it. I've also used part of a wool Army blanket for the pipe and tamper gloves. Each pipe is kind of a memorial to soldiers we have lost. I've carved eight and unfortunately I have many more to do.
CPT David Palmieri
Unit 70093, Iraq