I’m more into pipes than I am the tobacco I smoke in them. As it turns out, my brother’s the opposite! When a couple of new tins came to our house with some new-to-me cuts, I figured I’d have to learn about them. Here’s some useful information.
Pipe tobacco comes in a variety of cuts. Probably the most common is called Ribbon Cut. This will be your Carter Hall, Half & Half, Sir Walter Raleigh, and whatever else you might pick up from any Tobacco Barn or pharmacy. They burn consistently since they’re finely sliced and diced, and they’re easy to make but age more quickly than other types. Most of what I smoke is ribbon-cut, and the definition is simple- if you pull tobacco out of your pouch or baggie and it plies into your hands in ribbons, well, it’s ribbon cut. Peterson Standard Mixture, which I’ve pictured here, is storied pipe-maker Dunhill’s mix, rebranded, but with the same recipe of smoky Latakia, Oriental, and Virginia tobaccos.
Of course, within the kingdom of ribbon cut is a phylum that includes a ton of variations like shag (longer strands with a finer cut- if you’re a hillbilly or NASCAR fan, think the difference between long- and fine-cut dip), loose (long and thin ribbons), granulated (small strands), fine (like what’s found in a cigarette), broad, cross, crimp, and coarse.
The bottom line is that ribbon-cut tobacco is a great place to start when smoking a pipe, not only due to its commonality, but also because it smokes really, really, well.
Flake tobacco’s a step aside from ribbon cut, in that blended tobacco is blended and added to a binder before it’s pressed into bricks and cut into sporadically-shaped strips. It ages better that ribbon cut based on its larger surface airing out, but smoking flake is a bit of a process: When I do it, I take the strips and fold them back on each other before it becomes a plug the size of your pipe bowl. Then I try to stuff it down deep in a way that won’t clog everything up.
If that’s too taxing, you can rub the strips into something that resembles ribbon cut and then load your pipe like it never happened. I’ve got some here in the form of Cornell & Diehl’s Edisto. It’s been a dream to smoke.
Cake, or Crumble Cake
Cake tobacco is not a Boswell blend akin to their perennial favorite Christmas Cookie. Actually, you could call cake tobacco a plug or a bar and, millennial though I am, I wouldn’t be offended. All are different words for a pressed block of tobacco that hasn’t been cut into flakes and takes the characteristics of a nicotine-infused brownie. But eat it at your own peril! The advantage of this over a plug type of tobacco is that you can pinch of a piece of the brownie into your pipe without using a $143 pipe knife similar to what I bought my brother for his thirtieth birthday. Cornell & Diehl’s Pirate Kake is a good example of Crumble Cake tobacco. This type of tobacco originated with an eye towards preserving it, like an IPA or something.
If the cake is made of pressed ribbon-cut tobacco, it’s called crumble cake. Easy as that!
I originally had plug tobacco categorized in the “Others” segment of this post until I was greeted by four tins of Cornell & Diehl’s Dreams of Kadath that my brother bought. Plugs are similar to cake or crumble cake; they’re the pressed tobacco that gets cut into flakes, which allows the smoker to decide how narrow or thick you want your tobacco strips. John’s Neerup tobacco knife will come into play here.
There are a few more I should mention: First is ready-rubbed tobacco, which is somewhere between ribbon-cut and flake. Second is Cube-cut, which takes flakes and cuts them into cubes, just like those elementary-school base-ten division squares we all remember from the 80s and 90s. Rope tobacco is an expensive-to-make, rolled tobacco made through large machinery. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter that in your pipe-smoking journey. I haven’t.
Various cuts of tobacco age and smoke differently. I don’t have the brain-span or ability to screw with the different cuts aside from trying to enjoy them all, but I find that ribbon tends to be my favorite since it’s so pedestrian. I’ve found both Edisto and Pirate Kake easy to deal with and pack, though, so if you’re one to sprint past the old-school ribbon cuts of Carter Hall or Hall & Half, let me know!
A thing that rose up during my teen years was meta-gaming. Essentially, this was using the glitches of a video game to play the game by taking advantage of its details and quirks- similar to how we all passed those stupid Scantron tests in middle school we’d otherwise have failed. There’s a certain amount of that in the pipe-smoking hobby that I’d like to avoid. I know what I like in a pipe, but I’d like to experience new tobacco as it comes to me, in whatever form it arrives. That said, things like burn rates and flavor consistency don’t mean a pickler’s fortnight to me. I’ll explore them all as they come.
Nevertheless, different people have different approaches. Beyond different mixes or toppings, there are many types and textures of tobacco to enjoy Maybe this will help draw you into one.