I’m more interested in pipes than I’m into 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 of tobacco, I decided that I’d have to learn about them to get the most enjoyment out of the unexpected sampler. Here’s some useful information I picked up:
Pipe tobacco is cut in a variety of ways, and 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 they’re easy to make but they age more quickly than other cuts. 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 falls into your hands in ribbons, 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 (if you’re a 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 how omnipresent it is, but also because it smokes really, really, well.
Flake tobacco’s a step aside from ribbon cut, in that the tobacco is blended and added to a binder before it’s pressed into bricks that are cut into strips. It ages better than ribbon cut since its larger surface airs out more easily, 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 about the size of my 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
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. It looks like a brownie!Eat it at your own peril, though.
The advantage of cake tobacco over a plug is that you can pinch of a piece of the brownie into your pipe without using a $143 pipe knife. 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 if you’re into beer that tastes like sweaters.
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 you cut into flakes. That allows you to decide how narrow or thick you want your tobacco strips. That $143 tobacco knife will come into play here.
There are a few more I should mention: First is ready-rubbed tobacco, which stands somewhere between ribbon-cut and flake. The 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 manufactured with heavy machinery. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter that in your pipe-smoking journey: I haven’t, but then again I’ve only been smoking for about a year and a half after a decade-long absence.
Various cuts of tobacco age and smoke differently, 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!
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. Just as is the case with my brother, maybe that intrigue will help draw you into one.