I’ve written about this subject before, most notably on our website, Pipes and Cigars.com (here’s a link: http://www.pipesandcigars.com/agpito.html). But I’ve gotten so many requests to go into more details, so here I go.
Much of what I’m going to write here is my opinion, so you may find your experiences are different than my own. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I’d like to address the biggest red flag in the realm of aging pipe tobacco- Aging a blend is no guarantee that it will improve. In fact, I’ve had a number of aged tobaccos that fell flat in comparison to a more recent version. That said, I’ve had some ordinary to good blends become excellent to sublime with a nice bit of age. Can you predict which tobaccos will age well and which ones won’t? It’s possible to put together some basic guidelines about the success you may have, but remember that just because a certain type of blend seems like it should age well, doesn’t mean that it will.
The blends that tend to benefit the most, from my point of view, are those that showcase Virginia tobacco. That doesn’t mean that it has to be a Virginia blend. A good example would be the Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture. It may have been classified as a Latakia blend, but the Virginias that were used in the tobacco were so outstanding that the aging process transformed the blend into something with more sweetness, and helped it to develop a bit more of a floral note. However, straight Virginias, Virginia/Perique, and Virginia/Oriental blends without Latakia seem to benefit the most. The primary reason is that aging involves fermentation, and the high sugar content of Virginias and some Orientals play right into the process. But even though sugar is important, sweetened aromatics don’t seem to age well, or at all. Why? I’m fairly sure that the answer lies with the humectants and antifungals that almost certainly have to be added to the tobaccos. I’m fairly sure that the chemicals involved either deter or halt the fermentation process.
Latakia blends have a more uneven record when it comes to aging. Some blends that seem to be overpowered by a heavier use of Latakia will benefit, as the black leaf will mellow with time. In blends where the Latakia stands out a bit too much because of contrast, aging may make it more harmonious. But in blends where the Latakia is a more subtle component, aging will cause it to become muted, sometimes to the point of being unnoticeable. Although some classic blends with Latakia age remarkably well, it’s probably due more to the Virginia content of the blend. I’m not saying that they’re not worth laying down for an extended period, but the results will vary widely.
Burley blends don’t seem to gain much by aging, that is, unless it’s combined with Virginias. Because Burley is low in sugar, it won’t allow for much fermentation, but some blends that contain Burleys combined with sweet Virginias can be incredibly good with 5 years or more.
There are two types of fermentation that can change a blend- aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic fermentation occurs in the American-style tins and in bulk blends put up in mason jars as these containers still have a fair amount of air in them. After the microbes use up the oxygen in the container, anaerobic fermentation will occur. Anaerobic fermentation is what will happen in the European-type vacuum sealed tins, and in mason jars where a vacuum pump is used to evacuate air, or by using heat to draw a hard seal. What’s the difference between the two? The processes would be too involved to address here, but the result will be quite different. A note- Latakia blends tend to be affected less by vacuum sealed tins.
As far as the “how-to” goes, when I jar bulk tobaccos, I use the following method: I fill the jar with tobacco leaving about an inch at the top (I like what aerobic fermentation does). I then dump the tobacco out of the jar, and draw the hottest tap water I can get into the sink with a stopper in place (the water should be in the 130 to 140 degree F. range). I put the empty jar in the water for about 5 minutes with the water level up to the point where the jar tapers toward the lid. I quickly remove the jar, return the tobacco to the jar and cap it. As the glass cools, a mild vacuum will be drawn, but there’s still plenty of air. The tobacco is protected while it ferments and ages.
A last issue- many people suggest that using heat to accelerate the aging process is helpful. They might do so by leaving a tin on the dashboard or by storing in some other warm/hot area. While this will definitely have an effect on the flavor of the tobacco via a number of changes that will occur in the blend, including caramelization of the sugars, it’s not the same as aging. Trust me, if I could simulate aging with heat, I would use it frequently, but in the end, only time is time.