Many pipe smokers have discovered the advantages of aging tobaccos, knowing that certain blends benefit greatly by being stored for an extended period of time. It’s a little more complicated than just tossing some tins in the cellar and waiting a couple years to pop them open, so I’m going to help you learn how to properly age your collection to receive the maximum enjoyment.
The first issue is to determine which types of tobaccos will become better with aging. One certainty is that unflavored or lightly flavored Virginia blends will show the most dramatic change. I had the chance a few years back to try some 10 year old McClelland Christmas Cheer and I was stunned by the difference. A new tin of Christmas Cheer will give you a good idea to what a top-notch Virginia should taste like–sweet, toasty with some citrus notes. But when that tin is sequestered for a decade, the sugar exudes from the leaf and crystallizes on the outside of the flakes and the sweetness practically explodes on your palate, tasting far more like English Toffee than tobacco.
Latakia blends can, but not necessarily, benefit from aging. If the blend in question has an overly strong and/or harsh smoky flavor, a few years of aging will tend to take the edge off, and may make the blend more suitable to your tastes. Also, if the blend has a decent amount of quality Virginias, age will bring out some dark fruit sweetness, which can really make a Latakia blend more intriguing.
Burley blends and aromatics don’t develop much with time, with the exception of unsweetened dark Burleys which pick up an earthy barnyard (cigar-like) flavor with additional aging. The typical aromatic and semi-aromatic Burley-based tobaccos will just become lighter in flavor and aroma.
To understand aging, one needs to get the concept behind it, which is fermentation. In essence, fermentation is the degradation of living matter, usually due to mold, yeast or bacteria. This “rotting”, as it were, helps the tobacco change to a new flavor profile, and the result will vary based upon the type of leaf.
There are two types of fermentation that can occur- aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic fermentation will take place in the “pop-top” American-type lids, used by McClelland and Cornell & Diehl, as those tins have some air in them and are not vacuum-sealed, which will allow the airborne yeast to work its magic. Anaerobic fermentation is what happens in the European-style flat tins which have been vacuumed. Both types of fermentation can be beneficial to the flavor of the leaf, but the result can be very different.
Since bulk pipe tobacco has grown dramatically in popularity in the last fifty years or so, a number of people have wanted to give their favorite bulk blends the same benefit as tinned tobaccos, so they typically use mason jars to get the effect.
Both kinds of fermentation can be mimicked or simulated for bulk tobacco, and this is how it can be done:
To achieve aerobic fermentation, fill the (clean) jar to about an inch below the top, and don’t compress the tobacco. Run enough hot tap water in a sink to go up to about the halfway point of the jar and put the jar in the water for a few minutes. Screw the top on tightly and remove the jar from the water. A slight vacuum will occur while leaving enough oxygen in the jar for aerobic activity.
To achieve anaerobic fermentation, there are two methods. The first is similar to the aerobic method, but there are a few differences. Firstly, the jar should be packed tightly all the way to the top, with an extra pinch mounded up over the top. Lower the jar into boiling water up to about the ¾ mark for about five minutes, Tightly screw on the lid and remove to allow the jar to cool. Since there will be little air in the jar to begin with, as the jar cools, it will cause a vacuum to form that will leave very little oxygen in the jar.
The other method would be to use a vacuum sealer and mylar-lined bags. Regular plastic has volatile organic compounds that can impart a flavor or aroma to the tobacco, but mylar is much more stable and doesn’t give off fumes. Just load the bag with tobacco and follow the directions for the machine. It will remove the air and heat seal the bag, stopping any air movement, which is the ideal environment for anaerobic fermentation.
There are potentially wonderful benefits to aging your tobaccos, so play around with the different types of tins, jars and lengths of aging time. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your holy grail!