When you load your pipe, do you think about what had to be done for you to enjoy that bowl of tobacco? I wouldn’t expect you to. It’s something we take for granted, but if you’re interested, I thought that I would give you the nickel tour.
Growing tobacco is probably more involved than you’d think. Besides the planting and weeding. there are pests to worry about, and certain diseases can wipe out an entire crop in a matter of days. Many years, there’s not enough rain to raise a healthy crop, so irrigation has to be used. With most types of tobacco, since the leaves are the important part of the plant, the buds are trimmed from the majority of them, so they won’t flower and go to seed. This allows most of the nutrients to go to the leaves. Some of the plants, however, aren’t trimmed, to let the plant create seed for future years.
One of the interesting things about tobacco is how small the seeds are. Think about a ball around the same size of a speck of pepper. That’s about the correct size. An entire acre can be populated with about a spoonful of seed.
Some plants are harvested by chopping the stalks and bringing the entire plant in for drying. Other plants have the leaves picked a row at a time, over a certain period. Once harvested, the leaves have to be dried, cured and aged, to varying degrees.
The leaves are graded, at some point, which helps to determine how they’ll be used. Some will be fine for use in cigarettes, but wouldn’t work well for pipe tobacco, for example.
Once in the hands of the manufacturer, the tobacco will have to be brought to the right moisture content for further processing. If the tobacco were fed into a cutter without being properly rehydrated, it would crumble into powder.
The tobacco may be put through a number of processes to make the leaf suitable for a specific purpose. Toasting, for example, will change the flavor of tobacco, and may help to eliminate bitterness. Some tobaccos, like black Cavendish, are steamed, often for as much as 24 hours.
Most, but not all tobacco is cased. I know that a lot of people equate casing with a flavoring, but that’s not completely accurate. While a casing will change the flavor of a tobacco, it might just add a bit of sweetness. The purpose of a casing is not really to flavor the leaf as it is to negate undesirable qualities. The casing is normally water-based, so after it’s applied, the tobacco is sent through a chamber to bring it back down to a normal moisture level
Where blending fits into the process depends upon the method used by the manufacturer overall, or for that particular blend. Some companies assemble the leaves for the blend prior to cutting and casing, if they want the casing to be the same for all the tobacco in a blend. Others may cut and case individual types of tobacco, and blend them later. Still other makers will blend a certain number of mixtures, which then become components. What I mean by that is, they may make eight different base blends which would then be combined to create other blends.
Many tobaccos receive a top-dressing. This is a flavoring, usually alcohol-based, which is applied at the end of the process. The reason for using alcohol is so the tobacco doesn’t have to be subjected to heat to dry it back down to a smokeable humidity. After the top-dressing is put on the leaf, simply allowing it to rest for a day or two will let the alcohol “flash off”, leaving the flavoring on the tobacco.
If a tobacco is to be pressed, this would usually be when it’s done. If it’s to be a flake or a roll-cut, the tobacco is left whole (after removing the “rib”, or large vein). If it’s going to be a cake, cut leaf is used. Once pressed, it has to be determined whether it’s going to be shipped out whole for use as bulk, cut into plugs, or sliced.
After this, packaging is the last step. There are so many packaging options – pouches, tins , tubs, bags or bulk, and even this choice will affect the flavor of the blend.
All in all, when you consider the amount of time and effort that goes into making pipe tobacco, it’s a pretty affordable luxury, even though prices have gone up in recent years. Even though I’ve developed a number of blends, there are times I don’t appreciate all the steps that go into the end product, and all the people who devote a good part of their lives to each and every step of the process.