This is the first entry in a little series I’ll be writing abut the different strains of tobaccos commonly used in making pipe blends. Why am I starting with Burley? To start with, it’s used in just about every form of tobacco use – pipes, cigars, cigarettes, chew, snuff and snus. Moreover, from what I can glean, it’s the leaf from which all other strains of nicotiana tabacum arose. A form of Burley was exposed to heat during curing and, voila, Virginia was born. Burley seeds were planted in Greece and Turkey and now we have Orientals. Dark strains of Burley have a robust flavor and a spicy character, which makes it very similar to many cigar tobaccos, and in fact, they’re cured the same way – by air-curing.
To say that “I just smoked some Burley” is akin to saying “I just drove a Chevy”. Was it a tiny little Sonic? An Impala? A diesel pickup? A ‘Vette? There are a wide variety of types of Burley, each with distinct qualities.
The Burley most often used in cigarettes and aromatic pipe blends would be the strain called white Burley. This leaf, like all Burleys, is low in sugar and high in oil, but this type is also quite mild and has a nutty character. Smoked alone and without added flavoring, it’s pretty bland, but that’s exactly why it’s good for aromatics - it allows the flavoring to be noticed without influencing the aroma very much. It can also be used in the same manner as water is used in cooking. If the flavor of a sauce is too heavy, water can be added to lighten up the intensity. If a blend is just too rich, to the point where it overwhelms the palate, some white Burley can “thin it out”. For this reason, white Burley is one of the most widely used of all strains.
Other Burleys that are used include dark Burleys, some of which are called dark air-cured. To farmers, dark Burley and dark air-cured are different, but they’re interchangeable depending upon the purpose. These leaves will wind up a chocolate brown after fermentation and have an earthy flavor with peppery elements and a higher nicotine content. That property explains why it’s used in nasal and oral applications (snuff, chew, dip and snus). It’s a bit harsh, so it’s not often used for cigarettes and it can be used in cigars, especially the DiNobili and Parodi cheroots. In pipe blends, it’s usually added to increase the strength and/or body of the blend, and to add spice. It can be smoked on its own (think Five Brothers), but many people will find it overpowering on its own.
Another form of Burley that can be quite useful is one commonly called mahogany Burley. It’s a medium, reddish-brown color and has more strength than the white form, but it’s not as spicy or earthy as the dark. This is one of the types usually incorporated into the OTC Burley blends, and was the basis for the late, lamented Edgeworth Ready Rubbed. The flavor is nutty, but it also picks up a natural cocoa note, and has a smooth, mellow flavor, especially when it’s cased with molasses. It takes flavorings about as well as white, but there’s definitely more of its own flavor involved. When I was working on developing the Missouri Meerschaum line of pipe tobaccos, I wanted to include a non-aromatic Burley blend and I was disappointed with some early attempts. When I included a significant amount of mahogany Burley, it all came together. That’s why the feedback from Burley lovers about Missouri Pride has been so positive. It’s a rich blend without noticeable flavoring, but it’s very satisfying.
Dark-fired Kentucky is another offshoot of Burley. While the growers and processors may look upon it as something different, in practical use it’s often referred to as dark-fired Kentucky Burley. It has the same full body as dark air-cured but the tobacco is cured in a barn in which a fire of aromatic hardwoods, like hickory, are tended. They might use slabs and/or sawdust to create the heat and smoke needed to properly cure the leaf. The added smokiness makes this a singularly flavored tobacco, and it tends to be quite strong. It’s become very popular in newer blends, even though it’s been used for a long time. Dark-fired is also used in some cigars (the aforementioned DiNobilis and Parodis, Drew Estate’s KFC and George Rico’s American Puro), and is often a constituent of chew and snuff.
Semois is a form of Burley grown on river banks in Belgium. The unique soil and climate produces a strong tobacco with an earthy, cigar-like flavor which also has some floral undertones. It’s an intriguing smoke that’s catching on here in the States. It’s intended to be smoked dry and burns a bit fast, so it’s recommended to pack it very tight for best results.
Black Cavendish in Europe is usually made by pressing Virginias using heat until the leaf blackens and then it’s sliced. In the US, we refer to that as stoved black Virginia. On this side of the pond, black Cavendish is often made using a strain of Burley called Green River. The leaf is sweetened and then toasted. It’s commonly steamed after toasting, and flavors are added. The result is a moist tobacco that’s jet-black in color and burns very slowly. Most modern American aromatics contain some amount of this type of tobacco.
Burley is grown in a wide variety of regions. In the US, a lot of it is grown in the eastern part of the country, from Pennsylvania down to Tennessee, but it’s raised in other US areas as well. Some Burley comes from Canada and parts of Africa, Central and South America, Europe and Asia. The microclimate and soil of the region, along with the curing method will determine if the end product will be what we know as Burley, or if it will turn out to be something entirely different.
Burley is an amazingly versatile tobacco, and forms the basis for a lot of what is used worldwide. Now you know a little bit more about this humble plant.