As some of you may know, I’ve been involved in blending tobacco for nearly 40 years, and I can remember to this day the first time I opened a package of Perique and smelled it. The deep, dark, fruity aroma hit me like a ton of bricks, and I salivated from the intensity of it. I began to play around with it as a component and was mystified by its chameleon-like character. In some blends it would be rich and sweet, while in others, a peppery side showed itself. Over the years, I’ve used it in combination with virtually every other component imaginable. I’ve even used it as part of aromatic blends. I learned about the tobacco with dribs and drabs of information here and there, but it wasn’t until I struck up a friendship with Mark Ryan, who owns L.A. Poche Perique Company, in St. James Parish, Louisiana, that I finally got the whole picture. We had been planning to have me take a trip to his facility for a number of years, and it finally happened this past week while I attended the New Orleans Pipe Show. So, what you’ll get from this point on is about Perique, and I’ll take the time to dispel some inaccuracies and rumors along the way.
What is Perique? Perique is an offshoot of Burley that has become unique by being grown in an area of St. James Parish called the “Golden Triangle”. Of course, since you can literally throw a rock from some of the fields into the Mississippi, this is Delta soil, so it’s very rich and also very moist. The plants are started in a greenhouse in late winter and ready to transplant in the spring. The singular soil and climate cause it to become something quite different than regular Burley, and is ideal for the processing that lies ahead. The leaves are dried after harvesting, and are air-cured. The main stem, or rib, has to be removed to maintain quality. Just before the actual Perique processing begins, the tobacco is rehumidified, but it can’t be done too far in advance or it can become moldy very quickly.
The leaves are bunched together and packed into large whiskey barrels. A plate is placed on top of the packed barrel, which is then positioned under a massive beam. A railroad jack is used to compress the tobacco for a short time, after which a jackscrew takes its place and pressure is reapplied. The tobacco is compressed, and the juices are pushed out of the leaf. With this kind of pressure comes a natural increase in temperature, which causes the juices to ferment. During active fermentation, carbon dioxide bubbles are visible at the top of the barrel. Skilled laborers monitor the barrels to see when the tobacco needs to be turned. The barrel is emptied, the bunches are repositioned and pressure is applied again. This is repeated based upon the condition as it’s checked. Some barrels will only need a couple of fermentations, while others may need more, but in all, it usually takes about a year to complete the process.
Because of the environment, Perique is a fairly fragile crop. Diseases, pests, heavy rain or drought can wipe out an entire year’s crop, and can do so very quickly. So, many decades ago, some of the farmers began hedging their bet by buying high-grade dark air-cured tobacco from other regions and processing it in the same manner as Perique. This would then be combined with the real thing to extend the available Perique. This tobacco is referred to as Acadian Perique, versus St. James Perique, which is only made of the actual leaf grown in the region. Due to the high cost, and the very good quality of the Acadian Perique, virtually no one uses straight St. James for blending anymore.
About ten years or so ago, L.A. Poche tried a very interesting experiment by bringing in dark-fired Kentucky and processing it in the same manner as Perique, creating a new blending component which is now known as Acadian Black. This has some of the deep sweetness of Perique, along with nice spice, but it also has a smoky element that makes it completely different.
Despite Perique’s reputation for strength, it really isn’t all that high in nicotine. What causes people to feel the effects more strongly is that the other elements allow the body to absorb the nicotine more effectively.
Because Perique is naturally moist, it tends to burn quite slowly, which makes it a perfect partner for Virginias, which can tend to burn hot and fast. That’s also why it has to be used carefully in Latakia blends. They tend to burn slowly to begin with, and the addition of too much Perique could cause the need for relights.
I thought that there was only one Perique farmer left. The origin of this inaccuracy is hard to pinpoint. About 15 years ago, the number of farmers has dwindled, and Percy Martin was one of just a few farmers growing Perique. But his output was committed to Santa Fe for use in American Spirit cigarettes. The other farmers delivered their crops to L.A. Poche, and it was that company that supplied the pipe tobacco companies. When Mark Ryan bought the business from the Poche family, he only had three farmers growing about 11 acres. By increasing the price paid to the farmers and saving the farmers from having to de-stem their own leaf, more farmers became interested in growing the tobacco. This year, there are well over 100 acres being grown. Interestingly, there are different areas of the triangle where Perique is grown, and I’ve had the opportunity to inspect these different types of St. James Perique. Mark has graciously given me the chance to try developing some blends with these unique varietals, and the results will be coming out next year.
Isn’t the stuff made with the air-cured tobacco “faux-Perique”? What very few people are aware of is that almost no straight St. James Perique has been sold for more than 40 years. The processors learned decades ago that it was necessary to blend the tobaccos together to be able to meet demand, and to maintain a product that would be of consistently high quality from one year to the next. The term “faux-Perique” applies to tobaccos that have had a flavoring added to tobacco to simulate Perique, but it definitely doesn’t taste the same, and isn’t processed using the same method. The air-cured leaf used by L.A. Poche is handled exactly the same as the St. James leaf, so the result is very hard to differentiate from the original. Experts have been unable to tell the difference between them.
I had heard that Perique was all but dead. That was nearly the case until Mark Ryan bought L.A. Poche and instituted changes to make Perique more viable, including the construction of two greenhouses to allow the farmers to start their plants a little earlier, so the seedlings would be hardier when transplanted. By taking over the de-stemming from the farmers, it allowed them to concentrate on what they do best – growing and harvesting the tobacco. Five years ago, Mark built a processing building that was four times the size of the previous one, allowing for much more capacity. As is evidenced by some of the pictures attached, you can see that there’s a lot of Perique being processed and available to manufacturers.
What does the future look like? L.A. Poche is turning out a lot more and better quality Perique than in the past, so tobacco blenders shouldn’t have any problem keeping up with the growing demand for mixtures containing the heavily-fermented leaf. In addition, Mark is an innovator, as is evidenced by the development of Acadian Black (which will be part of a new product line by a major cigar company in the future). He will be experimenting with another potential component, which is in the early planning stages, but may produce a completely unique tobacco with unlimited potential. I’ll be keeping in contact with Mark to follow the progress of this experiment, as it could potentially be a game-changer. One thing is for sure, this treasure of the tobacco world is in good hands.