December 1998
Volume 25
Number 6

Catering to Pipe Smokers:
Dispelling the Myths

by James Lawson

The English poet Milton penned the following: "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."

There is an abundance of opinions in the pipe world. Some of these opinions are sound, some not. Among them are: Real men don't smoke aromatic tobaccos. A basket pipe will never give a satisfactory smoke. A lighter must never be used to light a pipe; only wooden matches will suffice. Vulcanite stems are always preferable to Lucite stems. Tinned tobaccos are superior to bulk blends. Only large men should smoke large pipes; small men should stick with smaller bowls. First-quality, straight-grain pipes are the only choice of discerning pipe customers. The more a pipe costs, the better it is. Real men don't smoke filter pipes.

One of my undergraduate philosophy professors, when told by a student that a certain issue can't be decided because it's so subjective, offered this riposte: The taste of strawberries is extremely subjective. But subjectivity doesn't alter the fact that there are good strawberries. Just ask a strawberry expert, who will describe factors such as taste, color, size, and texture of the fruit.

We will turn to the opinions of two such experts in the pipe and tobacco world. The viewpoints they impart, while not at all earth-shattering, occasionally challenge conventional wisdom. Both gents have decades of experience running multi-generation family businesses. Their advice can prove especially helpful to newer smoke shop retailers who have, until recently, viewed pipes as an afterthought.

Jean-Paul Berrod is president of Berrod-Regad, the manufacturer best-known in the U.S. for the Butz-Choquin brand of pipes. Jean-Paul recommends that retailers sell a first-time pipe customer one that is neither too cheap nor too expensive - perhaps starting at $40 retail. He says that the novice should start with a lightweight, straight billiard with a small or medium-sized bowl. In that way he will not smoke it for a very long time, in one sitting. Saliva reaching the bowl will not be a problem, as it is with a bent pipe.

Initially, the pipe bowl should be half-filled with tobacco, tamped gently, lighted completely, and smoked slowly. The customer should not allow the pipe to get too hot. If it does, the pipe should be put aside and allowed to cool. Pipe smoking requires a little bit of patience. Jean-Paul compares the pleasure of pipe smoking to the pleasure of a good wine (French, of course) versus a table wine. "A good wine is poured, viewed, swirled, smelled, tasted, and then appreciated," he says. A pipe is the same way - it is held, gazed upon, and appreciated all as part of the smoking process."

The pipe stem can be either vulcanite or Lucite. In France, Jean-Paul sells mostly vulcanite (it's called ebonite there). In Germany and Japan, Butz-Choquin sells only Lucite, while in the U.S., Butz-Choquin pipes with either material are offered.

The first-time pipe can be precarbonized or not. "Our pipes made for the European market are rarely precarbonized because we feel the best taste comes when the tobacco comes in contact with the briar itself," he states.

When I asked Jean-Paul about filter versus non-filter pipes, he smiled and asked, "Where is the truth? There is a German truth, a French truth, etc. In the German market, the overwhelming preference is for pipes that take a 9 mm charcoal filter. A 6 mm filter is desired in Japan. In France, if a pipe doesn't contain a metal filter, it is viewed by Frenchmen as inferior. We export non-filter Butz-Choquins to the U.S. There are, in my opinion, some benefits to a charcoal filter. It makes the tobacco lighter so that if you smoke the pipe the following day, it tastes fresher than a non-filter pipe would."

Jean-Paul adds, "I see absolutely no difference when I smoke a lacquered or non-lacquered pipe. In the old days, when a pipe was lacquered to make it shiny, the pipe was dipped so that the lacquer was both inside and outside the bowl. What gave the pipe a bad and hot taste was the lacquer inside the bowl. Today we spray lacquer on the outside of some of our pipe models." He dismisses the notion that briar has to breathe and must therefore be lacquer-free.

Jean-Paul urges the retailer to spend time with a new pipe client. "Our good retailers in France patiently explain to the novice how the pipe is made and the pleasure of smoking," he says. Two excellent starter pipes from Butz-Choquin are the Bistro and Corniche. They are distributed in the U.S. by Hollco-Rohr of Chatsworth, California.

Peter Stokkebye has earned his reputation as a tobacco ambassador, having spent a lifelong career in the family business. Today he is honorary chairman of Peter Stokkebye International. He crisscrosses the country giving seminars on pipe and roll-your-own tobaccos.

He advises, "A new pipe smoker should definitely start with a black Cavendish tobacco. Black Cavendish has been treated with heat and steam and is the mildest tobacco. With regards to nicotine - there is practically none. Vanilla is the favorite flavor for black tobacco.

"We use natural casings such as chocolate, molasses, cocoa, and honey. We mature the tobacco for 48 hours after spraying the beautiful natural ingredients. These casings enter the pores of the tobaccos, especially burley, and make them non-biting, whereas if you have an old-fashioned tobacco - a drugstore type - they probably make them in the morning, pack them in the evening, and they all give a tongue bite. A new pipe smoker should stay away from them." Peter has noticed, in traveling around the U.S., that there is talk these days of aging tinned tobaccos. There are some who claim that tinned tobacco matures with age like a fine wine. He dismisses that notion: "Once tobacco is vacuum-packed, it doesn't improve one bit. Some of the tobacco may get a little darker in color, but that is all."

Peter Stokkebye International offers around 40 different blends of pipe tobacco. The three top-sellers are Nougat, Optimum, and Pistachio. Contact importer Hollco-Rohr for samples of these and other fine blends. Hollco-Rohr has recently introduced two new imported Danish blends; Virginia Q and Black Cavendish. These mild blends are excellent starter tobaccos.

Peter concludes, "The new pipe smoker should be advised to smoke only one bowl a day for the first week, two bowls the second week, and then go from there." He echoes the sentiments of Jean-Paul: "Pipe smoking is a pleasure. It is not as easy as smoking a cigar, but that's the charm about pipe smoking. It's a hobby."

SMOKESHOP - December 98