There was a gathering at the home of Dennis and Kat Mann this past Saturday, a chance for friends and co-workers to mingle outside of the office and enjoy the fine evening air. As is usually the case when many of us meet up - even outside of the office - we had pipes in hand and plenty of choice tobaccos. My wife and I arrived around 7:00, which I was worried was a little late, but all was well as the crowd gathered outside was still sizable, with lots of comradery and fragrant tobacco smoking going on. As usual, I forgot my lighter, but hoped someone would have a flame I could borrow. Sykes was sitting comfortably in a chair chatting with Ted when I asked to borrow his lighter, and upon transferring his source of ignition, he said, "Here: try some of this" handing me a tin of Solani 633 from 2003. An excellent tobacco, for sure, but I had a small mason jar with me that still had a few flakes of Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake from 1999. Sykes saw it and laughed, rather disappointingly. The problem whenever we meet up outside of the office is that someone is excited to share a ten-year-old tobacco only to have another trying to share something with even more age on it.
"You see", Sykes said, "this is what happens when people buy a lot of tobacco and just sit on it. They build up a stock and it just keeps getting better and better". Much of Sykes' tobacco has aged about ten years, with some newer and older tins peppered in the stash. Most of my tobacco was tinned (or in the case of bulk, jarred) between 1995-2007. We discussed how neither one of us had any Orlik Golden Sliced sitting around because we both prefer the taste of the tobacco within the first year of tinning. However; a few years ago I purchased a sleeve (five 50-gram tins packed together) that was getting some age. Orlik Golden Sliced is a tobacco that - for me - is best when less than a year old or more than seven. A strange claim, perhaps, but I was able to smoke a tin after five years, six years, and finally seven. Something magical happens during the aging process that is difficult to point out, but it's noticeably different in a very good way. The same claim is true for many tobaccos.
By now you all have heard the news that we're getting the celebrated blends of Capstan and Three Nuns [soon!], so I would encourage those of you who enjoy these blends to stock up before Sykes and I deplete inventory for our own cellars! All fine tobaccos right out of the gate, but when something is again available that was not for such a long time, it's an excellent time to purchase larger amounts to age like fine wines. For now, you can sign up to be notified when these tobaccos arrive by clicking the "Email Me" tab next to the tins on the site (which you can do for any products on our site we are currently out of). Today we are putting up some new tobaccos from Sutliff: Edward G. Robinson, and Heine's Blend, as well as The Pipeman's Daily Fare - a new book full of pipe-related poetry, and 181 pipes. This update also sees the introduction of Smokingpipes gift cards, something Sykes, Ted, and others have put a lot of time into putting together, to make sure they’re as streamlined, useful, and presentation-worthy as possible. They make it to you, today, just in time for Father's Day.
Picking up where we left off at Mac Baren, in Part II of my Danish Chronology, we wended our way from
Svendborg on the southern coast of Funen to Odense in the center of the island to visit none other than
Peter Heeschen. Peter was waiting for us, beer or coffee at the ready, in his workshop. We sat
outside for a time, catching up, with me reintroducing Peter to Kevin, since they'd only met briefly
once before. Having arrived mid-afternoon, we would spend the rest of Tuesday and Tuesday night with
Visiting Peter is an interesting experience, not least of all because he insists that I make a pipe
each time I visit. He knows full well that I have about as much native pipe making talent as a large
tuna, though trusting me with machinery is even more dangerous, since at least I have thumbs that can be
lost in the process. I think this is why Peter insists upon this: if nothing else, it provides endless
amusement, and, as a bonus, I've never bled so much as to stain anything in his workshop. This visit was
no exception. He had the two of us designing and shaping pipes in no time. Kevin had never done this
before, so Peter spent most of his effort helping Kevin. Plus, Kevin seemed to pick things up fairly
quickly and I think Peter was delighted to have a student that was a little easier to teach than it
would have been if he'd tried to instruct one of his horses in the intricacies of pipe making. Note that
the picture is of Kevin with his pipe.My pipe, while it smokes beautifully (Peter did the internals for
me), is so ugly that it will never, ever be seen by anyone. I will only ever smoke it, in the bathroom,
with the door locked and the lights off. This is a pipe so ugly, I wouldn't show it to my mother. Peter
started cooking duck and we continued to work on our pipes. We ran out of time for staining and whatnot,
so I buffed each and laid a coat of wax and that had to suffice for finishing (and even there I managed
to do a better job with Kevin's than mine; not only is mine lumpen, I'll have to sneak into the office
in the dead of night (lest someone see the monstrosity that is this pipe) to refinish it).
Now, cooking duck is something that I actually know something about, though I have to confess that
Peter might have me beat there too. Still, I found it slightly ironic (and violating all sorts of
division of labor principles from Economics 101 freshman year in college) that Peter was cooking and I
was making pipes (for those of you who remember first semester micro, I kinda felt like New York trying
to grow oranges). With pipes (sort of) complete, and dinner ready, we sat down together for some
seriously tasty duck and potatoes, and spent the rest of the evening talking pipes, pipe shows, various
pipe friends and the like, smoking small mountains of pipe tobacco and, in the case of Peter and Kevin
at least, consuming impressive quantities of scotch.
After breakfast the following morning, we set out for the Orlik factory near the western coast of
Funen. One of the greatest things about being in Denmark on a business trip is that it seems like almost
every driving stretch between appointments is forty-five minutes, which is how long it took us to reach
Orlik, in spite of getting slightly turned around on our way there. Having had a little trouble figuring
out where we should be, Troels Mikkelsen discovered us and rescued us from wandering the hallways
indefinitely. This worked out well since Troels was exactly who we were looking for.
If I were to discuss our visit to Orlik in any detail, it would require a half dozen blog posts on
its own. You've already seen two videos from the visit (and if you haven't, see below and check them
out; they're amazing) and I'll probably have one more over the next little while. Troels speaks so
knowledgeably and so lovingly about tobacco that one can't help but be swept up in his commentary. We
started out in the big tobacco warehouses, filled with thousands of 200kg boxes of leaf, waiting for
processing. Countries of origin were stamped on each box: Brazil, USA, Malawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and a
half dozen countries one would never expect tobacco from. Whether he was talking about perique or the
changes in tobacco growing in southern Africa, Troels was erudite and compelling.
From there, we moved into the production facility, first encountering the great rope making station.
When I die, if I end up in heaven, there will be one such station there. This, my dear reader, is where
they make the Escudo. On that particular day, they were making Luxury Bullseye Flake, while is almost as
much fun (and uses exactly the same process). Yielding heavy pressed batons of tobacco, ready for cutting,
the process was a joy to watch (check out the video here). And thence onto the pressing and mixing and blending and topping
and saucing and cutting equipment, much of which is linked together by a bunch of tobacco filled
And onto the packing equipment, which, frankly, might be my favorite. Yes, the processing stuff is
pretty cool, but there's just so much more automated fun to see during the packaging processes. Tobacco
goes in one end and tins come out the other. We watches as tobacco was automatically weighed into little
hoppers, put in tins, the tins sealed, and proper labels applied, all on one big machine, managed by one
woman. It was amazing.
Having enjoyed the tour of the factory, we went to lunch (about which I've posted previously) and
from there visited Lasse, the Mad Scientist Tobacco Blender, in the facility used for the My Own Blend
line of tobaccos for the Paul Olsen shops, now owned by Orlik. Fully eight metric tons annually come
through this small room, hand blended to specification by Lasse Berg based on more than fifty component
tobaccos and countless flavorings. As I said previously, it's clear that Lasse thinks he has the coolest
job ever. And, if it weren't for my job, I might agree with him. Lasse whipped up two blends, one for
each of Kevin and me. Heavy in perique and light in rum, my particular concoction still waits to be
opened. I wanted to give it a couple of weeks to sit before I did so, and now I'm trying to smoke
through open tins before I open anything else, so I hope to get to it in the next few days.
My trip chronology continues to grow faster than I can work my way through it (which is temporally
odd, given that the trip ended almost two weeks ago), so there will have to be a fourth and (I promise)
final episode in this little series during which we visit Mogens 'Johs' Johansen in Frederikshavn and I
have dinner with Nanna Ivarsson, her husband Daniel, and children, Sixten and Mathis.
While we were visiting the Orlik factory (about ten days ago), the first thing we happened upon when we entered the production floor was a woman working on making rolls of pipe tobacco. At first, I mistook it for Escudo (y'all know where my particular heart lies), but I was almost as excited to see Bullseye Flake being made as I would have been to see Escudo (Luxury Bullseye Flake is great too). The process, by which they take a thin pressed flake and wrap it around a pressed rod (of sorts) of a mixture of perique and fermented virginias, is, frankly, pretty cool. Check it out!
Frankly, I think this is one of the coolest videos we've yet posted. Troels Mikkelsen has been in the tobacco business for thirty years, first at A&C Petersen, then at Orlik. He manages production at the Orlik factory and I can't imagine a better guide to the operation. The visit was an absolute delight, and Troel's discussion of the various tobacco varietals was one of the highlights.
by Sykes Wilford, Smokingpipes.com, and Kevin Godbee, Pipesmagazine.com
When one has an opportunity to visit two of the largest pipe tobacco manufacturers in the world on back to back days, comparing the two is all but
impossible. Mac Baren and Orlik, between them, produce over half of the world's pipe tobacco. Along with the Lane factory in Tucker, GA, they make up the big
three pipe tobacco producers in the world. And they're both on the island of Funen that sits between Sjaelland, the largest of the Danish islands, and
Jylland, the peninsula that juts off of the European mainland. Indeed, they're an hour drive apart on either side of the island. Having had a thoroughly
hospitable reception at both factories and being tremendously impressed by both operations, we nonetheless found ourselves drawing some comparisons.
Having left Orlik, we started discussing the differences between the two. Perhaps the similarities are more obvious: both operate massive, modern
factories, both are fanatically dedicated to the quality of their tobaccos, and both have a long history and make famous brands that have stood the test of
time. But this, our dear readers, is about the differences.
For starters, no pun intended, let's talk about lunch. Typically, large companies have cafeterias. In the United States, outside of Google, such places
offer fare that make sixth grade school lunch seem palatable. At both Mac Baren and Orlik, we were pleased to discover that the Danes have a subtly different
approach to such things. They serve edible lunches in company cafeterias. Offering traditional Danish comestibles, including black bread, a variety of
impressive cheeses and cold meats, paté, and full salad bars, Sykes wants one of these for the Smokingpipes.com campus. Imagine visiting a tobacco company and
coming away with company catering ideas. Picking a winner in this category was impossible.
Both Orlik and Mac Baren have machinery that causes otherwise reasonable grown men to act like eight-year-old boys who just saw a backhoe. Conveyor belts,
automatic weighing machines, little robotic arms to fold packaging, slides, chutes, and sundry whirring doodads abound, but the nod, if only a half-nod, goes
to Mac Baren, who can go from tobacco coming in from the ceiling, to pouches, to cartons, to outer cartons, to pallets, all without ever being touched by a
human hand. Orlik was close, requiring slightly more human intervention, but in this category, Mac Baren is a clear winner.
Both factories produce rope tobacco. Rope tobacco is a traditional method of fabricating tobacco for transport, back when finding a way to keep tobacco smokable after a transatlantic journey on a wooden sailing ship was a serious problem. The tobacco is literally spun into ropes: the process lies somewhere in between cigar rolling and rope braiding. But, the factories' respective methods are a little different. Mac Baren uses whole leaves as something comparable to the binder and filler. Orlik uses thin pressed sheets of tobacco, similar to those used for flakes, but much thinner. Inside, Mac Baren generally uses loose leaf dark fired Kentucky, whereas Orlik uses pressed perique or black cavendish. From this process comes some of the world's most famous, most tastiest blends, including Mac Baren Roll Cake and, Sykes' personal favorite, Escudo, which is made by Orlik (which we both happen to be smoking while engaging in this absurd literary exercise). However, the nod goes to Mac Baren in this category, for they have what looks and works like a giant RYO cigarette machine. Frankly, the little machine that presses it into a rope at Orlik just isn't nearly as cool.
About an hour on the road after our visit to Orlik, Sykes turned to Kevin and said "did the tobacco blender guy make you think mad scientist too?" To which Kevin retorted with a maniacal laugh. Yes, Orlik has its very own evil genius tobacco blender. Here in Denmark they offer a personalized blending service where different stores or individuals can choose to craft their own blend. The idea started in the 1930s and grew into Paul Olsen's My Own Blend, which Orlik purchased from the Olsen family in the 1980s. Today, roughly eight metric tons of pipe tobacco is custom blended for customers and stores to the exact recipe, based on almost fifty component blends and dozens of flavorings, by Lasse Berg, Chief Evil Tobacco Genius (ok, we made up the title). It is abundantly clear that a) Lasse thinks he has the best job on the planet, and b) he played with chemistry sets as a kid. At one point, he showed us a cola flavored tobacco topping of his own creation, of which he was very proud, but then went on to admit that he doesn't use it very much because, apparently, no one really thinks of cola as a tobacco flavoring. He went on to create for us, sans cola topping, individualized blends based on our preferences. Sykes' had more perique, Kevin had more rum. Also, during this exercise, Kevin drank a bit of the rum used on the tobacco (he approves), also giving Orlik the nod for best adult beverages (Mac Baren did not offer adult beverages at 10am when we arrived there). So, two categories at once to Orlik: mad scientist tobacco blender and best adult beverages. Does it surprise anyone that the mad scientist blender was also the keeper of the adult beverages?
While we were visiting Mac Baren, after the factory tour with Per Jensen, who is something between a product development guy and a general Mac Baren evangelist, we sat and had coffee with him. As our conversation meandered from topic to topic, we ended up with Per showing Kevin, with Kevin's pipe, how to pack flake tobacco by folding it and packing it vertically. So, not only did they humor us with a factory tour, fed us lunch, plied with coffee and tobacco, they even had a Mac Baren executive pack Kevin's pipe.
On net, it was a tie. Both organizations are impressive and were wonderfully accommodating to two very excited, tobacco crazed Americans.
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