I believe that we are likely to enjoy this renaissance period for some time to come, and in this article, I will lay out, in only the broadest strokes, why I believe this to be true. In future installments, I will explore each aspect of this perceived renaissance in turn, hopefully coming to some eventual conclusion as to the nature and direction of pipe smoking, as I see it and the historical and social reasons for it coming to be now, and in the form it has.
For smokers in any part of the world, the internet has increased awareness of, and global commerce has increased the availability of, a plethora of brands and blends to try that were previously confined to their home markets and unavailable to most pipe smokers around the world. In years past, even the most ardent pipe smoker, with access to all of the good mail order catalogs, and an occasional trip abroad would have access to no more than a hundred or so tobaccos, whereas, at the present time it is quite easy for a pipe smoker to pick from over two thousand tobacco blends, and have them delivered to his door with a minimum of fuss and waiting. The ‘global economy’ has surely benefited the pipe smoker, in increased quality, selection, and price competition.
The competition amongst these brands (and their producers) for the attentions of pipe smokers has, and will continue to, drive blenders to pick a niche and explore it fully, within the cornucopia of potential pipe blends. The days of three or four big blending houses producing all of the tobaccos in a market are over. That is not to say that the days of those blending houses are numbered, far from it. They will continue right along, producing their hallowed, classic blends, and likely, adding new ones in response to their customers’ increased awareness of other alternatives, new or old. Alongside these giant blending houses, there have arisen a number of boutique blenders, catering to very specific tastes and predilections amongst smokers. More than simply filling a niche and making a profit at it, they are educating certain segments of the pipe smoking public to possibilities in tobacco blending that may have not been previously explored. By this exploring and educating, they, in their ways, influence the global market for pipe tobacco, and the possibilities that they have first explored will be explored more widely by larger blenders, and a new breed of boutique blenders will arise to explore yet more niches in blending.
It is worth noting that while I speak of boutique blending as if it were a very recent phenomenon, it is not necessarily so, it is simply that only in the past few years (since 1996) that smokers the world over have become aware of, and exposed to, the boutique blending efforts of various small producers around the globe. The Lake District blending houses are a prime example, having been around since the beginnings of packaged tobacco blends, and continuing to explore their own very distinct niche to this day.
There are a myriad of other factors that are driving this renaissance in tobacco blending, and a wider resurgence in interest in pipe smoking, nay, in all things ‘luxurious’.
The global economy has created more wealth than any event in history, and simultaneously brought access to the world’s goods to more people than ever before. This has created a strong interest in ‘the good life’, however that is defined, and it is obvious that for quite a number of people, ‘the good life’ includes a pipeful of fine tobacco.
This interest in ‘the good life’ has driven sales, particularly online, of all luxury goods, watches, jewelry, fragrances, leather goods, neckwear, sunglasses, pens, libations, and tobacco products, to record highs, with projections for even more growth in the months and years to come.
Like many of the aforementioned luxury goods, pipes and pipe tobacco can be viewed as a signifier of affluence, discrimination and taste to those so tuned to recognize it. Knowing one’s own tastes and pursuing them is the very basis of a worldview or personal philosophy, and pipe tobacco is not, and should not be, excluded from such personal examination.
Perhaps this renewed interest in ‘the good life’ is not a direct result of the global economy, but a side effect thereof, arising out of the increasing ease of communication and collaboration. Individuals who were previously isolated from others who shared their interest by geography, or simply by being a part of a statistically tiny minority, are now able to seek out and commune with others of like mind. This ability to connect with others and seek out those who share ones interest has greatly benefited, perhaps even saved, the pipe smoking hobby.
Prior to modern, industrial and post-industrial society, pipe smoking, like many other pursuits, was a communal experience. Communal smoking of a sacred tobacco pipe was a universal ritual through Native America. This communal aspect of pipe smoking was preserved throughout much of modern history, though by the early twentieth century, it had become, along with drunkenness, gambling, cards, dancing and theater-going, a target of the ‘social reformers’, and has been in a somewhat steady decline ever since, with individual pipe smokers becoming fewer and farther between with every passing year.
However, in the mid 1970s, along came the internet, and later, in the 1990s, the World Wide Web, and the few and far between pipe smokers discovered that there were people out there that shared their interest in pipes and tobaccos. This discovery of a once far-flung but now instantly accessible community of likeminded people galvanized the aficionado of pipe tobacco, and soon a loose community sprung up. The fact that this first loose community of aficionados has become many distinct communities is proof not only of the drive for community, but of the dedication and congeniality of pipe smokers.
This drive for community and communal experience and shared knowledge, when viewed from a broad context, is what is driving the interest in luxury goods in general, and viewed from a narrower context, is the very reason for the bright future of pipe tobacco blending. There is undoubtedly a sense of ‘belonging’ amongst pipe smokers around the world if they have access to the internet, and that sense of belonging has given rise to a great, worldwide discussion of pipe tobacco, and an enormous trading of information.
This conversation, this far-flung community, is the driving force behind this renaissance in tobacco blending, as I see it, and as long as that conversation over good tobaccos continues, as long as that community endures, tobacco blending will continue to improve, innovate and flourish.