Acquiring tobacco and letting it age for years is one of the most rewarding aspects of pipe smoking, granting us the opportunity to appreciate how the flavor profile of our favorite blends can change or improve with time. Often referred to as "cellaring," purchasing tobacco with the intent to let it age is a somewhat newer phenomenon that has gained popularity in recent years. For many decades, few manufacturers and blenders were concerned about what happened to their mixtures after they were tinned, primarily because they were created for immediate enjoyment and consumption. In modern times, many blends are known to age wonderfully, especially those that contain Virginia tobaccos due to their naturally high sugar content and the way they interact with other blending components. Some manufacturers even create mixtures specifically formulated for long-term storage, such as Cornell and Diehl's Cellar Series, though they can be enjoyed at any age.
It takes patience and self-restraint, but the rewards of investing in blends and waiting to enjoy them can be spectacular. Mixtures that we find to be average can be dramatically enhanced with age and become our new daily smoke, while blends that initially appalled our palates can find a second chance after some time. And for the blends we love, their flavors can be elevated to greater heights and create memorable smoking experiences. With time and experimentation, we can determine which tobaccos are our favorites, making the decision on which blends to age easier and enabling us to expand our cellars.
I've learned several things in regard to cellaring during my time at Smokingpipes and have continued to incorporate these methods in my purchasing of blends to age. Whenever I open a tin of one of my favorite blends, I replace it with one or two tins of that same blend. By ensuring I have more tins stashed away than I smoke, I'll eventually have a greater selection of blends with at least a few years of age on them. My personal cellar is mainly dedicated to Virginia and Virginia-Perique blends, especially Orlik Golden Sliced, Escudo Navy Deluxe, and the beloved Dunhill blends brought back by Peterson.
In terms of properly storing and protecting your future investment, factory-sealed tins just need to be stored in a cool, dry place and out of direct sunlight. Transferring the contents to another storage device can be done but is unnecessary as it's best to leave the contents in the tin for optimal aging and fermentation. However, if the seal becomes compromised, the tobacco should immediately be transferred to a secure container. It's always a good idea to periodically check the seals on tins and look for signs of rust or oxidation that can potentially compromise the tobacco.
Some tins feature a factory date stamp or sticker indicating when it was manufactured, but for those that don't have a date listed, it's best to label them with the date you added them to your cellar by using a marker or label, though a spreadsheet can also be employed for large cellars. For bulk tobacco or anything that doesn't come in sealed tins, mason jars, humidified tobacco containers, and ceramic jars are the best options to ensure a tight seal that will preserve the tobacco.
Once it's decided which blends you plan on cellaring there are a few variables to consider that influence the aging process. A previous blog post by Chuck discussed the effects of aging tobacco, the impact the curing process has on aging blends, and the chemical changes that occur inside a tinned blend. From a broader perspective, there are a few variables that influence how tobacco ages. Much like organic chemistry, whenever a new variable is introduced to tobacco, a series of reactions occur that change the final results.
For tobacco, example variables could include the conditions in which the tobacco was processed and blended, the type of leaf used to create the blend, and its storage conditions. The possibilities are endless, and even though manufacturers take steps to ensure consistency with each blend they produce, the quality and character of the leaves used can also vary from year to year. Beyond that, the manner and environment in which we store tobacco when cellaring can further influence the fermentation process. An article by Tad Gage in the winter 2007 edition of Pipes and tobaccos magazine piqued my interest in exploring what influences the aging process of tobacco.
Here are a few factors affecting how tobacco ages to keep in mind when cellaring blends:
How Air Affects Tobacco Aging
How much air the tobacco is exposed to has a significant impact on how it will age, specifically the air in the interior and exterior of the tobacco container. Blends that are securely vacuum sealed will see considerably less air exposure compared to tobacco that's stored in bags or containers that are not airtight.
Air exposure is actually a good thing for tobacco, though it depends to what degree. Tobacco that's vacuum sealed will still age and ferment, but at a slower rate and will experience less change compared to tobacco that's exposed to more air, whether it be in the original tin or a different container it's stored in. That's primarily because the microscopic organisms within the tobacco need air to survive and continue the fermentation process, ultimately enhancing the flavor of cellared blends.
When using a jar, it's recommended to fill the jar loosely and leave some space at the top before sealing while making sure there is no debris around the rim as it could potentially compromise the seal. Packing the jar loosely and having open space near the top allows some air to be present in the jar, enabling the tobacco to continue to ferment and the flavors of the components to further marry.
How Moisture Affects Tobacco Aging
As a variable in the aging process of tobacco, moisture here refers to the levels contained in the blend when it's tinned as well as any subsequent moisture that's introduced intentionally or unintentionally. If tobacco is vacuum sealed in a tin or heavy duty food storage bags, the influence of external moisture will be minimal. But if tobacco is kept in loosely sealed containers, moisture levels will fluctuate depending on the surrounding environment.
How long the tobacco is stored impacts the tobacco's moisture levels, even when properly stored. Tins sealed for decades or opened tins that have been forgotten about may be extremely dry when opened but can be salvaged and brought back to life with proper rehydration techniques. When tobacco is cured it experiences multiple stages of drying and rehydrating as it's processed, so dry tobacco still has potential and can be rejuvenated to make it smokable again.
How Pressure Affects Tobacco Aging
The amount of pressure the tobacco is stored under can have an immense effect on the flavor profile of the blend. Generally speaking, tobacco can be stored in one of three ways: packed tightly into a container under significant pressure, packed loosely, or somewhere in between tight and loose. Even after weeks of being sealed in tins under pressure, the tobacco's flavors further marry and will continue for years if stored in an appropriate environment and climate. When air, moisture, and pressure are taken into account, the aging variables and possibilities are endless.
How Microorganisms Affect Tobacco Aging
Tiny, microscopic organisms within the tobacco at the time of packaging or introduced from airborne exposure will greatly influence how blends age. They're naturally occurring and unavoidable and the tobacco is constantly exposed to them from when it's harvested to when it's finally packaged. If you've ever seen an aged, sealed tin of tobacco with a pop-top lid, and observed how the top is slightly inflated, that is the result of microorganisms. Those microbes consume cellulose (starch) and create two important byproducts: sugar and carbon dioxide, which causes the lid to puff up.
When tobacco undergoes the fermentation process, it's exposed to several chemical and organic changes that help break down complex starches and carbohydrates into simpler sugars. Virginia tobaccos have the highest sugar content, averaging around 22 percent, and also have a significant amount of cellulose, which is what the microbes consume. As a result, tobaccos that contain some level of Virginia will show the most dramatic change when aged and benefit the most from long-term fermentation. English blends do age, just not to the degree of Virginia-based tobaccos, as English mixtures often contain Latakia and Oriental components, which have a considerably lower sugar content due to the way they're cured.
How Time Affects Tobacco Aging
Naturally, one of the most important variables is age itself — how long the tobacco is cellared. Cellaring tobacco is often compared to aging wine as both will undergo changes over time, developing more complex and rewarding flavors the longer they're aged. However, once wine matures and reaches its peak flavor at a certain point, it will eventually level off and deteriorate the longer it's aged. There's no true way to tell when tobacco reaches its "peak" age as it's a subjective assessment, but generally speaking, a few years is optimal and anything beyond that is a bonus.
Some pipe smokers have developed techniques of artificially aging tobacco, with one method consisting of baking tins in ovens at very low heat for a few hours. One popular approach is setting an oven to 200 degrees and cooking the tobacco anywhere from two to four hours. It's a compromise for those wanting a change in flavor in newly acquired mixtures, but nothing can replicate the effect that time has on aging tobacco. Please note: if anyone is curious about "cooking" their blends, be sure to take the plastic lids off tins to avoid a disastrous and messy situation. Some pipe smokers also recommend taking off the metal lids of mason jars and covering the tops with tin foil instead. A percentage up to around 40 percent of pop-top tins will pop during this procedure, so be aware of that factor, and place them on a baking sheet to catch tobacco that may fly out when a tin pops. For those who don't feel comfortable testing their culinary skills, exposing tins to heat in cars or closed garages may be a safer alternative though it won't reach the temperature an oven is capable of.
Cellaring tobacco is one of the most rewarding and gratifying aspects of pipe smoking. Once you have some blends cellared and have waited a few years, try to observe the differences compared to a fresh tin. If you purchased a blend you're not impressed with right away, give it some time and revisit it. The difference a few months or years can make is astounding. Aging tobacco allows us to further develop our palates and appreciate the complexities that await us.
What are some of your favorite blends to age? Are there any mixtures you've been planning to stock up on? I'm always looking to try some new blends.