The first time I smoked Beacon, I hated it. Beacon is a McClelland tobacco that became a favorite many years ago and accounted for the bulk of my smoking budget, but it didn't start that way. I was transitioning at the time from English blends to Virginias because my wife disliked the scent of Latakia. I wanted to smoke indoors sometimes, and she was okay with Virginias, but my taste buds were not yet acclimated and I missed my smoky Latakia. I smoked half a bowl of Beacon and let it go out because it was rank, astringent, and it smoked hot, but I knew that half a bowl was an insufficient test and returned to it later to give it a fair chance. I waited a while and tried again. I hated it even more.
I threw that first tin of Beacon directly into the trash after one bowl, and I did so with satisfaction and a feeling of revenge attained. Nothing could redeem this mixture. I remember the image of it tumbling from my disappointed fingers into the trash can next to my desk. Good riddance, I thought. I won't have to deal with you again. Check that one off the list.
It was two or three years before I returned to it, almost recoiling when I pulled it blindly from the back of a shelf. I'd bought two tins (one to smoke and the other to save, which was my rule at that time) and decided to give it yet another try, expecting to throw this tin out as well, which would be fine. I didn't want this one lonely tin of bad tobacco to take space on my tobacco shelves.
But when I fired it up, I was surprised. It was great. How could this be? I had become a Virginia enthusiast in the intervening years and now cared little for English blends, but even so, this was not the same tobacco that I had pitched into the trash. I guessed that my tastes had evolved and I was now capable of appreciating this tobacco, so I bought more.
I opened a fresh tin, dried some flakes, rubbed them out, filled a bowl, and applied my lighter, anticipating another great smoke.
I was disappointed. It wasn't as bad as the first time I smoked it, but it wasn't something I wanted to smoke more of. Those tins stayed on my shelf until I harnessed the courage to try Beacon again about three years later.
It was sublime. I decided that the universe was playing games with me and I registered a complaint via meditation, but nothing came of it and no one was disciplined, as far as I know.
(In the moments that it has taken you to read this far, you have probably determined that the aging of the tobacco is what made the difference, but it took me years to figure that out. I bought lots of Beacon after that but never smoked it until it was at least two years old, preferably three-to-five years, and that's been my general rule for Virginia blends since.)
The improvements that come with aging are so profound that I won't even smoke a Virginia until it has properly aged. I'm currently looking forward to a few tins of Carolina Red Flake with Perique, which I bought in March of 2020, and which I intend to start smoking as soon as it hits three years. I expect big things from that tobacco. I'm sure it's excellent right now, but I'd rather wait until it achieves its best potential character. The simple aging of tins can dramatically multiply a tobacco's smoking qualities.
Why Should You Cellar Pipe Tobacco?
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 profiles of our favorite blends improve with time. Purchasing tobacco with the intent to let it age is a somewhat new phenomenon, generally unappreciated until a couple of decades ago, though there were pockets of enthusiasts who understood and capitalized on the concept.
For many decades, few manufacturers or blenders were concerned about what happened to their mixtures after they were tinned, primarily because they were created for immediate enjoyment. In modern times, many blends are known to age wonderfully, especially those that contain a naturally high sugar content. 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 determine our favorites and more easily choose which blends to store and age.
The Benefits of Aging Pipe Tobacco
Many of the benefits of building a tobacco cellar are highly practical, beginning with taste. Most tobaccos, especially those with a significant component of Virginias, develop added sweetness and complexity with a few years of age on the tin. No amount of age will turn a poor tobacco into a good one, but there are blends that are not very good when young but sublime when aged.
Beyond taste, many blends also burn better and more cleanly with some age compared to when they are freshly tinned. That's because the starches convert to sugars and the flavors marry for a smoother smoking experience. There's also the satisfaction and comfort of having a well-stocked tobacco cellar guaranteeing that we'll never find ourselves without a tin on hand. In fact, we'll always have many choices of well-aged tobacco, equating to substantial peace of mind.
One should also account for the cost of tobacco, which is less today than it will be tomorrow. The more we purchase now, the more we save later. Additionally, it's great insurance against a favorite tobacco being discontinued — like my Beacon. When we find a blend that delights us, we should acquire as much as is reasonable. Time is an odd concept, and probably the source of gravity itself, but it can be harnessed by knowledgeable pipe smokers. All we need to do is wait, and it's remarkable how quickly the time passes. I remember looking at an early shelf of maybe a dozen tins of tobacco and thinking it was a treasure trove, but now I become anxious when my inventory drops below several dozen tins of a favorite blend. I get nervous if I'm not as well inventoried with my preferred tobaccos as a reasonably busy tobacconist.
Because I've been cellaring tobacco for decades, I have a terrific stash of well-aged and discontinued blends. Some are represented by different generations of production in different countries, and the difference is noticeable. It's nice to have some originals for comparison purposes.
How It Works: What Happens During The Aging Process
When tobacco ages, it undergoes a fermentation process, exposing the tobacco to several chemical and organic changes that help break down the complex starches and carbohydrates in the leaf into simpler sugars. These changes are driven largely by microscopic organisms and their ability to consume cellulose (starch) and create two important byproducts: sugar and carbon dioxide.
These microorganisms are naturally occurring and unavoidable, and the tobacco is constantly exposed to them from the time it's harvested to its final packaging. 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 doing their job — converting cellulose into sugar and carbon dioxide. As carbon dioxide increases, so too increases internal air pressure, causing the lid to puff up or the tin to expand. Over time, these microorganisms continue to convert starches in the tin, though eventually at a much slower rate, but the tobacco can continue to improve for decades.
As our friendly microorganisms convert starches and carbohydrates into sugars, other reactions are also taking place. For example, tobacco leaves have tiny, hair-like structures that produce terpenes, which are compounds responsible for aroma. Different terpenes include menthol and pine pitch. The terpenes produce duvatrienediols, which are the compounds responsible for the unique flavor and aroma characteristics of tobacco. What we recognize as tobacco when we sniff the air is identifiable partly because of the breakdown of duvatrienediols. That breakdown provides more flavor and more aroma, and it continues year after year.
Moreover, when proteins such as amino acids break down, they leave short-chained fatty acids, which, too, are significant flavor compounds. Those fatty acids produce ketone compounds that interact further and produce the Maillard reaction — a process so important to cellaring that I'm surprised no one has named a pipe shape after it yet. It's a chemical reaction that produces an amodoric compound found in food and enhances flavor. It also produces pyrazine, which is associated with aromas such as popcorn. Pyrazine is what human beings are physiologically sensitized to in order to perceive odor and flavor, and it takes only minute amounts to have a profound effect.
Nicotine, amino acids, and organic polymers called lignin all react with the sugars and other compounds in an aging tobacco, catalyzing additional Maillard reactions and further enhancing flavor. When a tobacco ages, it only increases the amount of sugars present, but can actually elevate and enhance the flavor compounds of the tobacco itself.
Best Types of Tobaccos to Cellar
The impact of those processes and reactions on a blend as it ages is dependent on the type of tobacco. The aging process we're interested in is fundamentally an extension of the curing process. Plant leaves build up high levels of starch to store carbohydrates through the course of their lives. When the leaves start dying, those starches begin converting to sugars.
Burley is hung in barns to slowly age and die over the course of months, during which starches change to sugars, and the sugars eventually convert to carbon dioxide and are released into the air. The final sugar content of Burley is low because the curing process takes the starches through the sugar stage and directly to CO2 without adding additional sugar to the leaf.
For Virginias, which are flue-cured, the chemical process is different. We wouldn't like Virginias straight from the field because they're high in starches. High-starch leaf would be acrid and very harsh to smoke. In flue-curing, the temperature in the barn is raised quickly, accelerating the conversion from starch to sugar and then drying the tobacco, halting the enzymatic activity that would then convert the sugars to CO2. Without that respiration, sugar content is stabilized. Flue-curing reduces starches and increases sugars, with the aim of stabilizing the leaf at a high sugar content. 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.
Most feel that Aromatics don't particularly improve with age, though the flavors may marry and become smoother if the base tobacco has good sugar content. The main component is usually Black Cavendish, in which Virginias and/or Burley are steam-heated and impregnated with flavorings, so Black Cavendish is more of a process than a type of tobacco.
English and Balkan blends age better than Aromatics. These blends contain Oriental or Turkish leaf, including Latakia, but they are fairly stable after processing and you shouldn't expect large improvements. Virginias and Perique will show the most improvement during the aging process. A basic rule to remember is that the higher the sugar content of the leaf, the better it will age. Burley tobaccos average just 0.2 percent sugar, while Turkish averages about 12 percent, and flue-cured Virginias can reach 22 percent or more.
How to Cellar Pipe Tobacco
Despite these in-depth explanations and seeming complexity, there is no need to over-complicate the practice. It's intuitive and fun once we start to watch our inventory grow, and maintenance is almost non-existent. It's comforting to add tobaccos, rotating older tins forward on shelves and placing the newer tins behind to start their aging journeys.
1. Build Up a Stash.
We can't age tobaccos that we don't have, so it is necessary to purchase more than we smoke. For a long while, whenever I purchased a tobacco, I'd buy two tins, one to smoke and one to cellar. That changed over time to buying between five and 10 tins and smoking one, which helped expand my cellar. Some find it helpful to institute guidelines, like replacing every tin smoked with two more, but as long as more tobacco is coming in than going out, our cellars will grow.
Obviously, priority should be assigned to tobaccos that we particularly like, but be advised that what we like today may not be our same preference tomorrow. And once a tobacco has aged nicely, it's different. You may experience something similar to what I did with Beacon and find yourself loving a tobacco when it's aged despite not caring for it when fresh. The inverse can also occur, but with less frequency. That means more and constant experimentation, opening tins at different ages and sampling them to find the optimum flavor profile. All of that, however, is the fun part of cellaring.
2. Date Your Tobacco.
Some tins feature a factory date stamp or sticker indicating when it was manufactured, but for those that don't, it's important to label them with the date. I use the date of purchase, though tins can already have age on them depending on where they are purchased. I've occasionally found tins potentially three or four years old in pipe shops. Unless they are already dated, that's time that can't be accounted for, so the date of purchase is the first guaranteed date that I use.
We don't realize how important it is to write the dates on tins until years later when we have no idea how old they are. We may think we won't forget, but when our cellar contains hundreds of tins, we find our memory is insufficient. I have several tins that are 10-20 years old, but because I was too lazy to write the dates on them at the time of purchase, I cannot estimate more accurately. Dating bulk blends is just as essential as dating tins.
3. Store sealed tins in a cool, dry place.
Tins that are factory sealed need only be stored in a cool, dry place and out of direct light. Some date the bottom label of their tins and put them into big plastic Tupperware-style storage containers to keep them organized and safe.
4. Jar up loose or bulk tobacco.
Bulk tobacco shouldn't be stored in the plastic bags usually provided because those bags are not air-tight. Bulk blends should be placed into a Mason jar or other air-tight container and dated. A package of Mason jars comes from the factory ready to use right out of the box. There's no need to sterilize brand-new jars.
When using a jar, fill it loosely and leave some space at the top before sealing while making sure there is no debris around the rim to compromise the seal. Because flake tobacco is processed under pressure and results in a wonderful melding of flavors, it would seem like a good idea to age that tobacco under pressure as well. However, my personal experience has led me to conclude differently and I prefer moderately loose packing. Packing the jar loosely and having open space near the top allows some air to be present, enabling the tobacco to continue to ferment and the flavors of the components to further marry.
5. Skip vacuum sealing unless storing for 20+ years
Air exposure is good for tobacco, though like everything, it depends to what degree. Tobacco that's vacuum sealed will age and ferment, but at a slower rate, and it will experience less change compared to tobacco that's exposed to more air, whether in the original tin or a different container. That's primarily because the microscopic organisms that transform tobacco need air to survive and to continue the fermentation process, ultimately enhancing the flavor.
Years ago when I worked at Pipes and tobaccos magazine, we conducted an experiment, storing a Virginia blend for three years in a vacuum-sealed jar and in a non-vacuumed jar. The consensus of our tobacco reviewers upon smoking them was that the non-vacuum-sealed tobacco had aged more deeply. So, experiment with vacuum seals before dedicating decades to cellaring. They're probably best for tobaccos we intend to store for longer than 20 years, but less appropriate for faster aging, which takes plenty of time itself.
This quote from an old Charles Rattray's of Perth catalog advances this theory:
Contrary to popular belief, the air-tight container is not the best method of packing ... Tobacco is a vegetable that lives and breathes; it does not improve by being imprisoned in an air-tight compartment. Further evidence of this is the fact that the choicest cigars are always packed in a plain cedar wood box from which the air has not been excluded.
Personal preference is always key, however. Try your tobaccos different ways: vacuum-sealed, non-vacuum-sealed, and packed tightly or loosely, to find what you like best over different durations. It doesn't matter what other people like; you're the one smoking it, and the tobacco will mature however it's stored, given adequate time.
6. Check tins and jars regularly for signs of damage and moisture.
Stored tobacco should be checked every year or so. Tobacco holds moisture and for older, steel tins, can cause havoc, especially if left in a humid environment. Pinpricks of rust sometimes appear, and when that happens, it's time to remove the tobacco from the tin and smoke it or reseal it, before the problem becomes worse and perhaps ruins the tobacco. Keep tins in a climate-controlled environment low in humidity, like a closet or in tubs under the bed. Don't try to utilize your spouse's clothes closet. I speak from experience and know the strategy to be counterproductive.
Tins sealed for decades or opened tins that have been forgotten may be extremely dry but can be salvaged with proper rehydration techniques. When tobacco is cured it experiences multiple stages of drying and rehydrating as it's processed, so dry tobacco clearly possesses potential for rejuvenation, up to a point. Tobacco that has been too dry for too long will have lost flavor, and in extreme cases will have to be discarded simply because it is now uninteresting, bland, and mono-flavored.
7. Avoid opening tins and jars until they're ready.
It's tempting to crack open a tin or give a jar a whiff when doing a regular audit of our cellar, but we need to resist opening our aging blends until they're ready to smoke. This is especially true for jars, because reintroducing fresh air multiple times will adversely affect the aging process. Cellaring tobacco is often compared to aging wine as both become more complex with age, marrying flavors and continuing to ferment at a reduced rate, and but, also, they both will stop aging after you open the container because respiration resumes. Patience is key to cellaring.
8. But don't wait too long.
Again like wine, once tobacco matures and reaches its peak flavor, it will eventually level off and deteriorate. While there's no true way to tell when tobacco reaches its "peak" age — as it's a subjective assessment and widely different for different tobaccos — generally speaking, a few years is optimal.
In my own experience, while tobacco continues to age and improve for 20-25 years, most of that improvement occurs within the first five years. After 20-25 years, the tobacco is certainly mellow and well-married, but the flavor profile also diminishes, often losing the complexity it had earlier in the aging process. I therefore smoke anything that reaches 20 years rather than let it continue to age. It's great at 20 years, as a general rule, before the returns diminish, but different tobaccos react to aging in their own ways.
Bonus: How to Flash-Age Pipe Tobacco
Some have developed techniques for artificially aging tobacco by baking tins in an oven at very low heat for a few hours. One approach is setting an oven to 200 degrees fahrenheit 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 truly replicate the effect that time has on aging tobacco. This baking method does indeed work to an extent. I used it for a couple of years when all my tobacco was young during the time I was building my cellar. It is not as good as naturally aged tobacco, but for me, it was a worthwhile improvement over fresh.
A percentage up to around 40 percent of pop-top tins will pop during this procedure, so place them on a baking sheet to catch tobacco that may burst from within. 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 harder to replicate when something works out particularly well.
A Final Note on Cellaring
Modern life is filled with responsibilities that can divert us from what's most important: the pursuit of the finest smokes possible. We need to think about our futures. What good is eventual retirement without plenty of great, well-aged tobacco to smoke while rocking on the porch and threatening neighborhood kids with the water hose? Now is the time to prepare. A well-stocked tobacco cellar is among the most comforting security blankets attainable. We may find ourselves with some tobaccos that we no longer like (I have pounds of English blends since I've not smoked them regularly in 20 years), but it's pretty easy to sell if we like, and the age of the tins will increase their value far beyond their original purchase price. What we buy today is cheaper than what we will buy tomorrow, so cellaring tobacco is a smart investment in money, time, and eventual smoking satisfaction.
Note: This article is a revision and compilation of information about tobacco cellaring in several former articles on the Daily Reader, articles by Shane Ireland, Adam Davidson, Josh Burgess, Chuck Stanion, and Jeffery Sitts. That information has now been conveniently combined here.
- "Older is Better," by Chuck Stanion, Pipes and tobaccos Vol. 3, No. 4
- Conversations with Dr. David Danehower, University of North Carolina
- Conversations with Dr. Wes Weeks, University of North Carolina.