Andy Wike: 2:00AM - Saturday, October 5, 2019
Friday at noon, seven of us packed into the finest minivan I've ever seen. The rims were black, and the finish was a deep charcoal with flecks of silver and gold that shimmered like mica. Our overnight bags filled the bottom of the cargo bay, forming a nice cushion for seven pipe bags full of our favorite briars, tins, and accessories. We were on the road.
Nearly five hours later we arrived at our hotel in Richmond, dropped our bags, gathered our pipes, and hit the road again to attend an informal meeting of the Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers at a local brewery. The sun was setting as we approached the venue, casting rays of gold and carmine against the Richmond skyline. The sight belied the sheer lack of parking at the venue, requiring that we remember our driving instructors' directives for parallel parking as we shimmied our way into an on-street spot. A popular place, we thought as we exited the van. What we didn't realize was that most of those parking spaces were taken up by fellow pipesmokers. The CORPS crew had taken over the entire patio out front, which hung like a scene from another era, creating its own microcosmic atmosphere with clouds of smoke lingering in the rafters above.
Passing through the gate, we were greeted with a warm welcome, pipes lifted into the air in salute of like kind. As we settled into our tables, ordered our drinks and food, we noticed we'd lost Chuck somewhere in the process. After looking around the venue, we noticed him in the middle of a congregation of pipes and smoke, surrounded by friends he'd known for 20+ years. That camaraderie quickly spread, with founding CORPS members like John Eells and Linwood Hines greeting us with that warmth found only among pipesmokers. Two Pete Freeks, Linwood and I spent 30 minutes discussing the new NAP stems Silver Gray has been making for many in the community. That conversation quickly evolved to the legacy of Peterson pipes, including an enthusiastic tangent about the old 4AB shape, an iconic discontinued Peterson design once championed by Basil Rathbone in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, as well as Peterson's iconic mascot, The Thinking Man. These conversations were founded on a mutual appreciation of the marque's 120+ years of craftsmanship, innovation, and tradition.
As the night went on, the party dwindling as attendees said their goodbyes and left to prepare for the day tomorrow, I found myself at a table with Scott Klein and Shane, sharing stories over a pipe and a pint. Among other topics, we discussed Scott's four-year apprenticeship with Alex Florov and exchanged pipesmoking anecdotes well into the wee hours of the morning, until we said our goodbyes and turned in for the night. The show, after all, had yet to begin.
Chuck Stanion: 10:00AM - Saturday, October 5, 2019
Andy's right; the van is very nice and got us here safely, thanks to the excellent driving skills of Kyler Lambeth, our operations coordinator, who extricated us from a couple of pretty tight spots in the heavy Friday afternoon traffic, narrowly guiding us from crashing with a truck full of goats at one point. To be honest, by that time I'd have welcomed a stop to collect goats just for the opportunity to smoke. A five-hour drive in a non-smoking rental van needs some goats now and then.
At last we arrived at the hotel. The non-smoking hotel. My life is plagued by non-smoking venues. I suspect I should have been born 50 years earlier than I was, just to accommodate my pipe, but here I am, so, like everyone else, I get along as best I can. But not without howls of complaint.
We dropped our bags and immediately took off for Legend Brewing Company, where pipe show folks were gathering. We didn't want to spend much time in a hotel where we couldn't smoke, and it was a fine moment when I could sit and fill a pipe. Once my equilibrium returned, I realized I was surrounded by people I knew, so I abandoned my Smokingpipes colleagues, who are perfectly capable of drinking beer without my influence.
Soon I was seated near John Eells and Andy Camire, who have been CORPS regulars since the beginning of the show 30+ years ago. Like everyone else I would run into, they were excited about the show returning. "After 30 years of the CORPS show," said Andy, "which was always the highlight of my year, it was disappointing when CORPS announced its end. Linwood Hines had put his heart and soul into the show for 30 years and it was just time for someone else to carry the load, but no one was in a position for that, so the show had to end."
I felt the same way when the show closed down. The CORPS was always my favorite show, because it was within driving distance, yes, but also because of the great people. And while the CORPS show always had plenty going on, there was time to sit and talk. Everyone was disappointed when it shut down.
"After a couple of years without the show," Andy continued, "and with so many people trying to get it going again, they finally got together and the CORPS put it together just like old times last year. I can't believe I'm here at the second new CORPS show. It's great."
John Eells, a founding member of CORPS, joined us. John is a talented pipemaker, making rather large pipes in classic styles, reminding me a lot of Ashton, though definitely with his own style. He and Linwood had been the first to talk about starting the club and he was secretary treasurer for many years after it formed. "But it got to be too much to run the show," he said. "We had to negotiate with all the hotels, get permission from the fire marshal, get insurance, a business license, and the details like that just kept accruing. I had to bow out after a while."
Running a pipe show is no easy task. Any club willing to go through all the current regulatory requirements deserves support.
Conversation evolved with different folks coming and going, as is customary at pipe shows, until I realized the place was emptying out and it was time to go back to that awful non-smoking hotel, but only to sleep until time to get to Sutliff Tobacco, where the show is being held this year. And here we are at last, at the show as I write this. I'm typing instead of looking at pipes, which is just wrong, so off I go.
The roar of voices, cheers, and laughter fills the vendors' tent as I type these words. Notes of Virginias, Latakia, Burleys, dark-fired Kentucky, and cigar leaf intermingle in the air, echoing the melting pot of pipesmokers, who've now taken over this small section of Richmond. The show is in full swing.
I've found myself at Steve Monjure's tables. He's been distributing pipes and accessories for 21 years now. I once spent a week in Italy with Steve, wandering all over the country to visit pipemakers, including three of those he distributes: Ardor, Rinaldo, and Brebbia. We had a blast, and I met some of the most wonderful people of my career. The Rinaldo brothers are crazy fun, and though they didn't speak English and my Italian vocabulary starts and ends with "coffee," they provided an entertaining day. The Roveras at Ardor became like family, and at Brebbia, we had the honor of being permitted to browse through old stock pipes from decades before. It was a trip that helped me understand what a close community pipesmokers have made, and that pipes are a language that erases political and language boundaries.
Steve has often been called the hardest working man in the industry. He does seem tireless, though he claims he's slowing down a little. He's been instrumental in bringing new brands to the U.S., and those of us who love them are appreciative.
Scott Klein is his usual affable self, with some high-grade pipes that are simply astonishing, along with many in his Scott's Pipes line, which provides reasonably priced options with his own strict attention to detail. They are truly a bargain. We talked just now about doing an interview, so I'll get to write about Scott in-depth when we can arrange it. That's going to be a lot of fun.
I just spoke with Steven Mitchel of Steven Mitchell Designs. He has some phenomenal handmade pipe stands. Steven is a woodworker, specializing in handcrafted furniture. "I always have scrap wood left after a project," he said. "And I use exotic woods with beautiful grain, so it's hard to throw out those remnants. I started thinking about a use, and these came to mind." The spectacular grain and coloring of the wood he employs is impressive. And he's come up with an inexpensive, pocket-carrying design in wood for a single pipe stand that uses the counter-balance of the pipe itself to stay upright. Smart and beautiful. Steven says he's brought them to the show to gauge interest and to see if he should pursue this pipe furniture in the future.
Bill Feuerbach of Kaywoodie is an old pal and it's nice to catch up with him. He's doing about 150 Kaywoodie handmades a year now, as well as manufacturing Kaywoodies, Yello-Boles and Medicos. "We had to give up the Brylon pipes," he said. His was the only company that used the specific molds necessary, and the only company that maintained those molds didn't see the need to maintain them for only one client, so Brylon is gone. They were popular and inexpensive, and lasted forever. I wasn't a fan, and Bill himself told me he tried one and didn't like it, but there are lots of folks who do enjoy them and who will miss those pipes.
Dave Grant of Squatchwerx is doing some terrific things with tampers. He was just standing there, somewhere around 7-feet tall, and he had tampers, so I spoke with him. "Everyone calls me 'Squatch,'" he said. A few years ago, Dave decided he wanted to make pipes, so he bought some blocks and some vulcanite, and ruined a couple of expensive briar blocks. Realizing he'd just tossed a hundred bucks in the trash, he decided to slow down. "I needed more practice before ruining more beautiful briar," he said, "so I started making pens, and then tampers. And when I finally decided I was ready to make pipes, I realized I didn't like making them as much. Not enough lathe work. I love lathe work."
Dave makes resin and wood and corncob tampers. The corncob tampers are made from real corncobs, stabilized for three days and turned. But it's still awfully porous, so he fills the tiny cobs with 18-30 coats of a special coating similar to Superglue, and finishes them to a fine, durable sheen. They're stable, tough, and beautiful, and those he has deliberately distressed and applied various colors to are especially impressive. He also had a tamper he made from the teak decking of the U.S.S. North Carolina, and a couple of tampers made from wood from the Redemption Tree in Shawshank Redemption, struck by lightning a few years ago. "I love pipe shows," he says. "I usually sell enough tampers to pay my way, and buy a few pipes, too, so I'm really enjoying this."
After an all-American lunch of hamburgers, hotdogs, and Coca-Cola products, I wandered over to the neighboring tent to attend one of the show's rolling blending seminars, hosted by three of the finest pipe tobacco blenders in the world: Per Jensen of Mac Baren, Russ Oulette of Hearth & Home, and Jeremy Reeves of Cornell & Diehl.
The seminar began with a brief disclaimer of expectations. Jeremy clarified that this informal gathering was not a masterclass in tobacco, but an opportunity for home blenders to learn more about the many varietals that make up our favorite mixtures. They did not cover the individual blending processes unique to each company, nor did they offer hard and fast rules for whipping up the perfect Goldilocks blend. They instead underlined the most important aspect of home blending, the process of iterating until you develop a flavor profile and smoking characteristics that you, and perhaps you alone, enjoy. Having tried my hand at blending several times, it was liberating to witness three of the most respected blenders in the world tell the audience to abandon all rules and preconceptions, and simply have fun.
Jeremy kicked off the seminar with an overview of Burley tobacco. Earthy in profile, Burley has no sweetness to think of. It's an air-cured leaf that's low in sugars and high in nicotine, designed to afford a certain "oomph" or strength to a blend. In this way, Burley isn't a very complex leaf; it doesn't have a lot of nuance. Instead, it forms a solid foundation and lends deep bass notes to a mixture. In a brilliant musical metaphor, Jeremy notes that a blend without any Burley (or other leaves in the Burley family), "the flavor profile can be all soprano with no baritone or bass." Combined with other components, Burley can ground all the other flavors present.
He also took a moment to explain how dark-fired Kentucky is made. Starting its life as a type of Burley, what we call dark-fired Kentucky endures a unique curing process, wherein the leaf is smoked above smoldering hardwood fires that have been smothered with sawdust — which keeps the fire under control without stifling the production of smoke — for up to 16 days! It's this lengthy (and often hazardous) process that gives dark-fired its uniquely mesquite and woodsy flavor.
Following Jeremy, Per Jensen took the stage to discuss Virginia or flue-cured tobacco. Like most great speeches, his began with a bit of history, with Per reminding the audience that in 1612 the first shipment of Virginia tobacco was shipped from Jamestown to London. It's remained one of (if not the most) popular tobacco varietals in the world ever since. Per informed that Virginia is a rather thin leaf with great burning capabilities. Due to the flue-curing process, which exposes the leaf to hot air over a short period of time and caramelizes the tobacco, Virginias are quite high in natural sugars. They're also quite acidic (compared to Burley, which is more alkaline); these high or low pH levels are actually what cause tongue bite, rather than heat. As Per put it, "Tongue bite is a warning from Lady Virginia saying 'Hey, you're smoking me too hot, slow down.'" He continued by explaining Virginias relationship with Burley: "Virginias can take the dryness out of Burley, and Burleys take the sharpness out of Virginias." Being on opposite ends of the pH levels, in a well-balanced blend these two varietals cancel each other out, so to speak.
While Mac Baren uses myriad grades of Virginias for their blends, Per explained that he categorizes them into two categories: Filler and Flavor. Filler Virginias, or bright Virginias, are just that, filler. They're used to round out the alkaline properties of Burley, add sugar, or brighten up a heavy blend. Flavor Virginias, like red Virginia, are added to a blend to impart a distinctive flavor: breadiness, citrus, hay or grass. While Filler and Flavor Virginias have the same nicotine content, they differ dramatically in flavor. For examples of each, Per pointed to Capstan. Capstan Yellow is made with Filler (bright) Virginia, while Blue is made with Flavor (red).
After Per made his graceful exit with a bit of Danish wit, Russ stepped into the spotlight to discuss Orientals and Latakia. While Burley and Virginias operate at completely opposite ends of both the nicotine and pH spectrum, Orientals, Russ suggests, occupy that sweet spot right in the middle. They have a modest amount of both nicotine, sugars, and oils, making it an insanely versatile component. Curiously, though, Russ explained that Orientals vary in flavor profile more than any other varietal, greatly dependent on the area in which they were grown. Depending on the specific type, they can either lend a mustiness or funkiness to an English blend or enhance the aroma of the Latakia to something more incense-like.
Latakia is inherently a type of Oriental leaf, but one that has undergone a curing process similar to dark-fired Kentucky. While dark-fired is fire-cured over hardwoods, however, Latakia is smoked over smoldering, soft, aromatic woods — which impart that signature campfire note to the dark leaf. Latakia also burns quite slowly, where dark-fired burns more like a Burley.
After breaking down all the different major components, the three master blenders gave the floor to the audience, allowing them to blend their own mixtures using the very same leaf Sutliff uses to produce their impressive lineup of pipe tobaccos. As the group lined up to select their components and begin mixing up their new favorite home-blend, Per, Jeremy, and Russ reminded them once again that the only taste that matters is their own.
I'm not getting a lot of work done, because I'm talking more than I'm writing. These are social events for sure, almost like family reunions. Great friendships are struck at pipe shows, especially over time, so there's more socializing than business going on, and folks must interrupt conversations to work their tables. I have more friends at a pipe show than I do at home, so I'm always comfortable, and if there are people I don't know, it's easy to rectify that. Everyone loves talking about pipes. Pipe shows permit us to talk with the pipemakers we admire, and all the craftspeople who make accessories, and tobacco blenders, and collectors, and just cool people who are as hopelessly enthusiastic about the hobby as we are. A pipe show is like going home again, and especially the CORPS show, which I've been attending for 22 years. Having this show come back to us means a great deal to a great many. With hard work and some support, it's hoped that the Richmond pipe club will continue with this show far into the future. I join many others when I extend my personal thanks and appreciation to the CORPS and to Sutliff Tobacco.
Holy smokes, what a whirlwind of a day. After writing my thoughts on the blending seminar, I scrambled to catch the last factory tour of the day. Our guide had already begun ushering the group through the main doors when I caught up with him. Immediately upon crossing the threshold, awe hit me harder than the caffeine crash that I knew awaited me in a few hours. The factory itself is massive, a giant shell housing a serious manufacturing operation with finely tuned processes (many of which date back over a century). From the double steaming method used to create their iconic black Cavendish, to the entire wall of plug presses, to the spray tumbler that applies all the delicious top dressings to your favorite aromatics, every step of Sutliff's production was extremely well honed and explained with unparalleled confidence. It was as if they'd been doing this for over 100 years... oh yeah, they have.
And that's really the entire point. Sutliff prides themselves on quality and consistency. They strive to make blends that will look, taste, and smell the same in 10 years as they did 10 years ago. While technological advancements have increased efficiency on the factory floor, the majority of the processes used to make these blends hasn't changed. This immutability doesn't reflect an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" ideology; it's a promise to customers. A promise to uphold a legacy that's bigger than any individual, to ensure that quality and consistency remain as much of constants in Sutliff's production tomorrow as they are today.
As a testament to longevity of the brand, we concluded our tour in the factory lobby, where we gathered around what was inevitably the coolest machine in the entire outfit: a recently restored flake cutter from the original San Francisco factory, dated 1860 — which, I was assured, could be turned on and put into production today, if necessary.