A portrait of Greg Pease by Artur Lopes
At a Columbus pipe show in the late '90s, I found myself talking with a very tall, very articulate gentleman wearing a fool's cap. He was brilliant and interesting. He knew more about tobacco than I could ever hope, and he was knowledgeable about the intricate details of pipes, from engineering to design and from classics to modern artisan interpretations. The irony was irresistible; he was in a ridiculous hat that made me want to dismiss him as just another colorful eccentric, but I couldn't because he was so impossibly engaging. His partner was in a hat too. They had started a tobacco company called Friedman and Pease, and they were promoting their newest blend: Fool's Cap.
That man was Gregory Pease, and he would become a tobacco blender with a reputation for horizonless talent, but at the time I thought he was just another guy in a dumb hat throwing components together on his kitchen table.
"I had this idea for a whole series of tobaccos named for hats," says Greg. "Only Fool's Cap and Fez came to fruition, but I was going to do a derby and top hat, and I just thought it would be fun."
Friedman and Pease began in 1998 when Greg was on the phone with his friend Irwin Friedman. They talked often about tobaccos, and Irwin was agitated about yet another favorite blend that had disappeared from the American market. "I think it was Rich Dark Honeydew out of Gawith, Hoggarth & Co.," says Greg. "It was brilliant: an old English/Virginia blend, absolutely stunning stuff." Greg was on temporary disability at the time, benched by carpal tunnel syndrome caused by 60-hour weeks working in the computer industry, so he had some spare time and said, "Oh, the hell with this. Let's just start our own company." And they did.
He knew more about tobacco than I could ever hope, and he was knowledgeable about the intricate details of pipes, from engineering to design and from classics to modern artisan interpretations.
"As soon as I said those words, I saw the product in my mind. I had no idea how to do it, no idea what steps would be required to make it happen, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. From there, it was securing sources of leaf, learning how to do graphic design so I could design the labels, it was creating blends and basically turning my kitchen into a tobacco manufactory. A lot of fun."
That's the way Greg has typically approached subjects that have interested him. He's a renaissance guy who experiences life from myriad points of reference. His interests are many, and when he becomes interested, he is relentless. When he was young, for example, his interest in music led him to spend several years as a rock musician in glam metal and punk bands, including all the hair and makeup that accompanies that art form.
With a mind that absorbs everything it stumbles across, Greg practices how to achieve real results by applying his experiences. When he becomes interested in something, he approaches it with full immersion. "Being interested in just about everything, there aren't many pools I haven't at least dipped a toe into," he says. "I like messing with stuff."
He's been a photographer since childhood, making his first darkroom print when he was eight years old. He's published pipe-themed calendars with his own professional images of pipes, and some of his other photos have been gallery displayed, while others have become part of private collections. And he's spent many years modifying, designing, and building guitar amplifiers, for a time running his own company called High Energy Engineering, which did custom design and development work. In addition, he's been a fencer for years. Not with lumber and fenceposts, but with epée, foil, and sabre, and he's practiced kung fu and chi chuan for most of his adult life.
"I'm also certified as a clinical hypnotherapist and studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, though I never set up a practice. When you hear the phone ringing, you will forget that you heard that."
With a mind that absorbs everything it stumbles across, Greg practices how to achieve real results by applying his experiences.
Greg once assembled an elaborate automatic coffee-making apparatus from items liberated from the chemistry lab at a former job. "My boss at the time didn't appreciate my inventiveness." He's restored British and Italian sports cars and built scale models of siege engines such as trebuchets, catapults and ballistas (ancient crossbow-like military engines), as well as constructed telescopes with mirrors he personally hand ground. As for his professional life before tobacco blending, he spent 18 years developing computer voice recognition and speech synthesis, as well as operating systems, real-time data acquisition, and high-performance image processing and storage.
This is a guy who, back in the '70s, built a 4-bit computer from discrete components. He was in 10th grade. He's also an accomplished cook and wine maker, and was a partner and codeveloper in a company that crafted creative spice blends and hot sauces, and the palate he developed for those pursuits translated well to blending tobacco. He's smart. But even so, his initial foray into the tobacco industry was difficult.
Friedman & Pease tobaccos folded after only about 18 months. The way toward making the company viable and pertinent was clear to Greg, but he and Irwin disagreed. And they were losing patience with each other. "So, I terminated the partnership. Suffice to say that it was a very contentious divorce." They did not remain friends. "Far from it," says Greg.
The final issue between them was when Greg travelled to North Carolina to talk with Craig Tarler of Cornell & Diehl. He wanted to investigate the possibility of C&D manufacturing Friedman & Pease tobaccos on a larger scale. "There was only so much I could do in my kitchen," says Greg. "I was doing the blending and tinning and labeling and boxing." Irwin objected, and that was the end for Greg. He dissolved the partnership. He was the developer of the tobaccos and was responsible for most of the physical effort, and he felt he could advance his ideas more efficiently with more freedom. In 2000, 20 years ago this year, he developed a series of new blends and started G.L. Pease, Ltd.
"For a while after that, I was doing everything from development to tinning and then shipping the finished product to Cornell & Diehl for distribution. That quickly became ridiculous." Tinning, for example, was particularly arduous. He had only a manual tinning machine requiring 21 turns on a hand crank to seal each tin. "It didn't take long to grow weary of that, so I automated the thing with a motor and clutch scrounged from a cordless drill. Much less tiring."
In 2000, 20 years ago this year, he developed a series of new blends and started G.L. Pease, Ltd.
Then he simplified further by shipping blended tobacco to C&D. "They would ship me tobacco components. I would do the blending in California, ship it back to them, and they would tin it and distribute it. It didn't take long for Craig and me to decide that it didn't make sense because of all the shipping costs, and we decided that Cornell & Diehl would begin manufacturing G.L. Pease tobaccos under license." Pipe smokers responded, and G.L. Pease grew impressively and quickly in popularity. "I like to think that it was because of the quality of the blends," says Greg, "rather than my charm and good looks."
But not even Greg Pease can just start blending successful tobaccos without some kind of specific background experience. He was a pipe smoker first and always, beginning in high school. "It started because of my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Havel, who puffed Borkum Riff in his office — I think it was the whisky variant. I'm apparently old, evidenced by my remembering a time when teachers could smoke in their offices and in class. The idea of the pipe appealed to me, so I figured I'd give it a go. I managed to get away with an underage purchase of a Medico half-bent sandblast and a pouch of cherry- or apple-flavored pencil shavings — like many pipe smokers, I started out with OTC [over the counter] tobaccos, and like many pipe smokers, the experience was not entirely satisfactory. I eventually graduated to the repackaged bulk stuff that many mall tobacconists peddled. Better, but still not particularly compelling."
As a college student at Berkeley in 1978, Greg discovered what real pipe smoking was all about when he visited the Drucquer & Sons tobacco shop just a block off campus.
Digital scan from Drucquer & Sons catalogue (c. 1970).
"When I walked into Drucquer's, I finally experienced real tobacco. I mean tobacco that didn't smell like my gram's potpourri, that wasn't sticky to the touch, or translucent from the generous application of what I later learned was [the food-grade humectant] propylene glycol. It was a turning point, and I quickly learned to love the more traditional styles of tobaccos. At the time, all those blends we now think of as 'classic' and 'vintage' were easily found, and I explored just about every tinned blend on the shelves in addition to those produced in house. Those classic tobaccos really attracted me — the Four Squares, the Sullivan & Powells, the Sobranies, the Dunhills, the State Expresses, and of course, the Nuns."
It was at Drucquer's that Greg discovered the advantages of aging tobacco. "And I've been hoarding — strike that — cellaring ever since. As with wines, aging tobaccos can make a great blend greater, enhancing its natural sweetness, increasing its complexity, offering new layers and new dimensions to the smoke that are only hinted at by the fresh product." He learned that aging works well, though, only when the tobacco is superior to begin with "A friend of mine in the wine world told me, 'An aged wine is magnificent if it's good to begin with. Age a bottle of piss, and you end up with a bottle of old piss.'"
But it was the atmosphere of the tobacco shop that particularly appealed to Greg. He was a college student and a rock & roll musician, long haired and inexperienced and young, but the traditional ambiance inspired and gratified him. "It was dark and smoky and paneled with lots of dark wood and glass and pipes everywhere, and a beautiful humidor. The people working there were knowledgeable and were clearly there because they loved what they were doing. I felt a kinship with the people, and also this feeling of belonging. It just felt right. If I close my eyes, I can still see the entrance. I can experience walking through those doors. Yeah, it was beautiful, and I feel a lot of melancholy that it's gone."
Greg discovered what real pipe smoking was all about when he visited the Drucquer & Sons tobacco shop just a block off campus.
Greg likes to say that after he first walked into Drucquer's, he never left. "It was full of people who absolutely loved pipes, tobacco, cigars. It was a real place for like-minded folk to congregate, and that's where I really started learning about tobacco, about the fact that it doesn't have to be translucent with additives to be good. I learned how to fill a pipe for the first time the correct way, and started my long love affair with Latakia, and pretty much spent as much time there as I could. All my spare time was spent in that shop."
One day the owner of the shop, Robert Rex, told Greg, "You are here far too often not to work here." He taught Greg how to restore pipes, polish stems and wax bowls, including the waxing of meerschaum pipes. Soon Greg was mixing tobaccos and using the tinning machine, labeling tins and learning more and more about tobacco blending "Everybody in the shop did everything." says Greg. "It was a very egalitarian kind of operation.
"I worked for Drucquer's under three different owners at three different times, taking breaks from my tech career. The wife of one of the owners came back when I was blending tobacco one day, and she said, 'You seem to really enjoy this.' I said, 'Well, I do.' She looked at me with this incredulous look on her face, and said, 'Why?' Basically, what I explained to her was that it was a very alchemical process. It's like bringing the four elements together in this harmonious way to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a beautiful thing. She shook her head and walked away. But for me, it was a magical and almost spiritual thing to participate in this process at that level."
Aside from his many other accomplishments, Greg is an excellent writer, with a column at Pipesmagazine.com. I approached him long ago to write for Pipes and tobaccos magazine, but he was too busy at the time. Later he found he had some time and offered to write for us, but I turned him down because we had too many columns crowding out feature stories. But later still, we found the correct moment and he contributed a regular column, which was enormously popular and always thought provoking.
Greg has taken two basic approaches to the development of blends. One is to start with a premise, an idea about a flavor profile, and work toward achieving it. The other strategy he employs is to identify characteristics of existing blends that he likes but thinks would be more interesting if particular nuances were elevated or modified, and work toward those ideas. That approach is particularly reflected in his Classic Collection, which was inspired by great, archetypal tobaccos.
That respect and appreciation for tobacco is what Greg brought to his own company.
His familiarity with and natural affinity for tobacco has not necessarily made the development of blends easy. His blend Westminster, for example, took 13 months to create. "And to be honest, I'm not completely sure it's done yet," says Greg. "I achieved what I wanted with it, which was to sort of recreate the smoking experience of the old, pre-Murray Dunhill London Mixture. It was from back in the day when it was a hand-blended product, and I loved it. I smoked a lot of tins of it. Of course, Murray took over, and it changed. I wanted the experience I'd first had with it, so those 13 months recreating it for myself were well spent."
That respect and appreciation for tobacco is what Greg brought to his own company. It was with his love for classic tobaccos that he pursued his own blending style, and the values that he developed at Drucquer's contribute to everything he's done since. "I began concocting my blends in pursuit of purity and quality of ingredients, care and precision in blending, balance, and complexity. My hope is that pipe smokers may recognize the passion that goes into the creation of these blends and the respect for the tradition and the history of tobacco that inspires these mixtures. I strive to produce blends that coalesce into an experience that engages the smoker, that holds their attention, and that offers an evolving smoke from beginning to end, because a bowl of tobacco connects us to the past like nothing else."