Pipe tobacco offers a multitude of flavor opportunities, and the way that tobacco is cut contributes to the variety of experiences. Just as we consider the flavor properties of component tobaccos, and adjust moisture levels to our liking, we have a choice in the way our blends are cut. What's most interesting is that the way a tobacco is cut can affect not only the way it burns, but the way it tastes and ages.
Various foods work the same way. Potatoes, for example. Rubbed in olive oil and sea salt and baked at 450 degrees whole, they will taste different from those sliced thin and baked the same way. Similar individual characteristics are available to us in the form of pipe tobacco cuts as well.
The most common form for our smoking mixtures is ribbon cut. Ribbons burn well and consistently, are easy to load into a pipe, and blend nicely so that individual components don't dominate any particular draw on the pipe.
They're also a convenient cut for manufacturers. "It's much more labor-intensive to make a plug than it is a ribbon cut," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender for Cornell & Diehl Tobacco. "It's more labor-intensive still to make a flake; a little easier to do something like a ready rubbed. But really, the easiest thing to do is ribbon cut." For ribbons, the manufacturer cuts all of the component tobaccos separately and then blends them. "We have the cut components, Red Virginia, Bright Virginia, White Burley, Dark Burley, etc."
Ribbon-cut tobaccos age more quickly than other cuts. "For up to a year, there is very noticeable change," says Jeremy. "But past the first year or so, in my experience, you're not going to see significant differences in that ribbon cut tobacco, not after about the first year or so, unless you're sitting on it for years and years. And years."
The types of tobacco in the blend are also important for aging potential. "If it's a Virginia or Virginia/Perique ribbon-cut blend, after about a year in the tin, you're going to see a real significant change from where the tobacco was at the time that it was packaged, and you're going to see much, much less change over the subsequent years." Tobaccos with lots of Cavendish, in contrast, will not age as well. Those with more Latakia than Virginia will age but not as dramatically as Virginia variants.
Though the process slows after a year, there is still much to be gained from additional aging. "It could be absolute ambrosia if you hold off for, say, 10 or 15 years. It's just that the breadth of the change will really have happened in that first year as your microbes are consuming the largest quantities of sugar and processing them, and there's still air that is in that tin. But as time goes on, those microbes are also consuming some of the oxygen that's in that tin, which slows the chemical processes."
Shag is a finer-cut ribbon. For C&D Tobacco, it's pressed first, but it doesn't have to go through a two-week press time such as flake tobaccos do."We will make whatever the blend is in large pieces of leaf, press it for 20 minutes in the swing press, which is our piece of equipment that we use to get things pressed into a square form. And then from there, it immediately gets cut. But it just gets cut at a very, very fine thickness to get the cut as fine as we want it to be for shag. The tobacco has to be pressed. There's no way to take ribbon-cut tobacco and cut it finer."
Aging for shag is similar to ribbon cut, with the first year yielding the most progress, and slowing but not entirely stopping after.
Ready rubbed is manufactured by loosely pressing a blend into a flake and then cutting it and rubbing it out to just the right degree. "Ready rubbed" says Jeremy, "would be an intermediary step between a fully loose ribbon-cut mixture and a flake.
"It's done partly mechanically and then the rubbing-out portion, at least for us, is by hand as the tobacco is coming down the trough from out of the cutter. Some manufacturers may tumble the tobacco. They may even go so far as to fully make a flake and then set aside a portion of their flake production to tumble it apart and have a ready-rub option versus a flake option. That is probably what a manufacturer like Mac Baren does. We're looking at something like Capstan Flake versus Capstan Ready Rubbed."
"Plug is just the pressed block of tobacco that you would then run through a cutter to cut into flakes. So plug is just essentially removing that last cutting step; it's uncut flake tobacco. That leaves the end-user with the option of how thick or how thin they want to cut the tobacco. It's a more rustic, more hands-on workman kind of approach to a blend."
And it's particularly satisfying to use a knife to cut exactly what you want to smoke from a larger block of tobacco. For those who enjoy the rituals of pipe smoking, preparing Plug tobacco is a joy.
Crumble cake is essentially a plug that has been made using ribbon cut tobacco rather than leaves of tobacco. "You make a blend in loose ribbon, and then you press that," says Jeremy. "But you don't press it as far as you would press a flake. It would be more like 20 minutes at 1200 PSI. After two or three days, we transfer the block to a 15-ton press for two to three more days."
The resulting hard blocks of tobacco are then cut into bars and vacuum sealed for 24 hours. That vacuum seal is achieved by tinning the tobacco, but after a day, it's removed from the tins and is ready to be cut, weighed, and tinned again. "The vacuum sealing helps to remove a little bit of moisture at the time that you're actually bagging it and vacuum sealing it. And it helps to really, really compress that block."
A crumble cake is basically a plug that has been pressed using ribbon-cut tobacco rather than large pieces of leaf or whole leaves, such as in flakes. The pressed ribbon-cut tobacco separates differently, with a chunkier consistency. With a crumble cake, says Jeremy, "you get some of the possible fermentation characteristics of a plug, but it's a little more user-friendly in that rather than having to use a knife to cut the plug, since it's just ribbon tobacco that has been compressed, you can, literally, just pinch off a piece of it and rub it out and you've got a more fermented ribbon-cut tobacco."
In making a flake, once the tobacco is blended, moisture must be added. "Some manufacturers use a sugar casing or other binders to help everything hold together a little better. And then you press it. Different manufacturers press for different amounts of time. But the moisture will permeate the leaf to a point where it's going to press easily without just being crushed to dust. Then by whatever mechanical method the manufacturer is using, it's loaded into a form and pressed for whatever prescribed time period, after which it is cut into bars. And then those bars are cross-cut, usually mechanically. There may be somebody out there doing this by hand, but I sort of doubt it."
The moisture level of the tobacco must be properly adjusted before pressing. If it's too dry, the leaf could break up. "Typically, you're talking about rather high pressures," says Jeremy. "If you've overwet the tobacco, then you're just squishing all of this moisture out and making a big mess. And while you're at it, you're removing a lot of the flavonoids that are in the tobacco. So 22-25 percent, somewhere in that range. Moist enough that you're not going to rip or crush the tobacco, but not so moist that you're going to have water that is squishing out of it while it's under pressure."
Flakes age well long term, with better expectations than with ribbon-cut. "Over a five-year period, if you had the capability to check on the tobacco, to try the tobacco through the course of that five years — well, you wouldn't actually want to do that, because it would interrupt what is really happening over the course of storing tobacco for five years. But if you could peek into the process, at the way that the tobacco is changing over the course of those five years, you'd see a lot more variation from aging in that tobacco than you would with the ribbon cut."
The reason for that different aging capability is in the amount of air in contact with the tobacco. There is more surface area in contact with air in a ribbon-cut tobacco than with a flake. "There's just a lot more that is possible with portions of the tobacco that are not directly exposed to air, in terms of the weird and wild ways that fermentation can augment flavor over time."
That term, "fermentation," in terms of tobacco aging, is a process of refining sugar and breaking down starches. Sugar in the leaf gradually processes through fermentation in more refined sugars and into alcohol. "You're feeding natural sugar to little microbes and they are excreting CO2 and alcohol. As the alcohol builds in the leaves, you're going to begin getting more accessible sugars. The tobacco will seem to be sweetening and seem to be mellowing, but basically you're just breaking down those sugars in a more and more accessible way."
"It's easy to do your own cube cut," says Jeremy. "Just take a couple of flakes and cut them with scissors crosswise into approximate cubes." It's done with larger machinery in factories, or the flake may be refed into the flake cutter crosswise to achieve the same thing. Cube-cut tobaccos permit more air into the mix than do flakes, and their aging results fall between the long-term characteristics of flakes and the more short-term benefits of ribbons.
A labor intensive, often hand-made product, rope is rolled by experienced craftspeople, or processed through very large, very expensive, very advanced machinery. "You use large pieces of leaf," says Jeremy, "or if you have access to whole leaf, you would remove the midrib. And then, according to whatever the recipe calls for, in terms of so much of this type of leaf and so much of that type of leaf, you blend those things together using tobacco that is not cut. Using tobacco that is either large pieces or, in fact, full halves of leaves." Cornell & Diehl doesn't make rope tobacco, though Jeremy has tried making it at home, just as a hobbyist.
"Coin tobacco is essentially the flake version of rope tobacco. Rather than cutting flake off of a square pressed product. You're cutting coins off of a round, twisted product."
The Purpose of Different Cuts
"If you took the exact same recipe, the exact same blend of tobacco, but one a ribbon-cut, one a flake and another a plug, and kept it air tight for five years, you're going to have three very different tobaccos with different, distinct character." We know that ribbon-cut tobacco has more surface area to interact with air, so it will age differently and build different flavor nuances than the plug or flake, which offer little surface area. "In the ribbon, virtually all of the tobacco has been exposed to air for the duration of the time in the tin. With flake, there's been a portion of time where all of the tobacco was pressed into a form and began a fermentation process a little bit, an aerobic fermentation process taking place inside that pressed block." That lasts about two weeks, after which it is cut into bars and then flakes. "So there's a little less oxygen that is touching all parts of the tobacco, because they're slices of compressed tobacco. Plus, they have started a fermentation process even before being cut and tinned.
Plug tobaccos have even less oxygen exposure than flakes. That tightly rolled rope has little available space for oxygen molecules. "Only the outside of the plug has been exposed. The inside, where the majority of the tobacco volume exists, is an anaerobic environment. Basically, there's no air in there. So you've got a very long, slow fermentation process that is possible in a plug that is going to yield a different flavor profile. But those will be interesting variations of one another, mosty to do with the oxygenation of the three different forms."
Burn Rates and Flavor Consistency
Shag probably smokes faster than any other cut, though it depends on the tobacco's moisture level and how firmly one loads a bowl. A firm pack, even if with a finely cut tobacco, will burn more slowly than a looser bowl, but even with a firmer bowl, shag will provide a high burn ratio because it has enormous surface area. "That burn ratio will translate into denseness of smoke and denseness of flavor," says Jeremy.
Flakes depend less on burn ratio. "To me, the real benefit that comes from flake tobacco is the fermentation that kickstarts the development of flavor over time, and you're not going to lose any of that by fully rubbing it out. You're going to be able to get the most flavor extraction from that tobacco by fully rubbing it out."
Some prefer not rubbing out flakes, however. It's always astonishing to see someone like Hans "Former" Nielsen roll and stuff a couple of wet flakes directly from a fresh tin into a pipe and smoke it without relight for 90 minutes. A gazillion years of experience pays off.
Consistency of flavor is another choice that different cuts of tobacco opens to us. "With a ribbon blend, particularly one that has several different components in it, you may have really different experiences from bowl to bowl, because in this pinch, you may end up with a little more, say, Perique, whereas in this pinch, you may end up with a little more of the Burley component or a little bit more of the Bright Virginia, or whatever is in that tobacco. Even if it's really well-blended and integrated, the different components may present themselves in different ratios and you may have slight variations in what's prominent in one bowlful versus another."
With a flake, however, there are usually fewer components and more consistency. "Even if you're talking about a component that doesn't make up a large overall portion of the blend," says Jeremy, "the flavors have pressed and married together, smoothing variations of flavor. When you pick up a flake, you're picking up a much more consistent version of the blend."
We all like to try new things, and when we consider the different ways that tobacco is cut and the number of experiences that may be derived from those distinct varieties, our options dramatically expand. Even an old standby favorite may reveal different characteristics if enjoyed as different incarnations of itself through specific tobacco cutting types. And when additional permutations such as age and moisture level are added, the potential of our tobaccos is endless.