A portrait of Per Jensen by Artur Lopes
Per Jensen has been the product specialist at Mac Baren tobacco since 2001, but he was entrenched in the pipe industry from the time he was nine, when he started helping in the family business: Georg Jensen pipes. That business had an unusual start. Per's father was in law enforcement, not pipe making, and the family knew little about the craft, but quickly learned because they found themselves with three fraising machines and nothing to do with them but make pipes.
"My father," says Per, "worked for the Copenhagen Harbor Police, but he was also a mechanical genius who made various machines in his spare time." Per Georg Jensen Sr. built a reputation for his innovative approach to mechanical solutions, and one day a couple of gentlemen asked him to make the machinery necessary for manufacturing pipes.
"The good way," says Per, "required three machines. One for the pipe tobacco hole and bowl, and you need one for the shank, and then one for the rest. We called it the neck of the pipe. He made three of them and — big surprise — when they came to pick up the machines, they didn't have any money."
These weren't the same fraising machines that work similarly to housekey duplicators and leave briar around the shank and transition, but tools that more fully shaped the pipe by grinding away the excess briar.
"My father had invested most of the family's resources in constructing that machinery," says Per. His parents decided that the best way to avoid bankruptcy was to use the equipment to make pipes, and the Georg Jensen brand began manufacturing soon afterward. "The solution," says Per "was to buy some briar blocks and learn how to make pipes."
That was in 1954, and Georg Jensen pipes became popular and were respected as very good smoking instruments with their own Danish character. Per started working at age nine and made his first pipe when he was 15. "I still remember it. It was rather ugly. I lost it." More specifically, he lost it in a wager at the Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen in a shooting arcade with the manager of Thurmann Pipes.
"I'd shown him my first pipe earlier that day, and he proposed a competition. If I won, he would purchase the pipe at some large price, much more than it was worth. But if he won, he would win the pipe cost free. I was young and he was older, and I thought he wouldn't have a chance. But at the end of the day, I lost the pipe."
The Georg Jensen company employed as many as 12 pipe makers and made thousands of pipes a year, and Per was involved in most of them. "I've been calculating how many, and it's around half a million pipes.
My father had invested most of the family's resources in constructing that machinery. The solution was to buy some briar blocks and learn how to make pipes.
"Our company was not like we had a CEO and then we had people actually doing all the work in the factory. No, we were all part of the manufacturing. Every morning when I went to work, I knew that I'd be sandpapering pipes or fitting mouthpieces or whatever."
Per Jensen, 1996
In 1999 the company began experiencing financial difficulties. The pipe market was shrinking at the time, and competition was increasing. "We were too small to be big and we were too big to be small," says Per. They never experienced a deficit, but it was getting difficult. "I think my family carries a gene that emphasizes craftsmanship at the expense of business skills." Labor costs were less in Italy and France, and companies there were tough to compete with. "In 2001, our bank must have realized that the pipe market wasn't sustaining us; they withdrew our line of credit and we were unable to find other financing, so the only thing we could do was to sell the company."
They were making about 45,000-50,000 pipes a year until 2001, when W.Ø. Larsen bought the Georg Jensen company. Per had been working in that business all his life but now needed to make some decisions about his future. "To be honest, half a million pipes are enough. I'd experienced enough pipe making." He decided to pursue a new career, and at age 41 began his education in computer technology.
It wasn't an easy decision. It took Per months to figure out what to do with himself. But he found the computer classes fun and the education he received has been very useful over the years since. After he finished school, he needed to find a job, but he had no references because he'd worked only in his own pipe factory. "I couldn't write my own recommendation, so I started contacting people we'd done business with."
One of those contacts was Per Buch, the managing director of Mac Baren who is now the concern manager for the company, responsible for all the company's holdings, such as hotels and investment companies. Buch knew Per because both companies attended shows where Per did presentations on pipe making and pipe smoking.
About a week after receiving Per's inquiry, he called to ask why Per wanted a recommendation. If he was looking for a new job, Mac Baren would like to hire him.
"That was a very good phone call, and a good feeling," says Per. He'd been worrying about starting over in a new industry but working for Mac Baren would be a lateral move. He'd still use all of his contacts from pipe making, and he knew the general industry, if not the specifics of tobacco production. And he knew many of the customers because pipes are necessary for the consumption of pipe tobacco. "Without pipes," says Per, "you can't do much with pipe tobacco."
As knowledgeable as he is now, and as far as his image travels the globe, particularly with his videos explaining aspects of tobacco, his job title has not changed since he started, though his responsibilities have evolved to include the position of master blender for Mac Baren as well as the company's tobacco ambassador. "My first job was actually still the job I have now, as product specialist, meaning my job is to know the tobaccos. Of course, to promote the tobaccos, to educate shopkeepers about what tobacco is and how it's used, and to promote Mac Baren with a lot of events for pipe smokers, as well. And I did a lot of that the first 10 years until legislation started to forbid it in some countries."
Per had a firm foundation in pipes themselves, and that made a perfect start for learning the tobacco trade. "It's a never-ending story because I'm always learning. But it would have been twice as hard to learn about tobacco without a background in pipes."
My first job was actually still the job I have now, as product specialist, meaning my job is to know the tobaccos. Of course, to promote the tobaccos, to educate shopkeepers about what tobacco is and how it's used, and to promote Mac Baren with a lot of events for pipe smokers, as well.
The man whose position Per was to take over was Paul Stenner, and Stenner taught Per as much as he could. They traveled Europe together, staging pipe events. "I learned a lot from him," says Per. "He'd worked at Mac Baren his whole life, from the time he was an apprentice." But after Per had been there for three months, Stenner suddenly succumbed to a stroke and passed away. "All those years of tobacco knowledge: gone," says Per.
He was left to further his tobacco education on his own. "I went back to my experience from the pipe factory, that if you're going to learn something, you have to do it yourself by being involved. You have to help buy the machines, you have to learn how to make a spun tobacco, how to make a flake tobacco, and so on. So, that was very educational." Even so, Per found himself missing some of the creative aspects of pipe making.
Interview with Per Jensen from Mac Baren's YouTube channel
"When I was a pipe maker, I was always playing around with new designs, putting briar wood into the mouthpieces and such. I started missing that; I missed being creative. Pipes and tobacco, those are two different things, but I missed that creative aspect. So, I started spending a lot of time with the raw tobacco guys and with our product development team. I tried out different things. I was on the sensory panel where we test tobaccos every week. I learned a lot up there, a lot of knowledge from those people. And slowly it came together." But more recently, Per has been interested in the historical aspects of tobacco.
"It seems," says Per, "that the tobacco business as we know it today, it's a long row of mistakes." For example, Virginia tobacco as we know it is nothing like the Virginia tobacco that built an economy in the 1600s.
"Just as a small example: in 1613, when John Rolfe shipped the first Virginia tobacco to London, it was nothing like the Virginia tobacco we know today. Its properties were quite different, and it looked completely different. That was before flue curing. That happened later in the 1850s. And you know the story of the slave who put charcoal on the wood fire to restart it because he forgot to keep it going."
At that time tobacco was cured with low heat, but the additional, quick heat from the charcoal turned the tobacco leaves yellow and changed their smoking characteristics, producing a milder, high-sugar content tobacco. Sandy, highland soil produced the best tobacco for this new process, which transformed land that couldn't produce other crops, and a robust flue-cured tobacco economy emerged. Thanks to a mistake.
In 1613, when John Rolfe shipped the first Virginia tobacco to London, it was nothing like the Virginia tobacco we know today. Its properties were quite different, and it looked completely different.
"So it could be this slave may have made a mistake or it could have been a deliberate experimentation to dry the tobacco quicker. But in any case, by accident they found out sugar stays in the tobacco. Therefore, Virginia today is a naturally sweet smoke."
Then there's Burley. "When the settlers came to Kentucky, I think it was in the 18th century, soil was different than in Virginia. So, of course, the plants were different, with bigger, thicker leaves, and more powerful tobacco. One day in one corner of a field, this guy from Ohio saw some tobacco plants with a little bit of a whitish look and he took the seeds from them. He took them back to Ohio. And that was the birth of what we today call white Burley. So it's one coincidence or mistake or accident or whatever you call it that leads to another, and this is how tobacco got to where it is today."
Per started developing blends for Mac Baren in 2005, helping to fulfill the need for creative expression that he missed from pipe making. "I started talking to the world tobacco guys, to product development, and I put together an English blend with a twist. And you probably know that English blend because when we launched it in 2006, it was the only tobacco we developed that year. Vintage Syrian."
Part of the inspiration for that blend was in answer to comments from pipe events, comments stating that Mac Baren could not make an English blend. "And I was standing there looking like a fool, knowing that we have some of the best tobacco on this planet and we weren't recognized for the good quality we made. People thought, well, they can't make an English mixture. And I took the challenge and spent a year developing Vintage Syrian."
Per thought about this blend for a long time and determined to develop it without top notes, which requires excellent tobaccos because top flavorings help level any raw characteristics remaining in the tobacco. The leaf buyer at Mac Baren is also the firm's owner and proprietor, Henrik Halberg, and he suggested Syrian Latakia for this purpose because of its smooth smoking properties.
Per took a non-traditional approach to the mixture, adding Kentucky Dark Fired and Oriental to support the smokiness of the Latakia. As far as Per can determine, it was a novel approach to Englishes. He named it HH Vintage Syrian, the "HH" denoting Harold Halberg, who founded the company in 1887. The blend was introduced at the Chicago pipe show in 2006, where Per signed each tin individually.
Per has been involved in every tobacco made by Mac Baren since that time, but he is the father of the HH line, and it holds particular significance. It's a line that he decided would have no top flavoring whatsoever, a line that commends itself with tobacco of such quality that it does not require the benefits of top notes. He didn't arrive at that decision before developing two blends for the line that did contain top notes, though, and that would require some rethinking, but the Syrian blend was first.
HH Vintage Syrian was discontinued in 2017 only because Mac Baren depleted its inventory of Syrian Latakia, which is no longer produced. But the tobacco was a success, and Per became an important part of the development team. "The funny thing is," says Per, "that I was never appointed to product development. It's a position I just naturally grew into."
...I was standing there looking like a fool, knowing that we have some of the best tobacco on this planet and we weren't recognized for the good quality we made... I took the challenge and spent a year developing Vintage Syrian.
Per's next compositions were HH Mature Virginia, which had a topping of balsamic red wine, HH Acadian Perique, and HH Highland Blend, which used 12-year-old Glenfarclas whisky as its top note. Only after developing those blends did he decide that the unifying theme for the HH line should be one of flavor depending entirely on the character of the tobaccos used, rather than leaf enhanced by top notes, and to pursue that goal he removed HH Highland and HH Mature Virginia from production. "I offer my apologies to everyone who enjoyed those tobaccos," says Per, "but it had to be done."
Nine different HH tobaccos now comprise the lineup, the ninth being HH Rustica. However, HH Rustica was developed in a much different way. Typically, a blender starts with primary components whose characteristics are well known and then adds other components to modify the base flavor, components like Orientals, Latakia, Perique, and Dark Fired. "It's the way we've done it since Harold Halberg started it in the 1890s," says Per, "and it was perfected by Jørgen Halberg in the 1950s."
However, for HH Rustica, an entirely different tobacco was to take the primary role: nicotiana rustica. It's the tobacco that native Americans were smoking when explorers from Europe arrived. Settlers in Jamestown in the early 1600s grew this tobacco and shipped it to England, but before blending and curing developments, it had a bitter character that made it unpopular in comparison to the nicotiana tabacum that the Spaniards had found in the Caribbean. "Nicotiana tabacum is the mother of all the tobacco variants we use today," says Per. "It's the foundation of all modern tobacco blends." When he decided to develop a blend from the original tobacco that started the popularity of smoking in the Western world, nicotiana rustica, Per knew he would be working with unknown characteristics, especially in regard to how it combined with other tobaccos.
"It was a long, difficult journey," says Per. Mac Baren used nicotiana rustica with dark Virginia as a base, and the most difficult aspect was finding the correct ratio, which required a lot of blending and smoking to see how this new/old tobacco would work in combination with other tobaccos. And smoking that much of this tobacco was sometimes challenging, because it is particularly high in nicotine content. "We had many defeats," says Per, "and the process was full of constant adjustments." But they got closer to what they were hoping for with each experiment, even if that experiment was a failure. Knowing what doesn't work in these circumstances is as important as knowing what does. Eventually, they found that mixing Burley into the recipe in the correct ratios generated a tobacco that was well rounded in flavor, its components uniting for a blend with pleasing complexity and easy smoking characteristics, further improved by hot-pressing it, a process that enhances mellowness and promotes the positive interaction of tobacco flavors. All that work was ultimately successful, and HH Rustica joined the Mac Baren lineup of fine smoking mixtures.
Mac Baren produces only those tobaccos that they hold the trademarks for, but that wasn't always so. In 2002, shortly after Per started with the company, they took a contract from Swedish Match to produce Borkum Riff, one of the most popular tobaccos worldwide. It was a gigantic undertaking and it dominated Mac Baren's production, making up nearly half of the company's total output.
But it didn't last. When Scandinavian Tobacco Group combined with Swedish Match, STG took over production of Borkum Riff, leaving Mac Baren one year to dispense with the brand. It was disappointing to receive that news. "That was a very, very dark day in Mac Baren history," says Per.
The company had one year to replace half of its production, and it was determined to avoid similar future debacles. By the end of the year, they had compensated for the loss with tobaccos of their own. When they stopped making Borkum Riff, they maintained the same overall production, but it was a stressful year.
Per attributes that corporate agility to Mac Baren being a family-owned business, rather than one with shareholders anticipating quarterly returns. "When you have to perform every quarter," says Per, "sometimes the decisions you make are not the best for the future, because you need to show immediate profits. We don't have that pressure. So if we have an idea we think will be good for our future, then we do it without thinking about what will happen to this quarter."
While Per misses some aspects of pipe making, he's found an even better place for himself with Mac Baren, a place where he can exercise his creativity. It's good for Mac Baren, and it's good for Per. "Managing our tobaccos is a big job," says Per, "and it takes a lot of time. For instance, for a flake tobacco, it takes about a year to get everything right. It's impossible to make a flake tobacco quickly. It takes time to press. It takes time to store, and then everybody at the company smokes it, so it takes a lot of time, but it's fun. It's really fun."