Proper Pipe Tobacco Humidification

The most wonderfully flavorful tobacco I've ever hated is Dark Star by McClelland, which is no longer manufactured. It was deliciously complex, with a fruity spice flavor and a sweet, multi-flavored smoke. However, I was never able to keep it lit and it frustrated me.

I like my tobaccos on the dry side, but I tried every level of humidity, from its original, out-of-the-tin moisture to desert-dust dry, and nothing worked. It just sat in the bowl of my pipe, no more burnable than limestone. If I had a fire in my kitchen, throwing Dark Star on it would probably be more effective than a fire extinguisher. I tried cutting it into cubes. I tried rubbing lightly and gradually worked it smaller and smaller to the point of near powder. I tried folding the jerky-like flakes into the bowl whole. I smoked it in Stacks, Pots, Billiards, Blowfish, Meerschaums, Clays, and Cobs. I tried playing music for it, from jazz to classical, rock to blues. I plied it with charm and flattery, and put it on the mantle in a place of honor to boost its self-esteem. I read love sonnets to it, and the ungrateful concoction still refused to burn.

I've exaggerated somewhat; I did smoke a few tins, but found that because I couldn't figure out how to smoke it efficiently, its excellent flavor did not merit the trouble. I still have an unopened tin stashed, but I doubt I'll ever crack it because I'm rarely in the mood to be dominated and over matched by a plant. I've accepted defeat. Still, I find myself thinking about it because it was awfully good for the few puffs I could coax out of it before it inevitably spluttered into ineffectual inertia and sneered at me in defiance.

I have experimented with tobacco moisture at length. Most smokers would think I smoke my tobacco too dry. When I've offered my pouch to another pipe enthusiast to try, their expressions have revealed their repulsion.

One thing I particularly noticed while experimenting was that the moisture level had a pronounced effect on the flavor. That's true of any tobacco, but it was especially apparent with Dark Star, though the primary challenge was finding a way to make it burn in the pipe. I never reached the stage of tweaking its moisture content for flavor and didn't continue experimenting after I realized I couldn't make the tobacco work for me under any circumstances. But Dark Star is an outlier. Most tobaccos are easy to adjust for easy combustion and excellent flavor.

I have experimented with tobacco moisture at length. Most smokers would think I smoke my tobacco too dry. When I've offered my pouch to another pipe enthusiast to try, their expressions have revealed their repulsion. They try to hide their dismay, but as they are confronted with something they find too dry to smoke, their micro expressions reveal disbelief and horror as they find themselves wondering how to get out of the situation. They politely fill their bowl and, when they think I'm not looking, breathe through the top of the tobacco chamber to try to revive the blend to smokable moisture levels. They take a couple of puffs and then excuse themselves to surreptitiously empty their pipes. No one has ever asked me for a second bowl.

My tobacco isn't crispy dry, but it's within brick-throwing distance of that vicinity. I try to balance the moisture so that the tobacco won't disintegrate and will burn easily while still maintaining flavor. If tobacco becomes too dry, oils and flavor compounds can degrade. I don't think my tobacco is appreciably better with more moisture than I'm accustomed to, but I've spoken with pipe smokers I respect who say they get more flavor when tobacco is more moist than mine. Perhaps it's a balancing act in which I teeter between easy smokability and excellent flavor. And that's different for different tobaccos. Some I prefer at a moisture level more in line with the tastes of others. It's primarily my Virginias that are parched, and those are what I smoke most often. Light aromatics project themselves as flat and tasteless if I dry them too much. I've not smoked an English regularly for several years, Latakia having become an overpowering flavor to my palate, but I recall that I needed more moisture in those blends than in my Virginias.

Moisture can be overdone, of course. Smoke a wet tobacco and you risk tongue bite, excessive relighting, stubborn combustion, and gunky cleanup. It isn't good for the pipe because excessive heat must be applied to maintain its ability to smolder. For me, moist tobacco presents a challenge requiring overly attentive puffing, and it sometimes produces a steamy character that I find distasteful.

I think nearly everyone, if they've been smoking for a while, prefers different blends with different moisture content. For a while, it became too complex for me and I found myself smoking only one blend for a long time. It was easier, and I'm a fan of ease of use. But in the interest of laziness I was depriving myself of many great tobaccos.

Moisture & Processing

Proper moisture level has a number of advantages. Tobacco dries quickly and it loses pliability if allowed to become too dry. Tobacco manufacturers change the moisture levels of tobaccos during manufacture for different processes to help maintain the structure of the leaf. Pressing and cutting would render dry tobacco into dust, so a high level of moisture protects it and helps it maintain its structure. Without that moisture, flakes will crumble, ribbons will disintegrate, cubes will become powder. None of our favorite tobaccos would survive manufacturing. Everything would be snuff.

Processed tobacco smokes more slowly than it would in its natural form because it is more dense, thanks to the processing that requires a high moisture level. Tobacco is pressed before it is cut, and it couldn't withstand that pressure if it was dry. Ribbon-cut and shag tobaccos are dense and don't immediately flash in the bowl because of the density attained through pressing before cutting.

"Even tobacco that is cut into ribbon has to be compressed to a degree," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender at Cornell & Diehl, "and it makes the leaf denser. So even if the goal is a loose ribbon cut, that cut is only possible by exerting a certain amount of pressure on the leaf in order to get a consistent slice with the blade. And the resultant product that has gone through that pressure is denser, and can help slow down the burn rate."

Tobacco manufacturers change the moisture levels of tobaccos during manufacture for different processes to help maintain the structure of the leaf.

Moisture helps with handling, too. It's why a new tin of tobacco often contains more moisture than we as smokers prefer. That moisture protects the integrity of the blends so that they survive in the tins we purchase. In addition, it's more convenient to have new tobaccos with reasonable moisture levels: as end users, it's much easier to dry our tobaccos when they're too wet than to add moisture if they're too dry.

Optimal Moisture for Pipe Tobacco

There's more than structural integrity involved in proper moisture levels. Moisture helps the burn rate, and more flavor is available when we slow down and sip our tobacco gently. Tobacco smolders more slowly with reasonable resident moisture on board.

Pipe tobacco should typically be somewhere between 18 percent and 22 percent moisture. That means that if you were to weigh a quantity of tobacco, then bake all of the moisture out and reweigh it, it would weigh 18 percent to 22 percent less afterward, depending on where you started. It's a direct function of weight. If a tobacco is at 22 percent moisture level, that means that 22 percent of its weight is water.

That's not the same as the humidity level in which it's stored. Cigars are stored at 70 percent relative humidity at 70 degrees F., but their actual moisture level is much lower. Pipe tobacco stored at 55 percent humidity will have a moisture content of around 18-20 percent. It's also necessary to account for the temperature, though. The higher the temperature, the less humidity is needed. So consistent temperature is necessary for experimenting with moisture levels. Have you ever found yourself starting a bowl indoors but then moving outside on a hot, humid day? If so, you've probably noted a difference in the tobacco commensurate with the change in conditions.

How Moisture Affects Flavor (Flavinoids)

But we don't want to dry tobacco too much. "There is a point at which you can dry tobacco down so much that you've actually dried out some of the oils and flavonoids that are present," says Jeremy. "And that's whether or not the tobacco has been flavored with anything, although casing does seem to help to hold more of the oils intact. And that's why casing is so widely used. Among other beneficial properties it can offer, it helps to adjust the chemistry of a particularly acidic or particularly alkaline leaf or to help with the way the smoke feels in the mouth. The casing also gives those oils that are natural to the tobacco a little more staying power even when more dry than usual."

Different tobaccos contain different levels of oils and flavonoids. Bright Virginia, for example, is low in oils. "If you took straight Bright Virginia," says Jeremy, "and dried it bone dry, it's not going to be as flavorsome as if there was a little bit of moisture to it. But then on the other hand, something like Oriental that has a little more oil, or even further still, something like Red Virginia or Dark Fired that have more oil present naturally in the leaf, it would take longer for you to dry that tobacco down and you'd have to actually store it dry for a pretty long period of time without introducing moisture back into it before it would begin to degrade in flavor."

Under some circumstances, smokers may find drying useful for particular tobaccos. If a cherry aromatic, for example, has more pronounced cherry flavor than wanted, if it needs to be toned down a little, drying it can do that. You can decrease excessive flavoring by decreasing the moisture content. Pipe smokers have unequalled control over their tobaccos, able to modify moisture, flavor intensity, and burn rate.

Adding moisture can also be beneficial. "If you find that a tobacco is too strong for you," says Jeremy, "try smoking it a little wetter. That slower burn rate that you're going to encounter will help to prevent you from consuming as much nicotine as is present in the blend very quickly and overloading your system. If you find that the tobacco tastes a little thin, again, you might be smoking it drier than is really ideal for your taste buds. And that's really the driving force in all of this: making sure that pipe smoking is the meditative, eminently enjoyable pastime and relaxing experience that it is supposed to be."

How To Maintain Moisture Levels

Once a tobacco is at the moisture level you prefer, storing it in an airtight jar will keep it that way. Canning jars are inexpensive, have rubber gaskets to keep them sealed, and are usually available at grocery stores. If you like something a little easier, or a little cooler, there are several tobacco jars and Cvaults on our site to peruse, all admirably designed for pipe tobacco storage.

When you want to regularly open those jars, though, you risk the loss of moisture, though for the time it takes to fill a bowl, that's negligible, unless it's something that you smoke only rarely and are opening repeatedly over the course of several months. For these circumstances, it's almost effortless to keep your tobacco in great shape, thanks to particular humidification products that can precisely maintain preferred moisture content.

"If you use the Boveda or Humi-Smart packs," says Jeremy, "those work perfectly to drop into a tin or jar of tobacco. They come in different sizes. They come in different humidity preferences, and they're made with propylene glycol, which is a moisture attractor, a humectant, as they're called.

"And that's not the same as adding propylene glycol to your tobacco. The PG is sealed inside the packet, and it is only emitting or absorbing moisture. It's not the same as putting propylene glycol on your tobacco. So, I think some people may be opposed to using a propylene glycol-related humidification system for that reason. But the glycol itself emits or absorbs water to maintain a consistent humidity level." The only thing that could affect it from there is temperature, so be sure not to store your jars in a zinc shed in the summer sun. Store them inside. As long as your home is comfortable, your tobacco will be as well.

How To Rehydrate Pipe Tobacco

If you're like me, you may sometimes open a tin and forget that it's open, or discover a lost tin that's fallen behind a chair, or maybe an opened tin that your dog has concealed in the back of a closet. You'll probably find that it's become too dry and needs rehydrating. I've found that combining that tobacco in an air-tight container with the contents of a new tin of the same blend will bring it into line. It will moisten the dry tobacco and dry the new tobacco. Tobacco moisture balances out pretty quickly under these circumstances. You can also put the open tin in a gallon-sized plastic bag with a paper towel dampened with distilled water and leave it for a couple of days, but you have to remember to check it regularly. If you ever decide to simply mist dry tobacco, use only distilled water, because tap water can cause mold and odd flavoring, but it's best not to add water directly to the tobacco. Let it absorb ambient moisture from its environment.

If you don't trust yourself to remember to check on tobacco that's being slowly rehydrated, humidification packs can again be efficient solutions; they'll bring the tobacco into proper humidification and no higher than you like, they'll do so without supervision, and maintain correct moisture levels well into the future.

Finding the right moisture levels for you personally, for the different tobaccos you smoke, is a matter of paying attention and experimenting.

"As long as I've been smoking a pipe," says Jeremy, "whenever I'd ask about how to do something or what the best way to accomplish an outcome was, I'd always hear, 'Find your own way. Experiment. What works for me may not work for you. What packing method works for me may not work for you. What particular tobacco works for me may not work for you.' I find pipe smokers to be readily happy to talk about their own experiences, but at the same time, I also find that as many different pipe smokers as there are in a room, you'll find as many different approaches to something, because it's a highly individualistic and highly customizable experience."

Finding the right moisture levels for you personally, for the different tobaccos you smoke, is a matter of paying attention and experimenting. If you aren't enjoying a blend as much as you think you should, the modification of its moisture could elevate it to something you'll come back to often. The manipulation of moisture is one of the best tools available to pipe smokers.

Category:   Tobacco Talk
Tagged in:   Accessories Humidity Pipe Basics Tips Tobacco

Comments

    • Daniel on July 5, 2020
    • Wonderful post, as always. Though I am curious what your thoughts are on an issue I came across in the past week. I recently purchased a tin of a particular unnamed bourbon barrel Balkan-style crumble cake from a particular pipe club from a particular city in the Northwest - one that has a near-perfect rating on Tobacco Reviews. I opened it and found it had an amazing, mouth-watering tin note. However, the first bowl I smoked came across... flat. Zero flavor whatsoever. I asked my wife to take a puff, and she too didn't find any flavor.

      I've had tobaccos with flavors I didn't like, but I've never found one that didn't have a flavor at all.

      I rubbed out more for a second bowl and let it sit for around an hour spread out before trying it in a different pipe. This time, it had more flavor, but only because it had a touch of flavor.

      Have you all ever encountered a situation like this? And if so, I'm curious what your recommendation would be?

    • Daniel L. Merriman on July 5, 2020
    • Boveda packs are essentially salt plus distilled water. They do not use PG. The various humidity levels are determined by the ratio of the two.

    • Daniel L. Merriman on July 5, 2020
    • Boveda packs have no PG. They use salt plus distilled water.

    • Andy Olcott on July 5, 2020
    • Great article! Gives some great tips and advice.

    • CJ on July 5, 2020
    • I was wondering if my pipe tobacco that I transferred from an open tin to a mason jar is ok. I knew I wouldn’t finish the tin for a while so I put the rest in a mason jar. I ended up not smoking it for over a year. I haven’t opened it at all and it’s been in a cool place the whole time. Do you think it’s ok?

    • Genley Anderson on July 5, 2020
    • Always good advice.

    • Genley Anderson on July 5, 2020
    • Good advice

    • Mark S on July 5, 2020
    • Lots of good information here. A wealth of ideas to consider, and techniques to try.

      Moisture control does appear to be one of the key factors in pipe smoking enjoyment. I try everything a bit drier than usual which usually improves the experience.

      Then I discovered that the improvement really comes from the fact that the tobacco burns better this way: drier leaf is able to smolder at a lower temperature, which can improve the flavors and aromas dramatically. So, actually, the key principle behind getting an optimal smoke seems to be a cooler, easier burn.

      Everyone can appreciate that a gentle smolder is a great thing when it happens. But it should never involve effort and frustration in my view. Drying the tobacco and lighting gently are the surest path in my experience to getting that effortless smolder.

      I used to really huff and puff during lighting and found that it obliterated all those subtle flavors. Now, on lighting up, I use gentle half-second taps with the lighter until the tobacco burns effortlessly on its own. Not many people seem to have the patience to do that (including me at first), but I can assure them that it is worth it.

    • John Smith on July 5, 2020
    • @Daniel PG is indeed in Boveda packs along with salt and water. They vaguely refer to it on their site as "tasteless food grade thickener (commonly used in salad dressing).

    • Brian Gleason on July 5, 2020
    • Dear Sir,

      Excellent article as always. I am very thankful to you for this information. I am newer at trying to keep tobacco fresh. And Thank You for the laugh. Blend would put out fire better 🔥 fire extinguisher.

    • PETER R LEWY on July 5, 2020
    • a slice of an old apple will easily restore the moisture of an old dry tobacco, usually without "overhydrating".

    • Stephen Wilson on July 5, 2020
    • Chuck,
      Thanks for another great article. I have abut a dozen Ball quart jars with different tobacco in each. Just opening and closing them eventually reduces the humidity. I have found a product, called Hydrostone RAW, which a small disc made of pure terra cotta. No metal, no wicks, no nonsense. Just dip it in distilled water and toss it in the jar.
      Also, I have learned that the flake type tobaccos are just too wet from the tin. I let mine dry for one to two hours before they are ready to smoke. Smoking them any earlier is an exercise in futility, one I don't need. Once dried they have great flavor and smoke all the way through.
      Thanks again and stay healthy!

    • Jonathan Bingham on July 5, 2020
    • Wow, great article and a fun read!

    • Joseph Kirkland on July 5, 2020
    • From an older pipe smoker, started in the fall of 1959, Chuck you have done it again. You present a cogent and clear explanation of what can happen. Thank you. Keep it up. Some day maybe we can enjoy a pipe of good tobacco together—say Balkan Sobranie. I still have a couple of tins.

    • Duane on July 5, 2020
    • Bone dry everytime. I jar all of my tobacco in Mason jars at manufacturer's moisture level but let it dry overnight before smoking. Moisture in tobacco is like ice in a drink. The drink is more flavorful before the ice melts and dilutes it.

    • Michael Cherry on July 5, 2020
    • Sir Charles;
      Excellent information as usual.

      Your Obedient Servant;
      Mike

    • Gus Kund on July 5, 2020
    • you never said exactly how to check the level of moisture
      how about microwaving to dry out ?

    • BRYAN WEBBER on July 6, 2020
    • Great piece Chuck. I also tin my tobacco in jars. Once I get it shipped to me, I'll open the tin, let it air for about 5-10 mins after I take it out, then jar it. Different tobaccos like different moisture levels but I find better flavor on the slightly dry side.

    • Geoffrey L Perley on July 6, 2020
    • I find a huge difference in my morning smoke 5am to my afternoon smoke 230pm.
      Obviously there's a huge temp difference in socal well I even found that I can't use my zippo, it has to be a Bic so I can just barely touch the flame to the bowl, it takes a few Puffs to get it going but it's worth it. I smoke nothing but vaper and va-Oriental, mostly from pease, c&d and ogs

    • LGM on July 7, 2020
    • Great post. It reminded me that I need to use the "proper" techniques, based on the blend; among other things. It also helped me better understand the reasons we may prefer different moisture levels.I was surprised, though, that the ideal moisture rage mentioned is quite different than the one in this blog post (apparently by G.L. Pease):https://pipesmagazine.com/blog/out-of-the-ashes/dust-in-the-wind-a-primer-on-tobacco-moisture/Am I missing something? Are they talking about the same thing?Also, based on another post online, I thought 62% RH was the "butter" zone for pipe tobacco.Can anyone help clear up this confusion?

    • Huff'in Puffin on July 7, 2020
    • ignored again with my question

    • Huff'in Puffin on July 7, 2020
    • you never said exactly how to check the level of moisturehow about microwaving to dry out ?

    • Chuck Stanion on July 7, 2020
    • Huff'in Puffin:Humidification packs will bring tobacco to their designated levels without measurement, but a hygrometer may be used for specific readings if wanted. I recommend paying attention during tobacco prep, feeling the tobacco in one's fingers and learning to recognize what feel works best for different blends. Microwaves: Tobacco can be dried with microwaves. Some say microwaving alters the flavor, and some say nothing should be microwaved because it alters cellular structure. It's always best to let tobacco dry naturally, because it's easy to over-dry with a microwave, but that's up to the individual.

    • Dr. John H. Lauterbach on July 7, 2020
    • Tobacco moisture content versus tobacco water content versus tobacco humectants. The tobacco industry runs on tobacco moisture. Moisture is weight loss on heating a sample of tobacco at 100 degrees C for 3 hours. Moisture includes water, volatile flavors, and much of the propylene glycol used as humectant along with glycerin and as a diluent for flavors applied to tobacco. A 1992 report from the industry document library (https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/#id=nmnj0138) demonstrates this and differences in humectant usage between manufacturers (compare Capt. Black vs. Sir Walter Raleigh). The data in the report was obtained under this writer's direction. The amount of water in the tobacco affects the sensory properties of tobacco in many ways. Perhaps this website will ask me to give more details.

    • Grey Mist on July 8, 2020
    • Enormously helpful, Chuck. Many thanks. I am inspired to experiment with moisture levels for all my blends. It seems like a 'one moisture level fits all' - which has been my approach - may not be the best practice for me.

    • Stan on July 9, 2020
    • Another great article Chuck!

    • W. Gallagher on July 9, 2020
    • You need to be careful with propylene glycol. Don't add it to your tobacco. Last year here in Brazil a local craft brewery somehow mistakenly ended up with some of it in a few of their bottles, and real s...t hit the fan. Nine people who drank that beer died. Dozens were ill. Very bad for one's product image. The brewery (which was one of my favorites) has folded.

    • Chuck Stanion on July 10, 2020
    • W. Gallagher:Propylene glycol is an organic compound certified for food-grade use and is widely used in the brewing industry. I can't find any information on the event you mention, unless you're referring to a story (https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2020/01/backer-told-to-recall-beer-linked-to-poisoning-in-brazil/) about 19 people being poisoned in Brazil, one dying, because of contamination by monoethylene glycol and diethylene glycol. The story says, "Several lines of enquiry are being followed including accidental contamination and possible adulteration by a former employee." Maybe it's the same event you're remembering, but if so, it wasn't propylene glycol that caused the tragedy. Maybe your news source confused the specifics.

    • William G on July 10, 2020
    • Just so, Chuck. That's the brewery, and I'm the one who "confused the specifics" getting the name of the contaminant wrong. It wasn't PG, but DEG (diethylene glycol). Sorry for the "fake news".

    • Jim on July 10, 2020
    • Mr. Stanion: Thank you for that clear and thorough explanation! Mr. Gallagher: An honest mistake is not "fake news." "Fake news" is deliberate fabrication of sources or deliberate inclusion of misinformation or disinformation. By taking responsibility and correcting the error, you've earned back any "points" you may have lost, and then some! Kudos to you both!

    • Gianluigi on July 16, 2020
    • Bravo! Grazie

    • J.B.PATEL on August 1, 2020
    • sir, I have mixing tobacco with lime, but tobacco not retaining moisture. please gives any solution for lime mixed tobacco retaining moisture for at least 45 days.

    • Chuck Stanion on August 1, 2020
    • J.B. PATEL: If tobacco is not retaining moisture, it's because it is not being properly stored in an air-tight container. It's generally not recommended that fruit, such as lime or apple, be used as a humidifying agent in direct contact with tobacco because of the high risk of mold. An air-tight container without fruit will maintain the moisture level of the tobacco as long as it isn't often opened.

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