Updated for Spring 2023. This article has been revised from the original published on July 30, 2020.
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 element and providing 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, inertly defiant and no more combustible 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 cooperate.
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 overmatched 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 from it before it inevitably spluttered into ineffectual inertia and sneered defiantly at my travails.
While experimenting, I particularly noticed 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 a 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.
Most tobaccos are easy to adjust for easy combustion and excellent flavor
Moisture can be overdone, of course. Smoking a wet tobacco risks 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 distasteful steamy character.
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.
Tobacco 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, and cubes will become powder. None of our favorite tobaccos would survive manufacturing. Everything would be snuff.
Smoking a wet tobacco risks tongue bite, excessive relighting, stubborn combustion, and gunky cleanup
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 were 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."
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.
What Humidity Should Pipe Tobacco Maintain?
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 quantities 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."
Tobacco is pressed before it is cut, and it couldn't withstand that pressure if it were dry
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 Optimum 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.
You can decrease excessive flavoring by decreasing the moisture content.
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 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 cat has concealed in the back of a closet for celebrating when cats rule the world. 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.
... it's almost effortless to keep tobacco in great shape, thanks to particular humidification products
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.
"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.