Most of us take what we can find at the grocery store. Chefs, however, choose the highest quality ingredients that they can, some personally inspecting and selecting produce at the farm itself, guaranteeing the quality they require to achieve the creative combinations that make a night at a fine restaurant a meaningful event for the rest of us. A very few are so dedicated to quality ingredients that they take part in the planting and maintaining and harvest of the vegetables and fruits they depend upon for dishes of the highest caliber. Like many pipe makers, they are creative craftsmen who require a high degree of perfection to achieve the pinnacle of their impressive capabilities, especially those who concentrate the best of materials and execution for a specific dish.
Jeremy Reeves is like that; he's spent more than a year personally involved with the components necessary for one of his most rarefied and spectacular dishes: Carolina Red Flake with Perique — available Wednesday, October 20th at 12:00am ET.
Head Blender Jeremy Reeves
Jeremy is the head blender for Cornell & Diehl, and he's been planning this run of CRFwP for a long time. He was determined to employ superlative components, and his time, effort, travel, and talent have paid off with a blend to tantalize the most inured devotee of Va/Pers. It's a category of tobacco that has included some very fine blends, but those who prefer Va/Pers are particular. When something like CRFwP comes along, it's an opportunity to sample what this type of blend can achieve.
"Like the first iteration of Carolina Red Flake with Perique," says Jeremy, "the real purpose here was to showcase excellent tobacco and the ways that those excellent tobaccos can combine to create really outstanding flavors. This year we have decided to take a slightly different approach than we did with the very special tobaccos that we used last year; this year the very special tobaccos all happen to be from the crop year 2020."
The blend comprises North Carolina Red and Orange Virginia, North Carolina Lemon Virginia, and an extraordinarily special crop of Perique. The distinctions between these and other Virginias are especially interesting.
"... the real purpose here was to showcase excellent tobacco and the ways that those excellent tobaccos can combine to create really outstanding flavors"
"When we're talking about Bright," says Jeremy, "we're talking about something that is in what tobacco folks would call the lemon side of the color gradient. So it's that bright, classic yellow and gold color in tobacco grading that Lemon refers to."
Lemon Virginias can often produce delightfully tart or tangy flavors and tend to be brighter in flavor, thanks in part to their very high sugar content. "The darker the color gradient, typically, the lower the sugar and the higher the nicotine. That's not always the case, but that's the typical expectation: that the darker the color gradient of the tobacco in question, at least with flu-cured or Virginia-type tobaccos, the higher the nicotine and the lower the sugar."
The Lemon Virginias function as the high-sugar component of the blend, but they are a little darker than typical Lemon, and that somewhat darker appearance is why they're called orange Virginias. "The darker Virginias in this blend are also a little lighter than dark, dark mahoganies. So there are some leaves in it that ended up being mahogany, but overall the color gradient is orange-red."
What's particularly interesting about the leaf is that it is "tips grade." Flue-cured tobaccos are harvested in stages; the lower stalk positions are harvested earlier and the upper stalk positions are left on the stalk longer. "It's typically done in three stages," says Jeremy. First, the "lugs," those leaves closer to the ground, are harvested. "Then you take your cutters, which are located at the middle of the stalk. And then some weeks later you're taking your upper-stalk-position leaves, usually just the top third."
Flue-cured tobaccos are harvested in stages
However, there is one farmer in North Carolina who does the extra work of harvesting four primings, first from the lowest positions on the stalk, then the mid-stalk, then the upper third except for the top five leaves or so of new growth. "Those leaves are very small," says Jeremy, "but they've gotten a lot of sunlight. And in this particular plant, your tips are going to be very, very high nicotine and relatively low sugar, but somehow these turned out to be even higher in sugar content than we used for the first run of Carolina Red Flake Red Virginia."
Tips-grade tobacco is a rarity, and even more unusual is a Tips-grade that is so high in sugar with relatively low nicotine. "That's not to say that there's no nicotine value to it at all, but it has a really wonderful, sweet, deep kind of flavor that isn't as overpowering as a flue-cured or Burley-tips grade would typically be."
The tips are left on the plants, reaping the benefits of the resources of the entire plant, for several weeks, depending on weather conditions. "I think that the weather contributed to higher sugar content in this harvest of tips. Typically, when you have a very wet season, that tends to drive nicotine levels down and sugar up. And if you are harvesting quickly because of inclement oncoming weather, then you might not leave it in the field as long as you otherwise would. 2020 was overall a wet year. Not as wet as 2021 has been, but 2020 did see some hurricane storming that affected eastern North Carolina. My guess is that those two factors, lots of rain, and the risk of a potential hurricane causing saltwater damage to a crop, might've led to this tobacco being harvested when it was. Thus we have this very, very top Tips-grade of tobacco that is particularly high in sugar and much more moderate in nicotine than you would anticipate."
"We have this very, very top Tips-grade of tobacco that is particularly high in sugar and much more moderate in nicotine"
The exact sugar content for these tips is 13.53 percent, which is particularly high. Carolina Red Flake was made with L2DH grade and was in the 10.8 percent range. "And then the grade that we transitioned into after L2DH was SM218 and down a couple of percent to 8 percent, which is still relatively high for a darker Virginia, but this is quite a bit higher even than the original Carolina Red Flake grade."
That sugar content, unsurprisingly, brings a profound sweetness to the blend, as well as a subtly tangy character. It also aids in fermentation, so aging this blend should be especially satisfying.
"If I smoked CRFwP 2021 blind, having no idea what it was," says Jeremy, "I simply would not guess that the components were all from a year ago. That would not even cross my mind. It already tastes like a well-aged blend and that's just going to keep getting more and more pronounced."
Perique plants harvested on a flat bed
Contributing to that excellent aging potential is the pure Saint James Perique, which carries quite a story itself. "It was produced from seed to soil to harvesting to curing to barreling to capping by one farm. It was all done by one team of three people."
Jeremy took frequent flights through the year to work with that farm at various stages of the Perique planting, processing, harvesting, and production, confirming that the results would be the most traditionally accurate Perique attainable. "I've been able to actually have my hand on every step of the process for the tobacco in this blend that is produced by this farm." Jeremy participated in the harvesting and the hanging of the tobacco in the barn. "If people are curious about what this farm's Perique product is like, those who have smoked From Beyond have already experienced that flavor profile."
It took Jeremy a while to find the right contacts for sourcing a pure Saint James Perique product and he met a family with three generations of history growing and processing. "It's now a father-and-son team, and one other person, who decided a few years ago to get back into Perique growing and processing. So I've been really excited to see the product that they're capable of producing. And the way that they go about things and the way that they think about things is very dedicated, very detail-oriented, and they're ambitious about doing whatever it takes to get the best quality product possible."
After seeing their product and learning about their process, Jeremy visited the farm, and since then he's been returning to it to take part. He's gone down the rows and cut the stalks at harvest time, and he's tapped in the nails at the base of the stalk for loading onto a flatbed to be taken to the barn. He's helped hang the tobacco and taken part in the processing.
Perique plants in the field
"It's an actual full-stalk harvest, so you cut down the whole stalk in one piece. All the leaves are still attached to the stalk. And then you tap in a nail at a 45-degree angle in the base of the stalk and leave it overnight to wilt a little, and the next morning you load it onto a trailer so that you can take it back to the barn. All through the top barn are a series of wires, running horizontally. And there are rafters, but the rafters are designed so that you can actually walk on them so that you can access all the different layers of rows of wires. You use the nail to hang the stalk upside down from the wires."
These rafters are about 20 feet high with a narrow walkway for hanging the upper tier, while a stepladder is sufficient for the lowest level.
"After the tobacco hangs for a little over a month and begins reddening, not crispy to the touch, not going to just crush and break with a gentle squeeze, then the tobacco is ready to be brought down off the wire. It gets stacked in the middle of the barn. And then starts the process of breaking leaves off the stalk and tying them into hands."
A hand of tobacco is about 10 to 12 leaves with one of the tobacco leaves in the bunch wrapped around the base of the leaves. It's done for easier processing so that when the leaves are washed to remove dust from the field, it isn't one leaf at a time. A hand represents a small enough quantity of leaf for effective cleaning but large enough to make the job more streamlined.
The washing of the leaves not only removes dust and dirt but begins the reintroduction of moisture, which has diminished over the month of hanging.
"It will take the washing process and then being sprayed several times after it's been washed to be wet enough that you can actually manipulate the leaves to the extent that you can remove the middle rib or stem without breaking the lamina, which is the two halves of the leaf that are divided by the midrib."
The wet hands are stacked in rows and the excess moisture drips onto the hands below, allowing the leaves to continue absorbing moisture. The hands are sprayed with more water until the leaves are well saturated, at which point workers, called strippers, can remove the midribs without ripping them. From there it's all placed in tubs with wet burlap coverings to maintain the moisture. Then the stripper removes the midribs and stacks the two halves of the lamina into stacks of about a pound each.
Perique plants after around three weeks of curing
"Once the tobacco is stripped," says Jeremy, "and it's in roughly one-pound bundles, then it's ready to go into a barrel. So you've got a barrel that was once used to produce whiskey and that barrel has been rinsed but not scrubbed. There are still elements of whiskey that are certainly in the wood and will play a role in the end product. You want to pack it in very straight rows and be very methodical and very uniform in the way that it goes in because it's important that when you put it under pressure, you don't have any air gaps or pockets anywhere, which at this stage can cause mold."
A predictable pattern of packing the barrel is necessary because after pressure has been applied for a while, it's all going to be the same color, so knowing where each bundle is oriented will be beneficial when the tobacco is turned in the barrel, to avoid ripping the leaves.
"So you pack it into the barrel, as much as you can fit. And then you put pressure on it using a 25-ton screw jack and a couple of moon-shaped wood pieces that are cut to fit into the top of the barrel to distribute the pressure of the screw jack. When you put pressure on this very, very wet leaf, you're going to start seeing moisture squeezing out of the leaf. And that's what you want. So over the period of the next day or two, the moisture needs to be siphoned off the top of each of these barrels."
Pressure continues to be increased until the level of tobacco volume has lowered enough to combine barrels, and the moisture necessary for stripping and for the beginning of the fermentation process continues to diminish, which is necessary for continuing fermentation. "If you don't remove this excess moisture, it will just turn to mold and it'll prevent impurities and things that are currently in the tobacco, like ammonia, from actually being able to cure out. And that's one of the interesting things about Perique: it is not just fermented in the barrel but is actually being cured and then it's fermenting."
It takes nearly a year of enormous pressure for the Perique to be ready, but it isn't a matter of just waiting. Every three months the tobacco must be turned. Any standing moisture must be removed so that it won't be reabsorbed by the leaf when the pressure is released. This has to be done on a day with correct weather conditions because high humidity will add moisture, which is counterproductive to the curing process.
Any standing moisture must be removed so that it won't be reabsorbed by the leaf when the pressure is released
Turning the tobacco requires finding the edges of the bundles in the barrel, which aren't visually apparent because now it's all one dark color and frankly a goopy-looking mess, very tarry and black. The barrel is unpacked and the bundles placed on a table while gently loosening the tobacco. "The bundles have been compressed and they're stuck together, so you're not going to get much airflow in them unless you take either end and work them around a little bit to loosen them up."
It takes about 12-24 hours before the tobacco is ready to go back into the barrel, and that's part of the art of the processor, who determines exactly when it's time. The purpose is to aerate the leaf and purge the ammonia and other elements that have been cured out so far. It also adds free-floating, natural yeast, present everywhere in the air, and that contributes to the curing and fermentation process. "It's one of the reasons that people say that you can't really recreate Saint James Perique anywhere outside of Saint James Parish, because there is a host of factors specific to that area, including the specific flora and fauna that are just floating around in the air, and that ends up on the tobacco and as part of the fermentation process."
"... you can't really recreate Saint James Perique anywhere outside of Saint James Parish"
Perique plants tied into "hands"
A single barrel holds about 500 pounds of Perique, and Jeremy used somewhat less than a full barrel for this run of CRFwP. It was important to him that pure, traditional Perique be used, which is why he went to these lengths. Pure Perique has rarely been made. It typically is combined with Green River Burley processed as Perique, which is typically fine as it's the pressure and fermentation process that give Perique its distinctive characteristics. The Green River leaf additionally helps keep the product standardized in flavor from year to year. Weather can alter the characteristics of the plants, and each annual yield is different, so for continuity of flavor in blends, it's a reasonable strategy. However, Jeremy required pure St James Perique, and this is the only way to attain it.
Percy Martin is a farmer who makes pure Perique, but his entire yield is contracted to American Spirit for their cigarettes. So for traditional Perique in pipe tobacco, extraordinary measures such as these are necessary.
The results are exemplary. "The thing that I notice first in the nose on this tobacco," says Jeremy, "is the really nice, rich sweetness and fruity element of the Virginia and then the deeper, darker, fruit notes of the Perique in the tin. And then when I actually pack it in a pipe and get it lit and going, I find that those things are still definitely present, but there's an added layer of strength. I think that part of that is that a majority of this blend is this Tips-grade Virginia that, while it does have very high sugar, it's still no slouch on the nicotine side. And then you've got that strength bolstered by the strength of the Perique."
Other grades of Virginia can have a grassy sort of character, which Va/Per smokers are familiar with. "However, I don't find grassy notes in this blend, but rather a bready, fruity, kind of a cinnamony sort of spiciness. There's something about it that makes it a really nice fall blend. It's a great companion for apple cider and it's an even better companion for spiked apple cider. My girlfriend has been carving pumpkins like a crazy person. The house is full of pumpkins everywhere, and I have to say that there's been something about the way CRFwP tastes and smells when I'm smoking it that has really complemented the smell of the pumpkins and candles in the house. They have a really nice aroma, and they fit together beautifully. There's something about it that feels like a fall blend to me."
Of particular importance, and what separates CRFwP from other Va/Pers, is the tips-grade Virginia tobacco. "There are not a lot of Virginia Perique blends that can boast this very rare priming of Virginia. The tips, that's just not something that is commonly done. In fact, as I mentioned, the Tips-grade is only done by one North Carolina farmer that I'm aware of."
Carolina Red Flake with Perique will be available at 12:00 a.m ET on Wednesday, October 20, paying tribute to the very classic essence of this style of Virginia/Perique blends. Cornell & Diehl and blender Jeremy Reeves have done everything possible to recreate the most traditional style and use of its components. With both stoved and unstoved single-crop North Carolina Virginia tips, and Perique that has been watched and hands-on curated from seed to tin, it's a blend with a bright, citrusy character balanced by the deeply baritone foundation of Perique as it is meant to be. For the aficionado of Virginia/Perique blends, CRFwP represents excellent aging capabilities and the highest standards and quality attainable.