Tobacco blends can be elevated by the smallest details. An imperceptible, untasteable quantity of Perique, for example, can help activate fermentation and reduce the acidity of high-sugar Virginias. A whisper of molasses or various subtle top notes and casings may be unidentifiable but can balance a blend's pH and flavor profile for a more velvety mouthfeel, and the smallest portion of Dark-Fired undoubtedly lends smokiness and baritone notes to a mixture. Blending tobacco is an exercise in balance, the blender selecting the components and proportions with subtlety and precision because even minor decisions can have a real effect on the smoking experience delivered.
With a blend like C&D's Small Batch: Sun Bear, the honey makes the difference. Previous versions of this popular mixture have included honey from C&D Head Blender Jeremy Reeves' own hives and then honey from Victor Seested, a talented beekeeper in Maryland whose bees harvested from the famous black locust trees of the region. Raw honey's flavor characteristics depend upon the nectar harvested by the bees, with different flowers providing different experiences. Though the amount of honey in Sun Bear is small and for most smokers subtle to the point of near imperceptibility, many will register the nuance and sweetness that subtly elevates and differentiates each iteration of this significant tobacco mixture.
Historically Pertinent Honey
This year's release of Small Batch: Sun Bear is the same popular mixture as its previous versions with the exception of the honey, which changes origins from one batch to the next to elevate the diverse and nuanced flavor possibilities of ethically sourced honey. It combines top-tier Bright Virginias with two distinct varietals of matured Oriental leaf, 2018 Izmir and 2019 Basma, alongside natural casings of silver tequila and elderflower. Jeremy formulated the blend for summertime smoking and refreshment when the days are long, hot, humid, and brightly illuminated by the summer sun. Some tobaccos seem to work better in colder seasons; some taste best when the weather is dry or transitioning from one season to the next. Sun Bear is a tobacco blend for enjoying all of the activities and fun of long, lazy summer days.
Sun Bear is a tobacco blend for enjoying all of the activities and fun of long, lazy summer days
This year's honey is sourced from the area that was home to Cornell & Diehl for more than 20 years — Morganton, North Carolina — during blackberry season. "I settled on the blackberry honey," says Jeremy, "because the flavor is wonderful, with a terrific balance of its floral elements and a pleasant aftertaste of deep fruit. It enhances the base tobaccos of the blend and works synergistically with the tequila and elderflower casings." Not an Aromatic tobacco, Sun Bear combines delicately applied casings to balance flavor and pH, provide a luxurious mouthfeel, and coordinate the orchestration of the blend for full flavor, voluminous smoke, and a unique experience.
"I've spent a bunch of time in Morganton and have lots of friends in that area; going hiking and picking wild blackberries is very much a part of the pastimes that people of that region engage in. It seemed perfect to me: a perfect marriage of all of my experience and imagery of what Morganton is about."
Jeremy says that the Morganton honey provides a more delicate and softer flavor than his own hives produce. "The version using my own honey was darker with a spicy aftertaste and a bit of tartness with a more caramel quality. With Black Locust, the flavor of the honey was more subtle, light and airy and floral, with just a touch of citrus. And with this version, there is a slightly more pronounced floral aspect and a bit of a berry note."
Aside from the honey, Small Batch: Sun Bear Mountain Flower contains the same components in the same proportions as last year's Black Locust version. "I wanted to develop a blend that was a perfect companion to the warmer months of the year, and something that would be evocative in the aroma and flavor of summer, and of spring, and of what's happening in the area that we live in in the warmer part of the year. I wanted it to be evocative of flowers blooming and of pollinators working, and I wanted it to function well when smoked in some heat and humidity."
"I wanted it to be evocative of flowers blooming and of pollinators working, and I wanted it to function well when smoked in some heat and humidity."
It couldn't be what's commonly thought of as a heavy blend. "I didn't want it to feel oppressive or overpowering when smoked outdoors in the heat. The Orientals work well with the natural herbal and floral characteristics that the honey bolsters." Those flavors are not generated by the honey but by the tobaccos employed, not only the Orientals but also the naturally sweet and lemony Bright and Red Virginias.
Blackberry and Wildflower Honey
The honey employed in Small Batch: Sun Bear Mountain Flower is primarily from the blackberry bushes that are so populous in the Morganton area. It comes from the apiary of Cameron Johnson, who is a fourth-generation beekeeper. "I started beekeeping when I was probably about five years old," says Cameron." I learned from my grandfather, who learned from his father. I went to NC State, took their entomology classes, and started the master beekeeper program in North Carolina. I'm a certified journeyman beekeeper and keep bees all across North Carolina, take them to Florida in the winter, and have somewhere around 10 to 12 varieties of honey, depending on how productive the season is."
Cameron shuttles his hives to Florida for the sake of the honey and the bees. "In Florida, I get an extra honey flow. The Brazilian pepper bloom is really good down there. And it also really reduces my winter losses. Some winters up here, you can do everything right, and if it just happens to be a bad season, every beekeeper in the area will lose 50 percent or more of their bees. But down in Florida, I don't think I've ever lost more than about 5 percent."
A little honey goes a long way in tobacco blends. Jeremy needed five gallons, and Cameron was intrigued. He'd never worked with a tobacco blender before and delivered the honey in person to see what the project was about. "I knew people had used honey for some niche projects before," he says, "and you see a lot of different products that have just a little honey added. So it wasn't too surprising that somebody wanted to put that in a tobacco blend because I knew it would add that sweetness to it. And that was definitely something I wanted to be a part of."
When he visited C&D, Cameron was first impressed by the aromas. "The smell was wonderful; it was great to see all the curing tobacco and how much technology is involved with the whole process from start to finish." He had some experience with pipes from his college days. "I liked the flavor better than cigarettes, with a lot more body." Though not an active pipe smoker, he says he enjoys the flavor of tobacco and will definitely try smoking Sun Bear Mountain Flower.
Cameron was first impressed by the aromas
The Source of the Honey
"This honey came from a blackberry farm that I pollinate for, running about 200 acres of just blackberries. So it's going to be more of a mono-floral source that you really wouldn't be able to find anywhere else in North Carolina. There will probably be a little bit of wildflower mixed in. If we have really heavy rain and it messes up the flowers on the blackberries, the bees may find a second source for a day or two until more flowers open up, but I would say it's probably 90 percent blackberry nectar."
"This honey fits perfectly with the blend," says Jeremy. "There's a little bit of a fruity character to it, but there are also a lot of floral elements. You notice a little bit of a blackberry sort of flavor, but not tart. It's more the heart of the blackberry flavor. If you think of, say, a blackberry-flavored jam or ice cream you might associate that with a tangy tartness from the tannins, but this honey projects the heart of the deeply sweet fruit flavor, especially in the aftertaste and aroma. It isn't overt; not at all overpowering. And I certainly wouldn't call this a dramatic departure from what people might expect from Sun Bear, but there is a subtle nuance there that's unique."
Bees don't miss the honey they work so hard to produce. "Bumblebees and other bees like that," says Cameron, "collect nectar, but not in excess. But honeybees have always been over-achievers when it comes to collecting nectar. Even in the wild, they will put up way more than they need. So we just take that excess, and it actually helps them out because in the winter, when their population drops, having that much extra honey can cause pests and other bugs to start to move in."
When the population of worker bees diminishes, with the loss of the queen before replacement, for example, there are fewer bees to take care of the unhatched brood and keep the hive tidy and pest-free before starting to harvest nectar. "Because there aren't enough worker bees to stay in the hive and be housekeepers for the first couple of weeks," says Jeremy, "they're venturing out to harvest earlier. That strains their immune system because they are younger than they would normally be for harvesting pollen and nectar. And it also means there's a reduced first line of defense against any sort of pest invasion, allowing pests like wax moths the opportunity to move in."
That imbalance in the hive can further affect the bees' immune systems simply from the stress. "It makes them more susceptible," says Cameron, "to diseases that mites can carry, too. So if you have mites involved as well, and you've got that weakened immune system, it really can stress them out and make them sick."
"It's a perfect storm," says Jeremy. Removing excess honey from hives is beneficial because it reduces the potential for pests and stress. There's a symbiotic relationship between bees and beekeepers.
Removing excess honey from hives is beneficial because it reduces the potential for pests and stress
Cornell & Diehl's 30th Anniversary
Much like the recently released Anthology 1992-2022, Sun Bear Mountain Flower is a celebration of 30 years of blending history. Morganton is a small city tucked into the mountains of North Carolina. Craig and Patty Tarler chose it for the home of their young tobacco company three decades ago, and it is where they operated for more than 20 years. Utilizing the blackberry honey from the region, where blackberries are so dominant and such a part of the local culture, is a special homage to the company's history.
Honey bees were undoubtedly buzzing happily when Craig and Patty unloaded their small inventory and rudimentary equipment. They continued to buzz through the years of expansion and improvement as the company developed into one of the most influential blending houses in the world. Morganton represents the roots and foundation of C&D, and the return to that region for such a component as individualized as honey is not only symbolic but also remarkably flavorful.
"Sun Bear is a very complex blend," says Jeremy. "Creamy and round, it's an easily accessible Virginia flake with a bit of Orientals, but it's much more. Besides the barely discernible honey flavor, it reveals fruity and floral constituents, such as elderflower, and the hint of tequila accentuates the fruity elements of both the Virginias and the Orientals." All of the components work together to enhance and uplift each other, highlighting their most pleasant attributes and providing summer smoking experiences to be remembered.
All of the components work together to enhance and uplift each other, highlighting their most pleasant attributes
Acknowledging the past and affirming the future, Small Batch: Sun Bear Mountain Flower is available beginning at 12:00 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. It possesses a complexity that will maintain long-term interest while its smooth smoking characteristics are attractive for all-day experiences. It has all the elements of a great story: intrigue, history, innovation, style, accessibility, and a plot that promises to excite, charm, and satisfy through the summer season.