The Pipe Tobacco Aging, Storage and Cellaring FAQ

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  1. How long should I let properly sealed tobacco age?
  2. Do all kinds of tobacco leaf age equally?
  3. How well do aromatics age?
  4. Are there milestones in the aging process?
  5. Do blending houses or tobacconists age the tobacco before selling it?
  6. What are these crystals on my aged tobacco?
  7. Does heating, or "stoving", tobacco help? Can I do it at home?
  8. What is tobacco bloom?

1 ~ How long should I let properly sealed tobacco age?

The pithy answer:

How patient are you? I've got tobacco that's 30 years old, and even older, that is wonderful.

G.L. Pease, 1999-01-14

More thorough responses describe the general boundaries:

Provided blends are cellared in decent conditions, they should 'improve' with age for at least one to two decades and in all likelihood for longer. When they 'peak' is probably as much dependent upon individual taste and storage conditions as the blend itself, but I suspect that in most all cases if reasonably well stored it is sometime after at least a decade. I also suspect that the greatest improvement comes during the first decade, that for the most part the peak is sometime during the third decade, but that the most memorable experiences will come, together with some disappointments, from well stored tins closer to a half century old.

John C. Loring, 2000-05-04

I've smoked Three Nuns that was over 40 years old, and was magnificent. I've also smoked Balkan Sobranie of a similar vintage, and found it over the hill, though a 30 year old tin, sampled the same night, was spectacular. [...] Any truly exquisite tobacco will stand up to the test of time, and be bettered by patience. When it will begin to decline is highly speculative. Five years is safe, as, probably is ten. Beyond twenty years lies the gray zone.

G.L. Pease, 2000-05-03

There is some practical upper limit to this, just like with wines. At some point, the tobacco's smoking quality will actually begin to decline. This turning point is determined by several factors, including the types of tobaccos in the blend, the conditions under which it is stored, how much air was left in the tin at packaging time, how moist the tobacco was originally, and so forth. As a general rule, the darker a tobacco, the longer it will age, while lighter, more delicate leaf loses some if its flavour and aroma if aged too long. (Interestingly, some light tobaccos will get quite dark after a few years of aging. Lemon Virginias, for instance, can turn to a lovely nut-brown.)

G.L. Pease, 1997-10-13

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2 ~ Do all kinds of tobacco leaf age equally?

Now this is a gargantuan question! Mr. Pease's considerable experience is once again is featured here in bulk, alongside a response from Mr. Loring. But first, the high-level capsule responses:

Virginias, and to a lesser extent, oriental tobaccos, age wonderfully. Latakia softens a bit, but still has a nice sweetness. Burley is still Burley. Since it has essentially no sugar in it, there's nothing to ferment. Sure, the flavours meld and mellow, but the stuff really doesn't change character much.

G.L. Pease, 1998-07-09 (revised 2003-12-23)

Aging seems to plateau at different times for different types of blends. While Virginias seem to last nearly forever (I've smoked some Three Nuns tobacco from the late 1940s that was unbelievably wonderful), Orientals, particularly blends very heavy with Latakia, and little or no Virginia leaf, seem to have much shorter lives. But, in any event, 20-30 years seems quite safe. (I have some Garfinkel's Orient Express #11 that dates back to the mid 1960s, and the stuff is sublime, while some Balkan Sobranie I sampled from the 1950s was clearly "over the hill." Quite sad, really.)

G.L. Pease, 2001-08-15

Mr. Loring admonishes us to remember that we're talking mainly about quality non-aromatic tobacco products and blends:

Today there are relatively few blends available that will improve with age; these are Virginia, Oriental & Latakia blends to the extent they are not chemically flavored or laced with chemical preservatives, primarily the few remaining traditional English blends, e.g. Dunhill, and some small American blenders who use tins suitable for aging, e.g. Hermit Tobacco & Gregory Pease.

John C. Loring, 2000-05-04

And here are several additional excerpts from Mr. Pease's posts over the years, discussing various aspects of the topic.

From my experience with tasting old tobaccos, Virginias, really good ones, have indefinite life expectancies. I have no idea where the plateau is, or if there is one. Perique is another tobacco that seems to age indefinitely. Good grades of Turkish have sufficient sugars to hold their own for an amazingly long time. Latakia does not. Burleys are interesting. Being higher in nitrogen than other leaf, a Burley that is not well cured, properly sweated and well aged before blending will produce the greatest amount of ammonia if left in a sealed environment. But, assuming it's a good quality leaf to start with, it will continue to mellow somewhat for a finite period of time. Beyond that, I feel there's little to be gained by extended aging. However, a good Burley/Virginia blend will probably continue to age well, much like a good Virginia/perique blend will. This is merely speculative, however, as I have no empirical evidence to support it. That said, ANY blend worth its salt should age a minimum of 20 years, and probably much longer.

G.L. Pease, 2001-01-14

Nearly any good tobacco, like a good wine, will improve with age. How much it will improve, and how long, depends on a lot of factors. Virginias and perique will improve with age, seemingly indefinitely. I've smoked ANCIENT Virginias and VA/perique blends that were just sublime. Oriental tobaccos seem to age for a very long time before losing their delicate flavors. Latakia ages, as well, but over the course of time, it begins to lose some of its spice, and after many, many years, it can go quite "flat." Burleys soften a little, get a little more mellow, but don't really seem to age.

G.L. Pease, 2001-04-04

Virginias, and to a lesser extent orientals, undergo greater changes over time than Burley will, largely due to the greater sugar content of the leaf. Burley is essentially sugar-free, the diet tobacco. While it does undergo some of its own changes, the most important of these is probably the loss of "edge" and harshness that many Burleys can possess when young. If the tobacco is good, much of this mellowing has occurred before the leaf is cut and blended.

Burley is a bit of a chameleon when it comes to its flavor. The leaf is very "open," and it takes on the flavors and aromas of the tobacco surrounding it. When first blended, the Burley component can readily be picked out in the mix of flavors. Within days, the change is already noticeable. It's still there, still identifiable as Burley, but it's already begun to integrate into the blend. Over months or years, this assimilation will become more complete, and the Burley's influence will become more and more subtle.

Personally, I don't think it's worth it. Spend your cellaring money on Virginia and oriental blends, tobaccos that will improve and develop over time, and smoke the Burleys while they're young. They may not get worse, but they're not likely to get much better, either.

G.L. Pease, 2002-04-24

It appears that orientals change [in the course of 6, 12, and 18 months, and perhaps even more] more notably and more rapidly than other leaf. I've long suspected this, but have done no controlled experiments, so it's still little more than supposition.

G.L. Pease, 2003-12-30

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3 ~ How well do aromatics age?

For tobaccos which are steeped in flavorings, aging prospects are quite different than the quality non-aromatics described above. Mr. Pease and Mr. Hamlin discuss.

Aromatic tobaccos may or may not age, depending on the base tobaccos, and how they were flavored. Casing can kill the fauna that are responsible for the early phases of aging, so Captain Black, in all probability, will not age.

G.L. Pease, 2001-04-04

Since mass-market styled aromatics use low character base tobaccos and spray their top note or sweeteners, these tobaccos will actually decline in character over time. Heavy cased aromatics, both in bulk form and in packed form (pouch or tin) should be used "fresh" and not left to cellar. True cavendish processed aromatics, usually Danish produced, can be smoked now, but will continue to improve over a period of time of up to a year. After the first year little additional change will occur in the base tobacco of Danish Cavendish, although the flavor, sweetness and character will "hold" for several additional years under proper storage conditions.

R.C. Hamlin, 1995 Pipes Digest

The real problem, I believe, is that a majority of heavily sugared and sauced aromatics rely almost exclusively on the additives to provide flavour, using the lower grades of tobacco to simply carry the flavourings to the smoker, and provide some nicotine for body and "strength." These lower grades of leaf do not benefit from age. To cite the wine metaphor once more, no amount of aging will make a bottle of plonk anything more than old plonk, while a bottle of a grand cru will develop much of its complexity and bouquet only after years of bottle age.

It is not the fermentation, or cessation of fermentation through a hostile environment which produces the bad taste found in the tobacco equivalent of "old plonk." There is a difference between aged tobacco, and tobacco which has just gone stale, and that difference starts long before the aging process has worked its magic.

G.L. Pease, 1999-02-08

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4 ~ Are there milestones in the aging process?

One of my favorite questions! There is a subjective element here, of course, where each cellarer perceives (and waits impatiently for) a real superior shift in flavor. But to the extent we can generalize, we have room for discussion. Mr. Pease in particular has weighed in on the topic, over ASP's lifetime. Here are his responses, in chronological order:

The most major changes occur over the first six months to a year, though there is significant improvement in two months. After a year, it takes about another year to notice much difference, then about two more...see a pattern? After about 10 years, things really slow down. But, smoking tobaccos that have been aged 2-5 years is a real treat, and worth the wait, for some blends.

G.L. Pease, 1998-03-08

There is really no optimal interval, but there are ranges that are significant. The first real difference is noticed after a couple months in the tin. Here, the melding of the flavours has really started to take place, and there's a little more "evenness" throughout the smoke. After about 6-months or so, significant fermentation has begun, and the flavours really start to become enhanced. Beyond that, 1-year, 2-years, 5-years show distinct changes, though not as dramatic as the early ones. Aging continues, but at a slower pace. There's not a lot of difference between a 5-years old tobacco and one which has been aged for 6-years, but at 10-years, it's noticeable, though subtle.

G.L. Pease, 1999-06-01

As with wine, the best thing to do is to buy plenty, cellar it carefully, and taste it often - at six months, at a year, at two years, again at five. It is better to enjoy it sooner, and dream of what it may become, that to find it over the hill later, and lament what it might have been.

G.L. Pease, 2000-05-03

It seems that somewhere between 12 and 24 months is something of a magic number, and that seems to be pretty universal amongst most tobaccos I've experimented with.

G.L. Pease, 2002-05-20

While six months makes quite a difference, I've noticed that 18 months to two years is really where the turning point lies. You can expect increased complexity, a rounding out of the flavours, enhanced sweetness, and greater depth.

G.L. Pease, 2004-08-05

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5 ~ Do blending houses or tobacconists age the tobacco before selling it?

A fine practical question, with several ASPers offering answers:

That tin of McClelland's No. 27 Virginia which has a 1999 date may have been harvested sometime between 1994 and 1996 (depending on just how that company does it). Sometimes the length of time is even longer, like the Kentucky that Greg uses in Cumberland -- for 20 years it sat in bales in some hidden controlled-environment tobacco warehouse, fermenting and aging and mellowing, before someone stumbled across it and said, "Who the hell didn't sell this?"

Krister K., 2003-09-08

It often takes a while for the blends to marry and to soften the edge of newly shredded tobacco. Storing tobacco means the blender will have to pay taxes on the inventory and he has his money tied up much longer. Same thing with cigars. The tobacco is aged only as long as required to provide a decent smoke. Wine is sold green or young for the same reason. It is drinkable, but is nowhere near it's potential. Selling young moves the aging to the buyer, removes the inventory (thus taxes), and returns the money to the seller.

Walter L. De Visser, 1998-03-30

I look through the tins when I go tobacco shopping and try to find the oldest, dustiest ones - or in the case of McClelland's I look on the bottom and find the oldest date codes. Several shop proprietors have figured out that I'm nuts, but I don't mind - at least I'm smoking aged tobacco while going insane!

Colonel Panic, 2000-12-19

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6 ~ What are these crystals on my aged tobacco?

Answer: nobody really knows. But Greg Pease has some thoughts...

The crystals that appear on aging tobaccos are more likely something that is soluble within a narrow pH range. These crystals are not very soluble in water. As the tobacco ages, the pH changes, and some things that had previously been in solution may, and apparently do, precipitate out. But, from some very preliminary testing, it is almost certainly not sugar.

G.L. Pease, 2003-10-01

I don't think the crystals that form on tobacco are sugar. A long time ago, I did some messing around with some of the crystals I discovered in a tin of Virginia, a little analysis, and they did not behave like any sugar that would be in tobacco. They were not even soluble in water! At the time, I could neither harvest enough of them, nor did I have access to the necessary equipment to get a read on what they might be.

G.L. Pease, 2002-06-26

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7 ~ Does heating, or "stoving", tobacco help? Can I do it at home?

A very popular topic of conversation, which has generated a variety of technical and practical responses! First, the technical:

Increasing the temperature would speed up chemical processes, making the aging go faster, but would likely not speed up all processes equally so the effects would be somewhat different. And increasing the moisture content would likewise speed things along, but may lead to speedy growth of mold.

James Beard, 2001-01-01

Yes, heat will accelerate aging, but the aging and darkening will happen regardless - it just takes longer. Heat also changes the character of a tobacco. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But, to be on the safe side, I have always advocated cool, dry, dark environments. (The darkness keeps the labels from fading.)

G.L. Pease, 2001-08-21

Microwaves won't disrupt the micro-organisms present, but heating the tobacco is just not a good idea. It can undergo other changes, not all of which will be benevolent. [...] If you heat the tobacco sufficiently to kill any mesophiles that are present, you're cooking the tobacco, which will alter its characteristics dramatically. If you like a tobacco the way it is, raising the temperature to something in excess of 40C will certainly change it, and it won't be what you remember!

Heating tobacco can be beneficial, if its done by the blender. Stoving, steaming, panning all serve to change the tobacco in ways that CAN be beneficial, but it has to be done under controlled circumstances, and the blender must take the stoved leaf into consideration.

G.L. Pease, 2002-08-19

As with any healthy internet discussion forum, people offer personal experience, as well. :)

[This is the "Steve Laug Method". -Jason] The method is to bake the tobacco in the oven at 225 degrees in mason jars covered in tin foil for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. One main difference I noticed, was now the tobaccos have about twice the aroma than before. I also notice the flavor is more intense, and perhaps a bit rounder, more mature. I have no idea what the prevailing thinking is on this, but I do know that I'll be stoving some others to experiment as a result.

John Rocheleau, 2004-11-11

At 300 deg. F, you'll do a little more than stove the stuff, and will, in fact, scorch it. The right temperature to do this sort of thing is no higher than 220 deg. F. Too, if you put sealed tins or closed up mason jars in the oven, be aware that they may explode. The pressure that builds up can be quite high.

After tobaccos are "stoved" in this manner, it'll take them a week or two to settle down. The changes over that timeframe can be nearly as dramatic as what you experience from the process itself!

G.L. Pease, 2004-11-11

Having been told several times that heating my tobacco in the tins would improve the tobacco (Most likely many here have heard the old "Leave it on your dashboard on a hot day" adage), I was curious to find out if there was any truth I could detect to it. I put a stack of selected tobaccos out in a window for the entire month of August, through the EU heatwave with a full day's direct sun every day. I stored an equal tin of each blend away in my usual closet stash.

Recently I finally decided to open a pair of tins of Elizabethan, a mix that was recommended as a good guinea pig. I'm sorry to say I can't tell any difference at all between the two - they're both very good and as potent as ever, but the heated tin doesn't offer any depth or richness that the closeted one lacks. Not that I'm complaining, having two tins of good tobacco to smoke! :) It's possible that there wasn't enough heat involved (though, I have to say, solid weeks of 100 degree weather in direct sun seems pretty toasty). It's also possible that others of the test blends may offer different results. And, of course, it's likely that my taster may not be sensitive enough. For the moment, though, this looks like a bust at first glance.

Trever Talbert, 2004-04-19

I took bulk 5100 and stoved it in a mason jar with aluminum foil on the top (instead of a lid) for 3 hours at 300 degrees. I stopped it before it became 5105. It is so superior to regular 5100 that it is the only way I smoke it now.

max, 2005-01-29

The "hot car method", described here, is widely attributed to Freddy Vegas.

I have stoved tobaccos many times, using different methods, such as leaving a tin in the trunk of a car (in the hot weather) for several days, in the rafters of my garage for several days, in the oven at 200 for different lengths of time. Overall, I've had the best results using a crock pot. It's best to check out the temperature, so if you have a meat thermometer put it in the crock pot and change the setting as needed to reach a constant temperature of about 150. Once you know where to set it to obtain that temperature, it seems to work best, put a tin or two or three or whatever different tobaccys in the crock pot and forget about it for at least eight hours - ten to twelve is even better. It works wonders with virginia and virginia/perique tobaccos. I've tried it with English blends but the results are questionable, at least for me.

JohnnyFlake, 2004-06-17

In early 2005, this topic came up again -- pertaining specifically to sealed tins! Fred Hanna started the discussion with his "220 for 220" method...

Over the past month or so, I have been experimenting with a different tobacco treatment. I say it's new only because I do not know of anyone who has done it in quite this way. This method may not be new at all but here it is, and I believe I am on to something. BUT TRY THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!

The technique is limited in application, but results so far have been exciting, for me, but I am still experimenting. It's quite simple. I call the process, "220 for 220." I have used this mostly on Virginia (and some English) tobaccos up to this point but intend to try it with more Virginia and English blends soon. Here's what I have been doing. As I said, it's quite simple, really.

I take the ENTIRE TIN, UNOPENED and STILL SEALED, of a Virginia or English tobacco, REMOVE THE PLASTIC TOP and place it in the oven for 2 hrs and 20 mins, at a temperature of 220 degrees. I do not remove the label as this temp is too cold to set the paper on fire. Some tins swell and expand at the lid, but they seem to reduce to normal size, or nearly so, after cooling. So far, McClelland, Rattray's, McCranie's, and Pease tins have not popped open (with the exception of 1 tin of St. James Woods). The tall tins tend to hold their seal throughout the process. THE FLAT TINS, such as Escudo and Solani DO POP THEIR SEAL BUT THE RESULT IS STILL POSITIVE, for me, at least, as the tobacco inside does not dry out or become "roasted." After cooling for a few hours, I remove the tobac from the baked tin and place it in a separate container.

THE RESULTS? This process seems to change the tobacco in such a way as to, like stoving, make the tobac more dark in color, and makes it smoke more mellow, smooth, and often more sweet. Several experienced pipe smoking friends who have smoked tins thus treated agree with this assessment.

Try it with a tangy, sharp 2003 or 2004 Christmas Cheer and see what happens. This method made a tin full of the current version of McCranie's Red Ribbon smoke downright heavenly. And with the McClelland's, the vinegary ketchup smell reduces significantly, just as it does with aging. And it made a tin of Rattray's Marlin Flake smell like oatmeal raisin cookies (must be some topping they put on it, that I was previously unaware of), but the topping seemed to meld nicely with the tobacco. I have not done this with aromatics and probably will not.

Fred Hanna, 2005-01-28

Okay, I'm finished (220 for 220). The 220 for 220 Red Flake is a deeper red than the fresh tin. Much of the sharpness is gone and it's somewhat smoother. The flavor is different, not necessarily better or worse, just different. Only time will tell if I'll try this again, but I'm sure I'll enjoy this tin.

Steven Fowler, 2005-01-29

For me, this is not meant to be a substitute for aging, but merely another way to enjoy young tobacco without having to pay top dollar for the old stuff. I love Virginias but I don't care for that tangy sharp taste. I love English blends but I don't care for the rough taste that many of them have before aging. This method seems to diminish the tang and roughness and that makes me a happy guy. I would only do this to a tobacco that I believe would benefit by it. It's that simple.

Fred Hanna, 2005-01-29

I thought of [how this method will never replace long-term aging], but it shouldn't matter if you immediately open the tin. I think the idea is to make unaged tobacco taste better for immediate enjoyment.

Steven Fowler, 2005-01-29

I am smoking a bowl full of the 220 treated Half and Half now. The tobacco seems to be more mellow and flavourful than the same tobacco before 220 treatment. I will use this method again in the future. I really think that it helped smooth and mellow this Va/Burley/Perique mixture.

Lannes Johnson, 2005-01-30

Well, I've completed my experiment. I had some tins of Haddo's on hand, and as I posted last night, I baked one of them at 220 for 2:20. I opened two tins today and smoked samples from the baked tin and from an unbaked. Both tins have the same date stamp of 12/15/04.

The first thing that I noticed when I opened the baked tin was the different tin aroma. It has a deep almost chocolaty tobacco smell. Not very much left of the fig & raisin aroma that I'm used to. Comparing it to the unbaked tin, it is much more mellow and sweet. The colors are not that much different. In the baked, there is a noticeable darkening compared to the unbaked, but not as much as I was expecting.

I smoked the baked Haddo's this morning, and it was wonderful. It was mellow, sweet, and noticeably different! And best of all, no "brightness" in the flavor! I puffed hard to see if it would bite, but it didn't. It got hot and didn't taste that great, but no bite! I set it down and let it cool and re-lit. It was a very nice mellow smoke to almost the bottom. The flavor was much "deeper" if that makes any sense.

I am now half way through the bowl of unbaked Haddo's in the same pipe as this morning, and boy, what a difference! For one thing, there's that Virginia "brightness". Just a bit of tangy harshness that you have to be careful puffing to avoid. And the harshness is just a fast puff or two away. The flavor while good is not near as good as in the baked. I would say that your process resulted in a very definite improvement in newly tinned Haddo's.

Rad Davis, 2005-01-31

[Responding to reports that certain tid lids go "pop!" in the oven...] Keep the temperatrure of the oven between 170 and 180 deg F. Shouldn't have any popping then.

Craig Tarler, 2005-01-30

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8 ~ What is tobacco bloom?

Seen commonly in premium cigars, bloom is typically seen as a good indicator that the cigar is aging. Some claim to have seen it on pipe tobacco, and it may be related to the crystals described above. Answers below courtesy of posters of ASC.

For the record, bloom is like a coating of very very fine dust. Similar to powder one might say and it is virtually always distributed evenly over the entire cigar/cigars.

Winston Castro, 2005-07-13 (alt.smokers.cigars)

Generally if it brushes off easily, it's bloom. Also look at it with a magnifying glass. Bloom is crystaline and symetric whereas mold is fuzzy and web-like.

Bernie, 2005-07-14 (alt.smokers.cigars)

If you are looking at a white, off-white, or bluish splotch, that looks a little fuzzy, and your retailer ever tells you it's plume, or bloom don't buy it; you're right, it is mold. Mold = Bad.

OTOH, if you come a cross a cigar that seems to glisten under the light, looks like it is coverd with a fine crystline powder, and has no splotches or lumps, congrats, you've got bloom. Bloom = Good.

Ron B, 2002-07-20 (alt.smokers.cigars)

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