The Pipe Tobacco Aging, Storage and Cellaring FAQ

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  1. Why does this FAQ exist?
  2. What is aging?
  3. Why does tobacco age?
  4. Does properly sealed tobacco have an expiration date or shelf life?
  5. Does aging actually change and improve tobacco?
  6. What kind of taste does aged tobacco have?

1 ~ Why does this FAQ exist?

This FAQ exists for two reasons. First, because many people wish to increase their enjoyment of the pipe, and smoking aged tobacco is a powerful way to enjoy a richer, more complex world of flavor. Second, because it's criminal to let information such as you'll find here hide in the nooks and crannies of the internet, that's why. -Jason

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2 ~ What is aging?

As you will see in many questions that follow, we have selected here a number of responses from Gregory Pease, of G.L. Pease Tobaccos. Greg gets us started with an important distinction between "melding" and "maturing", which are both part of aging:

There are a couple things that are often lumped together as "aging." The first is more properly termed melding or marrying. This is the result of the various tobaccos "swappin' spit," resulting in something is closer to a homogenous blend than a mixture of different tobaccos. Most consider this a desirable thing, including me. This will probably take place under just about any condition imaginable, providing the tobacco is kept properly humidified.

But, then there are the subtle biological and chemical changes that take place in that sealed tin. These are slow, slow processes. Many organic reactions just take TIME, unless hurried along through catalysis or heat. Heat is a poor bedfellow of tobacco, as it radically changes it - unless of course, those changes are desired. So, we're stuck with the waiting game. Waiting for microorganisms to do their work, waiting for slow organic reactions, which lead to other slow organic reactions, and so on. Once these processes are well under way, the introduction of fresh air can, and will, change things dramatically.

G.L. Pease, 2003-04-17

Greg adds a little about melding, with a nice simile to finish off the explanation:

Basically, there are a couple of things which go on. If tobaccos are allowed to play in the same playground for long enough, they start to take on each others characteristics. The blend becomes more integrated and more harmonious. Complexity remains (and is, in most cases, amplified), but the overall characteristic is more like a finely rehearsed orchestra, rather than a bunch of individual musicians; individual notes are still there, but are so well integrated that they become less noticeable than the whole.

G.L. Pease, 1997-10-13

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3 ~ Why does tobacco age?

Again we hear exclusively from Mr. Pease. Not much formal research is available (or well understood) by the community. Perhaps if we had a biochemist in the fold. Meanwhile, Greg's no slouch, and his grasp on fermentation processes seems to be increasing over time. Listen:

The whole aging thing is pretty amazing, really. From what limited research I've been able to do on the subject, and based on a lot of speculation, it goes something like this: It's all about microbes. Some live in air (aerobes), some live only in the absence of oxygen (obligate anaerobes), some live in either environment (facultative anaerobes). Each does a different thing, and the order of what they do is important. Aerobes eat stuff, consume oxygen, spit out CO2, and eventually die, 'cause there's no more air. Facultative and obligate anaerobes can then live, some of which will consume the chemicals left behind by the now dead microbes as by-products of their metabolic pathways.

So... The tobacco is sealed in a tin. Aerobic bacteria (and facultative anaerobes, I suppose) go to work consuming some of the sugar, producing CO2, and using up the oxygen in respiration. Once the breathable air is gone, the aerobic bacteria die. Facultative and any endospore borne obligate anaerobes will then set about to do their things, probably relying on fermentative anabolic pathways. Most of what we're interested in is the production of esters - organic flavor and aroma components. This can be easily accomplished by some of these lovely living factories.

G.L. Pease 2001-10-17

Tobacco requires moisture to age. Some oxygen is necessary for the initial stages of fermentation in the tin. There's plenty of sugar in most leaf, and the presence of yeast, or, more specifically, the enzyme they secrete, zymase, will result in primary fermentation of some of those sugars.

G.L. Pease, 2001-05-03

Also, there's a secondary "fermentation" which takes place as the residual sugars in the leaf continue to be broken down. This adds some flavours which don't exist in the original mixture, and further increases the complexity of the smoke.

G.L. Pease, 1997-10-13

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4 ~ Does properly sealed tobacco have an expiration date or shelf life?

A common question among those coming from the world of grocery store tobaccos, and one that's been covered several times over the years.

Tobacco doesn't need preservatives. The curing process is sufficient to ensure that tobacco, if stored properly, will last indefinitely. It *can* mold, if too wet, and ultimately rot, again if too wet. But it doesn't putrify, spoil, rot, become septic or anything else which warrants a "preservative." The reason some manufacturers put humectants [chemical preservatives] in their tobaccos is to prolong the "shelf-life" of the "fresh" (read moist) tobacco. For some reason, people don't want to find their own personal "humidity index" for their tobaccos, so the manufacturer second guesses, loads the stuff with propylene glycol, and packs the stuff in little pouches. Not all tobacco is so adulterated, but in some cases, the tobacco in pouches is, while that in tins is not. Pouches have a shorter "shelf-life."

G.L. Pease, 1997-12-22

In terms of quantity sold: most tobacco mixtures are flavored with chemical additives. This includes almost all 'dime store' blends, most premium continental European blends (including most of the traditional English blends being produced on the continent now), and many premium US & UK blends. These blends will most probably not improve with age & are probably best smoked as close to 'off the store shelf' as possible.

John C. Loring, 2000-05-04

And just to give you a taste of the full scope of time we're talking about, and to set expectations properly, check these next two bits of experience from Mssrs. Lindner and Pease:

One complication is that some blends will simply be over the hill in 40 years. Many latakia blends fade over time, and really only have a 30 year shelf life. So I have to hope that whatever blend it is will still be available in 20 years' time if I am to enjoy them in 50 years.

Michael D. Lindner, 2001-11-16

Some tobaccos, most notably Virginias and Virginia blends, seem to have the longest life expectancy; I've smoked Three Nuns that was over 50 years old, and it was simply amazing. Latakia mixtures don't seem to improve for as long, but still a long time. I've smoked stuff that is over 30 years old, and it's wonderful, though some 40+ year old Balkan Sobranie I smoked last year had become a little disappointing.

G.L. Pease, 2001-02-02

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5 ~ Does aging actually change and improve tobacco?

There seems to be universal agreement on this topic, or just about. There aren't that many people on ASP who claim that aging ruins a tobacco. However, we reserve the possibility that there may be some who believe it. Look how open-minded we are:

It depends on the blend and on your individual palate. With some tobaccos, it's night and day - a grassy, bland taste when young blossoms into a sweet-tart, malty flavor with a little age. With others, it's not as overt - a shift in the "color" of the flavor... away from brightness and toward deeper notes, or perhaps just a mellowing of a previously aggressive flavor element.

Then, sometimes, there's just the "wow" experience... Where a tobacco blend is smoked at just the right moment in its lifetime. Where your senses all scream "This is the BEST thing I've ever put in a pipe - EVER!" It only happens once in a blue moon, which I suppose is a good thing. I don't think I could handle dealing with that sort of bliss on a constant basis.

Rob Novak, 2004-07-08

You will definitely benefit from cellaring tobacco. Aging a tobacco blend allows the various tobaccos to "meld" together. The tobacco will also begin to ferment as it ages, this improves the blend as well. A significant difference is usually not noticed until the blend has aged for at least six months.

G.W. Fletcher, 2001-05-10

As a rule, many quality, unopened tinned tobaccos can and do benefit from aging. I really enjoy smoking tobacco that has been aged a considerable time (10+ years). It is fun to check out "hole-in-the-wall" stores when I'm on the road and find a treasure trove of old tobaccos. I find that giving the leaf extra time to marry adds a wonderfully sublime quality.

Jeff Folloder, 1997-10-12

Once you've smoked natural tobaccos for a while, you can then make more intelligent choices about what types of tobaccos to pursue. I personally found that high-quality natural tobaccos, expertly blended and aged, offer a taste that is infinitely more interesting, complex and satisfying than any artificially flavored tobacco. Your experience may vary.

Paul Szabady, 1999-10-26

If you have never seen Cairo or Three Nuns change from light brown to a deep, rich, chocolatey brown then you're missing something.

Edward Mitchell, 2002-05-20

But there are caveats, of course! Sadly, aging isn't always the magic bullet. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Aged tobaccos may not be to everyone's tastes, but they're worth exploring. When you find a blend you really enjoy now, put a few away for later.

G.L. Pease, 2001-08-15

The golden rule is if a tobacco is natural and you like it as it is when fresh, then you're likely to like it even more when it is aged. If it is a flavored one, then the risk of your not liking it later is greater (no one can predict the chemical interaction of the tobacco components and the artificial flavoring).

Tarek Manadily, 2000-09-24

Great tobaccos age to become wonderful tobaccos. Bad tobaccos age to become bad old tobaccos. Though it might become "better" with time, if the stuff isn't pretty darned good when it's young, it never will be.

G.L. Pease, 1999-06-01

Aging generally mellows the tobacco, creates subtleties of taste, and reduces bite (if any to begin with). Don't know if I would call this enrichment, but it definitely improves it.

James Beard, 2000-08-12

Yes, and there are even those who smoke serious tobaccos who explicitly don't bother with age. Fair enough!

Personally, as I smoke stronger tobacco, I don't worry about aging because the tobacco is defined less by the subtlety and complexity of flavor and more by the depth of body and strength, which really doesn't change all that much over time. Of course I do put tobacco into a "cellar", but not for the purposes of expecting it to get better.

magnulus, 2004-02-05

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6 ~ What kind of taste does aged tobacco have?

Mr. Pease and a mysterious ASPer known only as "Bob" try to describe how the taste of tobacco changes with age.

Some of us have grown to love the "funk" that comes from well aged weeds in tins. Charles Rattray, on the other hand, didn't even believe tobacco should be kept in the tin for any length of time, instead feeling that fresh air was essential to a tobacco's proper life expectancy. He believed it should be purchased, and smoked as quickly as possible.

G.L. Pease, 2003-04-17

You can't really go wrong with tinned blends, providing you like them when they are "young." At worst, the stuff will mellow a little, meld a little, and become better integrated, less focused. At best, time will yield increased complexity, depth and richness, with some of those amazing surprises that only age can provide.

G.L. Pease, 2001-01-16

Perhaps the easiest way I can think of to get some idea of what happens to a blend as it ages would be for you to get some fresh McClelland's [bulk] 5100; try some now and jar the rest. 5100 is a good one to do this with as it's just a straight red Virginia: no perique or stoving to complicate the issue. Then in about three months get some more of the fresh stuff, smoke it and then open your three month old jar and try it. This is what I did and even though I have nothing resembling a sophisticated palate the difference almost knocked my socks off. After you try that terms like maturity and fullness will mean something to you.

Bob, 2001-11-06

Some palettes are even able to observe quite fine gradations. These differences become more pronounced as the fine character of the tobacco emerges with age. Once again, Greg Pease:

The only problem is that tobacco, like wine, being a natural product, inevitably changes slightly from crop to crop. Steps are taken to hold the flavours fairly consistent, but some slight changes are bound to take place. I recall when I was just learning about Balkan Sobranie in the early 80's. The crop of 79 was different from the crop of 80, from the crop of 81, and so on. The changes were often very subtle, but detectable. All were good. Now, with almost 20 years on the tins I squirreled away, the effects of age has been similar upon all of them, and only now can the differences be really appreciated. I've got quite a few vintages of the stuff, and it really is different from year to year, though only slightly.

G.L. Pease, 1999-06-02

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