The Pipe Tobacco Aging, Storage and Cellaring FAQ

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Moisture Management

  1. What is the right level of moisture for natural pipe tobacco -- and how do I tell?
  2. My tobacco is too moist. What are my options?
  3. My tobacco is too dry. What are my options?
  4. My tobacco is BONE DRY. Is it a lost cause?
  5. Should I keep open tobacco at a high humidity, like cigars?
  6. How quickly should I smoke the tobacco from an aged tin, once opened?

1 ~ What is the right level of moisture for natural pipe tobacco -- and how do I tell?

The classic answer is the "pinch method", described here:

Grab a big pinch and squeeze with your thumb and fore finger, if it sticks together for more than a couple of seconds it's still to moist. If it gently falls apart, it's just right.

cigarnomo, 2005-12-15

Many ASPers believe that the right level of moisture has a strong component of personal preference:

Tobacco with a slightly dry feel to it does not burn hot (in the sense of either heat in the mouth or the heat of the pipe), as many believe. I've definitely developed a preference for tobacco slightly on the dry side. As pipeman says, however, it takes some trial and error to develop a feel for how dry is dry enough.

HalfBent, 2005-12-15

There are many schools of thought on how dry a tobacco should be for you to smoke it to its maximum flavor and unfortunatley, only you can tell yourself how dry a particular tobacco should be. I'd recommend starting with your favorite tobacco and trying it 1) straight out of the tin, 2) set out for 10 minutes to dry before packing, 3) set out 20 minutes to dry befor packing, 4) etc. Go as far as you like on time. I have one blend I set out the evening before I plan to smoke it and yes, it's dry-as-dust when I light it up but it sure tastes wonderful that way.

[Your preference for] dryness is something that you must learn for each tobacco you smoke - and every tobacco needs it's own testing period to determine how well it can smoke for you. I like Tavern Tobacco's Laurel Flake very moist. I like Dunhill London Mixture likewise fairly moist. I like Edgeworth Sliced dry-as-dust. I like SG's Best Brown flake fairly dry. I learned this through just plain old fashioned trial and error... you will too.

Rick Piatt, 2005-12-15

For flakes, I have found that what works best for me is when the flakes are just crunchy, when they don't "fold" well. The flavor seems to be better and they stay lit well.

Actually, I find that most tobaccos that are a bit drier than the law allows smoke better, with less gurgle potential and fewer re-lights than if they are on the moist side.

mrwayne, 2005-12-15

You can also tell if a tobacco is out of your comfort range during the smoke itself. Of course, you want to detect this beforehand, but you should be able to interpret the signs!

When the tobacco contains too much water, you have to smoke it hot to keep the fire going. The result is hot humid smoke, generated by a combustion temperature high enough to burn excessive amounts of the tasty bits and convert them to mineral oxides (alkaline, nasty to the mucous membranes chemically) and hot water vapor. Not good.

When tobacco is too dry, it has a _tendency_ to burn rapidly and hot, but a careful gentle draw can get it to smoulder gently at a proper combustion temperature. It requires very careful smoking, but it can be done. For some tobaccos, the effect can be sublime.

Rules of thumb: If the tobacco shatters and crackles and breaks when rolled into a ball, it definitely is too dry. If you can roll it into a ball and drop it on a table top, and the ball just lands plop and lies there lifeless, it is definitely too wet. If it bounces a little (or maybe a good bit) when it lands, and then starts uncurling and stretching out, moisture content is in the ballpark. Tailor to suit the tobacco, the pipe, and your personal preferences!

James Beard, 2005-08-12

Certainly wet tobacco is going to provide an uncomfortable smoke, and one that is hot, in that it carries a higher level of heat energy in the smoke stream.

Smoke particles, even when very hot, don't carry a lot of heat energy with them. Water vapor, on the other hand, does. While not approaching the temperature of steam, the higher thermal mass of hot water vapor can be damn uncomfortable on the tongue.

As for the production of "mineral oxides," I'm not convinced. First, oxidation is electron loss, and electron loss produces weak acids. Reduction is electron gain, producing weak bases. Mineral content in tobacco is a tiny fraction of what's present, and has little to do with flavor, which is largely provided by sugars, esters, aldehydes, and other organics. Nitrogenous compounds, such as nicotine, will certainly produce a higher pH in the smoke stream, but the oxidation products of the other components is generally sufficient, in a tobacco with high sugar content, to "tame" the effects.

Burley, unsweetened, uncased, unflavored, is harsh and astringent, and tough on the tongue simply because it's got almost no sugars in its composition. While many have written that the reason burley is used for aromatics is due to its superior "drinking" quality, and it certainly does have this property, the converse is rather more true; burley NEEDS sugars in order to render it smokable. To my knowledge, there is not one burley tobacco at market that has not been ammended dramatically, even in cigarettes.

To my personal taste, tobaccos with high percentages of orientals and Latakias need to be much drier than Virginia dominant blends, though they all need to be drier than generally packed.

We have to make decisions in the packaging stage about longevity, aging, freshness, "conditioning" of the leaf, and so on. If packed into the tins too dry, it will crumble in shipping. Too, aging suffers if there is insufficient water in the leaf. Too much, though, and other problems occur. Personally, I like my tobaccos in the 10-13% moisture content range for proper smoking, or sometimes even lower. For packaging, 12-15% seems to be pretty much ideal. Many heavily cased aromatics approach 20%, which is damn near soggy.

It's all a delicate balancing act, complicated by the smoker's preferences and technique.

G.L. Pease, 2005-08-12

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2 ~ My tobacco is too moist. Should I let it "breathe" or "air out" for a while?

First, an important caveat for tobaccos of different ages:

Most tobaccos, even when aged a couple to a few years, will benefit from some breathing time. Depending on the type of blend, some of the residual components that result from the aging reactions may not be entirely pleasant. Too, MOST tobaccos are just packed too moist to smoke right, so they'll need a little drying time.

A lot depends on the components in the blend, as well as how long the blend has been aged. Certainly, anything up to 5 years old won't SUFFER from breathing, and may well be better after a little air time. To my mind, Virginias and blends containing predominately Virginia tobaccos will almost always benefit from being opened for a time, anywhere from an hour to a day, or even longer, when they're at this intermediate age. Too, many oriental and Latakia dominant tobaccos can develop an interesting tang during the first few years that may or may not be to the smoker's liking.

It's not just "airing out" that's going on, either. Once the seal is broken, the balance of gasses the tobacco is exposed to changes. During aging, oxygen is consumed, CO2 is produced, and other changes take place. The depletion of oxygen more than likely slows down some of the normal reactions that take place, which partially explains why the aging process is so much more rapid during the first year or two than it is in the following decades. Once the tobacco's biosphere is altered, though, new reactions can begin which may be beneficial to the smoking experience.

When a tobacco is REALLY OLD (TM), over a decade or so, my experience is that the first whiff, the first bowl are the most magical, and the most ephemeral. I love those first few bowls far more than after the stuff has been opened for a while, and find some decrease in complexity once a new round of oxidation and dissipation of volatile components takes place. When I open a REALLY OLD tin, I like to smoke it fairly quickly, and keep it tightly sealed until it's gone. Of course, once you pop that seal, there's no turning back, so degradation is inevitable. Sucking the air out won't help here, as you'd also suck out some of the goodness, which ain't what we're after at all. Probably, the best thing to do would be to put the tobacco in a nitrogen environment, and hope for the best. Scratch that. The best thing to do is to smoke it up...

G.L. Pease, 2005-10-16

I bought some aged tins a few years ago and it has been my experience that if a blend has been aging for ten years or more, it will seem to lose the essences that make it so good quite rapidly. On the other hand, tobacco that has been aging say from one to three years, usually does improve some after it's opened. The oxygen seems to help it become more mellow. And probably different blends behave differently.

Charles Potter, 2005-10-16

In general, airing out is the best way to reduce moisture. The benefits can be enormous:

Drying out pipe tobacco is the piece of knowledge gleaned from ASP that has enhanced my enjoyment of smoking pipes the most. If you've never smoked dried tobacco, let it sit out for a few hours and then let it rest another few hours. After some experimentation you'll probably be letting tins rest open over night.

David Kirkpatrick, 2005-08-12

My normal practice is to open a tin about a week before smoking the first bowl. I take a quick sniff and immediately screw (or snap) the lid back in place until I think it's time for that first bowl. I don't know why this is beneficial, but I've tasted the difference far too often to believe that it's merely my imagination at play.

Tim Parker, 2005-10-16

However, airing out is a process which should be closely monitored, lest you be forced to rehydrate the tobacco:

Opened tins, for me, go through a curve. First, the tobacco is a little too moist, then it gets progressively better over the course of a week or two until it's fairly dry. It can stay at that point where burning characteristics and flavor are both good for another week or two, then it tails off and seems to lose flavor. So, I try to finish a tin within a month, more or less, from opening. I keep a limited number of tins open, and usually do not open a new one until I've finished an old one. Of course, sometimes I just have to try something right away, but usually I can wait a week or whatever until a vacancy occurs.

JHowell982, 2001-02-26

Once that tin is opened, a lot more than water is free to leave the building. And, leave it will. You can rehydrate the weed to get it back to smokable consistency, but those ephemeral nuances are lost and gone forever. [...] Some people like to air an aged tin for a while before they smoke it, much as we let a bottle of wine breathe a bit before drinking. I like to experience both the freshly opened tin, and the softer flavours as it gets some air. But, the reality of the situation is that once that vintage tin is opened, you have a limited time to smoke it before it starts to decline, a week, a couple weeks, a month, depending on a lot of factors. [...] This is possible the biggest reason I'm so dedicated to my scrawny little 2-oz tins. You can finish one, even smoking moderately, before it's had a chance to head south.

G.L. Pease, 2003-02-22

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3 ~ My tobacco is too dry. What are my options?

Greg described the preferred "damp towel method", which is widely agreed to work quite reliably:

Put the tobacco in a bowl, and cover the bowl with a damp, clean towel, checking the tobacco every few hours. With flakes, it's particularly important to allow the tobacco to take up moisture evenly and slowly, so don't spray it, or put anything directly in contact with the tobacco that will localize the moisture too dramatically.

I've used this technique many times, and feel that it's the only way to have control over the final result, unless, of course, you have a vacuum chamber and a controllable source of moisture. ;)

G.L. Pease, 2005-12-14

There are many other methods, of course. Cheryl and Tarek describe the "spritzing method", and Greg comments upon it...

Faster, but less desirable (the way I do it) - spritz with a little distilled water, put in mason jar and leave it awhile so the moisture has time to evenly distribute.

Cheryl, 2003-12-16

Spread the tobacco carefully on a try, and with a spray bottle, filled with distilled water (I use an air tight one that produce very fine sprays), spray a layer of water all over the surface, making sure it all gets wet. Cover it for 10-50 minutes to allow the tobacco to absorb the water. Once you get to that point and feel the tobacco is elastic enough to handle, gently mix it and then place it back into a container. Let it sit for 24 hours, and it should be ready.

Now, this requires experience. The amount of water could be tricky. If, however, on the next day you open it and find it's a bit dry still, then a wet sponge with the tobacco should do the rest and take to the right level of humidity. If it's too wet, then follow the usual procedure of spreading the tobacco on a tray in the open air and check regularly till it becomes right. With practice, I now manage to do the job with no need to readjust the humidity, most of the time.

Remember, the tobacco gets dried and rehumidified and dried and rehumidified several times and to varying degrees before it's finally tinned and/or sold. Yes, you could argue it's never possible to resurrect a tobacco with 100% success, but, hey, I'm happy with 95%!

Please do not [put slices of apple or potato in the tobacco container]. It can (and will most probably) ruin your tobacco beyond recognition.

Tarek Manadily, 2000-06-12

Spritzing can be so easily overdone that they'll end up with soggy leaf. Once sprayed, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour for the tobacco to "take-up" the moisture, and it can be very difficult to evaluate ones progress until the water is no longer sitting on the leaf.

The damp-towel method minimizes the possibility of getting the tobacco too wet, and gives the smoker better feedback as things progress. It takes longer, but the tobacco will equilibrate throughout the process, and is easy to evaluate.

G.L. Pease, 2005-12-15

The "apple slice method" has many detractors, and is not advised except to the extremely adventurous:

Using an apple slice is perfectly rational. It does not flavor the tobacco that much, but does serve to moisten tobacco quickly. Just cut off a little of the apple, put it in your pouch, let it sit there until the tobacco is moist enough and start smoking. Do it in your pouch, not in large cans, humidors, or whatever. [...] There are, of course, detractors in this arena. I only speak from my own personal experience of about 42 years of smoking and occasionally having to moisten my tobacco with apple slices. Others use potatoes because they do not want the apple flavor, but as I said, the apple flavor, if even there, is so slight that it will not matter.

R Perry, 1998-12-04

Please be careful about the apple slice method. This is more likely to encourage mold growth than restoring your tobacco! The combination of humidity and sugar sounds like a laboratory culture growth medium to me!

Jim Gottliebson, 2000-06-13

An age-old mothod for keeping pipe tobacco moist has been the ruin of many a pouchful of weed and should be publicly dispelled once and for all: it is the practice of placing a slice of apple or pear or other moisture-bearing fruit in with your favorite blend. Not only will this interfere with the natural taste of your pipe tobacco, but the slice of fruit will immediately start its natural rotting process, which, if left in the pouch or humidor long enough, will quickly cover your tobacco with a nice white fluffy mold, thereby ruining your ration of Nicotiana Tabacum beyond resurrection. The slightest trace of mold will also render your pouch or humidor completely useless unless it can be totally sterilized.

Richard Hacker, The Ultimate Pipe Book

Less controversial than the above is the "hydration disk" method:

Hop on down to your local pipe store and pick up some of those little metal-encased clay disks. Soak 'em and throw one in each container for a few days. This usually works for me and there's no risk of apple (or potato?!?!) mold in your tobacco.

Boomgate, 1999-06-09

Get yourself a few hydration disk, soak those in distilled water and drop them along with the tobacco into a tightly sealing glass container. Depending on the dryness you can drop 1,2, or more of them into the container.

Jeff Schwartz, 2001-02-18

Put the [dehydrated] plug in the jar, loosely cover the plug with a small piece of waxed paper, and put the damp sponge on top of that. Having the moisture source in contact with tobacco is flirting with the Mold Demons, and the waxed paper keeps them separate.

Rob Novak, 2004-04-28

My preference is to pack too-dry tobacco rather loosely, finding that it is easier to keep smouldering this way, that it provides better concentration of flavour, and as the bowl proceeds, the water that is a byproduct of combustion will tend to put a little moisture back where it belongs, leading to a more "normal" smoke. If the dry tobacco is packed too tightly in the beginning, a soggy mass will result in the bottom of the bowl. But, as you point out, what matters is that the smoker finds the technique that works for them.

If you have too-dry tobacco, you can still smoke it without waiting for it to rehydrate. Greg offers a technique: G.L. Pease, 2005-08-13

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4 ~ My tobacco is BONE DRY. Is it a lost cause?

We're not talking tastefully dry, here. We're talking bone dry. Brittle dry. Crumble in your fingers dry.

If the tobacco is "bone dry" then I think rehydrating it will not bring it back to its former glory. If it is a little too dry, then rehydrating works.

Sean Chercover, 2003-02-21

I, for one, think that, that they would smoke "ok", but really not be the total [tobacco] that they were. Sure, I've rehydrated tobacco hundreds of times. I've enjoyed the tobacco that was brought back, but it always seemed like "something" wasn't there... ya know? With foods, be it anything from orange marmalade to freshly brewed coffee, if you can smell it while in it's container, some of the scent/flavor is being lost to the air.

Bear Graves, 2003-02-21

Adding moisture to a dried out tobacco would restore it to its former glory if, and only if, water was the only thing lost, which is not the case. This dissipation of nuance occurs much more quickly than we would like to admit. Consider the difference between freshly ground black pepper and what probably resides in your pepper shaker.

Loiskelly1, 2003-02-21

I think once the tobacco has dried out, it's finished. I've found that once this happens, especially with aromatics, most of the flavors are gone. That's the reason I try not to have too many tins open at any one time. I used to stuff my tobacco pouch with enough tobacco for several pipes, but not any more. The tobacco dries out too fast.

Tom Greene, 2003-02-22

Depends. The tobacco itself will recover nicely. There may be a few volatile chemical products of aging/fermenting lost, but this is generally minor. Bear in mind that tobacco is kept at very low (3 to 7 percent by weight) moisture content for 2 to 5 years while aging, before blended into something smokable, and blenders raise and lower the moisture content at will to facilitate processing. Hence, ntrinsically volatile stuff is long gone before a label ever goes on a retail product.

Additives in the tobacco are another matter. Depends on the additive. Some wll withstand repeated drying/rehydrating, and others are an absolute disaster. By and large, the higher quality the tobacco, the less damage.

And yes, for most, it won?t be quite the same. May be better. And mixing in distilled water and allowing it to diffuse through the tobacco is all that is really needed. There are special rituals that some swear too, though, so you can make it as complicated as you wish.

James Beard, 2004-04-28

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5 ~ Should I keep open tobacco at a high humidity, like cigars?

Note the difference between storing tobacco at humidity and tobacco containers. Storing tins in a humid environment gets you rusty tins. Bad mojo!

Unlike cigars, the humidity for storing pipe tobacco for use isn't as critical, I find. One of the reasons for this is that pipe tobacco is fairly easily rehydrated. In general, you should be OK just putting your tobacco in a jar with a good seal and storing it in a relatively cool place out of the sun. This way the tobacco will probably stay at the moisture it was at when you opened the package. [...] I find that I like my tobacco on the dry side. [...] One caveat: too dry is much better than too damp. You can always rehydrate if necessary, but there's nothing you can do if your tobacco goes moldy.

Kevyn Winkless, 2002-04-28

With cigars, structural integrity requires a certain level of moisture. But this is not so for pipe tobacco. [...] If the humidity is comfortable for you, it should be fine for the tobacco. At the wet extreme, you wish to avoid humidity so high it encourages mold, and at the dry extreme you do not want tobacco so dry it crackles and shatters when rolled into a ball between the fingers. Between those extremes, it is basically a matter of personal preference.

James Beard, 2002-04-29

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6 ~ How quickly should I smoke the tobacco from an aged tin, once opened?

This topic is somewhat related to moisture, so it goes here! Several people have reported their extremely aged tobaccos fading more quickly than less aged tobaccos, once opened.

A few months of aging can produce some wonderful volatile components that begin to disappear to the atmosphere as soon as the tin is opened. Of course, putting the contents in a jar helps, but once opened, tobacco should be smoked, just as wine should be drunk. In addition to the loss of volatiles, the increased oxidation doesn't seem to do the tobacco any good.

Of course, the older the tobacco, the greater the post-partem depression. When you cut the top off an old knife-lid tin of something, and the fresh air hits it, the changes start. I have always considered the first bowl out of an aged tin to be the most sublime. When opening these things, I want to be right over the top of the tin, to catch the wonderful aroma that escapes when the top is removed.

I don't always follow my own advice, and on more than one occasion, I've put an open tin of something "away" to enjoy later. The experience has never been as good after a few weeks as it was that first day. I realize some like to let their tobaccos breathe, but in a properly produced blend, this is not only unnecessary, it lets too much of the goodness out before you can get to it. (If, for example, there's ammonia in the tin when you pull the top, the tobacco should never have been put in the tin in the first place.)

G.L. Pease, 2004-11-05

I have observed, however, that once the tin is opened, the tobaccos within these ancient tins seems to fall apart rather quickly, losing their essence and power as the days go by. They need to be smoked quickly, as just as aged Bordeaux and Burgundy fall apart quickly after opening the bottle. I once was fortunate enough to attend a wine tasting that included an 1875 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The flavor was there at first but was pretty much "gone" after 15 minutes. Old Virginias parallel old wines, but fortunately they last a lot longer after being exposed to air.

Fred Hanna, 2004-11-05

When I open an old tin, I tend to want to smoke it fairly quickly, as I think there is some degradation of an aged tobacco that begins as soon as the seal is broken. To me, the finest bowl from an old tin is the first. If I'm not going to smoke it fairly quickly, I'll transfer the entire tin to a bail top jar, or bag the contents, and put it in a mason jar. This will keep the tobacco in good shape for quite a while. But, still, every time that lid is off, some of the bloom comes off the rose.

G.L. Pease, 2005-08-20

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