2. Forming Pipe Tobacco

Most tobacco takes on a “sweeter” taste and a more prune-like aroma when pressed. This is a combination of disruption of cell walls in the leaf lamina (which can happen at as low as 3 to 5 psi), allowing everything that is normally isolated within the cells to be exposed to both air and microbes. If this is done beneath a liquid seal (typically under about 35 psi), then the yeast, Pichia anomala, dominates and turns it into Perique after a few months. With more access to air, that doesn’t occur so much, and there is less of a “barnyard” Perique aroma.

So just plain, dry pressing does alter the tobacco, making it somewhat darker in color (nicotine oxidation) as well as more fruity. Since there are infinite variations in the possible applied pressure and moisture content and ambient microbes, there are, like natural cheese, a lot of possible outcomes.

In the nineteenth century (say 170 years ago), several pounds of finished tobacco would be pressed under a screw-press into a thick sheet, to resemble a 1″ thick plank of dark wood. These were cut into flat, 1″ thick, 1.5″ wide bars of relatively dry tobacco, and wrapped that way, to be shipped to general merchants (trading posts and general stores). These rectangular bars were called tobacco “plug”. Each merchant had on hand a guillotine-type cutter (called a plug cutter), with a long lever for a handle, that enabled him to cut a plug of tobacco‑sold by the inch‑into the length desired by a customer. During that epoch, the customer would then take the paper-wrapped chunk of plug home, where it would store well, and later use a common knife to shave off slices for immediate use. This was called “sliced plug”. The sliced plug was then either broken into several large pieces, or rubbed between both hands, and transformed into shred, for packing into a pipe. Commercial vendors began offering pre-sliced plug (called flake) in small tins, and soon also offered “ready-rubbed” sliced plug, that resembles the typical shredded tobacco sold today.

Cavendish press cake

Cavendish press cake cut into plug.

A commercial alternative to plug tobacco was twist tobacco, which is a 1/2 to the 1-inch thick rope of tobacco, sold as a roughly 1-foot length that had been twisted into a loop. Similar to plug, twist tobacco is first sliced, then the resulting coins are either just folded and stuffed into a pipe bowl, or sometimes rubbed out prior to packing the bowl.

A lot of this plug and twist practice really had to do with prolongation of shelf-life, shipping requirements within the commercial supply chain of the 1800s, and the consequent customer expectations at that time. The unique aroma and flavor characteristics that resulted from these processes were not likely the prime consideration for the development of the techniques.

a. Press Cake, Flake, and Cavendish Cut
The press cake is a “plank” (1/2 to 1-1/2 inches thick after pressing) of tobacco blend that has been subjected to pressing. This can be accomplished at home by either neatly layering or randomly piling together stemmed the whole leaf in a ratio that matches the desired blend. This can be done within a specially made, wooden press box, within a sturdy plastic container, or tucked into a folded, 1-gallon Ziploc bag (unsealed). The tobacco is then subjected to pressure of at least 5 to up to 35 psi. This is fairly high pressure to create at home. The greater the length and width of the “cake”, regardless of its thickness, the greater the total applied weight must be. If you have a shop press or hydraulic jack, then this is not an issue. Just be aware that such a shop press or jack is capable of applying so much pressure that the pressed cake becomes too hard and dry, and nearly impossible to slice afterward, without using a bandsaw.

Plug cut from a press cake

Flake‑a slice of a plug cut from a press cake.

If you intend to use a simple, lever-arm press with a weight on it, or to just stick a weight on top of the tobacco, then the dimensions of the cake should be kept small. For example, a cake that is 6 inches x 6 inches (typically 2-4 inches thick prior to pressing), has a surface of 36 square inches. So 36 pounds of direct weight (a 5 gallon bucket of water weighs ~40 pounds) would provide 1 pound per square inch (1 psi). The same weight on a lever-arm press that triples the effective weight would get you to 3 psi.

Occasionally, press cake with no added adherents (a casing that will “glue” the layers together) will hold together for slicing to flake or Cavendish cut. But if you want to assure that you will end up with durable slices, then a casing will need to be dispersed into the tobacco prior to pressing.

Depending on the amount of applied pressure, the pressing will need to continue for 1 to 6 weeks or so. The duration determines not only how well-pressed the cake becomes, but also the degree of fermentation that occurs during pressing. The longer the press, the more fruity or prune-like the aroma becomes, and the darker the press cake becomes.

For sliced flake, cut the finished cake into bars that are about 1-1/2 to 2 inches wide. Flake is then sliced at your desired flake thickness. Cavendish cut is simply a well adhered sliced flake that has been very slightly rubbed out.

b. Roll Cake and Coins
Roll Cake is a pipe blend of whole leaf tobacco that has been rolled into the shape of a cigar, as tightly as possible. From among the leaf chosen for the blend, a suitable “wrapper”, maybe a contrasting color, is misted with non-chlorinated water, and allowed to reach the high case. You may want to double or triple the thickness of the wrapper layer, in order to maximize the roll compression. The remainder of the pipe blend leaf is then gathered and cut (or torn) to a cigar length, and tightly rolled within the wrapper layer. You can use cigar glue to hold it wrapped, or just fold the head, and hold it in place with a wooden clothespin.

Coins of perique

Coins of perique, sliced from a perique roll cake.

Some commercial producers of roll cake and sliced coins go to great lengths to assure that the cross-section of the coins will exhibit symmetrical patterns of contrasting color, and sometimes strategically located stem (running parallel to the axis of the roll cake), creating “bird’s eye” inclusions when sliced. You can give this decorative treatment a try, but it has no impact on the smoking quality of the coins.

The filler for this process should be in low to medium case, and can have a flavored or simply adherent casing dispersed into it prior to rolling if you wish to produce solid, stable “coins”. The roll cake is allowed to age under its own wrapping pressure for 1 to 6 weeks. Coins are just thin slices of roll cake.

If you use no casing, the coins will come out somewhat crumbly, which may be just fine for smoking in your pipe.

c. Simple Shred
A mechanical shredder can quickly produce shredded pipe tobacco directly from the stemmed whole leaf. The width of the shred is specific to the shredder. Most commonly available tobacco shredders yield a shred that may be ideal for cigarettes, but too fine for your pipe tobacco preferences. A shred width of at least 1.5 mm is more suitable for use in a pipe. (Mechanically attempting to shred Latakia to a fine shred will result in a pile of dust and fragments.)

In order to manually shred pipe tobacco with a knife or chaveta, roll a “cigar” from the whole leaf of the individual ingredients of the blend, or even of the final blend ratio. The narrower the gauge of the “cigar”, the finer the likely shred. A “cigar” diameter of about 3/4 inch produces a nice shred width when sliced with a chaveta as thinly as is practical.

Select two or three sections of the leaf to rehydrate, for use as a wrapper, then tear or cut the remainder of the stemmed leaf to a length that will be wrapped by the chosen wrapper. Once the “cigar” is tightly rolled, attach a wooden clothespin at the head, to hold the wrapper in place, then flatten the cigar beneath your palm. Using a chaveta, rock the blade over the foot of the “cigar”, taking a thin slice with each pass. [If you use a traditional chaveta, you may want to cover the back edge with a section of plastic tubing or old garden hose, to serve as a handle, and allow you to apply more force to the blade comfortably.]

Once the “cigar” is sliced into a row of coins, use the chaveta to cut the entire row down the length of the row. Cut it into halves or thirds, in order to limit shred length.

The sliced, split coins are now gathered into your hands and rubbed together to rub out the shred.

d. Crumble Cake
Crumble cake is similar to press cake in its manufacture and appearance. You end up with a plank of pressed tobacco. The difference is that crumble cake is initially composed of tobacco that has already been shredded and blended. So it looks more like particleboard. The purpose of a crumble cake is to prevent a pipe blend that would rapidly settle out into its individual components from settling at all during storage and handling.

As an example, Cornell & Diehl Pirate Kake is 75% Latakia. Because of the difference in particle size and weight of the Latakia vs the other blend components, even minimal agitation leads to the “Brazil nut effect”, in which the larger pieces “float” to the top, with the tinier bits sifting out to the bottom. Pirate Kake is sold as a plank of crumble cake.

To smoke crumble cake, just break off a corner or chunk, rub it out in your hands first, or just directly crumble it into the pipe bowl.

e. Making Perique
Perique is tobacco that has been pressure-cured beneath a liquid seal, to keep out air completely. Perique can be made using any variety of tobacco, though the nicotine content will vary from one variety to the next, and cigar varieties may retain a residual cigar flavor.

It is made by pressing color-cured tobacco inside a liquid-tight container for 3 or more months. It requires the application of about 35 psi, which can be generated either by a shop press / hydraulic jack or using a hand-screwed carpentry clamp. The follower for the pressing container must make a close seal with the sides of the container, and this must be regularly checked to assure that a thin layer of liquid continues to provide a seal at the margins.

The dark color of the perique is the result of the oxidation of nicotine. The nicotine-rich solution is squeezed from the cells of the tobacco, but will not oxidize fully until the leaf is exposed to air. So the development of the very dark brown color of finished perique requires that the pressed leaf be removed from the press a few times, at intervals of weeks, during the months of pressing, and spread out to air for 10 minutes or longer, before being returned to the press, and brought under pressure once again‑adding a bit of water to restore the liquid seal, if needed.

Perique requires moderately cool ambient temperatures (between 50 to 80 degrees F) for the desired microbe (Pichia anomala) to dominate the fermentation. Perique will initially produce a stinky aroma which, after the first few weeks, will change into a prune-like, fruity aroma. [Perique fermentation, if allowed to reach higher temperatures (say 100°F+ in a shed or attic) may allow the dominance of coliform bacteria, and produce a fecal aroma that might require a year or more to dissipate.]

After 3 or more months of pressing beneath the liquid seal, perique comes out of the pressing container quite soggy. It can be stored in this state in a vacuum-sealed container indefinitely, with little risk of spoilage. Once opened, it is best to refrigerate it.

The alternative storage for perique is to spread the leaf and allow it to mostly dry out. Then roll it into a “cigar” of perique, slice it into a shred of the desired width, and store it as you would any other pipe blending ingredient.

f. Cavendish Process
Cavendish tobacco is literally cooked tobacco or stewed tobacco. Its origin is likely in 18th-century shipping of massive, sealed hogsheads of tobacco within the sweltering holds of sailing ships, as they crossed the Atlantic.

Making Cavendish processed tobacco is similar to canning green beans. Damp (not dripping or soggy) the whole leaf is packed into a canning jar, capped, then pressure-cooked. It requires 5 to 8 hours of 15 psi pressure cooking (at sea level) to complete the process.

Any tobacco variety can be made into Cavendish. Burley, flue-cured Virginia, and Maryland tobacco are good candidates. Which you choose will impact the aroma as well as the nicotine content. Cigar varieties will retain a cigar tobacco quality after Cavendish processing. While the leaf can be processed with the entire stem intact or stemmed entirely, it is more convenient to frog-leg the leaf first, so that it packs into jars easily, and when it’s done, it simply needs to be shredded.

Cavendish tobacco may come out of the process appearing black, but once adequately dried to the low case for storage, it will take on a light to the deep brown character. (Commercial “black Cavendish” remains black only because of the polypropylene glycol (PPG) that is added to it to keep it both black and squishy.) If you make Cavendish, then store it moist enough to remain black, it will promptly mold (unless you add polypropylene glycol [PPG], which will retain the dark color while acting as an anti-fungal). Cavendish definitely smokes better without PPG.

Cavendish-cured tobacco is generally smoother and milder than the same leaf prior to processing.

g. Making Twist
The twist is a tobacco leaf that has been twisted into a rope. Depending on the region of the world, the twist is made with either air-cured leaf or with a well-wilted, green leaf. The overall moisture content should be low to the medium case so that it does not mold in the center. Using either brown or green leaf, the subsequent fermentation within the twist usually requires several months to run to completion, ultimately turning the tobacco dark brown to black.

Twisting wilted

Twisting wilted, green tobacco in Brazil.

The compression and tension of twisting disrupt the cells of the leaf lamina, spilling their contents to the leaf exterior. A combination of intrinsic leaf enzymes (oxidase, peroxidase) together, perhaps with microbes (predominantly yeast like Pichia anomala, or even common yeast used for bread or beer making, but ubiquitous in the air) oxidize the proteins and carbohydrates and ultimately provide a prune-like aroma. As with any open microbial fermentation, it would be subject to unexpected, odd, or undesirable outcomes.

tobacco twist rope

Finished tobacco twist rope.

Twist is sold in some parts of Brazil by the length the purchaser desires. Its uses include pipe blending (or straight), cigarettes, and smokeless. Typically, a pocket knife is used to shave off a slice, which is then rubbed out to a shred.