How to smoke a pipe

Old fashioned mindfulness: why pipe smoking is a portal to tranquility in a frenetic world

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29 Mar 2019

Our on-demand society has jettisoned so many opportunities for calm self-reflection. Thankfully, pipe smoking still offers an inexpensive way to sooth your soul. This oldest form of tobacco enjoyment acts as an antidote to stress and a portal to contemplation. It puts up a serene two fingers to the demands of a world that seems to have lost its head.

Forget everything you know about cigarettes and vapes. Pipe smoking is something quite different. You don’t inhale. You don’t have a quick pipe. You must make peace with the idea of slowing down. Pipe smokers were practicing mindfulness long before it became fashionable.

Choose your pipe and blend

Begin by choosing your instrument of tranquillity. Pipes can be fashioned from various woods as well as other materials including corncobs, clay, ceramics and even metal. I would advise you start with a briar pipe, as this wood is uniquely suited to burning tobacco for maximum taste and minimum hassle.

You are then faced with the delightful choice of whether to smoke an aromatic or a non-aromatic blend. Aromatics are topped with additional flavours such as brandy, vanilla or fruit. Non-aromatics (often called English blends) allow you to savour the true tobacco tastes without adulteration. For your first aromatic I’d suggest Mac Baren’s Navy Flake. For your first English blend, you can’t go wrong with Rattray’s Old Gowrie.

Lighting up

Pipe tobacco is processed and cut in various ways, resulting in flakes, cakes, plugs, ropes, ready rubs or loose tobacco ribbons. Don’t worry too much about the descriptors, just go for a taste that you want to try. Simply rub a pinch of the tobacco in your fingers until the strands separate, then sprinkle these into your pipe bowl and ‘tamp’ by pressing down gently with your finger. Repeat this process until the pipe is full, but don’t press down too hard as you want the air to be able to circulate through the tobacco as it burns.

Lighting your pipe is a two-stage process. Use one match to singe the top surface of the tobacco. This is called a charring light and ensures an even burn – much as you toast the foot of a cigar before actually lighting it. Then take a second match and actually light the pipe tobacco while taking gentle puffs.

How to smoke

To truly enjoy the flavours of the tobacco you should sip at the pipe, rather than drawing too heavily. Slow down, this is not a cigarette. It will take a while to find the right tempo and most new smokers suck at their pipes until the bowl feels hot in the hand. If this happens just set the pipe down for a few minutes, let it cool, then relight. You can relight a pipe repeatedly without affecting the taste. In fact, tending to the fire in the briar is part of the overall ritual. You may also need to tamp down the tobacco occasionally using your finger or a tamper to ensure a constant burn. Again, experience will teach you how often you need to tamp, depending on your own unique smoking style.

Smoke your pipe until only ash remains at the bottom of the bowl, then set the pipe down and wait until it has cooled. Only then should you clean the pipe by turning it upside down to empty the ash and running a clean pipe cleaner through the mouthpiece and along the stem. It’s best to clean your pipe after every smoke.

I’ll leave the last word to the essayist Charles Lamb: “May my last breath be drawn through a pipe and exhaled in a jest”. I’ll smoke to that.

Sven Hughes is the CEO of Verbalisation


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