Monday, November 28, 2011

Giving + Thanks + Pipes

Part of the Thanksgiving season is giving, whether this giving comes in the form of thanks or otherwise.

Not that long ago, I found an opportunity to give and forward the pipe lifestyle at the same time. I simply could not pass it up.

While in school at Washington University in St. Louis, I have worked as a host at a local Scottish pub called The Scottish Arms. I've now been a host there for around four years, with minimal breaks to focus on school.

When I first started at The Scottish Arms, it had a smoking section and a non-smoking section; sadly, the smoking section is now also called 'outside', as St. Louis City no longer allows smoking in the vast majority of restaurants.

A couple of months after I started working there, I picked up my first pipe, a pipe that is still known by the other employees of The Arms as my 'Gandalf pipe'. In reality, it was a long tavern pipe, which makes it rather understandable why it got its nickname.

Starting to bring in my pipe to work was one of the greatest discoveries since the fact that I can read on my Kindle at work and no one really notices. Slow times at work were much more pleasant when I could enjoy my pipe and get paid for it. It was also a wonderful environment for my earliest days of pipe smoking: in a pub, with beer and scotch flowing, music ranging from Miles Davis to Flogging Molly, and a kilt – don't forget the kilt!

My ability to pass the duller hours with a pipe has since been stripped from me, leaving me fondly remembering the good ol' days.

Luckily, I have substituted my smoking a pipe with discussing my pipes. A rather surprising number of employees at The Scottish Arms have recently taken an interest in pipe smoking. I have written previously about a gentleman named CL, a bartender at the pub, who has now gotten into the full-swing of pipes, sampling Escudo, Westminster, Peterson's Christmas Blend, and much more.

A newer devotee is another bartender, Jeff. He approached my one day while I was working and asked me if I knew where he could get a good starter pipe. Apparently, he had puffed on someone else's pipe – an old Savinelli that I had given to him a couple of months earlier – and had thoroughly enjoyed it.

I ticked off a number of great brands with fine pipes under $100: Peterson, Stanwell, Neerup, Savinelli, etc.

There was a twinge visible on Jeff's face and I soon knew why. I toss out $100 as being a great price for a reliable pipe because I know that to be true. As I have said earlier, a good pipe costs good money and one does not want to run the risk of starting off with a poorly made pipe.

An initial investment of sixty to eighty dollars is a lot to ask, though. I suggested Missouri Meerschaum corncobs and a number of other options, but I could see the enthusiasm dripping from him like sap from a tapped tree.

That's something I refused to let happen.

I went onto one of my most visited websites, Smoking Pipes, and found the gift set they have known as the Collegiate Starter Set. They have a long and in-depth description of the product, which is something that I love about the people at Smoking Pipes, and the write-up starts as follows:

You love the delicious, fragrant aroma of pipe tobacco. You admire the refined, classic look of a pipe. Perhaps you've even fathomed, once or twice, of trying your hand at the hobby. Where do you begin?"

This is the situation in which Jeff found himself and he turned to me for a little advice. I may be known as the weirdest member of The Scottish Arms's workforce, but I also know a fair amount more about pipes and cigars than most people there.

Since Jeff put his trust in me, I refused to let him down.

I quickly ordered the starter set waited.

Finally, the set arrived in the mail, all of the items – pipe, cleaners, tobacco, stand, tamper, and leather pouch – packed snugly in a cardboard box designed to look like a present, complete with a ribbon printed on the box.

Next, I had to find a time when Jeff was working, as we rarely work at the same time.

Eventually, I went in to work to grab a drink after class and there was Jeff, discussing the value of original Bob Dylan versus any cover of his songs.

I ran out to my car to grab the box, which I had brought with me for just the eventuality. I sat down at my table, the box sitting at the edge, and waited for Jeff to come by.

“Can I get you a drink, young sir?”

Jeff is about five years older than me, but manages to make those years seem like decades. He's a jovial man with a sense of humor that borders on the absurd. He is, if anything, an extremely kind man.

“Yes, sir! I will take an Arcadia London Porter and you will take this.” I handed Jeff the box, which he looked at with a perplexed stare.

Once he opened it, he face lit up.

He thanked me profusely and walked away from the table with a big smile on his face. He was still beaming when he brought me back my beer and told me it was on the house.

I have yet to be able to see Jeff smoke his pipe, as smoke-breaks at restaurants are rarely long enough to enjoy a bowl. He has, however, shared his experiences and confusions with me and I can tell that he has enjoyed his new-found hobby, approaching it with enthusiasm and curiosity.

It felt good to fan the flame of his interest in pipes. So much of the writing and discussion about pipes is often directed towards those who are already interested in pipes. This makes sense, as very few people with no interest in pipes would care to read a blog about them. We should, however, be sure to invest time in encouraging those who will carry on the torch (or the Old Boy or the Zippo) for years to come.

A little while later, Jeff came up to me and started talking about his experiences with his samples of tobacco.

“I'm really liking the Altadis Night Cap. It just smells and tastes great!”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “Aromatics are always a crowd-pleaser.”

“I do have one question about aromatics, though.”


“Is there anything wrong with liking aromatics?”

Short answer: “No.”

Long answer: ...In a later post!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

It is easy to have an overly verbose and overly dramatic post on Thanksgiving. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I will try to keep mine short and real -- no promises.

I am not a religious person, so I give thanks to the people in my life.

Obviously, I am thankful that my lady, Lauren, made the foolish decision to have me in her life and for the fact that she puts up with and loves me for my strange obsessions and behavior.

I am thankful for my family that understands me and encourages me. Love is not something to be taken for granted.

I am thankful for more things than I should trouble you all with.

Instead of continuing to enumerate all of that for which I am thankful, please allow me to make a wish for every one of you: cherish your family, not just on holidays, but everyday; cherish the loves in your life, be they people or pipes; do not let a day go by where you do not appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive, for life is far too short. I wish you all happiness.

On this day when we are, interestingly enough supposed to give thanks, we so often spend our time rushing to a store to pick up something we forgot, worrying about the turkey (though I am excited to worry at the turkey), complaining and arguing and stressing and bickering.

I certainly hope you all take a breath and kiss your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/any random person. Do not let those moments pass you by, for you never know when there won't be anymore.

I am also thankful for the entire pipe community in which I so often participate. You have all been supportive and fun and friendly and helpful. So, when I raise my pipe later tonight to exhale out my thanks with wisps of grey-blue smoke, I will have you all in my thoughts.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Back to Basics, Part I.

All right, class. I will be your substitute teacher today, as your regular teacher is out with what we call the "Monday Blues". Someone needs to call the CDC, because that seems to be an epidemic. Anyway, my name is Ethan and I will be leading class today.

Now, I know that you have recently been discussing the particle theory of light, but we are going to discuss something far more interesting, and certainly more relevant: pipes!

I am sure you are all wondering the same thing right now: But, Ethan, how would I choose my first pipe? Well, class, I am going to help you make that all important decision.

The first choice you really have to make is what type of pipe you will purchase, and you have three primary choices: briar, meerschaum, or a corncob.

First let me state that you cannot make a wrong choice in this department. There are those who insist that a new pipe smoker should always get a briar or always get a corncob, and most of those same people will say that a meerschaum should never be one's first pipe. I disagree on all of these counts and let me tell you why.

You are picking up a pipe for pleasure, to make yourself happy. All three of these mediums for pipes create cool, quality, delicious smokes and each one can lead to a successful first experience with pipes. For this reason, you should choose whatever style pipe makes you happy.

Now, let's go through your choices one by one. You've just walked into your local tobacconist, after managing to find one, and you spy a pearly white dragon claw holding an egg; the thought of seeing smoke drifting out of that egg, as if a newly hatched dragon had recently crawled off, is simply too much for you to resist. And who could blame you?

There is one all important thing to remember when selecting a meerschaum pipe: make sure is it block meerschaum. What this means is that the pipe was carved from a solid piece of meerschaum and not from scraps, known as pressed meerschaum.

Sometimes this can be difficult to do when buy from a physical tobacconist. So, you have a couple of choices: buy online from a reliable retailer who tells you that it is block meerschaum or try to make this determination while at a tobacconist. You can do this by buying well-known brands, such as IMP, or simply looking at the price: if it is over $50, it is probably block meerschaum. Other than that rule, pick whatever design and size makes you happy.

Some people object to using meerschaum pipes for first pipes because they are 'more difficult'. I disagree entirely. While it is true that meerschaum is a more fragile material, it is simpler in a number of ways: you don't have to worry about correctly forming a cake, as you in fact don't want to form any cake, and you can smoke as much out of it a day as you want. This is much simpler than briar, which has a number of rules that it is suggested one follow. Therefore, this complaint against meerschaum is invalid.

What about the corncob? Some people swear by the value of a corncob as a starter pipe, and it is easy to see why. They are cheap, durable, require next to no work on the part of the pipester, and provide delicious, cool smokes consistently. You can pick up a good Missouri Meerschaum for less that $10 and be off and running!

So, where's the downside? The downside is purely visual. While the point of the pipe is not always its appearance, it is important for someone who is starting off with a pipe to feel confident and enjoy his new-found hobby. Corncobs, though wonderful, give off the impression of a farmer or a country gentleman, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it might not be the image that a city-slicker or college student wants to have.

That being said, a pipe is designed to make you happy, not to appease those around you so that you can fit into a particular stereotype. If you are a corporate executive in New York City and you want to smoke a corncob for your first pipe, then you should smoke a corncob. It's as simple as that.

Finally, we reach the briar. For as many advocates as there are for corncobs as a starter pipe, there are scores more for briar. After all, it is the predominant medium for pipes, the classic image of a pipe, so why not get comfortable with it early on? Of course, there are more rules to be followed with a briar than with a cob or a meerschaum, but that ritual is part of the beauty of pipes.

There are some important things to consider when choosing that fine wooden pipe, however. A number of older articles have been written about how to pick out a pipe shape that best compliments your facial structure and body shape, and that that is the pipe shape that you should buy. These rules included bigger pipes for bigger people, smaller pipes for smaller people, slender pipes for slender people, etc. While this may geometrically have some validity, it is the least important thing that one should be thinking about when picking out a pipe.

If you are a short, rotund person and you see a tall billiard that makes you drool, then that is the pipe you should snag. Don't second guess yourself by being concerned about whether "this pipe will make me look fat". Your trip the the tobacconist is not for a shirt or tie or pants, it is for a pipe, for something strictly for yourself. Find one that makes you happy -- is this mantra sounding familiar yet, class?

While your happiness is key, there is one rule that I suggest in order to ensure that happiness: avoid the bargain bin or "basket pipes". While these pipes can be good knock-around pipes, there are not what you want to start with. Go ahead and drop fifty to sixty on your first pipe.

What was that? Yes, you in the back row. Ah, good question. I don't know if everyone heard him, but he asked why he should spend that much money on something he might not end up enjoying. Well, it's kind of hedging your bets. If you only spend $15 on a briar pipe, the chances are you won't enjoy it: it will probably burn hot, taste awful, gurgle, and be difficult to keep lit. That extra forty or fifty dollars will help to ensure you are quality smoke and enhance the probability that you will enjoy your pipe. Don't bet against yourself by going cheap.

All right, now that we've picked out our first pipe, it's time to move to tobacco --


Oh, that's the end of class, everyone. If I get to teach you all again, we will pick up on the subject of pipe tobacco next time. In the mean time, go home and do your homework! And enjoy yourself!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Picture a Pipe

I entitled this blog "Pipe School" with an extreme awareness of all of its meanings, and I embrace those meanings. It is a school for those who wish to learn a little something about pipes, it is because I am still in school -- I am on campus as I type this -- and it is because I am still learning something about pipes every day. I am a pupil.

This blog, in fact, has been one of the most educational experience for me in terms of pipe related knowledge. I have had to do research for certain stories, ask help from those more established than myself, advertise my blog to friends, family, strangers, and dogs, and so on. One of the most difficult and enjoyable challenges that I have faced in the process of creating this blog has been to begin photographing my pipes.

"But, wait," I hear you say, "there are dozens of great pictures of pipes already on your blog!"

Well, like any young student, I had to rely on the established and experienced masters for those. The majority of those came from the online retailers where I purchased the pipe or from the artisan who sent me the pictures. The pictures they have taken are phenomenal, though I never fully appreciated them until I started trying to take my own photographs.

There is a lot more difficulty in photographing a pipe than I expected, more details than need to be delved into here. Suffice it to say, it is rarely a simple matter of "point-and-click". Smooth pipes reflect light like a mirror, which makes it difficult to get a precise shot of the incredible grain on the surface of the pipe.

Then there is the issue of the background, where one can either find a suitable backdrop that allows the pipe to still remain the central focus of the shot, or one can attempt to edit out the photo's background entirely, leaving a snow white background.

I have recently been attempting the latter. This means a great deal of time to get even a semi-decent final result. When I first realized that I would have to photograph my own pipes or be doomed to a parasitic existence, a leech latched on to the camera of those more dedicating than I, I once again contacted Mr. Neill Archer Roan.

As you have no doubt noticed. Mr. Roan has been an incredible influence for me, not only because he clearly has the skills to pay the bills, but also because he is generous with his time and knowledge and has been a font of useful information. Mr. Roan replied to my inquiry about photographing pipes with a small dissertation about saturation and aperture and filters and histograms and string theory. To put it lightly, my mind melted into the consistency of Irish oatmeal.

Still, I trudged on, failing and failing again, interspersed with the occasional failing. Eventually, I found a small amount of success. Thus, I present to you the first of my attempts at photographing my collection, in chronological order of attempt.

Kurt Huhn's 2011 Smokers' Forum Pipe of the Year and Peterson's 2011 Christmas Blend

Three Cubes (Morta, Sandblast, and Smooth) by Chris Askwith. An entry about these pipes is coming soon.

Two pictures of my newest Castello 55. Incredible grain here!

Pease / di Piazza Bulldog. One of the most comfortable pipes in the hand.

Two Talbert Elans. The only two currently in existence. Again, this pair will have an entry coming shortly about this two beauties.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ramble On

"Leaves are falling all around, It's time I was on my way. 
Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay. 
But now it's time for me to go. The autumn moon lights my way. 
For now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's headed my way. 
Sometimes I grow so tired, but I know I've got one thing I got to do..."
-- "Ramble On", by Led Zeppelin

There is no time of year I love half so much as autumn. There is something uneasily perfect about the season. Stepping outside from the comfort of one's den, the crispness that tightens the lungs is ubiquitous, forcing one to bundle one's coat around a little tighter, cherishing every caress of warmth that can be trapped, even temporarily, within the confines of a woolen coat. 

Walking down the sidewalk and watching the steam of your breath drift off into the East, you cannot help but notice a precious fragility all around you -- it is not surprising that the majority of images having to do with Autumn are inherently lonely, absent of any human beings, except the occasional lonely rider on an abandoned street. Those carved pumpkins that will give children a giggle or a fright not so long ago will soon rot; the harvest will end; fires around which friends gathered will burn to ash, broken and cold. As the Starks of Winterfell say so often, winter is coming. Those snows waiting to descend from the North like so many frigid locusts can shake the gentle leaves from their sleeping place and bring them to a permanent, decomposing rest on the ground, just to be trampled underfoot and forgotten.

Within this delicate season, we see a part of ourselves, specifically that part that frightens us the most. Of everything that humans beings can imagine, what we cannot imagine is nothingness, to not be

After the Autumn of our lives comes the Winter, and it what comes at the end of our Winter than frightens us. I contend that there is much we can learn from this noble and fragile season. Winter is coming, a fact that nature knows as well as we, but it is not contend with dwindling or going out with a whimper. The colors are vivid, the scents, intoxicating, the sensations, consuming. 

Let us not drift into the sky, exhaled smoke from a forgettable life, but rather let us accept our fragility and make ourselves the better for it; live life vividly, become drunk on the ambrosia of being alive, allow yourself to be consumed with the pleasure that is existing.

This fragility requires that we savor every moment of Autumn as we would a pipe, sipping in the air, rolling it around in our very being, and exhaling it with a smile. 

Neill Archer Roan, an incredible writer and remarkably knowledgeable man, recently wrote his musings about Autumn on his blog, A Passion for Pipes, entitled Agincourt. I have ever been a fan of Henry V, one of Shakespeare's greatest works. While writing this piece, I have been unable to get two speeches from the work out of my head. First, the famous Crispin's Day speech, which can be found on Neill's blog. The second is only slightly less well-known, but seems very applicable to me for the subject matter that I have been discussing. Let me know if you agree, and, if not, what speech from any play or film best captures the mood of Autumn.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'