This is a photo that I posted to our News page last year, illustrating the level of variance possible between different sources of briar. I chose to repost it since I got an email from a fellow asking about the photo. The pipe on the left is Greek plateau briar, the pipe on the right is Algerian ebauchon. The comparison illustrates a couple of things that make pipes interesting.
Firstly, there is obviously a difference in the sandblast finish, despite the fact that the two blocks were both blasted by me using the same media and techniques. The Greek plateau suffers from two connected difficulties – The wood is hard and more resistant to the blasting, and the ring grain is much tighter… again, making it more resistant to blasting. The most dramatic ring patterns are best obtained using wood with more open rings – Since the growth rings themselves are what resist blasting depth, the more densely they are packed, the more challenging it can sometimes be to achieve a deep and strong sandblast. The paradox to this is that tight rings are often desired, since it means more years of growth have gone into the bowl.
The other difference between the two blocks is in their color. The color of briar is widely (and sometimes hotly!) debated, with many people claiming that paler, whiter wood smokes better. The logic put forth in this is that darker wood contains more tannin, and tannin is what makes a smoke bitter, but there are other factors at work. For one, briar darkens as it ages, and the above Algerian block was over fifty years old, compared to the Greek block which had only been cut and drying since the early 90’s (making it about 10-12 years aged, at my best guess). It is impossible to say how much of the color difference is down to age and how much is from varying tannin levels, which brings me to another personal opinion – tannin is not neccessarily bad. I find the darker Algerian blocks to offer a somewhat fuller, richer smoke sometimes, when allied to the right tobaccos (A wine comparison I could offer would be that tobacco in Greek and Italian briar is like drinking wine from a fine wineglass, while Algerian is more like an earthenware mug).