Biz Stuff – I’ve just uploaded two new Morta Classics and two new Ligne Bretagne Collectors to the website catalogs, for those who may be interested. There’s a green one…
Also, check the News page for info on the further tweaking of the website, including the new estimated dollar pricing in the catalogs.

Today’s pic is the pile of stuff I just got in the mail – LOTS of new drill bits, including some experimental ones, plus more bundles of delrin rod. I ordered a few half-round bits to try on airhole drilling – We’ll see how they do.

The subject of this post is a topic that arose on a pipe forum I frequent. Are there really differences in the country of origin for briar? Some people will swear by Corsican, or Algerian, or Italian, claiming that these different regions of briar produce superior flavor in pipes. But is this true?

Yes and no.

Before I answer further, consider – No one really knows where their briar comes from. Seriously. Briar mills buy briar burls from all over the place, different countries, different suppliers, and they’re all mixed together in cutting and drying. The mill you buy from may be in Italy, but that’s no guarantee that their briar is all Italian – It could be from anywhere around the Med. So, anytime someone says that their briar is definitively of this or that origin, take it with a grain of salt.

Past this point, there are two major arguments – Briar is briar versus the contention that briar varies noticeably from source to source. To address that second argument, we’ve got to first break down just what “good” means in briar. ANY briar source can produce beautifully-grained, excellent smoking wood…. but there are variances. If you want a block that’s likely to be less badly flawed in terms of bald spots or cracks, this depends much more on the cutter that one is buying from than on the origin country of the wood.

I’ve worked with briar from many different sources, and I have the rare ability to be able to actually comparison smoke different briars. To know that both pipes are drilled with the same size of bowl, the same chambers, the same airhole size, and utilize the same stem material…. because ALL of these factors also influence the flavor of the smoke! Smoke the same pipe with an ebonite and an acrylic stem swapped out, and you’ll be surprised at the flavor difference. So, already we’re looking at an equation that’s nearly impossible to boil down to simple measurements – Someone who thinks they like Algerian briar because they believe a brand they like uses Algerian briar may just as easily be responding to the stem design this brand uses, or the airhole layout and size. Too often, big generalizations are made regarding the quality of briar from different countries, often on quite shaky evidence.

But IS there a difference? I can give a very qualified yes. Smoking the same tobacco in identical pipes made from two different briar sources, I can – sometimes – detect a very small flavor difference. In order to notice this difference, I have to actually be smoking the same tobacco in both pipes back-to-back, and on the same night – swapping one with the other every few puffs, because if I smoked them a day apart I would never detect any difference, it is often so minute.

Which of course begs the question – How do I know that the difference between the Greek briar block and the Algerian briar block is down to the source, or rather just the natural variance between two random blocks of briar? I can’t. Not all Greek briar smokes the same, nor all Italian. One just has to take what nature deals and make the best of it. If pressed, I have *generally* noticed the following minor characteristics, but they’re definitely subtle. Algerian briar, to me, seems to offer a darker, richer, heavier flavor. Greek seems extremely neutral, allowing the tobacco itself to shine. Italian and Corsican seem “bright”, giving blends a sharper edge. At least in my experience. But often none of these things are true. It’s like that, in nature…

Categories: Pipe Blog

6 Comments

Unknown · April 20, 2007 at 1:22 am

Thank-you for your ever so sensible observations. They should call you Talbert the Mythbuster. Heh. And to bolster your point that briar mills get their wood from all over the place, I offer the following quote from Dayton Matlick’s article in P&T Mag (Winter 2007) on the briar millers Pippo and Mimmo Romeo, entitled “Briar Cutters”: “At this time, the [Romeos’] needed briar comes from Italy (20 percent, Spain (60 percent) and France, including Corsica (20 percent).”

Ming the Inartful

Trever-T · April 19, 2007 at 5:47 pm

Personally, I can’t tell any difference between ebauchons or plateau as regards taste. Often there is no difference in the wood itself, it’s simply a difference in how the blocks are cut from the burl, with many ebauchon blocks BEING plateau that’s simply been turned sideways and had the rough top sliced off to fit the standardized block sizes.

Oil curing is a subject full of mystery. I think it produces a different flavor in the final pipe, but whether it’s deemed better or worse depends on the smoker…

And regarding Spanish briar, it’s funny, because I know there is a general bias against Spanish briar amongst collectors, yet the samples of it that I have used have all been quite good. I’ve never worked with it in large quantities, though, so I can’t really make a solid overall judgement.

Pharaohfitz · April 19, 2007 at 4:31 pm

Greetings again,
I hear that oil curing removes more of the tannins than air curing. Does oil curing swell the gain more than boiling and does it matter if you use ebauchons or plateau with respect to taste?

One briar mill indicates that over half of their briar is Spanish. Any experience with briar you thought to be Spanish in origin?

Trever-T · April 19, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Yes, the boiling and drying and any further treatments ca have a big effect on the flavor of the briar in the end – as much and often far more than the origin of the briar itself. And yes, it does vary hugely in terms of “handling”. Some briar is very soft and easy to shape, other blocks are extremely hard and difficult, and only want to burn on the sanding discs rather than shaping. Different briars can be suited to different tobaccos…. the challenge is finding any consensus as to which types of briar and which types of tobacco go together best! 😉

Nicolas de Pipe Gazette · April 19, 2007 at 5:10 am

Hi Trever.

What about boiling and drying in your opinion ? It may be an important part of the smoking qualities, isn’t it ?

Nicolas

Pharaohfitz · April 19, 2007 at 12:24 am

Could you comment on your experiences working with different briar in the future? I hear that some briar is “harder” while other is easier to file and sand. My experience working with briar is that the aroma and color is sometimes different. Also, don’t some types of briar provide a different smoke than others with different types of tobacco, e.g., Latkia blends and Virginias?

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