Reviews Without Tears

Taking the mystery out of writing tobacco reviews

by G.L. Pease

Most of us read reviews to be informed, entertained, to make purchase decisions, to see what others think about the things we like, things we don't like, or things we're considering exploring. A good review satisfies all of these criteria, and maybe even a few more. But, what does it take to write a good review? We've all read great reviews, and those that do nothing but make us scratch our heads. The latter ones can sometimes be entertaining, but are hardly informative or useful.

We are each expert when it comes to matters of our own taste. No one else can know our likes or dislikes better than we know them ourselves. If that was enough, writing a good review would be simple. But, it isn't. The reader wants and deserves more than, "I like it," or, "this is junk; don't buy it." If you want your words to be taken seriously, and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you didn't, you need to offer more.

Here's the part professional reviewers might not want you to know: writing an excellent review isn't hard. You don't need to be a tobacco expert, know the names and characteristics of all the oriental varietals, be well versed in the history of blending, or have a Ph.D. in composition to write a compelling, informative review; it just takes a little thought, and a few guidelines. And, remember, in the end, it's about the tobacco, and your specific experiences with it. So, where do we start?

In the world of wine, there are four generally accepted steps to approaching a new bottle: look, swirl, smell and sip. In a sense, approaching pipe tobaccos with an eye towards reviewing them is similar. Open the tin or the pouch, and look at the contents. Is it compressed or loose? What colors do you notice? How coarsely or how fine is the tobacco cut? Are the color and cut consistent, or varied? Does it feel dry or moist, clean or sticky? If you feel like getting out a ruler to measure it, go ahead. Making these objective observations over time will begin to influence your expectations, perhaps in surprising ways.

Make notes on your initial impressions - they'll help to focus your attention, and to keep track of fleeting thoughts. What's it look like when you open the tin? What colors do you notice? What is the consistency of the tobacco, the size and type of the cut? Take a good whiff, and note how it smells. Fluff some of the leaf up, and smell it again. What do you notice? How does the aroma change? What does it feel like, its texture, its moisture? This covers the look and swirl part. Now, it's time to taste.

Pack a pipe. Feel how the tobacco fills the bowl. Is it springy or easily compressed? Draw through the mouthpiece, and "taste" the tobacco without lighting it; if you've never done this, you might be surprised by how much comes through. Does it taste like it smells, or do you notice different things?

Now, perform whatever bowl lighting ritual [1] you favor, and observe the flavor of the first puffs, and how it might evolve as you get into the rhythm of the bowl. See how the tobacco develops throughout, and, take more notes. Finally, when you reach the bottom, notice any lingering tastes, the "finish," and how the tobacco burned. Then, leave the room. Seriously. Take a step outside, and breathe some fresh air for a few minutes. Return to the smoking room, and smell the room note of the tobacco. You don't get the full effect of the aroma while you're smoking. (We've all experienced this, so this won't come as a surprise, but it's a useful thing to do consciously, especially when you're first getting to know a blend.)

Now, gather your notes, and put them aside. You can't rely on a single bowl as the basis for a good evaluation of a blend; there are just too many variables that can get in the way of an objective impression, so, you'll want to repeat the process a few times before assembling your thoughts and putting pen to paper. If it's a style of blend you're not familiar with, this is even more important. Of course, if it's a style you can't stand, it's probably best to stop before you get to this point. Writing, "I hate this sort of tobacco, but decided to smoke it anyway, and it's terrible, just like I expected it to be, just like every tobacco like this is," informs the reader only of your latent masochistic tendencies - probably not what they came to a tobacco review to learn. (Remember? It's about the tobacco.)[2]

Once you're ready to write the review, start with the basics. Reviews aren't as useful if they don't include such specifics as the age of the sample, or whether it was in its original package. Tobacco changes dramatically over the first few years of its incarceration in the tin, so knowing how old, even approximately, your sample is, or how long it's been opened will benefit those who are interested in learning how the blend ages. If there's anything else notable about it, mention it. The details will get cloudy or even lost in your own memory, so even if you're just writing a review for your own use, making note of them will be of definite benefit in the future.

Describe your process, your experience. Be brief, and don't get overly poetic. Flowery language can seem pretty when you write it, and there's certainly a place for it, but the idea is to communicate your impressions to the reader, not to obfuscate with metaphor. "It tastes like a walk through the park on a spring day" is lovely, certainly, but hardly as useful to the reader as, "The first sniff of the opened tin reminds me of cinnamon buns and strong, dark-roasted coffee." Aim for more universal descriptions over more personal ones. Most people would know what you're on about when you mention the taste of grapefruit or the smell of roasting chicken (though, if you find tobacco that smells like poultry in any form, it might not be a good idea to smoke it), but, even though you may have a strong memory of the smells emanating from your grandmother's kitchen on your 12th birthday, unless they were there, the readers would likely remain clueless. If the tobacco reminds you of another blend that you're familiar with, or if it seems like it's something like a combination of other blends, discuss it. And, trust your tastes; Everyone will have a slightly different experience, so if you really do taste roasting chicken, say so.

There's certainly a place for a story, but it shouldn't be the dominant feature of a review. (Have I mentioned that this should be about the tobacco?) Keep in mind what you would want to read, what you would find useful in a review while writing yours. And, don't avoid metaphor if it will serve to share your experience with the reader. Instead of simply "Smells like Latakia," try to find specific things from your own experience that you're reminded of. Think about how much more evocative it is to read, "smells like freshly mown, damp grass on a spring day" or "redolent of a driftwood fire on the beach" than just "grassy" or "smoky."

Finally, summarize your experience. Here's where your preferences come into play. Would you buy it again? Is it something you'd want to smoke often, or just once in a while. Will you cellar 100 pounds of it to explore over the years, and guarantee that you'll never be without it, or is it just something that you'd smoke when you had the opportunity, but aren't compelled to keep it on hand? Or, did you dislike it, and will not smoke it again? This helps the reader get an idea of your taste, so they can gauge how well your reviews will inform their experiences.

With this in mind, grab a blend you've been wanting to review, and get to it. Your audience is waiting.

 - glp

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1. The technique I use is to perform a thorough "charring light," taking a few gentle puffs, and then setting the pipe aside for a few minutes before re-lighting and smoking the bowl. This seems to intensify and smooth out the flavors in the early stages.

2. For more on this, see, The Fickle Nature of First Impressions in PipesMagazine.

Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He's been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and co-creator of The Epicure's Asylum.

He is also a monthly columnist at our flagship publication:

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