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
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 
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.)
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"
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.
(Join or Login Here.)
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