At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


When I returned to the United States in 1978 there were over a dozen tobacconists in San Francisco, and three in Berkeley. At present there are no tobacconists in either town. Oh sure, there are places where you can purchase tobaccos, but nowhere that you can ask a question about the product and get an intelligent answer. The best (and only) tobacconist in San Francisco is across the bridge in Marin County. At Telfords you can definitely get an intelligent answer.

Asking questions in San Francisco has become a futile exercise.
Intelligent answers nowadays are often somewhere else.
Unless you know someone. Knowledge is rare.

Of course Starbucks is all over the place, so you WILL get an answer. Someone is always primed to spew forth at great ignorant length in this city, wired to the tits on perfectly mediocre coffee.
We're full of it here.

Benaderet's on Sutter Street disappeared about three decades ago, Dunhill on Post and Stockton is now a footwear place for thugs, and several other places faded out over the years. When Marty Pulvers' lease was up for renewal, the stipulation was that there would be no more smoking on the premises because the braindead twits in the offices upstairs couldn't smell their own hair conditioner and nail polish when walking past the shop........ or even twenty floors up. So he sold the business to acquiescent know-nothings and retired.

Grant's on Market Street closed last year for much the same reason. It is better to have a vacant commercial space than to offend the fake blondes in the beauty academy two storeys up. Except that I'm fairly certain they've not learned any beauty since then, they still look almighty suburban, stupid, and totally glamless.
It may take them a while.

There was a time when all the men on the decks of the ferries bringing them to work in the city wore fedoras and trenchcoats, and smoked pipes while reading their newspapers. The photos of that era prove it.
Times have changed.

[This blogger doesn't wear his fedora either anymore, even though it's a very snappy dark blue gangster number, very suitable for shul or a poker game. It's the wind, and head-hair. And there are no newspapers left in San Francisco, because reporters have gone into other fields rather than starve to death. People get their news from twitter nowadays. And ferries are for tourists.]

These are NOT the worst of times yet, in some ways they are actually the best of times. Sure, smoking is in the dog house, and pretty young ladies no longer drool over dashing young fellows with their Bohemian habits, mainstreet retailers demand that smokers stay thirty feet away at all times lest they call the riot squad, and tofu trolls from Berkeley now scream about the rainforest whenever you light up. But thanks to the internet, much more is available than ever before.
Three decades ago products from venerable English companies such as Samuel Gawith, Gawith Hoggarth, and Germain's were neither available, nor even known. The German firms Kohlhase & Kopp, and Planta Tabak Manufaktur, as well as Synjeco in Switzerland, were barely blipping on the distant horizon, unrecognizable to us smokers on the ground.
Greg Pease had not started blending yet, Craig and Patty Tarler were still in Pennsylvania, and the McNeills of McClelland fame were just Kansas City oddballs doing hippy things with aged leaf, primarily for their own pleasure. The Danes were smoking fruity funkum in pipes that were far more artistic and mystical than practical and well-made.

[Note: the reason why there is no clickable link for McClelland Tobacco Company is that there is no clickable link for McClelland Tobacco Company. Once quill and ink become internetable, there will be. Exercise your patience.]

Now, I look at the bookshelves in the teevee room, and both the Torah-Talmud section, AND the Dutch-East Indies library, are entirely hidden by tins of Rattrays (Kolhase & Kopp), Wilderness and Three Oaks Syrian (McClelland), Orlik Golden Sliced (Danish), Broken Scotch Cake (Gawith Hoggarth), half pound cans of Smoker's Haven, Dan Tobacco (CAO), MacBaren, and Butera, various navy flakes, and so much Germain's and Sam Gawith you couldn't even shake a stick; I've enjoyed fine tobacco in the last ten years that two decades ago I did not even know existed.
There are neither Berkeleyites nor tofu heads anywhere in the house.

In my own room, the stacks of various Greg Pease mixtures, and even more Rattrays, loom dangerously over the computer desk. If there's an earthquake, all of that plus boxes of Cornell & Diehl and several other brands will fall on top of me.

I should wear a crash helmet at all times.


Merely forty minutes away by bus is a tobacconist that represents both a by-gone era, AND the best of the modern age. Brian and Susan Telford's splendid haven for social lepers is a sanctuary for everyone who loves good tobacco, and I'm regularly surprised at things I find there. Drucquer and Sons, Dunhill, Benaderet, Sherlock's Haven, and Grants are all gone, but Telfords is still around, bigger and better than ever. Of course they're no longer the poky little shop on the corner of Belden Alley and Pine Street that they were decades ago, and they've moved out of this rigidly constipated city entirely, but their large, comfortable, and abundantly over-stocked store in Marin is more than enough reason to visit San Francisco...... so that you can whizz across the bridge to civilization.
Light up, boys; Marc Levine, Tom Ammiano, and their ghastly fellow-travellers, will never threaten you here.

Most Berkelyites don't even know where Marin is.

[Berkeleyite: a clench-jawed intolerant ideologue, in whose priggish presence all thought and creativity become nearly impossible. Most Berkeleyites are so utterly convinced of their own rightness and worth that their mere presence guarantees a lack of anything and everything good in the universe. Vegans, anti-Semites and Israel-haters, pot activists, puritans, and the frigidly uber-bourgeois. All in all quite horrid, quite ignorant, and quite terrifyingly narrow-minded. But the epitome of politically correct smarm. Often, but not always, products of a once top notch but now mediocre educational institution centred there. Berkeley is Tehran with wasps.
Berkeleyites are the ring-leaders and trend-setters of darkness. The term 'Berkelyite' on this blog stands in for all that is repellent.]

In the days when I was inhabiting the repair section in the back of Drucquers, restoring collectable pipes and happily day-dreaming, the anti-smoking frenzy had not even started. It seemed that all would be well with the world, and good leaf would be ever present. Then Dunhill got split-up, with production of the blends being moved to Northern Ireland, and shortly thereafter Sobranie was sold. Within a few years things began to change. Excellent mixtures disappeared, and non-smokers started breeding.

During the nineties taxes skyrocketed, and smoking became a vice.

Here in California laws were passed banning smoke from restaurants and bars. Now, restaurants are understandable. Tobacco doesn't add anything to good food; it is better enjoyed afterwards and elsewhere. But bars? Firstly, non-smokers ought not drink, it's bad for them. Secondly, children, Berkeleyites, weak-willed women, and other mental defectives shouldn't be allowed in bars, as they start too many fights and wreck the place. It's bad for business. Seriously, though, nobody goes to bars for their health, and children are never on the premises.
Keeping all schools, doctor's waiting rooms, public transit vehicles, health clubs, and restaurants smoke-free makes sense. Bars and sidewalks are a different matter, even if you did scoot into a cocktail lounge to get away from all the car-exhaust fumes on the street.

The rest of the world soon followed suit, as do-gooders everywhere took California as an example and pushed for more intolerance in their home countries. Governments dominated by their whores imposed penalties and red-tape on the tobacco industry, and in many places instituted programs to discourage production.
Many smaller manufacturers of high-quality blends and mixtures eventually sold their business, or simply folded, faced with a rising tide of of barriers, punitive legislation, and health-mafia sanctioned extortion.

There are very few pipe tobacco companies still left in Britain. Fortunately Germany and the Scandinavians are still strong, and we have several blenders in the United States whose efforts are through-the-roof stellar.
All of these have filled the holes left by the disappearances of veterans.
But the industry is more or less static; the pie is no longer growing.

European and American politicians are determined to raise as many barriers as they can, while maximizing bureaucratic revenue to obscene levels.

Pipe tobacco, once a major pillar of the trade, has shrunk to a mere percentage, and will no doubt fade even more over time.


I seriously doubt that the Brits could ramp up production. It would require a major investment in machinery and equipment, as well as sourcing a larger supply of basic tobaccos. These are harder to find, and given that they would have to be processed and aged specifically for the blends, it would take several years, especially when you consider that leaves are virtually unsmokeable for at least twenty months after harvesting (and optimum at two to four times that), and modern tobacco companies have adapted their methodologies to specific supplies and materials.
As an example, Samuel Gawith boasts enough high quality Latakia to last a decade, but only at current levels of production. The same holds for many other tobaccos, not just the prime condimentals.

Most Burley and Virginia is grown in Brazil and Africa specifically for the cigarette industry, which determines exactly what is produced, to what quality standards, and according to which "taste" profiles.

Turkish tobacco has become generic, rather than region and type specific. Most of it is destined for the cigarette industry (fields have been converted to Bright Leaf, and they now flue-cure it rather than sun dry, in addition to spraying the finished leaf with sugar for American style filter kings).

Latakia is limited to Cyprus, even though everyone claims to have Syrian. That boast is a load of horsepuckey; Syria produces almost nothing.
Cyprus is running out of combustibles for smoke-curing, and out of water because of increased agricultural and urban demand. The one thing you can count on is that Latakia will become scarcer over the next decade, and then probably disappear.

Perique? One area, and not the most profitable crop in that area.
Much of it is now bought by American Spirit.
For cigarettes. Not pipes.

By the time Greg Pease left Drucquers, many of the varietals that had been components of the famous blends there were no longer available.

In addition to availability, quality control has become a permanent issue. Remember Dunhills after BAT gave the blends to Murrays?
Stalks, stalks, stalks, crud, and really abysmal leaf.
But mostly stalks.

The Dunhill brand still hasn't recovered from what BAT did to the blends (farming them out, then off-shoring in Denmark). And several of the well-known Dunhill mixtures were not worthwhile for BAT to manufacture.
Balkan Sobranie is another prime example. Gallaghers diddled with the recipe so much over the years that it became a mere generic Balkan, and eventually not even cost-effective.

Many of the specific blending tobaccos can no longer be sourced, but the production values of the large conglomerates are not consistent with the quality demands of good pipe-tobacco either.
Nor is there any reason for that to change.

Pipe smoking is now a minute fraction of the trade.

Given that pipe smokers are barely icing on the cake for most tobacconists, and far less than that for the entire tobacco industry, the incentives for Germains, Samuel Gawith, Gawith Hoggarth, et autres, to keep steady and rely strictly on the supply lines and the markets that still exist outweigh any consideration of expanding and taking risks. If the proprietors of the remaining British stalwarts have extra capital, they've probably invested it wisely in many other industries as well as a portfolio of bluechips. And considering the uncertainties of regulatory laws and labelling, there is little point in increasing production.

It's inevitable that taxes and lung-cancer labels will lessen the number of smokers even further. The only expanding market is China, where pipe-smoking is seen as a luxury for the up-and-coming bourgeoisie. Even there, excepting Chinese grown flue-cured compost, all day smoking is becoming rarer. Eventually China will probably follow the route of Hong Kong and ban smoking in all offices, parks, and shopping malls, as well as doubling the taxes to discourage any but the hard-core addicts.

If tobacco blenders produced specialty coffees instead, they'd be in the cat-bird seat. As manufacturers in a mere niche of something which all governments in the first world are discouraging, they're holding their own in a dying industry.

Furthermore, tobacconists DO NOT NEED US. Cigar sales pay the rent, we don't. And cigarettes are well over ninety percent of the total market in any case. Cigarettes are far more efficiently produced than any pipe tobacco, and far more profitable with lower investment.

For any pipe-smoker, stashing favourite blends should become a way of life. By doing so, when we are old and decrepit, and the vicious Philippina nurses wheel us out to the designated smoking area four blocks away on a rainy winter day, we'll still be gracefully fuming in the cold and wet.
For heaven's sake, don't forget your umbrella.

By the way, I'm smoking one of my own concoctions right now. Everything that I like will eventually become unavailable, so it only makes sense to figure out how substitutions can be made.
In addition to stockpiling like crazy. I've got a thirty year supply which is still growing.
Mmmmm, Virginia.....

Eventually the whole world will become Berkeley.
And we'll all be miserable.


NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


  • At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Arno said…

    Beautiful but depressing post Atboth.. I was a bit shocked to read that the manufacturing of latakia in Cyprus is not going well.. On what do you base this? I can't stand the thought that over 30 years when I am 65 all I have to smoke are Virginias. Very nice, don't get me wrong, but the combination with the stinky leaf.. Ahh...

  • At 9:21 AM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Hi Arno,

    It's not that the manufacture is not going "well", but that the crop in question bears the seed of its own death: Latakia production is incredibly destructive.

    Smoke curing requires the steady diminishment of forest cover (the fuel source) and increases erosion. Cyprus is far less green than it was thirty years ago, water usage has risen enormously, and erosion and drought have become major problems.

    Add to that the fact that tobacco cultivation drains the soil of nutrients far more than almost any other crop -- a field used for two years of tobacco needs nearly twenty years to recover if fertilizer isn't used -- and you can see that problems are inevitable.

    Regarding the cultivation of tobacco, Syria could no longer sustain the crop and the accompanying soil and forest depletion. Cyprus is "burning" through its capability at a very rapid clip. And that will only get worse.

  • At 12:24 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    On the other hand, fire-curing is increasing slightly elsewhere. Consider, for instance, that MacBaren's HH Mature Virginia uses some fire-cured "Virginia" leaf.

    And we now know that the flavour spectrum of Latakia comes mainly from the terpenoids, so, given that knowledge, and probable continued demand for such products, acceptable and interesting substitions are almost inevitable, happy future discoveries a certainty.

    Plus, cynically, fewer smokers and far fewer pipe smokers over time perhaps means more left for the rest of us. If we can find it.
    As well as a place where we can smoke it.

  • At 3:09 AM, Anonymous Arno said…

    I never thought about it but of course the production of latakia takes its toll on the Cyprus land. Just as it did on the Syrian land.
    Excuse me, but what are "terpenoids"?

  • At 10:01 AM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Terpenoids, more properly 'terpeneols' or 'terpenes' in this case, are the chemicals that impart flavour to Latakia. They are compounds that naturally occur in several plants, such as tomatoes, eucalyptus (kayu putih), cinnamon, clove, and particularly pine trees (connifers). They do not occur in tobacco (which relies for much of the taste and smell on carotenoids and saponins, etc.), but are 'transferred' by the smouldering of coniferous woods while smoke-curing the leaf.

    In short, they are the magic of the soot deposited upon the tobacco. Aromatic, oil-soluble, and pungently incense-like.

  • At 1:45 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Note: The carotenoids are the flavour-contributors that give aged tobaccos, especially Virginia, that fruity aroma. They are naturally present in carrots (hence the name), they are the yellows and oranges in certain fruits and vegetables, and in Virginias they dominate the leaf-hues after the leaf has died and the chlorophylls break down. This is the reason for the speed of the flue-curing process: first two days, kill the leaf and start the destruction of chlorophyll; third day and fourth days, kill the veins with an increase of temperature; last two or three days, kill the thick woody stem. The result will be a colour somewhere between lemony yellow and deep orange - red - brown.

    At this point the natural sugars are fairly high, unlike with air-cured (Burley) or sun-cured (Turkish), the slow-processing of which lessens natural leaf sugars as well as starches.
    Hence the sweetness of Virginia, its pale silky beauty, fabulous aroma, and that marvelous ability to improve over time with fermentation.

  • At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Arno said…

    Very interesting! Thanks for the explanation! I am starting to wish that I had paid more attention at the chemistry lessons at school..


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