The Elusive Character of Balkan Sobranie

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Brunello

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In another thread on Esotorica and casings RSteve pulls up some good information which got me to thinking about Balkan Sobranie. First the quote, then my mental connection with Balkan Sobranie:


"Pilón is the term for a large pile of tobacco, arranged for fermentation. Pilónes can be enormous, weighing 3,500 or even 4,000 pounds or more. After curing in a curing barn, tobacco is brought into a warehouse and assembled in bunches of leaves called hands, and made into a pilón. The leaves sit flat in a pilón, one on top of the other, with boards, cardboard or old tobacco stems beneath. The weight of the tobacco, the moisture in the leaf, and casings that are added by processors creates heat, which causes fermentation to begin, changing the chemical structure of the tobacco, removing impurities such as ammonia and rendering the tobacco smokable."

Like many enthusiasts I have tried every tobacco that anybody has ever said reminded them of Balkan Sobranie. I've even painstakingly followed Greg Pease's recommendation of adding 10% Yenidje to Germain's version of Balkan Sobranie. Not even close in terms of what I identify as the elusive Balkan Sobranie character. All of these master blenders have been so focused on varietals, and carefully picking out each component leaf from a vintage tin in order to determine exact portions, and they are all barking up the wrong tree. This is why I believe that casing and processing make such a huge difference. Remember, as far as I know none of these guys have degrees in chemistry, they just discovered they had a knack for blending and things took off from there.

I believe the missing piece of the puzzle has to do with the dank conditions of the Sobranie House warehouse in the old tobacco wharf district of London. As these massive piles of tobacco sat under their own weight the interior began to ferment, and excess sugars became susceptible to a specific strain of the non-toxic microbial Brettanomyces yeast that feeds off of moisture and sugar. There are six strains, each giving a specific "flavor" such as leather, truffles, clove, smoked meats, tar, or barnyard. I've tasted all of these characteristics in different tobaccos, but only Balkan Sobranie had the barn yard smell, which is why I believed a tobacconist in 1979 when he explained that Latakia was made by burning dried camel dung.

Interestingly, as I've visited dozens of wineries in France and Italy, I came across one in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, that when I entered the barrel room I immediately exclaimed "This smells like Balkan Sobranie!!" Sure enough, this wine maker intentionally inoculated his wines with Brettanomyses bruxellensis in order to give a unique and somewhat funky (in a good way) barn yard aroma and taste to the wine. Remember, this is not a bacteria or anything toxic, just one of nature's quirks at work.

Any chemists out there care to weigh in on my hypothesis??
 

RSteve

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Any chemists out there care to weigh in on my hypothesis??
Not me, but I am very familiar with that barnyard aroma in tobacco, particularly as it pertains to cigars. Smell the foot of a Cuban cigar that has aged properly and you will immediately say to yourself, "MMM barnyard and ass." There are great cigars rolled in many countries of the world, but something in the fermentation of the leaf in Cuba gives off the aroma of barnyard. I have included that Cuban leaf in most of my own blends.
 

Ranger107

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Not chemistry, just tobacco lore, but I remember when I was smoking BS in college back in the early 70s, the older gentleman who owned the pipe store by the college in Ames telling me the "incense" like smell of BS was due to the curing or drying of the Latakia with burning camel dung. Don't know what burning camel dung smells like but I can imagine it might smell like barnyard.
 

RSteve

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Don't know what burning camel dung smells like but I can imagine it might smell like barnyard.
Even when we were kids, after my older brother took a dump, you couldn't go in the bathroom for an hour, even if the window was open. Many years later, he confided that when he worked for a major insurance company, if he had to unload at the office, using the staff restroom, he'd change shoes before going into the stall, so no one would identify him by his shoes, and know who stunk the place up. He related that during one particularly ripe episode, a guy walked into the restroom, hastily remarked, "It smells like burning camel s**t in here," then quickly retreated out of the restroom.
 

Ranger107

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Wonder how the guy knew what camel shit smelled like. Worst smell in the world is dog poop, whereas horse apples hardly smell at all. Strange how dung from different animals can smell so different.
 

RSteve

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Worst smell in the world is dog poop,
In my experience, the worst smell in the world is a burning human corpse.

In the 1970s, I got a fabulous price on a two year old, low mileage Corvette convertible at a local dealership. I feared it was stolen, because the price was so reasonable, but all the title papers were clear. I'd had it about a week and for the first time, put up the top when it was raining. There was a horrid smell; sweet and burning. I had a flashback to napalm. Serious research on the vehicle. As it turns out, most of the interior was new. A prior owner while severely intoxicated, attempted to light a cigarette, and dropped his open burning lighter in his lap. His jacket caught fire and he was too drunk to get out of the car and was severely burned. Even with new upholstery the smell remained. I was fortunate that the dealership took the vehicle back and returned my money.
 

Ranger107

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Would have to agree, fortunately that's not a smell we encounter frequently thank God.
 

RSteve

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Wonder how the guy knew what camel shit smelled like. Worst smell in the world is dog poop, whereas horse apples hardly smell at all. Strange how dung from different animals can smell so different.
In parts of the world where camels are abundant, I believe camel dung is used for heating fuel.
 

RSteve

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But back to the real topic of discussion. Just as the grapes change every year with growing conditions and soil, I'm certain that tobacco changes as well. How does a tobacco manufacturer maintain a brand/blend's profile over decades? It must be process, and in tobacco that must be fermentation (heat, time, etc,) and/or casing
 

ftrplt

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Back on subject...Yeah, like it just a little bit!! Jar on right is from a 2008 trade/buy from a Bob cleaning out his stash pile!!! The tobacco is much older, he just could not remember exactly when he bought it!! Jar on left is from 12 pouches I bought when working in Johannesburg, South Africa in August/September 2008. Just keeps getting better and better!!!!
FYI, on his Consignment sales site this morning, Steve Fallon/Pipestud had three of these pouches for sale...at $75 each!!!!! Dang!! FTRPLT
 

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Zeno Marx

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Isn't one of the big missing components Syrian latakia? I believe they were talking about it being in short supply even in the 1990s.
 

Ranger107

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Back on subject...Yeah, like it just a little bit!! Jar on right is from a 2008 trade/buy from a Bob cleaning out his stash pile!!! The tobacco is much older, he just could not remember exactly when he bought it!! Jar on left is from 12 pouches I bought when working in Johannesburg, South Africa in August/September 2008. Just keeps getting better and better!!!!
FYI, on his Consignment sales site this morning, Steve Fallon/Pipestud had three of these pouches for sale...at $75 each!!!!! Dang!! FTRPLT
That is nuts. Much as I loved BS no way in hell would I pay that much for tobacco, any tobacco..
 

RSteve

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Much as I loved BS no way in hell would I pay that much for tobacco, any tobacco..
How many times in my life have I said, "There is no way I would ever spend that much on______________________" and then, I did.
My late wife was very much an enabler. Many years ago, I wanted a pair of plain toe shell cordovan oxfords. My wife was with me shopping for a pair. I tried some on, was ready to buy them, until the salesman told me the price.(Today, they're about $750 pr.) I thought to myself, while I really like them, there's no way I'm gonna spend that much on another pair of shoes that I don't need. I told the salesman, I'd have to think about it for a couple of days. As we walked to the car, my wife blurted out, "I've got to go back in the store to use the restroom, NOW!" and scurried back into the shoe store. In a couple of minutes, she returned, carrying the box of shell cordovans.
 

lshines

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First of all, Balkan Sobranie Original (white tin/label) was one of the finest tasting pipe tobaccos in the world, IMHO. There were quite a few back when I started - but this one was on another level! It hit the ball out of the park with the Yendjie (sp) leaf - that was naturally sweet "turkish/oriental" leaf! The newer versions are nice! but not the same - but nothing is the same....

Second: For gosh sakes - give up that camel dung crap guys. Here are a few words about that from someone y'all respect more that my say so:
Latakia (Arabic: تبغ اللاذقية) is a specially prepared tobacco originally produced in Syria and named after the port city of Latakia. Now the tobacco is mainly produced in Cyprus. It is cured over a stone pine or oak wood fire, which gives it an intense smoky-peppery taste and smell. Too strong to smoke straight, it's used as a "condiment", especially in English and some American Classic blends.

Questions and Answers on Latakia from G.L.Pease [1]

Q: Is Latakia really cured over smoldering camel dung?

A: The only smoldering dung is that used to fuel the myths about Latakia. I wouldn't really care if the myth were reality, since I really love the stuff, but, it's important to understand that a variety of herbs and hardwoods are used in the processing of Latakia, not camel dung. No matter how many times I say this, the myth will probably be promulgated until the Sun stops revolving about the Earth... For more information on the wonderful, smoky weed, read my article, A Tale of Two Latakias.
 

ftrplt

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That is nuts. Much as I loved BS no way in hell would I pay that much for tobacco, any tobacco..
I should have added that all three pouches (only one to a customer I might add!!) had already sold by the time I opened Pipestuds consignment site!!!!
 

daveinlax

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I believe the missing piece of the puzzle has to do with the dank conditions of the Sobranie House warehouse in the old tobacco wharf district of London.
+100%! This is what I’ve always thought. Another rumor that I believe is that Sobranie House never transferred to Gallagher was a secret herbal tea like blend that was steeped in the water they used to steam awake the raw tobacco early in the process. Who knows. 🤓
 

Carlos

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There have been a number of discussions, some of which I know Mr Peace was involved in. There is an acknowledgement about the various processes. Replicating older processes when it's all a secret is part of the problem. There is a scene on one of the Deep Space 9 episodes where Quark's family is sitting around at a meal. And it's mentioned how the tube grubs are "dank and musty". That always makes me think of these conversations about the stank, or scent of really good tobaccos that apparently spent centuries in a basement someplace.
 
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