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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Are there really differences in briar?

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...