Tuesday
Feb222011

How to Rehydrate Tobacco Successfully

A recent run of bad luck with valuable vintage tobacco has nearly put me off buying it. But, thankfully, in both cases I will discuss here, I was able to rehydrate the tobacco for jar storage. In both cases, the tobacco is extraordinarily delicious, and I am looking forward to a series of very special bowls.

Imagine paying $300 to $400 for a tin of very special tobacco and discovering, upon opening the tin, that the tobacco had completely dried out or, worse, had become rife with mold. At the time - having had this happen twice within the span of a couple of weeks – these events feel catastrophic. However, unless mold has attacked the tobacco, chances are that most, if not all, of the tobacco can be saved through rehydration.

As much as we might wish it were otherwise, chance favors an old tin’s compromise, especially with larger tins. And square tins are also especially vulnerable to compromise. These tins were not manufactured with long-term storage in mind. When this tobacco was sold, most people opened the tins to smoke the contents. The notion of cellaring tobacco was alien to the times. While one occasionally lucks out, buying these old tins is risky.

As many long-time pipe smokers know, Sullivan Powell was a legendary English tobacco blender. Not long ago, I had the chance to purchase a seven-ounce tin of No. OX Special Mixture. Though the tin had visible rust, I took a chance and acquired the tin – hoping against hope that rust had not compromised the tin’s integrity.

Sadly, I was wrong. When I opened the tin, the tobacco had completely dried out. The inside of the tin had rusted through to the outside.

Feeling paranoid, a week later I decided to open an 8 ounce tin of John Cotton No. 1, an absolute favorite blend of mine. This tin had no visible rust so my plan was to open the tin and jar the contents in order to ensure the contents’ integrity into the future.

Again, I was disappointed. A small, but concentrated amount of rust had compromised the tin’s side seam. The contents had completely lost their moisture.

As disappointing as both instances were, things could have been much worse. The tobacco could have become moldy. Smoking moldy tobacco is not only a horrid taste experience, but it is potentially lethal. Never smoke moldy tobacco.

Dried out tobacco, however, can be rehydrated. The rehydration process, if done correctly, can return the tobacco to a delicious, smokable state. Whether re-hydrated tobacco is as good as tobacco that never dried out is debatable. Some say there is no difference whereas some say the tobacco suffers. Having compared rehydrated Balkan Sobranie and Bengal Slices with non-dried out versions of the same blends, I can discern no meaningful difference. Your experience may be different.

With both the Sullivan and Cotton tobaccos, I used the same rehydration strategy. I placed the contents in a large stainless steel bowl. I then dampened then wrung out a hand towel with distilled water. I folded the towel in half and then stretched the towel out over the top of the bowl taking care not to cause water to drop onto the tobacco contents. I took a large, thick rubber band and stretched it around the bowl top, just below the lip, to ensure that the towel did not move.

To help ensure that mold did not start, I placed the tobacco in a space that is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, a warm and humid environment is ideal for mold so one must take precautions to rehydrate without introducing mold.

Because rust can - and often does - adhere to tobacco contents, another key strategy is to remove the tobacco from the tin starting from the center. Pinch or fork it out gently. If strands are adhering to the tin walls, do not scrape the tobacco from the walls as rust will almost certainly contaminate your tobacco, creating a sour, acrid taste when you smoke it. Let the old rusty tin keep its “angel’s share.”

In both cases, rehydrating the tobacco took four days. After a day and a half, the towel required re-dampening. Twice daily I removed the towel and gently stirred the contents, bringing the tobacco at the bottom of the bowl to the top so that the moisture would be evenly distributed.

I also took paper towels and carefully patted up the accumulated condensation on the top portion of the bowl sides. A key to returning tobacco to desired moisture levels is to rehydrate slowly, letting the tobacco absorb moisture through the air. This method increases the humidity levels of the air above the tobacco significantly, but it does not directly dampen the tobacco.

Once I return the tobacco to the desired moisture level, I store it in Ball jars. I put as much tobacco in the jar as possible, tamping it down so that the air doesn’t begin to dry it out again. I also place a small hydration element, e.g. a Paradigm which is made of surgical sponge material, into the jar. I dampen that element with a solution that contains propylene glycol which acts as an anti-fungal agent. I feel that this is especially important with older, more valuable vintage tobaccos which may be more vulnerable to mold. I have no evidence that they are; I just worry a little so take precautions.

Most of my pipe-smoking friends occasionally find themselves with too many tins open or with too much tobacco in their roll-ups. If one doesn’t constantly pay attention, tobacco can dry out. You’ll find that this method will rehydrate smaller quantities much quicker, in most cases it will be back to perfect overnight.

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Reader Comments (12)

Having seen the "before" and having been a lucky beneficiary of the "after", I can say with great enthusiasm that whatever desiccation these tobaccos experienced is now but a sere memory. Thanks to you, Neill, the only struggle concerning these tobaccos I've had to face is the embarrassing situation wherein I think I have to decide whether I like Sullivan's or John Cotton's tobacco better. So far, I like best whichever one is currently in my pipe!

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Wigutow

Extraordinary. $300 for a tin of tobacco that could easily be unsmokable? You live in a different world, my friend. Thanks for detailing your rehydration method, though. I've heard of this method in other places and it really seems to work well.

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick

Rick, after several horrific experiences with vintage tobacco, I've all but sworn off purchasing any more of the stuff unless the seller stands behind the project (and most do NOT). It would be a complete crap shoot, except that one has better odds of winning at craps from my experience.

Obviously, just as there are pipe collectors, there are tobacco collectors. I am unsure whether these fine people intend to ever open and enjoy some or all of their collection. Perhaps they are content to own a full, sealed container and just imagine what the goods might be like were they to be enjoyed. I cannot stand the suspense of wondering without knowing.

If I may be allowed a few words in my defense, in trying to write my book I wanted to revisit some storied blends of old, comparing and contrasting them with contemporary, available favorites. I felt I couldn't begin to address these issues without personal experience. As I alluded above, I suffer from terminal curiosity, wanting to try for myself some blends that I have only heard about in hushed, reverential whispers.

The fact is that I have also opened some tins and discovered tobacco in such fine condition that it might have been tinned last year, except that aging seems to dramatically improve some blends. These good experiences tend to reinforce what otherwise is a very iffy proposition. There are, of course, diminishing returns where the tobacco either no longer improves or begins to decline. I doubt I will ever have enough experience to write with any authority on that subject. Perhaps.....who knows?

Some people purchase pipes speculatively, and few seem to do all that well. On the other hand, it seems to me that a number of people are making a killing in the speculative buying and selling of vintage tobaccos. There are certain blends, e.g. 759 Balkan Sobranie, that sell for astronomical amounts.

You are most certainly correct in that this is a different world. Indeed, it is.

February 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan

A further thought on a "different world: While it is a luxury indeed to be able to sample some of these fine vintage tobaccos and it does take both the funds and the desire to do so, I wonder if it is any different than paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for vintage wine, whisky or cognac. These are consumable luxuries and though some collectors do keep them as trophies, I have far more respect for those who enjoy these treasures in the way they are intended to be enjoyed. I'll shell out for a moderately priced malt when I can afford it and I'll tell you right now that it doesn't hang around for long!

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Wigutow

It's all a gamble, I guess. I have some vintage tobaccos, but very few of them. After discovering rust spots on one, I looked over all of them and opened the ones in question. Some were fine, some were lost. This was my gamble for waiting. It's very unfortunate that rolling the dice on a $300 tin of tobacco could end up with a loss, or even one at $75 or less.

I remember an episode of the Frasier show when a bottle of rare, expensive wine was opened only to find out it was horrible. The wine was kept by a radiator, or something, and it was ruined. Tobacco sellers might gamble in paying $200 for a tin in the hopes to sit on it and sell for $400, but when it's opened, who knows if it went bad before or after they purchased it. Seems to be a domino effect in the wrong direction; someone's gotta lose. Buyer be ware, I guess, if the items in question are rare tobaccos, cigars, wines, or other consumables.

I wonder if anyone at a pipe show would crack open an old tin of great tobacco and evenly divide the contents into small jars or bags, and sell each for a divided cost. If it's about smoking the tobacco, it seems that people would jump at the chance. Then again, a 50g tin of something old, divided up, might be a difficult item to push. How much would someone pay for 25g of rare tobacco? I'll wager that a buyer intent on smoking the tobacco as oppose to sitting on it would be more likely to pay $150 for half a tin of fresh stuff than they would to drop $300 on a gamble. If I had an 8-ounce tin of Balkan Sobraine, I would open it at the Chicago show in the hopes that it's in good condition and divide it into 4 jars with reflective cost. This means that I roll the dice for quality of product, and could keep one jar and sell 3 others to people who are on the financial fence of acquiring an already rare tobacco, plus they can see and smell what they are getting without risking losing large. Seems like a good idea, especially if one opens a few tins to divide.

February 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdam Davidson

Neill's rehydration method appears to be a simple and easy solution. I have had much experience with vintage tobaccos over the years and can tell you what I do these days.

If I opened a tin of Sullivan's that was dried out like Corn Flakes, I would transfer the tobacco -- using Neill's fork-in-the-middle suggestion -- to a mason jar or an empty McClelland's tin. I would load a bowl of the dried out tobacco into a pipe. I would put the surface of the bowl into my mouth and blow into it -- so steam would enter the bowl. I would do it again. And again. Then sometimes I will empty the bowl out and reload it and do this a few times more. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but you'd be amazed at how naturally hydrated the tobacco will become.

Another idea -- and this comes from both Fred Janusek and me -- is to smoke the dried out tobacco as is. Many times I have been surprised at how incredibly tasty that old tobacco can be, ESPECIALLY after it is dried out and lost its smell.

Finally, if you have a fairly moist new tin of the same tobacco -- obviously this is a lot easier with Dunhill tobaccos than it is with John Cotton or other blends no longer produced -- I mix the old dried out tin with the newer moist version of the same tobacco. One dries out the other a little, and the other moisturizes the dry one a little.

This is an endless discussion, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts that work for me -- especially the one about smoking the dried-out tobacco without hydrating it at all.

February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick Newcombe
Nice post for a simple method for rehydrating dried out tobacco, Neill. This is a topic that generates a lot of discussion.

A few years ago I read this article: "Tobacco Reanimation - Bringing it Back to Life" by G.L. Pease. It helped to me better understand the science that goes into proper moisture levels for pipe tobacco.

Here is another article that has a few different methods of how to rehydrate pipe tobacco: How to Rehydrate Pipe Tobacco." Look for it on PipesMagazine.com.
February 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob Tate
Thanks for the information regarding the re-hydrated tobacco.. I have tried putting the apple peel for making it better and then add little scotch in it and it really works out. Just wondering to know adding apple peel and scotch in tobacco produces harmful substances inside it or not?
February 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterglass pipes

After reading your book, Rick (Newcombe), I've found great success in the technique you described above; just encircling the bowl with my thumb and pointer finger, and gently breathing warm, moist air into the bowl. It works wonderfully. I recently found an opened tin of Greg Pease's Montgomery that had completely dried out, buried in my PT cabinet. I took one of those aluminum quarter-sized discs that has some clay in it, soaked it in distilled water for a little while, and thoroughly shook it out, dried the surface off, and let it sit for a while. I transferred the rest of the tin contents into a Mason jar and laid that disc on top, and turned the contents a few times over the next 48 hours, and the tobacco became perfect again. I'm monitoring it to make sure that it's not too moist and that there's no mold. So far, so good. Lots of good tips here in dealing with a problem we all face at times, even with PT that isn't overly valuable.

February 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBigAl
Thank you for an excellent tutorial in rehydration, Neill and thanks also to the commenters for their added tips! Rehydration is a constant topic of discussion and it never ceases to amaze me that the simplest methods seem to work best. Enjoy your vintage blends in the best of health!
February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBri2k
Thanks for the tips, Neill. I got an old partially consumed tin of Balkan Sobranie black & white pretty cheap and was able to rehydrate it. My palate is not as sensitive as a real connoisseur's, but the smoking result was more than satisfactory to me.
February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Stultz
Whilst the oldest tobacco I've smoked was pushing three years, I do on occasion find that I or a friend didn't close a tin properly, and the tobacco has dried to a rather unpalatable potpourri.

I deal with this rather simply: I place the tin, opened, in my tropical aquarium, on the glass shelf suspended just above the surface. The atmosphere within the closed-off top compartment of the tank is quite warm and humid, and it's never taken longer than two days, with a bit of a tossing every time I feed my fish, for bone dry tobacco to become silky smooth once more.
February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobbert Folmer

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