An Exploration of Burley Tobacco

I enjoy Virginia perique blends, an occasional light English, and even an aromatic now and then. However, I love burley. Now love is a strong word, and used by a guy for an inanimate object it can carry various weights. I don’t mean that I love burley the way I love a good hamburger, or my latest growler of craft beer. Nor do I mean the kind of love I have for my favorite screwdriver, the one that I always reach for and is always there. No, I mean the kind of love a man reserves for his first car, his favorite sports team,… dare I say his secrete fishing hole. Yes, I love burley with that sort of love!

History Of Burley

Burley was first cultivated in 1864 by George Webb and Joseph Fore on the farm of Captain Frederick Kautz near Higginsport, Ohio. They had planted seeds obtained in Braken County, Kentucky and noticed the seeding beds were producing some strange light colored plants. The story goes that they were pulling these plants from the bed to discard when Captain Kautz, on a leave from the Civil War, stopped them and had them grow the plants to see what they would become. They discovered that when cured, the new plants produced a lighter colored leaf that was milder than the traditional broadleaf tobacco. By 1866 they had harvested 20,000 pounds of this burley tobacco which won first prize at the St Louis World’s Fair. It sold for $0.75 per pound, an premium price compared to the $0.07 commanded for a pound of broadleaf that year.

Burley is characterized by it’s low sugar content and nicotine punch. It also contains a high degree of aromatic oils compared to other tobacco leaves. The basic curing process is air drying. The tobacco plants are grown for approximately 60 days, and then their tops are clipped off to prevent flowering. This causes the plant to put more energy into producing robust leaves. The plants grow for another 4 weeks before harvest. At harvest they are spiked onto long spears that will hold 5 or 6 stalks of burley. The stalks are left to wilt in the field for a few days and then are hung in barns to air cure for approximately 8 weeks. During this time the tobacco will turn from pale green to yellow to brown.


Types of Burley

There are varieties of burley that range from white to dark brown. The white burleys tend to be mild and nutty in flavor, often producing a dark cocoa note that is accentuated in many American OTC aromatic blends like Carter Hall. The darker burleys are earthy and can produce a spiciness that nearly rivals perique. The variety in the leaf is further developed by secondary curing processes. Burleys can be fermented, dark fired, or subjected to a Cavendish processing, all producing a unique flavor profile. The leaf is cut in a variety of manners including shag, ribbon and cube cut, all of which alter the burn rate and flavor profile. And of course, burley is known for its ability to absorb flavorings. Taken together, the versatility of burley tobacco has accounted for its enduring success.

Examples of some Favorite Burley Blends

To explore some of this versatility, I would like to suggest a few of my favorite burley blends. These are blends that, in my opinion, showcase some of the finer qualities that burley can bring to a blend. As always, your experience may be different from my own, and that individualism is what keeps pipe smoking interesting. The links will go to the Tobacco Reviews page for each blend.

Straight Burley: Solani Aged Burley Flake

This blend has become increasingly difficult to find over the past year. But it is well worth seeking out. The blend includes 3 burley leafs from around the world including a dark brown Kentucky leaf, a light Brazilian leaf, and white burley from Southeast Africa. The tobacco is pressed into a cake a sliced into easy to rub flakes. It is pure tobacco with no noticeable topping, and the smoker gets to experience all that burley has to offer, the dark cocoa notes, the sharp musty flavors, and the wonderful nutty tastes. No one should be allowed to say that they don’t like burley until they have tried this blend.

Burley Perique: Cornell & Diehl Three Friars

Some of my favorite blends tend to be burley perique, or as this blend is a burley Virginia perique. I enjoy many of the common VaPer blends like Escudo, but they leave me wishing for a bit more body, or some deeper earthy tones that I associate with burley. Three friars is an excellent example blended from Virgina Ribbon, brown burley, and perique. The Virginia provides a light somewhat tart sweetness that is well balanced by the nutty and earthy burley. The perique has a notable figgy profile with just enough spiciness to play off the burley’s spicy side. The blend in no way resembles any incarnation of Three Nuns, so don’t be misled by the name. It is a fine smoke that stands on it’s own merits.

Codger Burley: Carter Hall

Carter hall
There are many classic American over-the-counter burley blends that are associated with old time pipe smokers (codgers) and the days when the drug store was the next best thing to a tobacconist. Blends like Granger, Edgeworth Ready-Rubbed, Kentucky Club, Prince Albert, and Carter Hall all form a historic backdrop for the American pipe smoker. Many are still being produced and of them Carter Hall is my favorite. It is a burley Virginia blend with a light topping that appears to be a cocoa flavor. The Virginia is just enough to provide some sweetness that plays well with the topping, and the burley is mild nutty perfection. It’s not everyone’s “cup of tea” but it is a blend that I have been smoking on a near daily basis for over 20 years.
I could go on, but those three are representative and are a good starting point for folks that want to understand what burley is all about. I hope you have a chance to try a good burley blend soon, and if you already have a favorite please feel free to share it in the comments below.


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