The 33rd Annual CORPS Pipe Smokers Gathering occurred on October 1-2, 2021 at Sutliff Tobacco in Richmond, Virginia. Here is our full coverage from before and after the event. Click here to skip our post-show blog.
The 33rd Annual Pipe Smokers Gathering is Coming Back to Richmond
CORPS Show Specifics
The 33rd Annual Pipe Smokers Gathering will be held on Friday October 1 - Saturday October 2, 2021. Friday’s festivities will be between 9:00 am to 7:00 pm and will include factory tours, seminars, and a swap meet. There will be a BBQ dinner and food trucks will be onsite.
Saturday’s events will be between 9:00 am - 5:00 pm. This will be the exhibitor day, no tours or seminars. Food Trucks will be onsite.
The event will be held at Sutliff Tobacco Co. in the Manchester neighborhood of Richmond. The official hotel for the event is The Omni located in downtown Richmond. You can get a group discount by reserving at 1-800-THEOMNI using the Group Discount Name: The Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers. But, there are limited rooms, so reserve yours as soon as possible.
There will be no parking available on site but a shuttle will run from The Omni to the Sutliff building.
What’s the Cost?
Friday will be free, Saturday will be $5.00 (cash only).
For information on Registering for a table or any other questions regarding the event, you can visit the CORPS Website for more information.
The CORPS Show is Quickly Approaching
The wait is nearly over. Come the weekend of October 1-2, 2021, the Conclave Of Richmond Pipe Smokers (CORPS) will be hosting their annual Pipe Smokers Gathering here at the Sutliff Tobacco building in Richmond, Virginia. The longest running pipe show in the world, since 1985 this tradition has been going strong, bringing pipe enthusiasts together from all around the world to share in their tobacco pipe passion. With last year’s cancellation in the wake of the pandemic, we couldn’t be more ready to indulge in this fantastic community in the best way possible—at the CORPS Annual Pipe Smokers Gathering.
What’s the Deal with Pipe Shows Anyway?
For many readers, this is like asking why the World Series is special for Baseball fans, but bear with me. For our truly green pipe friends, let’s start with what’s so special about pipe shows in general, and what they really mean to this community of ours. Then we’ll narrow our scope to what this show is all about.
It can be hard to imagine, especially for us younger pipe smokers, but there was a time when pipe smoking was ubiquitous—”well I always saw my grandpa with a pipe” is the cliché origin story for many enjoying the hobby today. There just aren’t so many of us anymore, at least, not everywhere you turn like cigarette smokers, and even they’ve dwindled over the years. On the bright side, what we lack in numbers, we make up for in passion—in a strong core. Sometimes it’s not about quantity, and pipe smokers the world over are notorious for enjoying their pipecraft with care—with preserving the patient, ritualistic heritage of smoking a pipe.
It is this very ethos that makes us so drawn to the social aspect of pipe smoking, and despite the fact that we aren’t the biggest clan, we’ve found ways to carve out community where we can. This gets to the point of why institutions like pipe conventions are especially crucial for the 21st century piper. They are staples of our pastime. Here, that core is brought together to revel in our shared passion.
And setting aside the sentimental stuff, it’s very simply exciting to be around so much pipe stuff. As pipe smokers, we’re used to the smoke shop being curated around other smoking mediums, nodding at us here and there, but ultimately relegating pipe smoking to a niche hobby. And hey, I get it, demand is demand, stock what’s selling. But with this in mind, walking into a room to see tables stacked with tins, spread with pipes, even binfuls nearly overflowing—well it’s just Wonka’s pipe factor isn’t it? I mean, this picture of an attendee scouring bins of pipes is almost hard to look at on the pain of pure envy.
Looking Back - The Club and Convention
Every pipe show is special, for the reasons mentioned above, and because no two are exactly alike—they each have their own charms. So let’s look back on the history of the Richmond Gathering of Pipe Smokers and of the pipers who have brought it to us all these years.
So What Is CORPS?
CORPS stands for the Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers. They are a pipe smoking club based in Richmond, Virginia, going strong since their founding in 1984. They were founded with the simple purpose of bringing local pipe smokers with a mutual appreciation for the craft together. After all, there’s nothing like sharing this hobby with others. How many of our own favorite tobaccos, pipes, and neat tips or tricks that we now swear by are the result of gabbing with a fellow enthusiast about their pipecraft? This is the magic of CORPS and pipe clubs in general.
And it’s this spirit that gives life to the pipe show in all its glory. You could say the pipe club meeting is the microcosm of the pipe show. This group and their tenets as pipe smokers being the soul of this tradition no doubt has much to do with the gathering’s lasting popularity with pipe smokers from around the world.
As per their own statement, CORPS “encourages the enjoyment, education and continuance of the ancient and honorable art and sport of pipe smoking and all positive aspects thereof.”
Now, roughly 37 years after the club’s first meeting, they still congregate once a month at a local Richmond establishment to chew the fat and smoke the pipe. And of course, continue to host the annual CORPS Pipe Smokers Gathering.
Pipe Smokers Gathering History
In 1985, one year into the club’s existence, they hosted the first gathering. In only its second year, the gathering garnered a good deal of attention, really solidifying its place on the calendars of pipe lovers around the world. It was this year that CORPS secured the preeminent pipe writer Richard Carleton Hacker as an MC and keynote speaker for the event. In also having local newscasting legend Gene Cox attend as a judge for the pipe smoking competition, the gathering received significant coverage from local television and print media.
Ever since, the CORPS Pipe Smokers Gathering has been one of the most beloved events in the pipe world. Enthusiasts and vendors alike have come from across the country and across the sea to take part.
The 33rd Gathering - What's to Come
If ever there was a time to attend the Richmond Pipe Show, this may be it. We have slogged through a year and then some, seeing treasured traditions and milestone events placed on the backburner or cancelled altogether. The camaraderie with our extended pipe smoking family has gone unsatiated for a long time.
Given last year’s cancelation, this will only be the second time the gathering is located at Sutliff Tobacco, and as many will remember from 2019, having the show at such a venue only elevated the already enshrined event. So what can we expect from this time around?
Take a Tour of the Sutliff Factory
More than offering a space for the event, the gracious hosts at Sutliff Tobacco will be giving tours of their factory. Come along and see the fascinating process of how your favorite tobaccos journey from long raw harvested stalks to the treasure packing your pipe.
The convention will also offer the chance to attend a blending seminar with one of the best in the business—Per Jensen. Jensen has been Mac Baren’s product specialist since 2001 and has been making pipes since he was 15. You can get a taste of the tobacco guru through the excellent educational videos on His YouTube Channel, but of course, nothing beats having the teacher right in front of you!
To register for the factory tour and/or seminar, Follow This Link.
|EDIT: Unfortunately, Per Jensen could not attend. However, we were very fortunate to have Russ Ouellette and Mark Ryan guide us through our blending. You can read about the perique-central seminars conducted by the experts in our post-show blog.|
Of course it wouldn't be a pipe show without the chance to shop around, and maybe even sell/trade your own pipes. A few hours on Friday afternoon will be allocated for this, but all of Saturday is exhibitor day. Schmooze with other pipers and vendors, share a bowl, and of course, seek out that perfect pipe (or several) to add to the collection.
Pipecraft is a multifaceted business, which is probably why its devotees are as well—many of us appreciate pipes as works of art just as one might admire the fine craftsmanship of artisan furniture or some other, as we say, functional art. We are fascinated by old pipes and their history like any collector of antiques. We are particular about our preferred tobaccos, developing story-telling palates which invite us to postulate on the particulars of its journey from the field to our pipe chambers, much like a sommelier deciphering the properties of fine wine. Sometimes the appreciation is less as a connoisseur, and simply that pipe smoking is a pleasant, welcomed ritual we delight in, especially with some company. Whatever your niche is (and let’s be honest, most of us can say all of these factors weigh in to some degree), and whether you're a New Pipe Smoker, or an experienced one, the Richmond Pipe Smokers Gathering will gratify the pipe smoker in you.
Our Look Back on the 33rd Annual Pipe Smokers Gathering
The weeks leading up to the first weekend of October were approached with bated breath. All seemed to be a-go for the much-anticipated Pipe Smokers Gathering, or the Richmond Pipe Show as it’s commonly referred to. But after both the West Coast and Chicago Pipe Shows cancelled for the second consecutive year, any presumption of certainty felt naïve. Now on the other side of the event, we have only the looming bitter-sweetness of a perfect weekend in the rearview to toil with.
Established in 1984, the Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers ( CORPS) have put on the Annual Pipe Smokers Gathering almost every year since the club’s founding. On October 1 st and 2nd, the 33rd iteration of the hallowed event saw pipe smokers near and far convene at the Sutliff Tobacco building in the historic tobacco city's Manchester district.
Near the James River’s southern edge, blocky mid-rises loom above crimson brick apartment complexes purposed from the bones of long defunct factories. Further southward, we step into the scattering of still vacant factories, waiting—eagerly I’m sure—to be reborn as the next trendy brewery or loft. The once bustling industrial district has plenty of factories, warehouses, and shipping yards still operating—but it surely isn’t the manufacturing center it was in the 1950s when Sutliff pulled its western roots, anchored in the California gold rush, and replanted in the notorious tobacco capital.
But the pipe tobacco factory has held strong through the changes around it. They found where the light shone through the canopy of cigarette and vape dominance, of production outsourcing, and remain steadfast in the threat of broad legislation which sees all forms of nicotine use as being of the same beast.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of commonality between the location and the event itself. What is the pipe smoker if not the hanger-on amid the shifts in culture and industry? Where many may see an anomaly, we see a tradition worth preserving. While pipe smoking may not have the numbers it once had, its foundation is made of those who are pulled not to a convenient nicotine fix, but of ritual, community, and infinite exploration. It was in this spirit that the CORPS Pipe Show was established, and this most recent show demonstrated how true that still is.
Friday, October 1
Sutliff Factory Tour
One of the greatest threats to the modern pipe show is the difficulty securing a venue where smoking is permitted. This was a significant obstacle to the CORPS team in years past, but sometimes obstacles can lead to something even better.
The CORPS Gathering was first held at Sutliff Tobacco in 2019. Given 2020's cancellation, this was only the second time Sutliff hosted the event. Beyond being a space that enables pipers to, well, pipe—there’s also something so fitting about a staple of the industry hosting such an event, it garners the energy of a home game. But possibly the best thing about the location—attendees had the opportunity to tour the factory that produces some of their favorite blends.
I went along on one of the first tours of the day. Sutliff President Jeremy McKenna took a group of roughly 17 around the factory to give us a behind the scenes look.
“Factory tours are my favorite part of the pipe show,” McKenna tells me. “This is where we get to show off the high-quality tobaccos we purchased, coupled with the intricate manufacturing process to deliver the highest quality pipe tobaccos to the smoker.”
We made our way through shipping and were led into a large, chilly room stacked high with saratogas, the large bins you see above. This is cold storage. Each saratoga is filled with tobacco which has been processed and cased but not finished. Tobacco Beetles are especially attracted to the unfinished leaf and an outbreak of those would mean devastation for the product. Luckily, they don’t much like the cold, so this storage keeps the critters at bay.
Leaving cold storage, we followed McKenna past high shelves of stored tins, labels, palettes, and unconstructed wooden bales, until we stopped at the end of one of the shelves where barrels were stacked, labeled, and dated. Here is where popular blends such as Seattle Pipe Club’s Plum Pudding Bourbon Barrel Aged and Mississippi River Rum Barrel Aged are stored in casks for a month at a time. As they sit, the remnant aroma and flavor infuses the tobacco to offer a fantastic variation on the already popular blends.
From there we make our way into a room where big boxes of raw tobacco are arranged, each holding a different blending component: Burley, Dark Fired Kentucky, Red Virginia, Oriental Katerini, and at the center of it all, a barrel of Perique. The guests orbit the boxes, feeling the raw leaf as McKenna explains that after being compressed into these bales, the leaf has little to no moisture. The tobacco is brittle and can be crumbled like dry autumn leaves. This display set the stage for our next destination as we turn to two large chambers on the other side of the room.
Of course, quite a few are reluctant to pull themselves from the barrel of Perique, huddled near like a campfire on a cold night. Not hard to find your Perique lovers on this tour.
Once everyone has regrouped, our attention is directed to the conditioning chambers pictured above. This is where tobacco is rehydrated by steaming it in the vacuum chamber to the right, pulling the moisture all the way through the bale. In the left chamber, tobacco is blackened. Metal tubes lined with holes are inserted into hogsheads filled with tobacco where steam is pumped in for 24 hours, then the tobacco is flipped, and the process is repeated to ensure it is evenly blackened.
After this process, the tobacco is not easily broken apart like the raw leaf we just came by. It is now pliable and allows for safe handling, processing, and cutting to ensure the highest quality ribbon cut.
We are then escorted past a huge, rotating drum from which a conveyor belt carries dark brown Latakia. This is a drier where the tobacco is cased and then tested to ensure an optimal moisture level. It’s crucial that it’s just right, they don’t want it too dry, or too wet and the threat of mold arises. One of the workers takes bowls of the tobacco to a machine resembling an instant coffee maker that measures the moisture. We turn the corner to see where the rehydrated tobacco is compressed and cut before being fed into the drier. McKenna catches a handful as it falls from the cutter and holds it out. In turn, spectators feel the tobacco.
Before heading into the next room, we pivot toward a few old machines. This is the original equipment that made the iconic Mixture no. 79 blend, the flagship brand that Sutliff has been producing since 1933. These machines were used in Sutliff’s earliest days in the Richmond factory, making the Mixture no. 79 which packed our fathers’ and grandfathers’ pipes McKenna assures us.
Then we’re brought to what I suspect was many of the guests’ favorite part of the tour, where the tobacco is pressed into dense, 9 pound bricks which will then be cut into crumble cake. The tobacco is loaded in molds and then pressed with 20 tons of force for 48 hours. McKenna holds up a block of Sutliff’s 2021 Cringle Flake but you would have thought he was holding up a tablet fresh from the presses of Mount Sinai the way this group gazed on the slab. It’s then passed around the party—“uhh, I think it disappeared!” one tour-goer jests.
After seeing where the aromatic blends are flavored, we end our tour in packaging where McKenna takes questions from the group. At the end of our tour we’re about two hours into our first day and it’s already looking to be a great weekend.
Later in the afternoon I attended a blending seminar which was guided by Russ Ouellette and Mark Ryan. Ouellette is the master blender behind Hearth & Home and the RO Firestorm blends. Ryan of Daughters & Ryan Tobacco is known as the savior of perique, as he bought and revitalized one of the last production facilities in 2005 when the component seemed it may become unobtainable.
Beyond being an expert on Perique, Ryan is quite a gifted orator as well. His scholarly knowledge from years of experience transmits through captivating stories and anecdotes. The armchair linguist in me was especially enthused when he explained Perique’s etymology (a not so kind nickname for Pierre Chenet, the 19th century farmer who developed Perique through pressure-fermentation).
The seminar was centered around Perique as a blending condiment. They began by giving us an introduction to the blending process and the spicy condiment's role in the mix, so their advice on how and how not to use it was crucial. If the knowledge weren't enough, we were further spoiled as Sutliff gave each participant a quarter ounce of the highly coveted 2003 St. James Parish Perique to use in our blending. This one of a kind and perfectly aged tobacco is a star component in Sutliff's 2021 Cringle Flake.
The attendees were set loose on tables of component tobaccos to mix their own blends. They began to float from table to table, inhaling the aromas of the bins. I half expected someone to leave the ground like a Looney Tune downwind from a pie cooling in the windowsill.
After loading a pinch into their tin-liner, the blenders would jot down their most recent addition, documenting their recipes for later inspection. Finally, they sealed the tins in a vacuum chamber. Now, nothing to do but wait—Ouellette recommended at least a month to allow the flavors an opportunity to get properly acquainted.
Friday ended with a swap meet, an opportunity for anyone to set up shop at the rows of tables to sell and trade their goods.
Artisan pipe maker S.E. Thile displayed his impeccable works arranged around a gorgeous painting—as it turned out, a still-life his wife had painted.
Old Hollywood Briar, the YouTube Pipe Community favorite, had a display of vintage blends, some of the tins signed by famous actors and musicians such as Chris Rock, Dusty Hill, and Steven Adler.
Everywhere you looked, pipes and aged tobacco jars sprawled over the black cloth.
This event was one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend as it truly showcased one of the things I find most endearing about this community—everyone has their niche. From one display to the next, you glean the tastes and preferences that curated the collection, an insight into the person behind the table. Next thing you know you’re hearing their story; how they got into pipes, what it is that draws them to these shapes or those blends, their other interests and where they’ve intersected with tobacco pipes. It’s a rare and gratifying pleasure to come into a community, cultivated around a mutual passion, that is as fertile for individuality as it is for kinship. I think that’s the happy result of an esprit de corps that places value on knowledge and perspective—that sees a difference in praxis as a point of interest, perhaps a learning opportunity, but certainly not an affront to one’s own preferences or ways of doing things.
I suppose “big tent” is the proper idiom, considering we were literally under one. The atmosphere is a welcoming one, advice and instruction are delivered in good faith and are the jumping off point for discussion, not lecture—if you ask me, far more conducive to learning, and certainly for connecting as people. And from the conversations I had over the weekend, I certainly feel I learned a lot.
Tobacco pipe smoking in and of itself is a niche hobby these days. A newcomer into such a niche may anticipate a disregarding shoo from old hands of the craft, but events like this confound whatever cynic may be wading in the back of one’s head. I’m thankful for that as someone relatively new to the scene myself. My grasp on the allure of pipe shows which I had gathered from forums, social media, and podcasts is no longer something I take on faith. I’m happy to say I know it first hand now.
Saturday, October 2—Exhibitor Day
Bright and early, the blacktop outside the Sutliff shipping area was abuzz. All the vendors were getting situated for the long day ahead. I of course was being of what use I could over at the TobaccoPipes station, but I can’t say I wasn’t more than a little distracted, my head on a swivel scanning all the pipes and tins being unloaded around me.
Between trips around the convention to talk with other vendors, I hovered about the TobaccoPipes table, talking with browsers who were delighted in perusing the selection of pipes, tobacco, and accessories. Up to this point, I hadn’t thought too much about how this would be my first experience really getting to gab with pipe enthusiasts outside of a virtual space, save for the handful of us here at TobaccoPipes. But the reality of what I had been missing out on quickly dawned.
One of the highlights of this day was the raffle our gracious hosts had put together. Many attendees purchased tickets at the Sutliff table. They had amassed a collection of great prizes to raffle off, and tickets were drawn throughout the day to choose lucky winners. Such prizes included tobaccos like McClelland 5100 Red Cake; Virginia Vaper and Heavy English Crumble Cake; Seattle Pipe Club’s Mississippi River, Plum Pudding, and their barrel-aged variations. Many boxes of cigars and other accessories were also included in the raffle, and as a surprise last minute donation, master pipe carver Yiannos Kokkinos, who travelled all the way from Cyprus, offered one of his amazing, artisan pipes.
And for those looking for a guaranteed win, Sutliff offered a “five scoops for five dollars” deal. Sitting on the table were large jars and bags of popular Sutliff blends from which pipers gleefully took advantage of the bargain. Best of all, the proceeds from the raffle and the five-scoop deal were donated to the Fisher House Foundation, an organization which supplies comfortable housing close to medical facilities to military and veteran families so that they may stay close to hospitalized loved ones. By the end of the day, over $3,000 had been raised.
It was a great treat to talk with Shannon Hoch for a bit. First, I had to ask about the special edition Moonshine corn cob, a blacked-out poker cob done in collaboration with BriarWorks a few years back. That thing is a beaut, and I’ve been determined to get it in my rotation since I first came across one online. To my delight, it seems the future’s bright (or moonshining?) for more of those being sold down the line.
We went on to chat about some of the commerce headaches plaguing this last year. One might think, since they grow their bowls right out of the ground, a good harvest would be the only concern. If only life were so simple.
Apparently in a shortage of planting stakes, more gardeners turned to bamboo, which backed up orders of the reed stems for which Old Dominion cobs are notorious. (The very next week we here at TobaccoPipes received a new stock of Old Dominions, so I can only hope that order has been restored.)
Many other staples of pipes and pipe tobacco were present. The boutique favorite, Cornell & Diehl, had stacks of blends calling out to each passerby. One table down we had Peterson and Savinelli displaying an impeccable array of pipes. Going down the line brought us to 4th Generation tobacco and Nording Pipes. Suffice it to say, I spent a good bit of time ambling about this row.
However, I had resolved to leave with my first estate pipe. Well, I walked away with two; a leather-bound Longchamp and a Weber Meerschaum (also first) poker. Both have been joys since. Throw in that this was my initiation to pipe shows, I suppose it was a weekend of firsts for me.
As thankful as I am that we have the infrastructure for virtual meeting and online shopping, especially over the past year and a half, this event made unequivocally evident the sustenance that is genuine, face to face togetherness to any community. Every pipe smoker has their way of engaging with the craft, but to me, and I’m sure countless others, a passion shared is a robust one. It’s not meant to stagnate, it’s meant to be explored ever deeper, and the kinship between those that share a passion is one of the greatest fodders to keep it thriving. Before March 2020, it was easy to think that fodder was an unlimited resource. If there’s a silver-lining, it’s seeing how gratitude abounds in our renewed appraisal of how meaningful these opportunities are.
If you didn’t make it this year, be sure to keep up with CORPS and Sutliff so you don’t miss out on the 34 th gathering.