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A Closer Look at Sutliff's Pipe Force - Return of the Signature Series by Per Georg Jensen

A Closer Look at Sutliff's Pipe Force - Return of the Signature Series by Per Georg Jensen

Posted by Greg Rosenberg on 21st Jul 2023

Table of Contents:
Conceiving the Blends - Stoving Katerini and Rustica
Developing Pipe Force
The Blends - Descriptions and info

Pipe Force is the latest collaboration between  Sutliff Tobacco Company and Mac Baren master blender Per Jensen. Many will be familiar with the Birds of a Feather collection, the first iteration of this ongoing project. Now, we are seeing a new chapter in the Per Jensen Signature Series, continuing the innovative aspirations of its predecessor.

Sutliff Tobacco Pipe Force

Origins of the Signature Series

Let’s do a quick background on how the series came to be, setting the stage for Pipe Force.

Incrementally released from May 2022-2023, Birds of a Feather was a collection of six excellent pipe blends that was sparked from a single innovation.

It started when Mark Ryan of LA Poche came to the 2021 CORPS Richmond Pipe Show with a bag of Katerini Perique—the Oriental sub-varietal had been pressure fermented in the Perique process, resulting in an unprecedented ingredient. At the show, Sutliff would commit to purchasing the few barrels that were made. This unique opportunity compelled Sutliff President Jeremy McKenna to invite Per Jensen to Richmond, Virginia to develop a blend using the Katerini Perique. However, with Jensen traveling from Europe, it seemed more than one or two blends should come of his visit, but the special ingredient was in limited supply.

Katerini Perique Barrels

It was decided that six blends would be made, each containing at least one component tobacco that isn’t commonly found in regular production blends: Rustica, genuine St. James Perique, Katerini, and of course, Katerini Perique. The series was tied together perfectly with tin art from Jeremy’s brother, Jacob McKenna. When Jeremy saw the vibrant birds Jacob was drawing for his son, he knew they were perfect for this series of unique mixtures.

Sutliff Birds of a Feather

It was a confluence of fortunate developments that led to this fine series. This time around, it’s a little different. With the joy that came from creating the first collection and the warm reception it received, the decision to do another series all but made itself. However, where Birds of a Feather just sort of came—I’m sorry—flocked together, Pipe Force would be enthusiastically developed from the ground up, from the concept that ties the tobaccos together, to the eccentric sci-fi military theme.

Conceiving the blends

There's no denying that Pipe Force has a pretty out-there, let's call it "external theme" (by which I mean, everything that ties this series together aside from the tobacco: tin art, crest , challenge coins, etc.) That's all good fun that we will be getting into, but the substance of this or any significant series comes down to quality pipe tobacco blends. So naturally, that's where we'll start—with what defines these mixtures as a collection.

To get some insight as to how this series came together, I sat down and chatted all things Pipe Force with Jeremy McKenna.

Just as Birds of a Feather saw a delightfully curious addition to the blending arsenal in Katerini Perique, Per was interested in finding an approach to Pipe Force that also broadened the potential for interesting, unique blending.

"The Katerini Perique last year got Per thinking, well we can take what we think of as traditional tobaccos and maybe put them through a different process to get different attributes out of them," McKenna tells me. 

Of course, Sutliff wouldn't be able to take on the incredibly specialized process of barrel fermentation in their facilities. Considering the blending house's highly efficient stoving operation and aptitude for small batch manufacturing, experimenting with stoved tobacco just made sense.

The practice of stoving, or the Cavendish process, has a long history with much flexibility and irregularity in the terminology. But simply put, stoving is the process of darkening—sometimes blackening—tobacco through steam, heat, and pressure. Methods of achieving this result vary between blending houses; Sutliff stoves with a conditioning chamber where metal tubes lined with holes are inserted into hogsheads of tobacco. The tubes pump the hogshead with steam for 24 hours before being flipped to ensure at even darkening. 

Sutliff conditioning chamber

Burley or Virginia are almost exclusively used for this process. Usually called (Black) Cavendish, European blending houses will most always use Virginia as the source leaf. In the States, Burley is most often used, and when Virginia is, it's generally called "Stoved Virginia," but there are of course exceptions. 

The Katerini Oriental and Rustica seemed like perfect candidates to create stoved tobaccos with distinguished characters within the traditional blending tobacco roster. Oriental leaf has a decent sugar content, not as much as the flue-cured Virginia, but the sun-curing process retains much of the natural sugar—an important trait when considering the caramelizing effect of the stoving process. The robust Rustica on the other hand is one of the heartiest ingredients you can have in a blend. Putting the bold leaf through a process notorious for its mellowing effects was an intriguing and ultimately fruitful experiment.

"Per loves to play with tobacco," McKenna tells me. "You know, as a master blender, understanding the nuances and the blending behind them, he really likes to see what other flavors can be developed or how you can blend them together to get a different experience."

The first Pipe Force blend was released July 12th, Episode IV - Sergeant Kimble—but we've already seen two introductions of the entire line-up that have stoked our excitement for more folks to try these tobaccos. The first was a tasting panel at the Sutliff factory. Establishing a tradition started last year with Birds of a Feather, a handful of determined pipe smokers came to Richmond to participate in a tasting panel, where all six of these blends were sampled. 

Sutliff Tobacco Pipe Force tasting panel

Then, just days later, we were at  the Chicago Pipe Show, where Sutliff was selling a sample pack of the Pipe Force blends, and even auctioned off a 9 pound block of each. 

"It was very positive," McKenna tells me of the series' early reception at Chicago. "It was good because people got to come early enough on Saturday and get the tobaccos and take off to the smoking tent at lunch. They would circle back and be like, hey, I haven't smoked them all, but I smoked Episode III or IV or V and be like, that was really good. So, it was nice to get that much feedback ahead of the release." 

Sutliff Tobacco at Chicago Pipe Show

Pipe Force beyond the blends

With Birds of a Feather, McKenna saw an opportunity to move away from the somewhat indifferent design and naming conventions in Sutliff's back catalogue. "It really came out of seeing comments online asking why can't there be tin art as opposed to just brand labels," recounts McKenna. "And there are different manufacturers that do a better job of putting some sort of art on there. We historically have not done a good job with tin art."

McKenna knew he wanted to keep that approach with the next series, and when he saw some beastly creatures drawn by his brother Jacob, McKenna asked him to come up with a few more in a similar vein for what would become Pipe Force.

The concept around these creatures began to take shape following a conversation that McKenna, who is ex-Army, had with his other brother who is in the Air Force. "We one day got to talking about Space Force, about its creation and how he's instructing ROTC right now," explains McKenna. "He was taking some of his cadets to a symposium on Space Force and from there I started thinking, you know, if the U.S. Military can have Space Force then we can have Pipe Force, right? And then let's apply these fictional characters. That's kind of where it originated from."

Sutliff Pipe Force logo

From there, McKenna went all in. One of the first developments was designing a clever PF logo made from the images of a Billiard pipe and Czech tool, a nod to the Military unit and regimental crests. You'll notice the emblem on the uniforms of each of the Pipe Force...Guardians? (Guardians are to Space Force as Airmen are to the Air Force or Sailors to the Navy—is it accurate for Pipe Force? McKenna might have some more world building to do). 

The crest was made into lapel pins and patches, “much like a patch that you would sew—or in these days, Velcro—onto a Military fatigue uniform, or a lapel pin that you would use on a dress uniform or a beret," expounds McKenna. "Those we’re giving away at different trade shows like Chicago or Ohio or Vegas.”

Sutliff Pipe Force patch and pin

Then came the challenge coins. One in every ten tins will include a coin featuring the character on one side and the Sutliff logo on the opposite, another element taking inspiration from Military culture. "Challenge coins are something in the Military that you get for on the spot reward for some accomplishment, some deed," says McKenna. "The person whose coin it is normally coins you."

Sutliff Pipe Force challenge coins

The characters were given ranks and names that relate to the Military and sci-fi theme respectively. "We did three enlisted and three officers. The names all have a theme to them that we're not telling anyone." 

The Pipe Force ranks mirror that of the Army, and although Space Force is set up like the Air Force, some folks intuit that’s not right either. “People are giving me a hard time, like well if it’s a space force, then it should be Navy to a lot of people.” 

I guess I can see that. Ships…spaceships…why not? But it’s not quite as persuasive as McKenna's argument: “You know, people can argue whether it should be Navy or Army but, being the boss, it’s Army.” I for one am not inclined to argue.

Wrapping up our dive into the world of Pipe Force, I made the simple observation, "you had fun with this one." 

"I had too much fun with this one," McKenna shoots back. "It's the Military sci-fi geek in me."

The themes tying Pipe Force together—the innovative stoving that inspired these blends and their theatrical delivery—embrace originality and quirk, traits that seem particularly constrained given the climate around the pipe tobacco industry today. It sometimes feels the pastime has been condemned to stagnancy, just surviving without the license to experiment and create. Maybe that outlook is gratuitously gloomy, but even from the optimist's perch, it's refreshing to have a series make the case that it hasn't all been done, and we can have fun doing it.

The future of the Per Jensen Signature Series

A new Pipe Force blend will be released every two months, the final installment launching in May 2023. So, there's no need to get too ahead of ourselves with what's next—these blasters are still hot. However, being the second Signature Series, I was curious if we could expect this to be a yearly fixture on the Sutliff calendar.

"As of now, Per and I have an understanding that we'll keep making Per Jensen Signature Series," says McKenna. "Right now, I can see a future of another series of Pipe Force like Pipe Force Next Generation or something there abouts."

The blends

*release dates updated as of Feb 13, 2024

Episode IV - First Sergeant Deckard - 7.12.23

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode IV

Tobaccos: Latakia, Oriental, Stoved Katerini, Stoved Rustica, Virginia

A light, Oriental-focused English mixture accentuated with two novel, stoved tobaccos—Rustica and Katerini. The Orientals are musky and herbal, bringing much of the flavor alongside Red Virginia tang and wood as well as spice from the Stoved Katerini. The Stoved Rustica offers a stout body and peppery sensation, harmonizing with a light Latakia smokiness.

Episode V - Captain Ryan - 9.13.23

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode V

Tobaccos: Stoved Katerini, Stoved Rustica, Stoved Virginia

Hot-pressed and ready rubbed Rustica is stoved, resulting in a smoothing of the bold leaf, but its familiar BBQ tang and floral spice are preserved, dynamically complementing the caramelized sweetness of the Stoved Virginia. The Oriental Katerini takes to the Cavendish process beautifully, offering herbal, woody undertones. The result is an exotic mélange with a vitality that reimagines what a stoved mixture can be.

Episode VI - Specialist Falfa - 11.25.23

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode VI

Tobaccos: Kentucky, Perique, Stoved Katerini, Virginia

A woody, tangy mixture of select Virginia leaf is elevated with Stoved Katerini, adding dark berry and spice. Dark-Fired Kentucky and St. James Perique enrich the base with earthy notes, pepper, and a light smokiness. Episode VI is a savory, vinous evolution from the natural sweetness and dark flavor of the Virginia/Perique genre. Richness with nuance all the way down.

Episode I - MAJ O’Meara - 2.13.24

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode I

Tobaccos: Latakia, Oriental (Katerini), Stoved Rustica, Virginia,

The Latakia-forward English mixture offers plenty of smoky flavor from the fire-cured leaf, which is artfully harmonized with floral, earthy Stoved Rustica. A mixture of high-grade Virginias imparts a natural sweetness. Katerini, the sole Oriental component, offers herb and spice notes bringing complexity and nuance to the flavor profile.

Episode II - Sergeant Kimble - 6.18.24

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode II

Tobaccos: Katerini Perique, Kentucky, Latakia, Stoved Katerini, Stoved Virginia, Virginia, 

A mellow, sweet mixture of Bright, Red, and Stoved Virginia offers the exceptional base for smokey Latakia, floral Kentucky, spice of Stoved Katerini and the ambrosial berry and spice of Katerini Perique. The result is a harmony of flavor in perfect balance.

Episode III - Lieutenant General Marshall - 10.22.24

Sutliff Pipe Force Episode III

Tobaccos: Kentucky, Stoved Rustica, Stoved Virginia, Virginia

Stoved and Red Virginia give a naturally sweet, tangy, woody foundation. The hearty Rustica leaf has been hot-pressed and stoved for the first time. The process slightly tempers the bold tobacco and imparts a floral note, but still, the robust character is not lost, bringing body to the smoke. A portion of Dark-fired Kentucky then offers a mesquite spice to the mixture.