Of the many aspects of this hobby for which I’m grateful, the many friends I’ve made ranks first. There are some absolutely wonderful people in the pipe world and my life circumstances make it possible for me to meet and get to know people, often on their home turf.
Last evening, Fred Hanna visited me. It is always a treat to invite friends into my pipe world here in Greater Washington, DC. I wish it happened more often.
This week Fred is teaching a seminar for Johns Hopkins University in Columbia, Maryland. When he finished his day yesterday, he hopped into his rental Nissan and made the drive down to my neighborhood tobacconist here in Falls Church, Virginia.
We reconnoitered at 6 PM, went back into the lounge and spent two and a half hours enjoying some vintage tobacco, catching up, and discussing an astonishing range of topics than ran the gamut of North American artisanal history to the influence of the Danish makers on contemporary American artisans to current design trends. It was the kind of discussion that I find myself hungering for on a more regular basis and, frankly, that made our time together even more special.
If the time together weren’t remarkable enough, Fred brought a couple of vintage tobaccos with him for our mutual enjoyment including tins of Marcovitch Black and White and Dunhill Standard Mixture. We began with the Dunhill which has about 30 years of age on it. Suffice it to say that this tobacco was more than remarkable. The initial waft on my palate was quite rich with plenty of body. When Fred talked to me about the much rarer Dunhill Full that is out there, I had trouble imagining how much fuller it could be than what I was smoking.
We continued with bowls of Marcovitch Black and White. This stuff is rare, rare, rare– so rare that I couldn’t even find a picture of a tin anywhere on the internet. By way of comparison, the original Balkan Sobranie is commonplace. Somehow, Fred has managed to amass five pounds of this tobacco. The last time (and the first time) I ever smoked any was at last month’s Chicago Show where Fred shared some with me. I liked this bowl even more than my initial experience. Ever since last evening I have been trying to pin-point what it is about the flavor of this tobacco that has so completely entranced me. The words escape me. Its flavor is unlike anything else I have ever smoked.
I love looking at my friends’ pipes and I always love seeing what Fred is smoking. He had brought a couple of exquisite straight grain bents with him: a Ser Jacopo Sapphire bent dublin with grain quality that exceeded any other Ser Jac I have ever laid my eyes on, including a diamond or two. The grain wasn’t just fine; it wasn’t just even in pattern and color. It was as straight as a mason’s rule. One just doesn’t see grain like that - at least I don’t. All the pipes with grain quality like the above-described are on pipes that Fred owns.
He also brought a 4-C Cavicchi bent Rhodesian with him. Unlike a lot of Cavicchis, this pipe was quite light and more modestly sized than many I’ve seen. The birds-eye array on the bowl frustum looked like a leopard’s spots. It was just a terrific pipe and it also sported spectacular grain. For those people who think that straight grain is boring, I invite you to take a look at Fred Hanna’s collection. I also invite you to try and find something for sale or in your own collection that equals what he has assembled. I don’t think that I have a single pipe that could pass Fred’s grain-quality standard. While straight grain isn’t a make-or-break consideration for me, I can sure see why collecting pipes at that fevered-pitch-of-quality would be fun. When collecting pipes becomes solely about buying, a lot of the joy goes out of it. For both Fred and me, the joy is in the hunt.
As for me, I smoked two pipes. I smoked the vintage Dunhill in a new Tom Eltang shape with the “tubos” monicker. This is a brand new shape for Eltang and, in my mind, I wonder if it reflects the influence that Rolando Negoita’s recent visit had upon the inimitable Mr. Eltang. I smoked the Marcovitch in my Jess Chonowitsch bamboo tomato. These were great combinations. What a treat to be able to pair fine pipes and tobaccos while discussing the same.
Just before 9 PM, we adjourned and walked up to Dogfish Head Alehouse for dinner. Here in our neck of the woods, Dogfish is renown for their fine artisanal beers and ales, some of which are considered peerless in their quality.
Neither Fred nor I are really beer-drinkers. We’re both wine people, but when one is in Dogfish Head, it is patently stupid to pass up their beers. I advised Fred to order my choice, “Midas Touch,” a brew that is concocted from Barley oats, muscat grapes, thyme honey, and saffron. This recipe is thousands of years old, reportedly having been discovered using advanced technology on ancient barrels raised from a Persian shipwreck that occurred before the time of the Caesars. I do a grave disservice to Fred by calling him a “wine guy.” I am a “wine guy.” Fred’s an oenophile of considerable experience and discipline. I was delighted to see the look on Fred’s face when he tasted Midas Touch. He was more than surprised. His surprise tipped me off that he expected to be disappointed but was prepared to be a polite and grateful guest. It is really fun to give somebody a wow experience.
So, after calamari, home-made potato chips, pork tenderloin and wood-fired pepperoni and fresh basil leaf pizza, we finally left as the clock counted toward midnight. It was one of those memorable evenings where two friends who share a passion for pipes and much gemütlichkeit made the most of a day.
In the pipe world, Fred Hanna is one of the most respected and knowledgeable collectors among us. He has been a prolific writer, an accidental (and always principled) provocateur, and a lifelong student. It is this last trait that endears Fred to me most.
I told Fred last night that I believe that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Last evening, I felt ready to learn some things. Fred’s insights and empathy never disappoint. Last night, Fred made an offhand remark that one of the biggest barriers to a person’s ability to improve is that person’s belief that they are already good.
That insight resonated with me on so many levels and reminded me that I personally need to discard my expert’s robes and assume the beginner’s mind. I wonder how much learning I have missed because I am not mindful enough to remain humble in all things.
This takes me back to my initial observation: how important our friends can be to us. A friend can say something to us in an unguarded moment that we can hear. We can hear friends because we are not defended and because we are not occupying our professional persona. This is of tremendous value in this pipe hobby of us. There are some amazing people from all walks of life who are both able to enrich us and generous enough to do so.
We’re lucky. Yes, we are.