For all intents and purposes, all pipe tobaccos are based on
three different families- Virginia, Oriental and Burley. A great many
different sub-species and variations on these primary "Varietals"
Burley is an air-cured tobacco grown primarily in Kentucky, with seven or so other neighboring states producing the rest. Other Burley producing countries include Brazil and Africa (both produce a very fine rich leaf which, sadly, is not readily available to American blenders).
Before harvesting, the Burley plant is "topped" and suckered not unlike cigar tobacco. The entire plant is cut down at harvest and hung to slowly air cure for several months turning it a rich brown color.
Due to the slow air curing process, a leaf with very little sugar content and a high ph. is produced. Smoking raw, unprocessed Burley will make your tongue feel like you just put the wrong end of a cigar in your mouth....that high Ph. translates to tongue bite extraordinaire! Blenders and manufacturers all have state-secret methods they use to tame what GL Pease aptly calls "The Curse". We'll examine some of my methods later on, but for now we'll just say that pound for pound, Burley requires more "doctoring" than any other leaf, but the results are well worth it: done right, good Burley has a sweet, nutty and earthy taste with rich chocolate undertones, a cool burn and an "Old World Pipe Shop" aroma.
All tobacco absorbs the flavors and aromas of anything around it, but burley is a veritable sponge in this aspect. Often, Burley is abused due to its readiness to accept and hold the godawful aromas that are put into some blends...
let's get this out of the way right now. I like aromatics. Good aromatics. To me, a good aromatic is one in which the added aroma accents the characteristics of the tobacco in a given blend. Cocoa, Licorice and Plum/Prune are traditional aromas lightly used in good Burley blends and all, in small amounts, serve to accent and bring out Burley's natural flavor. Burley has a naturally warm flavor and aroma, and you want to choose top notes and casing materials that accent that characteristic. Virginias notes are higher and more delicate on the flavor scale, which is why many blends are treated with fig and prune based casings. You have to think logically when top-noting tobacco, but more on that later...
Luckily, many good Burleys are available to the small blender in America. The most natural blending Burleys I've found are Sutliff's TS6 White Burley, SPS-702 Pressed Burley, Medium Burley, SPS-41 Cube Cut and TS-4 White Cube Burley. (more on tobacco cuts later). All are treated to some extent when they arrive at the blender's bench, but I've found all need a bit of extra TLC to tame the curse.
If you don't want to futz around with your blends too much, it's perfectly acceptable to use a traditional packaged Burley like Sir Walter, Carter Hall or Prince Albert as your base, so long as you enjoy them straight from the can.
Next up: Ketchup and Mustard in tobacco? ...Condimentals!