Who’s afraid of chemistry? (by Paul) – Part 1.
Paul is a prominent figure on the Dutch/Belgium pipe-smokers forum. He is a very well (self) educated man with a strong opinion about a lot of things that is he not afraid to express. He has around 240-250 pipes of which 180 are Winslows (often straight grains). Hence his forum nickname: Winslow Collector. He also has a passion for whisky and because of that he knows a lot about taste, flavours etc. A couple of weeks ago a forum member complained that when he smoked a pipe he did not taste and smell the same as when he sniffed his tobacco-pouch. Paul gave a very interesting answer which I never had read or heard anywhere before. So I asked him if he was willing to write a guest-post about the subject. And luckily he was:
Who’s afraid of chemistry?
A lot of people are. Yet I would like to take you on a little trip about the chemistry in our tobacco. And don’t worry, it will be as simple as possible to understand. Even if you don’t have a university degree in chemistry. And surely I don’t have one, it’s just a big interest of me and I will try to explain some things by deducing this-and-that by thinking logically.
The idea to write something about the chemistry of our pipe-smoking hobby has its cause in a question of a fellow pipe-smoker: “Why does my sweet tobacco smells like what’s written on the pouch (i.e. “vanilla” or “cherry”) before I smoke it, but why can’t I smell and taste that during smoking?”
One of the key words in that question is “sweet”. However the following story is applicable for “natural” tobaccos, like Virginia, burley, latakia and what we call the English Blends. But it is mainly about tobaccos with a topping of some kind. Like fruits, vanilla, flowers, beverages (like wine, rum, whisk(e)y, grappa, etc.), nuts and other flavoured tobaccos.
Also important is the phrase “smell and taste”. Beware that what we taste is mainly done with our nose. Remember how bad your “taste” is when you have a severe cold. Our mouth has the restricted ability to define only five different tastes: salt, sour, bitter, sweet and umami (which is best described as savoury). These five are all the receptors in our mouth can distinguish. Our nose on the other hand has ten thousand times more receptors to distinguish aromas than our mouth has to define taste. Therefore you don’t taste strawberry. You taste something sweet and the aroma of strawberry and the “feel” of the texture in your mouth (connecting all this with some part of your memory) defines your sensation as strawberry. That’s pretty much all how we experience taste and this ends the physiological sidestep of the story.
So now we get to the phrase “why can’t I smell and taste that during smoking?” and this takes us into the chemistry.
All life forms on earth consist mainly of hydrocarbons, including plants. Our beloved tobacco is made of leaves from plants, as well as all kinds of additives to our tobacco’s, like fruits, vanilla, nuts, etc.
But what are those hydrocarbons? They are molecules, made out of the chemical compounds hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Or as chemistry-people like to abbreviate: H, C and O. Do you remember those notations with all kinds of small numbers hanging to the letters?
Of course you do, you know that “water” is H2O, but did you know that glucose (the sugar in plants) is C6H12O6 ? And vanilla aroma comes from the vanillinin molecule, which is C8H8O3 in chemistry language? Well…, it is and I agree “vanilla” rolls of the tongue quite more easily than that formula. But “vanilla” doesn’t help us in trying to answer the question why we don’t smell/taste during smoking what we smelled before in the tobacco pouch.
Let’s try to find the answer with that example of the world’s most favourite aroma: vanilla. The vanilla aroma is so popular in food, drinks and tobacco, that there are simply not enough natural vanilla beans available. They are also quite expensive as additives and because we know what makes the vanilla aroma in these spices, we can build them chemically. We do this by artificially producing the right amount of hydrogen atoms, carbon atoms and oxygen atoms. Indeed: C8H8O3!
“We have the technology” is a famous TV-quote (don’t remember the program it was in) and this is very true in our world of food and drinks (and tobacco): we can chemically build any aroma we like. And not only “can” we, we are doing it. And because the molecular structure of the artificial built aroma is exactly the same as the one of the natural thing, the aroma is the same.
This entry continues in Part 2.