Types of Hookah Tobacco

For a long time now, social site hookah groups have been full of speculation or half-truths concerning hookah tobacco types, the process of tobacco production, tobacco strength and other things as well. For that reason I’ve decided to shed some light into this matter with this text about the different types of hookah tobacco.

So, let’s begin with the basics – which types are actually used? There are actually quite a lot of them and historically, many different types have been used in the past (it’s fair to say that it all started with smoking hashish). For the purposes of this short article, I will be focusing mostly on the modern state of things. It’s essential to mention that though I’m focusing on the basic categories here, there are a many different combinations and subgroups available in the current market. Different types of tobacco are also often mixed together to combine their unique properties.

Blonde leaf tobacco (bright leaf, golden tobacco, Virginia…)

Most people who have ever had hookah in their lives probably smoked this hookah tobacco type. It is best known as blonde leaf or Virginia tobacco. The name Virginia is obvious to some, it is named after a state in the USA of the same name and where it was first grown. Blonde leaf is another popular name which hints the tobacco color itself. The color is bright yellow in the beginning and after the process of drying is completed, the color turns to deep orange. Traditionally, the drying process happened in a barn with the tobacco hanging upside down. The barns had flue systems. These flues transferred smoke from a nearby fire to warm the tobacco and dry it. Thanks to the use of flues, the tobacco is also called flue-cured. The tobacco has a light taste and the Virginia/blonde leaf/flue-cured tobacco is being grown in 75 countries around the world and accounts for around 40 % of the entire global tobacco production.

Most manufacturers of hookah tobacco usually wash it or even boil it, so the tobacco is left with almost no nicotine. The base for the actual final product is often honey, but doesn‘t necessarily has to be.

Nicotine content in a leaf: approx 0.5 – 3.5% / Sugar content in a leaf: 5% – 30%.

* It’s essential to keep in mind that these percentages account for the content in a leaf. The leaf is then processed and the procentual amount changes due to the molasses being many times heavier than the leaf.

Dark leaf tobacco (black leaf, black tobacco)

It’s a general name for a group of tobacco types which leaf colors range from brown to black, the color depends either on tobacco type or the tobacco production process. This means that the difference between dark leaf tobacco and blonde leaf tobacco is significant. There are many types and processes and the final product is also quite something else.

Apart from the tobacco type being popular among hookah smokers, this type is also used mostly in cigars or black cigarettes. The dark leaf tobacco is almost always air dried, this method gets most of the sugar out of the tobacco and gives it the typical brown color and strong smell.

  • Burley is the most mentioned type of tobacco in this group. The plant itself can reach up to 1.5 meters in height and before the production process begins, the tobacco is actually lighter in color than Virginia. The best Burley leaves come from the USA, Central America, Uganda and Indonesia. Burley is air dried, meaning most sugars get removed, the color changes and the smell is reminding of the usual cigar tobacco smell. Even the smoke produced while smoking the tobacco is darker and more intense. The color ranges from bright brown to very dark brown. The Burley type is grown in 55 countries around the world and accounts for around 11 % of the entire global tobacco production. Nicotine content in a leaf: 1.5 % – 4.5 % (though has a high „nitrogen ratio“ – a nicotine to sugar ratio).
  • Brown Virginia, Dark Virginia or Black Virginia are some other names you might’ve heard.
  • In the case of Brown Virginia, it’s mostly a type of Virginia leaf which is grown in Filippines and Indonesia, where a special process of air drying takes place (Dark Air Cured Virginia). Thanks to this special process, the tobacco is much darker than the regular Virginia and the taste or smell is also more prominent.
  • „Fire dried“ tobacco – a special process of drying. The leaves are slow-dried (smoked) in the early phase of curing. The type of wood has a strong influence of the resulting taste and properties of the final product. The leaves are also darker in color thanks to this process.

It’s possible to prepare a Virginia tobacco this way too – Dark Fire Cured Virginia. In practice the tobacco is relatively weak, but has a very strong taste. As a result from this though, many smokers confuse the flavor strength with actual tobacco strength.

The only known producers are USA, Poland, Malawi, Italy and Tanzania.

In addition to the currently most used types and processing methods, we have to mention some of the more traditional tobacco that basically estabilished their own category by being traditional.

  • Most of you will surely remember the tobacco Zaghloul from Nakhla. Historically, it’s something like an intermediate step between leaf products (Tombak, Jurak…) and modern tobacco. In it’s base form, Zaghloul only contains two ingredients – molasses and tobacco (80% Virginia, 20% Oriental). These types are sun dried and unwashed, resulting in higher nicotine content in the final product.

A lot of people have bad experiences with Zaghloul in our country, this is very related to the way the manufacturer packages the tobacco. Even then, the sells have always been low and people buying the tobacco often found out that it has already dried up. If this is your case, however, there’s a way to kind of fix it. What you need is food grade glycerine, put the tobacco into a closable case, mix in one small spoon of glycerine and let it sit closed for 2 days, only mixing it thoroughly every few hours.

There are two ways of smoking this tobacco properly.

The modern way – you need an unglazed, shallow egy style bowl (preferably Turkish type). Pack it semi-dense with a wide enough gap between the foil and tobacco (we suggest using thin foil). Use 2-3 coals and start smoking right away, without preheating the bowl.

The traditional way – (we’re only going to talk about the most common method, for example in the Middle East, the traditional way is with use of indirect heat). This method requires a bit of training. Fluff pack the tobacco into the same bowl used in the modern way, but only in the bottom of the bowl. Now comes the interesting part – try to form a disc out of the remaining tobacco, which you will then place on top of the fluffed tobacco already in the bowl. After that, place 3-4 small coals and let it sit for about 10 minutes with windshield on. It’s essential to refrain from smoking until the tobacco bakes. After 10 minutes pass, remove the windshield, remove 1-2 coals and you can start smoking. You’ve basically created a thin baked layer that substitutes foil.

  • Tombak (from Turkish „tobacco“) is made out of classic dry tobacco leaves. These leaves are unflavored. The tobacco has an authentic tobacco flavor and a high nicotine content. Basically any type of tobacco can be used (Burley, Virginia, Oriental,…) and they are often mixed to improve the tobacco properties. To prepare the tobacco – several large leaves are soaked in water, it’s smoked directly without the use of a bowl. The Tombak leaves are winded around the top of the hookah (looks a bit like a cigar). The coals are placed directly on the tobacco. Tombak is very popular in the Middle East, though in Europe or Russia, not many have even heard of it.
  • Jurak is a fine-cut dark tobacco with an addition of molasses and spices. No flavorings or even fruits are used. The packing method is usually overpack with coals right on top without a foil.
  • Dokha (dizziness in Arabic) comes from the countries of the Gulf region. Dokha is a pure tobacco that is subject to minimal processing or standard drying process and the nicotine content is very high. The dry tobacco leaves are crushed and then smoked out of Medwakh pipes. Dokha is usually mixed with herbs, spices or bark.

The recommended way of smoking is to mix 0.5-1g (depending on the Dokha type) into the tobacco. This ensures an even increase in session strength over the entire duration of the session. It can also be used to fluff it on top of a packed bowl. In this case, the increase in strength will be a huge leap only at the start of the session, the taste will also be significantly affected and the burnt taste of the tobacco may also occur.

Other important processes of production

Some tobacco undergoes yet another stage of preparation – fermentation. This process can last from 2 days to several months or even years.

Fermentation is also sometimes called tobacco aging. Fermentation is a chemical reaction caused by humidity, temperature and possibly pressure as well (to intensify the process). The fermentation gives the tobacco a more uniform color and a smoother taste specific to this process (time, location, temperature,…)

Tobacco washing is quite a discussed process in tobacco production. The so called unwashed tobacco is becoming increasingly popular. It’s basically unprocessed tobacco that retains a stronger flavor and after further processing, the nicotine content stays at around 0.5 %, which is approximately ten times more that of washed tobacco. Apart from strength, the tobacco has also stronger taste and the leaves are slightly darker in color. The taste is heavier and also has some bitter undertones. Due to the higher content of nicotine and heavier taste it can cause headwinds or dazed feelings. Inexperienced smokers could also experience dizziness and vomiting. This effect is multiplied when the tobacco is packed for strength. Certain types of tobacco don’t need to be washed at all.

Washed tobacco is usually washed and dried several times during the production. This removes almost all nicotine as well as the excess tobacco flavor. Normally, the tobacco is washed in cold water and is divided into several phases. Each phase remove some of the nicotine and excess tobacco flavor. The number of wash phases can practically control the nicotine content from 0.05 % (the most common nicotine content in hookah tobacco) to 0.5%. The tobacco is also sometimes boiled.

Boiled tobacco is another type of preparation method. This is similar to the usual washing method, but the procedure is slightly different. The tobacco is boiled for a few minutes, then washed with cold water and the drying process begins. Boiling removes the nicotine content, the excess strong tobacco flavor (which would affect the final flavor of the tobacco blend), and makes the tobacco more smooth, making it easier to process and mix it with molasses or honey. The final product is usually more resistant to heat and preserves flavor better.

So… what’s next?

As I’ve mentioned in the beginning, I mostly wanted to focus on currently available tobacco types – used in hookah tobacco manufacturing. However, there are many different tobacco types and types of processing as well. One example is the World Tobacco Original brand (also known under the abbreviation WTO), who decided to base their brand on tobacco using many different cigar tobacco and special fermentation processes.

WTO has a lot of different options to pick from:

Cuba – the blend consists of Ligero, Seco and Volado leaves obtained from Cuban black tobacco.

Caribbean – the blend consists of vintage leaves from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru. These leaves are 6.8 years – 12 years old.

Tanzania – the blend consists of African roasted Kentucky leaf harvested in 2012, undergoing fermentation by smoke from mango wood, this process takes 30 days. Professionals call this type of tobacco „spice“ and, in the background there is a distinctive undertone of aged whiskey.

Nicaragua – astronger line that consists of the Ligero leaves supplied by Perdomo. The tobacco undergoes up to three times the time the usual fermentation takes, before they are loaded into oak barrels. This line uses the 2008 harvest tobacco leaves.

Perique – made of unique tobacco from American Louisiana. The leaves are loaded into oak barrels, where they are fermented under pressure in their own juice for one and a half years! This process of fermentation was invented about 200 years ago by the Choctaw Indians. Only 7 tonnes of tobacco are available each year for the entire world market.

And that concludes this article. There is a lot of things that we did not mention, but for the basics, it is quite a good overview. We hope that it will at least help you to expand your horizons and clarify some of the information you have surely already had.