HOOKAH EVOLUTION SERIES: CHARCOAL

Have you ever stopped to think about where the hookah or shisha comes from?  How old is it?  What was the reason behind its inception?  It’s a pretty amazing concept when you really ponder it.  Today as we smoke and enjoy the hookah, we are all taking part in a time honored act spanning thousands of years.  Taking part of something that hasn’t really changed since it was first invented. Or has it?

In this three part series, Social Smoke is going to explore the origins of the hookah, and how it’s changed through three very important components: the charcoal used to light the tobaccothe blends, and finally the design of the hookah itself. Through these three components we hope to discover what time has enhanced or bettered about the hookah, and what is essentially the same.

What is conceptually the same since it was first invented is the reason WHY the hookah exists.  It was created as a relaxing and pleasurable tool to pass time in a socially engaging way.  Some believe that the hookah was first invented in India around the 16th century by an Iranian physician, while others hold that the hookah first originated in Persia and was then passed down to India and other countries through travelers. In either version, we definitely owe a debt of gratitude to those first forefathers.

When the hookah was first invented, the charcoal used to light the tobacco was what was then called ‘natural’ coal. These charcoals were traditionally made out of wood. Plain wood that was lit and placed on top of the bowl to heat the tobacco. And for many years thereafter, using wood as a way to light the hookah, was the way to go.  As time passed people got inventive with the type of wood used, like lemon wood or bamboo, but it was still wood.  Eventually in the 19th century wood was changed to charcoal, and in 1950’s quick light charcoal was invented.

In the early 2000’s proponents of ‘natural’ charcoal pushed for a better alternative to using wood and quick lights, and ‘naturals’ from coconut shell were invented.  Naturals are lit using a single coil electric heater, or a fire or fireplace.  You place the coals on a stove that has been turned up to high and leave them there until there is a thin layer of ash on all sides, anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.  Because these charcoals burn at a higher degree of heat, proponents of natural hookah charcoals believe that they bring out the best flavor of the tobacco blends, produce bigger clouds, and eliminate the artificial aftertaste. They also last a really long time. About an hour and half a session.  Almost double the amount of time as their counterparts, quick light charcoal.

The biggest downside to ‘naturals’ is that they do take a long time to light, and require a high amount of heat.  Which means that, unless you carry around a coal burner in your trunk, these charcoals are only feasible when you are around a stove. The high heat is also difficult to manage.  If you are not careful, it’s really easy to burn your tobacco using ‘natural’ charcoal.  Nevertheless naturals are still the most popular form of charcoal used today, especially by more experienced hookah smokers.  Just run a search for ‘natural hookah charcoal’ in any search engine and you will get hundreds of results and companies that sell them.

Quick Lights, invented in the 1950’s, are meant to enhance the hookah experience by cutting down on preparation time, are really popular in hookah lounges and as a convenient alternative charcoal. They were first created to light incense and aroma products, and then adopted by the hookah community.   Quick Lights are essentially chemically engineered coal.  They can be lit with a lighter in 20 to 45 seconds.  Which makes them easily portable, and useful when you are traveling with your hookah. Quick Lights are known to last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.  And when the coal goes out, most of the time, the flavor is still good, so you just plop a few more on top of the bowl.  Quick Lights most remarkable feature is in their name.  They are quick to light and therefore way more convenient in an outdoor situation or anywhere where a stove isn’t available.

Some drawbacks would be that they are dirtier than naturals.  The chemicals used to produce them create a thicker ashy substance that can easily get everywhere.  And they do carry a distinct flavor that is usually immediately upon starting to smoke.  Because they burn out quicker then natural’s, you do end up using more depending on how long you smoke.

Today, quick lights are mostly favored in hookah lounges and by some hookah smokers.  But there are many in the hookah community who believe that ‘naturals’ are far better, and create an exceptional hookah smoking experience, with no chemical drawbacks. In the end, it all comes down to a question of time and convenience. Whichever charcoal you choose to go with, the end result is still pretty spectacular.  And its quite clear that when it comes to the forms of charcoal used, the hookah has most certainly evolved.

Social Smoke Tobacco is smoked at it’s best when using natural coals. Smoking a bowl is about enjoying the longevity of our flavors without the concern of having to re-pack within two hours. Although everyone has their own preference, we recommend a good quality natural charcoal since it brings out the best taste in our tobacco. Natural charcoal permits for the original taste to stay as is during the entire session which is our ultimate goal. Sure they take longer to light, but it’s well worth the wait.

Want to know more about the evolution of the hookah?  Check out next week’s post about how hookah blends have changed through the years.  And as always, feel free to post any questions in the comments below.