There are many things in life that can be truly enjoyed with a group of friends. In between an awesome steak dinner and grams of cocaine (just kidding), there’s a f*#@$%g good shisha. It’s one of the most versatile vices that’s suitable with afternoon tea, evening cocktails, or a mango smoothie. You can also puff along to Netflix marathons such as Chewing Gum, Designated Survivor, or Shooter.
Unfortunately, most people are inexperienced with preparations and maintenance of a really f*#@$%g good shisha, so let me drop some wisdom on your molasses after making 300+ shishas in the past two years. Think of it as Jiro Dreams of Shisha, but I’m not an old Japanese grandpa. First off, we’ll need a diagram to properly indoctrinate you with the name of the parts:
Tobacco Bowl: Here’s where you put the tobacco. Most people go with the classics of Grape or Apple plus Mint. You can get exotic with Strawberry, Orange, or Peach but it really depends on your personal preference. Depending on the brand of tobacco and how they designed their flavors, I’ll usually do 60% main and 40% secondary. The mint is usually there just to soften things up with a cool aftertaste.
Pipe Tray: You can put an extra coal on the side, set your tongs, or use the base to tap the ash off a burning coal. Be careful if you’re sitting around a windy area as it can blow all over the place.
Pipe Stem: Fairly straightforward, just make sure you clean the insides often.
Air Valve + Ball Bearing: Here is where you can control the airflow in the stem. Make sure you don’t lose this part when cleaning things up, as it can cause the whole shisha to malfunction. The proper setting depends on how big or small your shisha is so experiment around until you find the sweet spot.
Base Seal + Base Bottle: Make sure you fill the water up to the designated height. On some vases, there will be a line drawn across the diameter of the base towards the top. Other times you’ll just have to play it by ear and see how much the stem’s bottom is submerged under water.
Hose Grommet + Hose: Arguable the most critical part that usually creates leakage, but with proper grommets this shouldn’t be an issue.
When you have a shisha that’s not drawing properly or tastes funny, here are some of the common issues. A small fault can create a systematic failure in the entire pipe, which results in a horrible experience…and people flipping tables.
Coals Aren’t Hot Enough: If no smoke or flavor is coming out, there are a few reasons. First, your coals are probably not hot enough and the tobacco has not been burning right. Proper coals take around 15-20 minutes to heat up properly, with adjustments made every 5 minutes on the fire to ensure they are heated evenly. I don’t recommend using the quick-light gas coals (circle shaped) as they tend to cause headaches in my experience. Fully lit coals will be covered in a layer of ash. If your coals aren’t hot enough, you’ll be inhaling the fumes of combustion. This is especially true for quick light coals as they have accelerants that speed up the process.
Leakage In Your Setup: Another cause of poor smoke could be a leakage in your setup. The common culprits are located at the bowl grommet, hose grommet, air valve, and base seals. A common trick is to use wet tissue or napkins between the grommets to keep airflow from leaking. If you’re mixing and matching different bases bottles with pipe stems, it could be a compatibility problem as not all of the hardware fits properly across different models. Double check your purchases at the store because this is difficult to judge online by the eye.
Here are the three common rubber grommets that can keep your setup from leaking. with some trial and error you can usually troubleshoot where the problem is. The left one is for the base bottle, middle one for the bowl, and right one for the hose.
Coals Are Too Close: The best placement is on the outer edges and rotating them every 10-15 minutes. You want to heat up the bowl which will in turn heat your tobacco and cook it evenly. By putting the coals smack in the middle, you’re burning up the top layer making it hard and crispy. This creates a very harsh smoke that irritates your throat. As you clean your bowl after a session, take a look at how evenly the tobacco is burning. If the bottom layer is red/brown and the top is completely black, that means your coal placements were off.
Dirty Stem: The 80/20 of making a good shisha really comes down to proper maintenance of your gear. Corrosion inside the pipe is a common occurrence after 3-4 months if you use it frequently every week. This causes “ghosting” which flattens the flavor of the tobacco as it burns. That’s why when you first get a new stem or hose it tastes awesome. But after two months, it starts to get flat and muddy. Don’t be lazy and let your pipe sit there once you’re done overnight. The purple residue builds up fast and can ruin the gear quickly.
Dirty Hoses: Proper cleaning if your shisha equipment includes rising the hoses with water and cleaning out any residue inside. The color of the water will be slightly brown or purple if you are cleaning it immediately after a session. After rising water through the hose two or three times, it should be clear which means you’ve cleaned it thoroughly. Congratulations! Next, you want to hang the pipes vertically if you can, but having them hang on a doorknob or towel rack also works. Try to keep the same flavors on the same hoses and stems if you can, as it keeps them from mixing up and tasting funny over time.
Packing The Bowl Too Tight: When preparing the bowl, mix and fluff the tobacco so that it has air to breathe. This allows it to burn better and provide you with an even taste. For older tobacco in storage, liquid residue can build up in the bottom that you need to redistribute. If you pack it too tight, the smoke can’t travel through the stem which creates some problems. Just places the fluffed tobacco on the bowl naturally and pack a tight seal with the foil.
Not Enough Holes In The Foil: As you wrap the bowl with foil, make sure it has a tight hold. Use a toothpick to make the holes if you can. Forks can create holes that are too big which allows ash to fall inside. Once there’s ash mixed in your tobacco, it can create a really nasty drag. It’s usually best to poke around at least 6-8 rings of holes around the head as it gives more airflow to the tobacco after the holes are placed.
Use Good Tobacco: My personal favorite is by Al Fakher made in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Al Fakher is a mid to high-grade tobacco and has a very consistent flavor. I first got into shishas with Starbuzz, but after a few months I found Al Fakher to taste better and never went back. Starbuzz also has some confusing branding. For example, how does Golden Apple differ from Double Apple? It makes no sense, and I don’t want to buy an entire can just to find out it sucks.
That’s all for my 80/20 guide to making a great fucking shisha. TLDR:
- Clean your stems, bowls, and hoses ASAP after a session.
- Keep the flavors consistent between pipes and don’t mix and match if you can.
- Don’t use the circle shaped quick light coals…they suck.
- Use wet tissue to plug any leakages.
- Buy good tobacco and don’t go cheap…its not worth it.
- Stay hydrated to avoid shisha headaches.
Hope this helps and happy smoking!
Also published on Medium.