As a veteran in the hookah industry, I have tested and tried an extremely wide variety of hookah products (we’re always running tests and experiments to find the best hookah supplies) and hookah troubleshooting tips to smoke a perfect bowl of shisha. I take as much pride in my hookah smoking abilities as I do in my hookah teaching abilities, and would like to share both by starting a blog series on how to smoke a hookah.
Today’s blog focuses on heat management. Though the top of the hookah today may be one of the most neglected parts when smoking a hookah, it can be one of the most influential parts of the hookah smoking experience.
For those of you that don’t know, a hookah is heated by hookah charcoal. Some hookah charcoals are easier to light and arrange than others, but they all serve one common purpose: to heat a hookah bowl. Heat management and maintaining the heat transfer is the key to gaining the perfect hookah smoke. A common misconception about hookahs concerns the burning of the tobacco. When smoking a hookah, you are never trying to burn the hookah tobacco, you’re merely trying to evaporate and vaporize all the honeys and sugars in which the shisha tobacco is marinated in. Thus the reason for using charcoal instead of an open flame (as with smoking cigarettes or a cigar). This also explains why the spent hookah tobacco is still in the hookah bowl, unlike cigarette or cigar tobacco burned to ash. Another example of this method of tobacco smoking can be seen in Eclipse Cigarettes. If I remember correctly, these cigarettes contain a small carbon (charcoal) rod running down the middle of the cigarette. The tobacco is soaked in glycerin and, once the carbon rob is ignited, it evaporates the glycerin off of the tobacco. When smoking this cigarettes you are ideally getting no tobacco smoke, just vaporization. The nicotine is still transferred to the smoker though because the glycerin acts as a transfer agent and pulls the nicotine out of the tobacco in the vaporization transfer. That is essentially the same concept of what is happening when you are smoking a hookah. You are ideally only vaporizing the shisha tobacco and that is why the smoke is smoother. You are still extracting nicotine and other things out of the tobacco though, so that is why some people still get the nicotine buzz when they smoke a hookah. Typically, I have found that cigarette smokers don’t get as much of the nicotine buzz. It may be worth noting that there is the potential for health concerns with all forms of smoking, those who choose to smoke can learn the optimal way to serve a hookah on our HookahLove blog.
In essence, how a hookah works is based on vaporization: not burning. When you smoke a hookah, the hookah should always be totally sealed. This way, the top of your hookah bowl is the only entrance for air when you pull on the hookah. When charcoal is at a standing state, it is much less hot than when it is being blown on, or in the case of a hookah, when air is being sucked from above the hookah bowl past the hookah charcoal, and through your hookah and hookah hose. For best results, you’d like the hookah charcoal to rest at a cooler temperature when the hookah isn’t in use, and heating up to simmer the tobacco when one pulls air through the hose (and over the coal).
The type of charcoal you use can greatly impact your ability to properly manage the heat of your hookah bowl. My favorite hookah charcoal is undeniably the natural wood charcoal (especially lemon wood charcoal like Romman Lemon Wood Charcoal). Although it takes more effort to ignite and requires more attention than quick-light charcoal, once you get it going it is simple to use. The reason I like natural wood charcoal is because it is much more porous than other charcoal. You can tell this by the simple fact that it weighs less per mass than other compacted charcoal. Other hookah charcoal, like quick-light charcoal, is compact and dense. Having a porous charcoal allows for the charcoal to sit at a lower temperature in its standing (resting) state, and then raise to a higher temperature when you pull through your hookah. I believe that the glycerin and other sugars in the shisha have a lower flash point (the temperature at which an element combusts) than tobacco. So ideally you only want to smoke and thus vaporize the shisha tobacco at the exact point below which the tobacco leaves in your shisha tobacco will start burning. This must be accomplished by never having too much charcoal (and thus heat) on your hookah bowl. That is why when you put too much charcoal, your hookah bowl starts to burn and you see a steady stream of smoke coming out of the top of your hookah bowl. Too much heat, and thus too many leaves are burning.
So, how exactly does natural wood charcoal differ from compacted charcoal? The main fact is that its standing temperature is at a lower heat level than other compressed charcoal. So when you are not pulling on your hookah (as I am while typing this sentence) your hookah bowl is not overheating and thus not burning. Have you ever seen smoke rising from the hookah bowl when you’re not drawing on a hose? That is a telltale sign of excess heat and burning shisha. This is caused either with simply having too much charcoal on your bowl at once and/or pulling too frequently from your hookah and raising the temperature of your hookah bowl above the point at which the tobacco leaves in your hookah tobacco then start to burn.
** Hookah Tip: To solve this common problem, I will typically take the charcoal off of the hookah bowl since its resting state has now reached a temperature that is too high. I will then let the hookah bowl cool down or to speed up the process I will take the bowl off the hookah, cup my hands around the bottom (since the top is scorching hot) and blow through the bottom of the hookah bowl. This is an old technique that Middle Eastern hookah lounges and hookah cafes use when they are replenishing a hookah that has too little charcoal or that has gotten too hot and is thus starting to burn. **
Glyercin boils at a temperature of 290 degrees Celsius and the flavoring used in hookah tobacco is around that temperature if not less. If you have access to a temperature gage – such as my thermocouple – you’ll notice the hookah charcoal on your bowl will be around 320-350 degrees when pulling/smoking your hookah and will drop to around 250-300 (depending on the charcoal you are using and how much). From my observations (just simple fun observations I have made while smoking my hookah), the natural wood charcoals standing state is on the lower end of the scale, while compressed charcoal is at the higher end. When smoking from the hookah, both rise to the 320-350 degrees which allows for the evaporation of the glycerin and minimal or no burning of the tobacco leaf (in fact, some studies show that some cigarettes burn at upwards of 800 degrees). When you then stop smoking your hookah, the temperature will fall back to the 250-280 degrees (if you have the proper amount of lemon wood charcoal. And this is where the lemon wood or other natural wood charcoal has its advantage. Romman Lemonwood charcoal has an estimated standing state of 250-280 degrees while compacted charcoal standing state is 270-300 degrees. Both have 320-350 degrees of smoking state (the state at which air is passing over it and thus heating up the charcoal.
These numbers can be affected greatly by the amount of hookah coal that is on the bowl and the type of hookah bowl you are using. Typically a clay or ceramic bowl always has a lower temperature than a metal bowl (metal conducts heat like crazy but has the advantage of not breaking). Using foil vs. a screen also can have an affect. The foil/screen is supposed to act as a heat barrier to prevent too much heat from contacting the hookah tobacco. Foil works better due to having a thinner barrier that dispels heat at a faster rate than a screen. Plus, the ability to have smaller holes and thus better control the amount of heat entering your hookah bowl allows for you to have more control on what your resting and your smoking state temperature is at.
Hookah Tip: Never fill the hookah tobacco to the top of your hookah bowl. By having a space in between you are creating a space for heat to dissipate easier and are also preventing the hookah tobacco from ever having direct contact with your hookah charcoal.
By allowing the temperature of your hookah bowl to fall below the boiling point of the glycerin, you are preserving your smoke producing ingredient as well as flavor. Thus gaining the best hookah smoke you ever had out of your hookah with the most smoke and most flavor on every puff.
Look for our future posts on the essence of shisha tobacco as well as specific instructions on how to properly use your hookah charcoals.