Hookahs: Does "Modern" Mean "Better"? / Part II

When the hookah trend took off in the U.S., entrepreneurs began looking for ways to meet the market demand. Importing traditional hookahs from the Middle East takes a lot of time, patience, connections, and money; therefore, up and coming businesspeople sought alternative suppliers. One enterprising individual, the founder of Sultan Tobacco, decided that the basic hookah could be mass produced in an assembly line manufacturing environment with greater ease than importing the traditional pipes would be. Mike, also keenly aware of the American "on-the-go" mentality, sought to make a hookah that could be transported with ease. And so the Junior, a single hose hookah in a carrying case, the first "modern" hookah, was born.

Although sending the hookah to China for manufacture met the market demand for pipes, and reduced the price for consumers, the modern technology employed in the manufacturing process didn't improve the hookah at all. Instead of improving the hookah experience for enthusiasts, the "modern" hookahs did nothing more than flood the market with thousands of look-alike pipes in boxes.

Thanks to the cheap cost of purchasing a "modern" hookah, they sold like the proverbial hotcakes. We watched this phenomenon with a great deal of interest because unlike others in the business, we refused to jump on the Chinese bandwagon. And we are eternally thankful that we stuck to our guns, for it wasn't long after these modern "marvels" hit the market that we began to see the fallout.

Because modern technology has made these hookahs look perfect, buyers assume that they are every bit as good as they look; however, they quickly learn about just how deceiving appearances can be when it comes to a product's performance and longevity. In order to make international sales more appealing, Chinese factories do everything they can to reduce production costs. We've seen this recently with the
massive recall of toys and other products made in China due to the presence of lead. In terms of hookah production, costs are cut in myriad ways:

  • inferior and/or cheaper metals are used in the manufacture of the shaft
  • the glass is spray painted instead of using colored glass
  • glass designs are spray painted by pre-set machines
  • because hookahs are assembled in a package, replacement parts are almost non-existent

When cheap metals are used, the shafts are spray painted. And this is where we first began to see the problems with the Chinese pipes. Customers came to us looking for a solution to the problem of the paint peeling off the shaft and the resulting rust spots that occur after exposure to the water in the base. Oftentimes, they came to us as a last result because they could find no replacement parts anywhere. Other customers came to us looking for replacement bases after theirs broke or the paint peeled off. But the manufactured hookah does have some good points, too:

  • cheap purchase price
  • uniformity in appearance
  • ease of use
  • convenient to store and travel with

While the initial investment in a visually appealing and conveniently portable Chinese manufactured hookah is low, the costs involved in maintaining it only increase that investment exponentially. Most of the time, people who have purchased the "modern" hookahs end up replacing them with the traditional ones because they can find parts and accessories for them that are unavailable for their technologically "advanced" pipe.

Considering the dangers associated with the possibility of lead contamination (remember that in addition to smoking tobacco, you are smoking the materials used in the pipe itself!), flaking paint and rust spots on shafts, peeling paint on glasses, and the lack of replacement parts are taken into consideration, it's not too hard to see that "modern" may mean cheaper, but it does not necessarily mean "better."

Hookahs: Does "Modern" Mean "Better"? / Part I

"It troubles me that we are so easily pressured by purveyors of technology into permitting so-called "progress" to alter our lives without attempting to control it -- as if technology were an irrepressible force of nature to which we must meekly submit." -- HYMAN G. RICKOVER, quoted in The American Land, 1979.

Technology vs. Tradition

Modern technology is, in countless ways, a double-edged sword. While our gadgets provide us with convenience and short-term pleasure, many of them also imprison and isolate us. Devices that we attach to our heads or plug into our ears may give momentary pleasure and distraction, but they also have the power to isolate us socially and imprison their users in a cell of ignorance. At the university where I teach, students meander through the quad and hallways with various and sundry devices attached to their heads and no social interactions taking place among their peers. Instead of the sound of lively after class discussions of lectures as students move from one class to the next, the loudest noise heard in the halls of academe is often little more than the click-clack of heels on the waxed tiles. Technology has usurped tradition on many university campuses and although students seem to prefer being "plugged in" and "dropped out" of social interaction, the meteoric rise of the hookah trend shows us that appearances can be truly deceiving.

The h
ookah has been Middle Eastern cultural icon for centuries. Visit the oldest parts of any Middle Eastern city, and you will find a qahwa (Arabic for coffee shop). The qahwa is a hub of social activity; it is the place where friends gather to share a cup of tea, a game of cards, backgammon or chess, politics, jokes, and a hookah. As Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winning author, writes in his novel, The Children of Gebelawi (Awlad Haretna in Arabic), the qahwa is the place where the memories of the glorious past meet the hardships of the present and both are shared with friends. Sharing, the very essence of the hookah culture, is a tradition that contributes to the proliferation of hookah lounges across the US. They are places where young and old can unwind from the stress of work, home, and school; reconnect with old friends and meet new ones; and most importantly, once again engage in the traditional act of face-to-face socializing that technology seems to have stymied.

Since hookahs take center stage at the qahwa of the Middle East and the lounges of the West, it is important that we take a look at how technology has impacted them as well. And that discussion will come in Part II.

REVIEW: Exotica Charcoal

If you've been searching for the perfect hookah charcoal and haven't found it yet, let me recommend Exotica Finger Style Charcoal to you!

At long last, 3 Kings has met a true competitor for its market share of natural wood charcoal made for the hookah. 3 Kings, long considered the premier hookah charcoal, has a couple of factors working against it in the US market. First, it is cost prohibitive. 3 Kings is made in Holland and must be imported to the US. To make it worthwhile to bring 3 Kings from Europe, anyone who imports it and wants to make a profit on its sale must bring a large quantity. But the costs associated with importing a large quantity of 3 Kings puts off most importers. This, in turn, leads to the second problem with 3 Kings -- availability. The product is not as readily available as some other hookah coal brands are. And when you're lucky enough to find them, expect to pay through the nose for them. Enter Exotica!

Exotica, the newest finger style hookah charcoal on the market, boasts some unique changes that are sure to improve the hookah experience for all! Exotica's superior quality coal not only offers a revolutionary square shape to prevent to coal from rolling off the head, but it also promises
  • NO odor
  • NO taste
  • NO smoke
  • LESS messy ash
  • NO breakage when heated
  • NO rolling around the bowl
  • LONG LASTING -- each finger lasts at least 1 hour!

At approximately half the price of a box of 3 Kings, we were really excited about trying Exotica and possibly adding it to our line of products. We weren't disappointed with our experience using it; we found it to be everything the manufacturer said it would be. It's not a quick-lighting charcoal, so you will need a constant heat source like a stove and some patience while you wait for it to get start, but your patience will be well rewarded with one of the best smoking sessions you've ever had!

From the first time we used it, we knew that the manufacturer of Exotica had a 5-Star product on his hands. Like all natural coals, it takes a little while to get started. But in the process, there was no stinky sulphur smell like the quick-lights give off, no popping or embers flying around. We did not have to worry about someone bumping into the hookah or moving the coal around the head and causing pieces to fall onto the carpet, tile, or table because Exotica's unique square shape keeps it right where it belongs at all times! There is zero taste interference, no smoke even when it's red hot, and so little ash from the dense fingers that we needed to ash the coals just a couple of times during our 1 1/2 hour smoking session!

Exotica is definitely a coal worth keeping around. It comes in a 1 kilo box -- that's 2.2 pounds, folks! -- and costs approximately $8. When you consider the quantity, length of burn time per coal, and the cost, Exotica wins over 3 Kings every time as the better bang for the buck.

Herbal Shisha: The Wave of the Future

As tobacco prices continue to rise and the list of cities banning smoking increases, hookah enthusiasts and lounge owners alike are seeking alternatives to shisha made from tobacco. And don't forget that with the New Year lurking around the corner, those "I will quit smoking" resolutions loom on the horizon! It's no wonder that the non-tobacco shisha products are quickly gaining a marketshare that few people in the industry expected.

Currently, there are three brands of herbal shisha on the market: Soex , Black Label, and High-Life Smoke. I've tried them all because even though I should be used to tobacco since I smoke cigarettes, something about shisha made with tobacco causes me to have coughing fits every time regardless of brand. A strong desire to avoid coughing while still being able to enjoy hookah prompted me to investigate the herbal products. If you're like me and seeking a tobacco, tar, and nicotine free hookah experience, perhaps this post will help you to make a purchasing decision.


None of the herbal shisha has the name power that Soex does. Made in India by the same company that makes Afzal tobacco molasses, Soex is the industry leader and enjoys immense popularity in Europe where it has a well established fan base. Contrary to urban myth, Soex is not made from sugar beets; its base is sugar cane
bagasse, the pulp left behind after the juice has been extracted.

Soex is my personal favorite of the herbal alternatives. Although moisture levels sometimes vary from one production lot to the next, Soex nails the flavors every time. In addition to the standard fruit choices, Soex makes some fantastic exotic flavors that reflect its Indian roots. Bombay Panmasala, Pan Rasna, Rooh Afza Cool, Cardamom, and Lychee are among those traditional flavors.

If it's thick clouds of smoke and long-lasting flavor that you want, Soex will definitely do the job. I've shared my hookah with plenty of people who had no idea that what they were smoking was not tobacco. They could not tell the difference! The only difference that I note, aside from the appearance of the cut, is the fact that Soex does not send me into coughing fits like tobacco does. I've never experienced a headache from Soex.

Because the cut of Soex is thin, the heat has to be managed more carefully than it does with tobacco. However, once you've got the heat under control, a bowl will last 45-60 minutes. Best of all, you'll get the same delicious flavor and strong clouds of smoke from beginning to end.

If mixing flavors is something you enjoy, Soex lends itself quite well to flavor mixes. A couple of my favorites are Orange + Vanilla for a creamy orange flavor, Coffee + Mint + Vanilla for a delicious coffee with cream and a hint of mint, and Blueberry + Mint for a refreshing cool berry taste.

Flavors: Aniseed, Apple, Blackberry, Black Licorice, Blueberry, Bombay Panmasala, Bubblegum, Cardamom, Chocomint, Cinnamon, Coffee, Coconut, Double Apple, Golden Apple, Grape, Honey, Lime-Lemon, Lychee, Mango, Mint, Mintos, Mixed Fruit, Orange, Pan Rasna, Peach, Pina Colada, Pineapple, Pudina, Raspberry, Red Cherry, Rooh Afza Cool, Rose, Silver Fox, Strawberry, Sweet Lime, Sweet Melon, Vanilla, Watermelon, White Grape

Carleen's Top 5:
Silver Fox (apple + mint), Rooh Afza Cool (extracts of citrus flowers, rose, and fruits), Blueberry, Mango, and Double Apple

Hookah News

It's always interesting to see how the hookah fares in the media, so this morning I googled "hookah" just to see what I could find. In addition to the usual anti-smoking hype, the search brought some some fun reads that I've decided to share.

Bookah Bear, a product created by a couple of enterprising University of South Carolina students, is an interesting way to combine two very different comfort items.

Washington has some of the tightest anti-smoking laws in the country, but
a couple of deep-thinking young entrepreneurs have found a way to open a hookah lounge in Seattle by "using the letter of the law to say something about the spirit of the law." Kudos to Paul Green and Erin Cobb, our customers, on the successful opening of the Cobra Lounge!

Since the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, independently owned and operated businesses have blossomed in Russia. Take, for example, the
Om Cafe where an Uzbek transplant to Moscow spent six months in hookah training and six months as a hookah apprentice before earning the title of "Hookah Master."

And so it goes. . .

Hookah Hoses: A Separate Peace

So you've got a new shisha flavor in the bowl, the hookah is fired up, and you take the first hit. You may have been expecting to taste the juicy sweetness of summer watermelon or the bite of sour apple, but instead you taste yesterday's flavor du jour! What did you do wrong? What's up with the aftertaste that has taken hold of your hookah hose? The problem with lingering flavors is one that we frequently discuss with customers who call or email us wondering how they can remove the taste that some flavors leave as a calling card in their hookah hoses.

Because hookah hoses are made with porous materials, they will and do absorb flavors. Mint, Double Apple, and Black Licorice are the primary culprits of this phenomenon due to their strength and flavor longevity. Once the flavor is absorbed into the fabric of your hose, you have two choices: (1) just deal with it until another flavor masks it, or (2) use a different hose. Remember, hookah hoses are not washable, so don't think that rinsing a hose with water or a cleaning solution will solve the problem. It won't. In fact, you'll end up creating an even bigger problem as your hose deteriorates much more quickly than it should and will have to be replaced sooner than you had anticipated.

Hookah lounges and cafes, well aware of the issue of lingering flavors, use a separate hose for certain flavors to avoid the problem altogether. Some of them even use a separate hose for every single flavor that they serve! While you don't need to have as many hoses as you do flavors, it is a good idea to follow the first example of using a different hose for flavors such as these:
  • Licorice / Aniseed family, including Double Apple
  • Mint family, including any flavor mixed with it
  • Mixed Drinks family, including Pina Colada, Margarita, and Sex on the Beach among others
  • Coconut

Because I didn't focus on a specific molasses brand, there may be other potent flavors on the market that your hoses will absorb. This is easy enough to determine on your own based on how long it takes for the last flavor you smoked with the hose to be replaced with the new one.

20% OFF + FREE Shipping

As the holiday season draws ever closer and budgets even tighter, we've marked down more than 800 items to make your holiday shopping a little less harmful to the wallet. Not only have we marked down the products, but several of the ones on sale are part of a FREE SHIPPING deal as well, so you can get twice the bang for your buck!
We've got authentic Egyptian hookahs for less than $20, charcoal + shisha packages for less than $20, replacement heads for less than $3, and MUCH MORE!
And finally, if you've got lots of shopping to do and spend $100 or more, we'll ship your order via UPS Ground to a street address in the continental US absolutely FREE!

Did you know? Hookah Trivia

It's early in the a.m. here in the OC, and I'm looking for a fun way to start the day before heading off to face the mounds of paperwork that await me at the office. Of course starting up the hookah and drinking a cup of Gevalia with Hazlenut cream helps, but since I can't share those with anyone here and hookah is all about sharing, I found some fun hookah trivia to share instead. Enjoy!

Did you know. . .
  • that Disney's animators must be secret hookah fans? Take a close look at the animated film, Aladdin. One of the vendors in the opening scenes has a french fry maker that is actually a hookah!
  • that King Ludwig of Bavaria, who sincerely strove to live a fairytale life, required his retainers to lounge around on cushions and smoke hookahs as he created the illusion of himself as an Ottoman ruler? (Side note: Ludwig II is my personal favorite of the old-school European monarchs. Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland was modeled after his Neuschwanstein castle!)
  • that the 1960s B-Movie, Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy, starring Jane Fonda, has a scene with hookah-smoking women to represent or symbolize corrupt laziness?
  • that Christian Slater cleans up a brass hookah in the not-so-good horror flick, Alone in the Dark?
  • that a hookah takes a leading role in the graphic novel, Cairo, by M. K. Parker and G. Willow Wilson? If you're into comic books in paperback form, this one comes highly recommended from a friend of mine.
  • that we have sold hookahs to production companies who planned to use them in movies? Who knows, we may be famous some day!

Mix It Up: More Shisha Combinations

It's fun to experiment with mixing shisha flavors! With the plethora of delicious and unusual tastes from which to choose, mixing up flavor combos has become something of an art among hookah fans. Some of the most popular hookah lounges offer a "house mix," a combination of flavors unique to their establishments, while others encourage customers to mix flavors of their own.

If you've never tried flavor mixing before and think that you're ready to give it a shot, try one of these great mixes that our customers have recommended:

These combos were made with Soex Herbal Shisha, but they will probably work equally well with regular shisha as well. You may, however, have to adjust the ratios based on the strength of the flavors in the shisha you choose to mix.

Have some fun experimenting with your favorite flavors and if you get a really good mix, please pass it along!

The Spirit of Giving

A couple of years ago, Ali and his sister (who still lives in Egypt) started a co-op to help widows and their children. These women and their families live in poverty with very little opportunity to improve their futures. They don't complain about their circumstances and deal with their lives as best they can. Although they don't have money or jobs, these women do have some amazing needlecraft skills. With those skills and materials that we donate to them, the women make beaded chokers and bracelets, beaded bellydance scarves, crochet hats, and macramé chokers and bracelets that we purchase from them for resale. The women maintain their dignity and provide for their families without having to rely on anyone other than themselves. The co-op has been so successful that others are now buying their handcrafted items for resale as well!

'Tis the season to be jolly for sure, but it's also the time of year when gratitude finds its best expressions. Ali and I would like to thank all of our customers who have purchased one of these items from the Widow's Co-Op because your purchases have helped us to continue to help them help themselves and for that, we are extremely grateful.