Heart of Darkness
Rugged, dark Connecticut broadleaf is getting increasing respect as a wrapper for handmade, premium cigars
From the Print Edition:
Stanley Tucci, September/October 2013
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“Everything about it is traumatically expensive,” says Saka. With five-and-a-half pounds or so of top-grade Ecuador Connecticut, Saka says a cigar company can make about 1,000 toro-sized cigars. It would take as much as 33 pounds of broadleaf, maybe more, to make the same number.
“Broadleaf’s a pain in the neck for a manufacturer to work with, and the yields are low, but the flavor is unbelievable,” says Dunn’s partner Foster, a 38-year-old who comes from a long line of Connecticut farmers. He’s the first in his family to grow tobacco, but Fosters have been farming Connecticut crops since the 1700s. Foster has learned broadleaf from Dunn, whom he refers to as his “adopted grandfather.”
Broadleaf customers want their leaves dark and strong, like a high-octane cup of French roast from Starbucks. It takes hot, dry weather to get the fat, bushy leaves of a broadleaf plant as dark as possible. “Dry, sunny and hot—that’s what you want for dark tobacco,” says Foster, who is wearing a pair of sunglasses that he hopes he’ll need as the day goes on. It’s been hot enough here in the valley, but the sun has been hit or miss and it’s a long way from dry. The rains in north central Connecticut have been steady—some areas have seen nearly a foot in the month.
The first tobacco field on their tour lies in Ellington, a town of 19,000 about five miles south of the Massachusetts border. Dunn and Foster smile at the sight: a field of tobacco nearly one month old that’s bright, green and pretty. The plants, only about a foot tall at most, have fattish, rounded leaves reaching toward the sun. Workers have mounded the soil—which here is sandy loam—to bring it up against the plants, giving the excess water a place to go and room for the roots to grow
upward and escape the high groundwater. These plants look like they’re going to make it. On a neighbor’s field a few miles away, where the soil has a higher clay content, the mounding hasn’t been done as efficiently. In a few spots, standing water has drowned the plants. In others, yellowed juvenile tobacco plants dot portions of the field. It’s early in the season still, but it’s looking like a challenging year.
Tobacco has been grown here for centuries, but some cigar smokers are still surprised to find out that great tobacco leaves are grown on fields less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan. Today there are broadleaf fields east and west of the Connecticut River, including East and South Windsor. Most of the fields lie in the north near the border of Massachusetts, in towns like Enfield, Ellington, Somers and Suffield, but some are south of Hartford in Glastonbury. Most are family farms. They range in size, with some at five to 10 acres, others at about 30, and the biggest top out at around 100 acres. Each acre contains roughly 7,000 tobacco plants.
The Connecticut River Valley sits down low, allowing hot, humid air to gather over the summer. Tobacco plants, which grow rapidly in the heat, adore that weather. Glaciers, which thousands of years ago crept down from the Arctic and then retreated, carved out the valley and left beautiful loamy soil in their wake. The conditions are perfect for growing tobacco, but are not without constant challenges.
“The conditions in Connecticut are unpredictable,” says Foster. “Rain. Hail. Thunderstorms. If you get a bad hailstorm in the middle of July, there’s nothing you can do.”
To his point, a week after uttering these words, a tornado touches down in the tobacco town of Windsor Locks, tearing away acres of shade netting, flattening rows of tobacco plants and draping the fallen nylon over a suburban neighborhood.
The last great Connecticut broadleaf crop was in 2010, when 1,950 acres were harvested in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following year, 2011, the valley was hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene, which dumped flooding rains during the August harvest time. Only 1,350 acres were reaped. Over the past decade, the crops have averaged about 1,500 acres harvested per year.
The vicissitudes of nature can cause the Connecticut broadleaf crop to swing wildly year to year, and in challenging years much of a harvest can be plowed under and lost. This means trouble for cigarmakers as well as growers. In 2010, Gomez of La Flor had to temporarily cease production of his maduros due to a lack of broadleaf. “From 2010, January to May, we had no maduros,” he says.
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