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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Native Americans were the first to grow tobacco leaves in the land that is today called Connecticut. In 1633, a few dozen Europeans from the Plymouth colony in Massachussetts arrived in Windsor, Connecticut. They didn’t take long to plant tobacco; early records show that by 1640, the colonials were already growing tobacco leaves in the young town set along the longest river in New England.
That early tobacco was a crude, small variety known as shoestring. Broadleaf didn’t arrive in the valley until 1833, when B.P. Barbour of East Windsor planted a strain of tobacco from Maryland seed that grew fat, bushy plants with wide, drooping leaves, some more than two and a half feet long, the champions of the cigar world. “The new tobacco was so superior to the type previously grown that within a few years it entirely supplanted shoestring,” wrote P. J. Anderson in Growing Tobacco in Connecticut. “With its coming, the tobacco growing business in New England entered a period of expansion and prosperity which continued for nearly a hundred years.”
Broadleaf’s entry into the valley predated the arrival of Connecticut shade, which was first grown in 1900 from a seed imported from Sumatra, in modern-day Indonesia. The two tobaccos look very different, both in the fields and on your cigar. The difference is due in part to the genetic qualities of the plants, but also reflects growing, harvesting and curing methods.
Connecticut shade, as its name suggests, grows under tarps of nylon tenting that shade the leaves from the sunlight. The plants grow far taller than a man, nine feet or more. Broadleaf grows in the open sunlight in fat, bushy plants that end up about waist-high. The unfiltered rays of the sun make the leaves of a broadleaf plant heavier, thicker and darker, with wide, ropy veins.
Broadleaf spends more time in the fields than shade (about 70 days compared with 60) and is planted later in the season, typically during the first three weeks of June. “The key time is the 10th through the 20th,” says Dunn. Planting this late gets the plants in the ground for Connecticut’s hot, humid summer.
A process called topping, which is typically not used on shade tobacco, helps the broadleaf plant become stronger and darker. Because living creatures are hardwired to reproduce, a tobacco plant will put the majority of its energy into making the seeds contained in the flowers that grow at the top of the plant. If the blossoms are topped—ripped off along with any supporting vegation after 12 to 14 leaves have sprouted—the plant will stop growing new leaves and divert the energy once directed at reproduction into the remaining leaves.
Broadleaf plants are also harvested differently than shade plants. Shade plants (like most cigar tobacco plants) are primed, meaning that the leaves are picked by hand in groups of three, moving from the bottom of the plant to the top. For Connecticut shade, every step of the harvest is engineered to cradle the leaves with care, and it’s a long, expensive process.
Not so for broadleaf plants. They meet their end in a dramatic fashion plucked from a medieval novel: they are hacked at the base then impaled on a spike. Workers chop the entire plant with a hatchet, let them wilt in the sun for a bit, then spear them on a lathe to break open the stalk. The plants are then hung upside down to draw nutrients from the stalk. They spend another 70 days in the barn (again, longer than the shade variety, which takes about 60 days of curing.) Tobacco men like Foster say the stalk curing adds a certain something that can’t be replicated any other way.
Whereas a crop of Connecticut shade might be ready to roll into cigars the year after it’s harvested, broadleaf typically takes about three years to be ready. And there’s no rush: few brag about having old Connecticut shade, but aged broadleaf is another story. “It ages amazingly—it’s one of my favorite aging tobaccos,” says Gomez.
Like a bulldog, broadleaf is ugly, but has tons of character. Tatuaje’s Johnson is such a big fan that he’s made a cigar called La Casita Criolla entirely out of broadleaf, from wrapper to binder and all the filler. “There were a lot of U.S.A. Connecticut broadleaf growers producing 100 percent broadleaf cigars,” says Johnson, mentioning such machine-made stalwarts as Topper and Muniemaker. “I wanted to create homage to that.”
Chris Topper owns Topper Cigar Co., a cigar brand that has been made with Connecticut broadleaf wrapper since 1896. Topper is the fourth generation in his family to run the company, and he was raised on the taste of Connecticut broadleaf.
“Broadleaf is our foundation—that’s what we use,” he says, taking a puff on one of his company’s cigars. “As a little kid, I remember going to the farms and meeting the people my dad was dealing with.”
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