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From Seed to Shelf

Five years ago, the cigar you're smoking was nothing more than tiny little seeds
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 1)

After being planted, the plants typically are fertilized with a granular fertilizer. Each plant gets a fistful once a week. The fields are hoed by hand, an arduous process in which the fertilizer is mixed with the earth and pulled toward the plant. At about the one-month stage—halfway through the growing process—Connecticut-shade plants are still short, perhaps halfway up a tall man's knee, and it's time to tie them to a support and remove some of the suckers that impede the growth. Workers tie a piece of string to the plant, which they then attach to another string above to help it grow straight. Then they remove, by hand, the lowest group of leaves on the plant, as well as any suckers, the excess vegetation that grows above the tobacco leaves. After the leaves are culled, the field is hoed to push the soil above the nodes created by the removal of the leaves. For every node that is covered with soil, says Núñez, roots will grow, making a stronger plant.

In the second month of life, the plant grows at full speed. Brutal, sultry Connecticut summer nights may be hell on sleepers, but they're heaven to a tobacco farmer. "It can grow two inches in one hot and humid night," says Gondek.

About four months from its start as a tobacco seed, give or take a few weeks depending upon the weather, the tobacco plants are fully grown and the leaves mature. If it's a broadleaf plant, that means it stands waist-high after the long, tall flower has been removed. Cuban seed is about six feet tall. Connecticut shade or Ecuador Connecticut towers over the tallest of NBA centers, standing nine or 10 feet tall.

Then it's time to prime, or to reap. Cuban and Connecticut-seed tobacco plants are harvested in primings, in which a worker removes three leaves at a time from a plant, working from the bottom up. The harvest is spaced out over several days. As tobacco matures from the bottom of the plant upward, it allows the leaves to be picked at the pinnacle of ripening, which optimizes labor usage—if every leaf needed to be picked at the same time, a farmer would need a thousand workers on one day and none the next.

Primed leaves are put onto lathes, or cujes, and hung in the barns. Shade farmers in Connecticut use sewing machines to attach the leaves to the lathes, but in most of the world the leaves are sewn or tied by hand. San Andres Negro and Connecticut broadleaf are stalk-cut. The entire plant is hacked with an axe, allowed to wilt in the sun, then speared on a lathe. Whether it's primed or cut, the tobacco next goes to the same place: a curing barn, where it will spend upwards of a month drying and turn from a verdant green into a rich brown.

Ripe, mature leaves are brought to the cigarmakers.
Cured cigar tobacco looks inviting, but it's hardly ready to smoke. It's full of ammonia and other impurities that would make even the most die-hard smokers woozy in the head if they were to smoke such leaf. To remove the impurities and to develop the hidden richness of the leaf, cigar tobacco needs fermentation.

Fermenting tobacco—or working it, as tobacco men say—takes one part artistry and one part science. Workers take cured tobacco leaves and lay them on a platform, building waist-high piles known as pilons, or bulks, that can contain thousands of leaves. The leaves contain water, and the pressure of the pile—which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds—creates heat, which transforms the properties of the leaf. Walking into a room where fresh tobacco is being fermented is an eye-stinging experience, due to the ammonia coming off the bulks.

Fermentation can be quick or lengthy, depending on the type of leaf being worked. Thin, mild leaves such as Connecticut shade go through the process in a few months. Thick, brutish leaves such as broadleaf require a beating to work into shape. In early 2004, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, president of El Credito Cigars Inc., was refermenting broadleaf tobacco that had been grown in 1999 in anticipation of using it later that year. "It will be five years old when we use it on our cigars," he said.

No tobacco can be fermented continuously for five years, not even broadleaf, but it can be aged for that long, and much longer. Aging, which follows fermentation, occurs with much lower levels of humidity and in smaller packages, minimizing the heat created from the combination of moisture and pressure.

After fermentation (or between rounds), tobacco is packed into bales of cardboard or wood that weigh around 200 pounds apiece. It's fairly dry when put into the bale. "Once tobacco is dry it doesn't ferment anymore," says Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars Inc.

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