It's Not Easy Being Green
Candelas, once hugely popular, are latter-day oddities that must fight for respect among their tawny cousins
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03
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Other smokers were less taken with candelas. "They are a little too sweet for my tastes," wrote Coriolanus, who fell into the 34.5 percent of those voters who didn't really care for the smokes. "I can't get used to its look," wrote RebelJohn. "The aroma reminded me of leaves burning. I have one left and it looks very odd in the 'dor, surrounded by normal smokes. I'm waiting for the right person (enemy) to give it to." And M. Goldhill wrote: "I finally had one of mine last night. BAD IDEA! It tasted like someone rolled up the grass after cutting it and made it into a cigar! YUK! That was my first and last."
It takes more work but much less time to keep cigar leaf green, rather than turning it brown. Normally, cigar tobacco is picked, hung in barns and allowed to cure, slowly, over a period of one month to 45 days. Sometimes, weather conditions dictate that farmers light charcoal fires or use propane burners to heat the barn and remove excess humidity, which can rot the leaves. Farmhands tweak the fires and open and close vents, and the tobacco slowly loses its green color and turns brown, drying in the process. The end result is a fairly supple, darkened leaf that's ready for fermenting. The barns should never be hotter than about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make candela, the barn has to be properly prepped. The walls of the wooden barn are wallpapered with cardboard or paper to seal the cracks. The barn is loaded with freshly harvested tobacco, and the vents at the bottom of the barn are opened, encouraging air to flow out of the roof vent (known as a doghouse), which is always open. The propane heaters or charcoal fires are lit, and the heat slowly rises, taking the moisture out of the leaves. "The objective is to get air flowing through the tobacco, up and out of the doghouse," says Gustavo Cura, the operations administrator for Oliva Tobacco Co. in Tampa, which grows candela in Ecuador and Honduras. "The heat has to start slowly."
Within two hours, the heat will be at about 90 degrees, and by hour No. 3, it will rise to 100. "Always gradually increasing the heat," says Cura. After 40 to 48 hours, the tobacco has wilted. Then, it's time to unleash hell.
The leaf is dry at this point, save for the stem, which is a stubborn beast. The stem takes much more coercing to dry out than the rest of the plant. The farmers shut the bottom vents in the barn and crank the heat to 165 -- Cura remembers losing control a few times and watching the temperature rage to 175 -- to blast the remaining moisture from the stem. This final step lasts for about one day, and bakes the tobacco as dry as a potato chip.
"It's hot as blazes in there," says Cura. "It's like being in Arizona."
Reach up and touch the leaves in a normal tobacco barn and they feel like gummy, cool handkerchiefs. Do that in a candela barn (assuming you don't drop from the Death Valley conditions) and you'll be greeted with two eyefuls of shredded tobacco.
After 60 to 72 hours total in the barn, the chlorophyll has been locked in the leaf and the tobacco is done heating, but needs to be rehumidified so it can be safely removed from the barn.
Workers open the barn's vent doors and windows (unless it's windy), allowing the nighttime dew to make the crispy leaves moist again; if the climate is too dry, they bring in a steamer. Then, the leaves are taken down, sorted and graded, and put into boxes, ready for storage or for rolling. The fire curing eliminates the need for fermentation and aging, cutting months and even years off the typical process.
Quirks exist. Sunlight will make the leaf lighter; heat will darken the color. Candela wrapper can't be stored in normal tobacco warehouses; instead it's kept refrigerated. Water can stain it, so a roller has to know what he's doing in order to make a candela cigar by hand.
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