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Made In the Shade: Connecticut Shade

For A century, Connecticut farmers have grown some of the world's finest cigar wrapper tobacco
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 1)

The soil around the valley is silty, the product of glaciers that scraped the northeastern part of America as they crept down from the Arctic. People have planted Connecticut seeds in various parts of the world--Ecuador, Honduras, even Canada--but only tobacco grown in this small valley looks and tastes like true Connecticut shade.  

"A lot of people mistake Connecticut-seed tobacco grown in other parts of the world for Connecticut shade," says Brown. "But Connecticut shade is only grown in the Connecticut River Valley."  

The first Connecticut tobacco was grown in the open sunlight, which makes a leaf thick and dark, with veins like ropes. That variety is called Connecticut broadleaf, a brawny tobacco known for its heavy flavor and less than elegant appearance. Today, broadleaf is used on brands such as Henry Clay, on many maduro varieties of premium cigars and on a host of cigars made by machine, which include Muniemakers, Backwoods, Marsh Wheelings and Toppers.  

Marion Nielsen, curator of the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, says, "Prior to 1900, they just grew broadleaf tobacco in Connecticut. In Sumatra, they were growing this beautiful plant that was ruining our trade, and farmers went over and brought back Sumatra seed. But when they grew it, the leaves burned in the sun." Someone noticed that the growing season in Sumatra was overcast--compared with the bright, sunny weather typical of a Connecticut summer--so farmers erected cheesecloth tents to cover the fields and shield the tobacco from the direct rays of the sun.

"The first tents went up on River Road in the Poquonock section of Windsor in 1900," says Nielsen. The result was extraordinary: the leaves grew thin and supple, with barely noticeable veins. When cured and aged, the leaf turned golden brown and oily. Most experts say that was the origin of shade tobacco, which today is also grown in Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.  

"Connecticut," Oliva says emphatically, "was a pioneer in shade tobacco. Not a doubt."  

The term shade is a bit of a misnomer. Walking under the cheesecloth tents in the middle of summer isn't like taking shelter under a Caribbean palm. While the tents filter out direct sunlight, they raise the heat, and sweat blossoms on a visitor's forehead five steps under the tents. The air inside is heavy, hot and humid. Farmers say that when the temperature hits the upper 90s, as it did this summer for weeks at a time, their plants can grow two to four inches in a single day. You can almost hear them creak upwards, pushing against the tents.  

The shade protecting the tobacco works in two ways. The synthetic cloth above (it was made of cotton in the early days) shelters tobacco leaves from the sunlight. Cloth on the side of the tents keep insects away from the tobacco. Every plant is tied with a string, ensuring that it grows straight, even in the wind. The process of draping the fields, tying the plants and coddling the leaves makes farming Connecticut shade an expensive endeavor.  

Wrapper is the most expensive type of tobacco, and no wrapper costs more to grow than Connecticut shade. "It's the most expensive, most labor intensive, most risky type of tobacco to plant," says Folz. The highest-grade shade tobacco from Honduras retails for around $20 to $25 a pound, while top-quality Connecticut wrappers sell for $45 to $50 a pound.  

The perils of growing wrapper can make crystal chandelier juggling look easy. Rain can stain a leaf; so can blossom rot, which occurs when parts of a flower fall on a leaf and decompose. (Tobacco plants in Connecticut, unlike those on other wrapper plantations around the world, are not topped, or removed of their flower.) A worker or visitor who nudges a plant while walking through the crowded rows can do all kinds of damage, as can hail or a windstorm.  

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