Surprise in Connecticut
Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
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At another shed, fresh tobacco leaves are arriving constantly from the field. A crew of 30 or so men and women work steadily, performing their duties in a serious fashion. The predominant language is Spanish, and in the half-light of the busy shed, you can again easily imagine yourself in the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Mexico.
The tobacco leaves are first sewn into a string and attached 12 pairs to a wooden lath. Most of the sewers are women; working at a steady pace, they carefully lift the leaves by the thick stems and hold them in the path of the sewing machines. As each lath is filled, it is passed up to the hanging racks, where men are perched like sailors in the riggings of a tall ship, filling the shed from top to bottom, with the last rows hanging about six feet from the floor.
In the already filled part of the shed, it is refreshingly cool; here and there water drips from the still bright green leaves. "It's been a wet year," says Bill Light, manager of one of Culbro's four farms. "When the tobacco is this wet, just looking at it wrong will bruise it."
Light--a tall, laconic Texan from the Panhandle region around Abilene who once ran a 43,000-acre, vegetable-raising operation in New Mexico--came to the company four years ago with no prior tobacco-growing experience. Unlike the older hands, he laughs at the notion that there is any mystique to tobacco raising. "Hell," says Light, "tobacco is a weed. It's the easiest thing in the world to raise. Water and fertilizer and it grows." Then, casting a doleful eye at his busy crew, he adds, "The trouble doesn't start until you get it into the shed. This is where the tobacco will break your heart."
Once the tobacco is fully cured, enough humidity is added to make it malleable and manageable again, and it is taken down from the drying racks and tied into "hands," bundles of 24 leaves removed from each lath. The hands are then transported to
Culbro's warehouse, a long, low, three-story building easily as old as the oldest tobacco sheds, that houses the company's field offices, the "bulking" and sample rooms, and what was once a sorting and grading station. There, the leaves are delivered into the care of Tony Stanatis, manager of warehouse operations and a 40-year Culbro veteran.
Bulking is a method of fermenting the leaves in order to darken the color, remove some of the natural gums and sugar and guarantee the optimum texture and elasticity. As with the growing and drying processes, bulking techniques have changed little since they were first introduced in the early 1800s. Working with a crew of 20, divided into three turning gangs, Stanatis stacks the hands of tobacco in large, open-sided wooden bins, called bulks, each holding about 3,000 pounds of leaf.
A thermometer is inserted into the center of each bulk, and when a temperature of 116 degrees is reached (after about seven days), the bulks are "turned" by stacking the tobacco in an adjoining bin so that the outer hands are placed on the inside and those that were previously in the middle are on the outside. This, explains Stanatis, provides for an even fermentation. "We turn each bulk three times, and the whole process takes about one month. Then we pack the leaf in 132-pound bales and ship it to the Dominican Republic for sorting and sizing.
"Years ago everything was done here," adds Stanatis, somewhat wistfully, motioning towards the warehouse's large, empty sorting room. "There were a good 200 women working down there, sorting and sizing. But the way labor prices are today, you just can't do that anymore."
In the Dominican Republic, most of the tobacco goes through its final processing stages. The bales are unpacked and each leaf is individually sized and graded. The various lots are then packed in cases and "mulled," given one last seven-day fermentation in a humidity-and temperature-controlled environment. Culbro reserves its highest grade tobacco for General Cigar's premium brands.
This tobacco, according to Nuñez, undergoes even more extensive processing. "We keep about ten percent of our crop for Macanudo cigars," says Nuñez. "After it's been sorted, sized and mulled in the Dominican Republic, the Macanudo wrapper is baled and sent to Hatfield, Massachusetts, where the temperatures are very low and dry. In Hatfield we give it a "winter sweat" for about eight months, then we send it back to the Dominican Republic, break the bales and stack it again in 3,000-pound bulks for one last fermentation. After that, it's re-sorted, with about half being selected for Macanudo production. The entire process takes at least 30 months, and by that time the tobacco is worth ,about $120 a pound."
Dedication and love are apt words for describing the labor that goes into producing premium Connecticut shade. Like Stanatis, many of Culbro's employees have been with the company all of their working lives. Nuñez is a good example. His association with tobacco growing and processing started just after he graduated from Texas A&M at the age of 19; two years later he was offered a job with Culbro, and he's been with the company ever since. Now 41, he says he has no regrets. "I love my job. Even when I have to get up at three o'clock in the morning and work until nine o'clock at night, I love it. Every day there is something new to learn, something different. I got married 20 days after I started with Culbro, and I always say it was a double wedding. I don't know which takes the most time, but I've enjoyed them both in about the same way."
Cullman, too has spent his life in tobacco. But he sees some big, maybe even positive things, happening with cigars. "I think it's a niche business and it's a luxury product, for which the demographics are good. A luxury product in most people's mind is something that is very expensive. But when you think you can pick up a luxury product, a cigar for $3 to $5, that's what we've got to get across to consumers. People are willing to buy a bottle of wine for $10 to $15, and they don't think that that's expensive. It's no different in this case. You're buying a cigar that in fact you have a more personal attachment to and that you may be with even longer than a bottle of wine." Nuñez, when asked the same question, just flashes a sly smile. "I think there is room for any high-quality product on the market. People will always go for a good cigar."