Surprise in Connecticut
Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
From the Print Edition:
bundle of cigars, Winter 92/93
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"If you can't get to the tobacco on time," explains Palombo on a tour of the fields, "it starts flowering, the blossoms drop off onto the leaves below and rot, damaging the leaf. Ideally, you try to keep breakage and damage down below 15 percent; in a bad year it can run as high as 35 percent, and there goes your profit margin for that year. In the field, in the shed, at the sorting table, it's a very, very delicate process."
A tractor, pulling a wagonload of fresh tobacco leaves, passes on its way to a drying shed. Tobacco sheds, in groups of four or more, dot the landscape for miles. Like much of Connecticut's tobacco heritage, they seem remnants of a time gone by. Tall, awkward wooden structures, 30 to 40 feet wide and 120 or more feet long, the sheds are at once the most valuable and the most ephemeral link in the tobacco processing chain. A fully loaded shed will hold over 5,000 pounds of tobacco, worth as much as $125,000; but even empty, the sheds themselves are worth more than they can he insured for. "A couple of kids got into a shed last winter and torched it," says Palombo, "burned it to the ground. The replacement cost on one of these babies is unbelievable ... once they're gone, they're gone."
It is in the shed that the first and most important stage of the leaf-curing process takes place. Here, the tobacco is hung and dried, using a combination of natural and artificial heating. First, once the shed is fully loaded, the leaves are allowed to rest for two or three days, until they begin to yellow at the edges and wilt. Then the shed is "fired," using squat, mushroom shaped burners spread on the floor beneath the hanging racks.
The initial firing takes five days, with the shed temperature gradually being increased to just over 100 degrees. After the first firing, the tobacco is allowed to rest again for 24 hours, and then is refired for an eight-hour period. Depending on weather conditions, as many as 11 subsequent firings take place. Ideally, the tobacco is brought to a brittle dryness, allowed to reabsorb moisture and redried several times, the entire process taking as long as six weeks.
Standing in one fully loaded shed, Palombo shines a light up through the densely packed racks of drying tobacco leaves. The air is close and hot, punctuated by the sweet, sugary smell of drying leaves and the quiet hiss of the gas burners. "This tobacco is curing down beautifully," says Palombo. "We let it dry, turn off the heat, let it take up moisture and then dry it again. We call that 'going in and out of case.' It's what gives the leaves that nice, golden-brown color."
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
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