That Old Black Magic
Maduros created using time-honored methods are sparking a rebirth for the mysterious dark-wrapper cigars
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004
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"It's a beautiful day to chop," says Harris Cohen, standing in his field in Ellington. It's a fine August day, and the mercury is hovering near 90. Cohen, a large, sunbaked man, is a hands-on farmer who is sweating along with his workers, his shirt stained from the rich Connecticut River Valley soil. The soft sound of repeated chopping hangs in the air, as does the pungent odor of manure from the surrounding fields.
The axe is only the beginning of the rough treatment of the tobacco that can seem positively medieval. After the plants wilt, workers pick each up and spear it on a long wooden lathe tipped with a sharp metal spearhead. The stalk is split on the blade and becomes impaled on the lathe, and is then hung in a curing barn.
All broadleaf gets dark after curing and fermentation, but farmers such as Cohen say Ellington is known for growing a particularly dark strain of the leaf, which used to be a detriment. It's now a plus. "They used to call it cow shit tobacco," says Cohen, who grows tobacco with his brother Sanford. "Now the customers want thicker, dark tobacco."
Although they are grown within spitting distance of each other, it's hard to imagine two more different tobacco leaves than Connecticut shade and Connecticut broadleaf. If shade is Marilyn Monroe, broadleaf is Janis Joplin—full of soul, but not so easy on the eyes.
In the fields, shade is tall, thin and well kept, while broadleaf is short, thick and homely. After processing, the latter is often rumpled and veiny, while shade is silky and smooth.
Broadleaf leaves are larger than shade leaves, but the plant is much shorter. A Connecticut-seed plant grown under shade can easily reach 10 feet or more in height. A broadleaf plant, which grows in the open sunlight and comes from a different seed stock, won't get much taller than three feet. "Waist height is the maximum," says Cohen. Seedlings are planted after the last new moon in May to avoid frost, and the harvest begins 60 to 70 days later.
Altadis U.S.A. buys more broadleaf than any other company. Most of it goes into its popular machine-made brand, Backwoods. "We need to buy enough broadleaf every year to do over a quarter billion Backwoods each year," says Colucci. Buying so much tobacco for machine-made cigars helps the premium end because broadleaf is notorious for being poorly sorted—lower grade tobacco is mixed with better grade, and vice versa. Altadis has need for the higher and lower grade wrappers, and it does much of the sorting in La Romana, where it makes cigars, under the supervision of vice president José Seijas.
"For every bad leaf Jose finds in premium, he probably finds four premium in the domestic pile, which gives you a great selection in premium," says Colucci.
Broadleaf makes an ideal maduro because of its inherent darkness when cured and fermented, plus its thickness. The wrapper leaf is noticeably chunkier and more rugged than shade tobaccos, which are prized for being thin and silky. But thin leaves would easily be damaged or break apart like wet tissue paper under the intense heat and pressure created in maduro fermentation.
All cigar tobacco goes through a curing and fermentation process, but it takes more time and higher temperatures to make a leaf as dark as those used to wrap maduros. After being cured in a barn and turning brown, maduro wrappers are put into bulks to ferment. The weight of the tobacco, plus the moisture in the leaf, causes a chemical change. Impurities, namely ammonia, come off the leaves and heat is produced, turning starches to sugars. When the heat at the center of a bulk reaches the maximum allowed by the tobacco man, the bulk is taken apart, which lowers the temperature. Then it is rebuilt, and the process starts anew.
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