It's hard to imagine, but 40 years ago, there was no such thing as a maduro cigar wrapper. Whereas a present-day cigar shop humidor typically showcases a gamut of colorful smokes, ranging from blonde to near black, at one time light brown cigars were the only options for consumers.
Larry Palombo, Altadis U.S.A.'s vice president of tobacco and a 44-year cigar industry veteran, remembers what forced the industry to evolve.
"People started looking for more flavorful, more robust cigars. So tobacco growers started growing varietals for the maduro wrapper type," he said from his perch atop the stage of last Saturday's Big Smoke Seminar entitled "Mysteries of Maduro Cigars."
Hosted by Gregory Mottola, senior editor of Cigar Aficionado, the panel discussion sought to answer many of the questions consumers ask about maduros, the cigars draped in dark brown wrappers that are immensely popular with lovers of the leaf.
Joining Palombo and Mottola on the stage was Willy Herrera, the master blender of Nicaragua's Drew Estate, maker of Liga Privada, Undercrown and Hererra Esteli, and Ernest Gocaj, the director of tobacco procurement for General Cigar Co., who's been involved in the cigar industry for 40 years.
Maduro wrapper is unlike other wrapper types in many ways. To create quality maduro wrapper, Herrera explained, one must first choose a tobacco varietal that can withstand the extensive fermentation process needed to create that dark chocolatey brown color.
The panel agreed that Connecticut broadleaf is prized for it's ability to be transformed into luscious maduro, citing San Andrés Negro as another good option.
"San Andrés Negro is my second favorite wrapper," said Herrera. "I find it has a unique sweetness and nuttiness in it. Not as strong as broadleaf, but as broadleaf tends to overwhelm, San Andrés meshes well with a variety of blends."
The main reason why broadleaf from Connecticut makes such good maduro, said Gocaj, is how it is farmed. "Broadleaf is stalk-cut, not primed, when it's harvested," said Gocaj. "This alters the flavor because the leaf continues to get nutrition from the stalk after it's hung [in the curing barn]."
When stalk-cutting, workers will take an axe or machete, aim near the dirt line and chop at the thick stalks of the broadleaf plants. After chopping the plant, the workers drop it to the ground to let it wilt in the sun for about half an hour, which makes the plant easier to handle. Workers then split the stalk and impale it onto a lathe, which is then hung in the curing barn.
Broadleaf is also grown out in the open sunlight, causing the leaves to grow thicker and darker.
Palombo mentioned that San Andrés Negro was once stalk-cut like broadleaf, but since the practice can cause a lot of breakage, farmers opted to stop. He added: "Broadleaf also stays in the barn for a longer period of time, anywhere from 10 to 20 days more than primed tobacco."
After curing, cigarmakers then ferment the tobacco, a process that takes, according to Herrera, anywhere from six to nine months to achieve. "It's a slow maturation," he said.
While Palombo admitted some factories try to cheat time by blasting leaf with steam, a practice that reduces the color-changing process to a mere 24 hours, he said this does nothing but change the color while sucking out any of the unique sweet flavor maduro wrappers can impart.
Fermenting tobacco for too long is also another problem to avoid. As Herrera said: "Over-fermentation can be a problem. Too much heat and it's traumatic to the leaf. [Drew Estate] tobacco teams closely monitor the fermentation stage because you have to be aware of the heap, as it's easy to ruin. Not enough time, and it won't burn or taste well."
The discussion then turned to broadleaf grown in Pennsylvania. While the panel praised the strength of the broadleaf grown in that state, Palombo added his own personal thoughts: "There's no such thing as Pennsylvania broadleaf. It's sort of a marketing term. About 15 to 20 years ago there was a shortage of Connecticut broadleaf, and so tobacco growers began to experiment using the Pennsylvania soil in hopes of replicating broadleaf. But they weren't able to exactly clone the flavor. Pennsylvania doesn't burn as well as Connecticut broadleaf, but it has a bit more strength than Connecticut broadleaf."
It's important to remember that maduro is not any specific type of plant, but a dark hue of tobacco that has undergone a process to turn it into near black shade. All on the panel agreed that there is no one set flavor profile or body attached to a maduro cigar. Maduro, which translates to mature, can be peppery, it can be nutty or it can be, as it is very often, sweet.