Heart of Darkness
“I got my fingers crossed,” says Bill Dunn. He slowly turns his head, white hair sticking out from under an olive-drab cap, and moves it around until the stubby, dark cigar in the corner of his mouth is pointing up at the sky. It’s not the prettiest of scenes. A mix of thick gray clouds, some of their bottoms streaked dark with charcoal, float above. Dunn, who doesn’t light his cigar, stares for a bit longer. The weatherman is calling for more rain, and it looks like this time his forecast is right.
Dunn is a Connecticut broadleaf man, has been nearly all his 87 years. He and his partner Jon Foster own Dunn & Foster LLC, a South Windsor, Connecticut company that grows and brokers broadleaf. They’re heading out to the fields in the Connecticut River Valley with friend and client Chris Topper of the Topper cigar brand for a look at some of the 40 acres of broadleaf being grown this year for their use.
Dark and rugged, earthy and sweet, Connecticut broadleaf goes around many of the cigar world’s favorite premium cigars, particularly maduros. Not only are such age-old favorites as Ashton Aged Maduro, Henry Clay and Punch Maduro swathed in it, but so are popular newer smokes such as La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Maduro, La Riqueza, La Dueña, Rocky Patel Private Cellar and rarities like Arturo Fuente Añejo, sought after by collectors who await their annual release. Drew Estate’s bold and strong Liga Privada brand, recently named the most requested cigar in high-end tobacco shops by Cigar Insider newsletter, has a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper. The leaf is also used as a binder on many premium cigars, and it’s the heart of such bargain-priced cigars as Topper and Muniemaker and wraps more than a billion machine-made Backwoods every year.
Broadleaf has been around for a long time, but in the world of premium cigars it has taken a back seat to Connecticut shade. The two both grow in the effluvial soil of this fertile valley, sometimes right across the street from one another, but they are polar opposites. If the tobaccos were cups of coffee, broadleaf would be served black and shade would come with extra cream. Shade is prized for its neutral taste and light color, while homely broadleaf becomes dark brown to almost black, with heavy wrinkles and veins. Its flavor is a combination of earthy, steely qualities with a raisiny sweetness, and the ugly but tasty leaf has a growing appeal ignited by cigar lovers who want a special flavor that no other leaf can mimic.
“I call broadleaf ‘sweet dirt,’ ” says Pete Johnson, owner of the Tatuaje brand. “It has the earthiness, but also the sweet. In its truest form, it can be one of the best-tasting wrappers.”
“Some of the best maduros in the history of cigars come from broadleaf,” says Litto Gomez, who makes La Flor Dominicana cigars. “It’s great wrapper. It’s great tasting.”
“I personally love broadleaf,” says Steve Saka, the former chief executive officer of Drew Estate. Liga Privada, which is always in short supply, began as Saka’s private blend. The mix of Nicaraguan binder and filler with dark Connecticut broadleaf has been a game-changer for Drew Estate, showing the cigar world that the company can make extremely serious smokes. “I’ve always been a broadleaf fan,” says Saka. “It’s sweet, it’s earthy, it’s pungent.”
General Cigar Co. uses plenty of broadleaf, from its La Gloria Cubana Serie R cigars to Punch and Hoyo maduros from Honduras and its new CAO Flathead line. “It adds sweet and sour,” says Michael Giannini of General. “It’s a really nice component to the blends.”
Broadleaf has legions of fans in the cigar industry, but it’s a high-maintenance animal. It takes roughly three years from field to cigar for broadleaf to be ready, far longer than other wrappers. And while it’s cheaper per pound than many competing tobaccos, its yields are low. A cigarmaker gets far fewer useable leaves and much more waste when working with broadleaf, making it quite expensive on a per cigar basis.
“Everything about it is traumatically expensive,” says Saka. With five-and-a-half pounds or so of top-grade Ecuador Connecticut, Saka says a cigar company can make about 1,000 toro-sized cigars. It would take as much as 33 pounds of broadleaf, maybe more, to make the same number.
“Broadleaf’s a pain in the neck for a manufacturer to work with, and the yields are low, but the flavor is unbelievable,” says Dunn’s partner Foster, a 38-year-old who comes from a long line of Connecticut farmers. He’s the first in his family to grow tobacco, but Fosters have been farming Connecticut crops since the 1700s. Foster has learned broadleaf from Dunn, whom he refers to as his “adopted grandfather.”
Broadleaf customers want their leaves dark and strong, like a high-octane cup of French roast from Starbucks. It takes hot, dry weather to get the fat, bushy leaves of a broadleaf plant as dark as possible. “Dry, sunny and hot—that’s what you want for dark tobacco,” says Foster, who is wearing a pair of sunglasses that he hopes he’ll need as the day goes on. It’s been hot enough here in the valley, but the sun has been hit or miss and it’s a long way from dry. The rains in north central Connecticut have been steady—some areas have seen nearly a foot in the month.
The first tobacco field on their tour lies in Ellington, a town of 19,000 about five miles south of the Massachusetts border. Dunn and Foster smile at the sight: a field of tobacco nearly one month old that’s bright, green and pretty. The plants, only about a foot tall at most, have fattish, rounded leaves reaching toward the sun. Workers have mounded the soil—which here is sandy loam—to bring it up against the plants, giving the excess water a place to go and room for the roots to grow upward and escape the high groundwater. These plants look like they’re going to make it. On a neighbor’s field a few miles away, where the soil has a higher clay content, the mounding hasn’t been done as efficiently. In a few spots, standing water has drowned the plants. In others, yellowed juvenile tobacco plants dot portions of the field. It’s early in the season still, but it’s looking like a challenging year.
Tobacco has been grown here for centuries, but some cigar smokers are still surprised to find out that great tobacco leaves are grown on fields less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan. Today there are broadleaf fields east and west of the Connecticut River, including East and South Windsor. Most of the fields lie in the north near the border of Massachusetts, in towns like Enfield, Ellington, Somers and Suffield, but some are south of Hartford in Glastonbury. Most are family farms. They range in size, with some at five to 10 acres, others at about 30, and the biggest top out at around 100 acres. Each acre contains roughly 7,000 tobacco plants.
The Connecticut River Valley sits down low, allowing hot, humid air to gather over the summer. Tobacco plants, which grow rapidly in the heat, adore that weather. Glaciers, which thousands of years ago crept down from the Arctic and then retreated, carved out the valley and left beautiful loamy soil in their wake. The conditions are perfect for growing tobacco, but are not without constant challenges.
“The conditions in Connecticut are unpredictable,” says Foster. “Rain. Hail. Thunderstorms. If you get a bad hailstorm in the middle of July, there’s nothing you can do.”
To his point, a week after uttering these words, a tornado touches down in the tobacco town of Windsor Locks, tearing away acres of shade netting, flattening rows of tobacco plants and draping the fallen nylon over a suburban neighborhood.
The last great Connecticut broadleaf crop was in 2010, when 1,950 acres were harvested in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following year, 2011, the valley was hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene, which dumped flooding rains during the August harvest time. Only 1,350 acres were reaped. Over the past decade, the crops have averaged about 1,500 acres harvested per year.
The vicissitudes of nature can cause the Connecticut broadleaf crop to swing wildly year to year, and in challenging years much of a harvest can be plowed under and lost. This means trouble for cigarmakers as well as growers. In 2010, Gomez of La Flor had to temporarily cease production of his maduros due to a lack of broadleaf. “From 2010, January to May, we had no maduros,” he says.
Native Americans were the first to grow tobacco leaves in the land that is today called Connecticut. In 1633, a few dozen Europeans from the Plymouth colony in Massachussetts arrived in Windsor, Connecticut. They didn’t take long to plant tobacco; early records show that by 1640, the colonials were already growing tobacco leaves in the young town set along the longest river in New England.
That early tobacco was a crude, small variety known as shoestring. Broadleaf didn’t arrive in the valley until 1833, when B.P. Barbour of East Windsor planted a strain of tobacco from Maryland seed that grew fat, bushy plants with wide, drooping leaves, some more than two and a half feet long, the champions of the cigar world. “The new tobacco was so superior to the type previously grown that within a few years it entirely supplanted shoestring,” wrote P. J. Anderson in Growing Tobacco in Connecticut. “With its coming, the tobacco growing business in New England entered a period of expansion and prosperity which continued for nearly a hundred years.”
Broadleaf’s entry into the valley predated the arrival of Connecticut shade, which was first grown in 1900 from a seed imported from Sumatra, in modern-day Indonesia. The two tobaccos look very different, both in the fields and on your cigar. The difference is due in part to the genetic qualities of the plants, but also reflects growing, harvesting and curing methods.
Connecticut shade, as its name suggests, grows under tarps of nylon tenting that shade the leaves from the sunlight. The plants grow far taller than a man, nine feet or more. Broadleaf grows in the open sunlight in fat, bushy plants that end up about waist-high. The unfiltered rays of the sun make the leaves of a broadleaf plant heavier, thicker and darker, with wide, ropy veins.
Broadleaf spends more time in the fields than shade (about 70 days compared with 60) and is planted later in the season, typically during the first three weeks of June. “The key time is the 10th through the 20th,” says Dunn. Planting this late gets the plants in the ground for Connecticut’s hot, humid summer.
A process called topping, which is typically not used on shade tobacco, helps the broadleaf plant become stronger and darker. Because living creatures are hardwired to reproduce, a tobacco plant will put the majority of its energy into making the seeds contained in the flowers that grow at the top of the plant. If the blossoms are topped—ripped off along with any supporting vegation after 12 to 14 leaves have sprouted—the plant will stop growing new leaves and divert the energy once directed at reproduction into the remaining leaves.
Broadleaf plants are also harvested differently than shade plants. Shade plants (like most cigar tobacco plants) are primed, meaning that the leaves are picked by hand in groups of three, moving from the bottom of the plant to the top. For Connecticut shade, every step of the harvest is engineered to cradle the leaves with care, and it’s a long, expensive process.
Not so for broadleaf plants. They meet their end in a dramatic fashion plucked from a medieval novel: they are hacked at the base then impaled on a spike. Workers chop the entire plant with a hatchet, let them wilt in the sun for a bit, then spear them on a lathe to break open the stalk. The plants are then hung upside down to draw nutrients from the stalk. They spend another 70 days in the barn (again, longer than the shade variety, which takes about 60 days of curing.) Tobacco men like Foster say the stalk curing adds a certain something that can’t be replicated any other way.
Whereas a crop of Connecticut shade might be ready to roll into cigars the year after it’s harvested, broadleaf typically takes about three years to be ready. And there’s no rush: few brag about having old Connecticut shade, but aged broadleaf is another story. “It ages amazingly—it’s one of my favorite aging tobaccos,” says Gomez.
Like a bulldog, broadleaf is ugly, but has tons of character. Tatuaje’s Johnson is such a big fan that he’s made a cigar called La Casita Criolla entirely out of broadleaf, from wrapper to binder and all the filler. “There were a lot of U.S.A. Connecticut broadleaf growers producing 100 percent broadleaf cigars,” says Johnson, mentioning such machine-made stalwarts as Topper and Muniemaker. “I wanted to create homage to that.”
Chris Topper owns Topper Cigar Co., a cigar brand that has been made with Connecticut broadleaf wrapper since 1896. Topper is the fourth generation in his family to run the company, and he was raised on the taste of Connecticut broadleaf.
“Broadleaf is our foundation—that’s what we use,” he says, taking a puff on one of his company’s cigars. “As a little kid, I remember going to the farms and meeting the people my dad was dealing with.”
The first Topper cigars were made by hand in McSherrystown, Pennsylvania, with a heart of then-legal Cuban tobacco and a wrapper of broadleaf. In the 1960s, with labor costs soaring and the company’s cigarmakers aging and unable to keep up with demand, the company had to transform itself. “My dad had about 25 rollers left, and their average age was about 70, 71. They couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s when we made the move to machine made.”
Unlike the vast majority of machine-made cigars, Toppers were all tobacco—no homogenized tobacco, no fillers—and always wrapped with broadleaf. “It’s been our livelihood,” says Topper, a redhead who looks younger than his 45 years. This year he made his biggest change ever, moving the 117-year-old Topper brand back from machine-made to handmade. “We’re blending it back,” he says. “We smoked some older cigars; we’re trying to blend it back towards when my grandfather and great grandfather were blending cigars.”
The new Toppers are being made by hand in Santiago, Dominican Republic, by Durfort Holdings S.A., run by Phil Zanghi. They are mixed- filler cigars, but all tobacco, with a bit of broadleaf in the filler blend and the same, dark, rugged broadleaf wrappers as before. “The broadleaf is where most of the flavor comes from,” says Topper. By making the cigars offshore and cutting his margins, he’s still able to come in at only about a quarter more expense per cigar than with his machine-made versions—a cigar selling for less than $3 before taxes. “I’m proud to put my name on the type of cigar my father and grandfather were selling,” says Topper.
When asked why he never made the same move that some other cigar companies did to cut costs—switching from all tobacco to the far less expensive homogenized tobacco—Topper answers easily. “I couldn’t do it to the Topper name. Not with the pictures of my father and grandfather staring at me from my desk.”
Topper’s devotion to the taste of his youth and the growing appeal of Connecticut broadleaf to new cigar smokers is a needed vote of confidence in the nearly 200-year-old tobacco. The lands that grow the best tobacco in the valley are being lost. Farming isn’t the easiest of occupations, and as farmers age, their children often don’t wish to put on the overalls and sit in tractors like their parents. Family farms are often sold for other purposes. The 2010 crop, at 1,950 acres the largest in decades, is tiny when compared with the 10,000 acres of broadleaf harvested in 1950, and 18,000 reaped in 1925.
“I remember cultivating here when I was 12, 13 years old,” says Dunn. The barn behind him, all of 120 years old, has been there since he was in short pants. But there was more tobacco grown in his youth. “There used to be tobacco across the street too.”
“You can’t replace land,” says Dunn with a chuckle.
Another bit of good news for broadleaf is that it grows best at home. While Connecticut shade has been grown in other parts of the world with great success—including Nicaragua, Honduras and especially Ecuador, which today grows far more Connecticut shade than Connecticut itself—Connecticut broadleaf just doesn’t taste the same when it’s grown elsewhere. Although some is grown in Pennsylvania to good effect, the microclimate of the Connecticut River Valley makes the leaf extremely distinctive.
Foster takes another puff on his Liga Privada No. 9, a Nicaraguan cigar cloaked in dark, oily wrappers grown on one of his farms. “If it wasn’t for the flavor of broadleaf,” he says simply, “we would have been out of business long ago.”