One Tough Leaf
You might as well call it Rodney. Connecticut broadleaf tobacco is the Dangerfield of the cigar industry, a rumpled everyman tobacco that gets little respect.
Growers in Connecticut say that Connecticut shade--the region's best-known tobacco, the one that commands the highest prices per pound and grows under elaborate nylon tents--is the king of the Northeast. The best fields are reserved for shade crops, not broadleaf, which shade farmers dismiss with a sniff as a binder crop, or wrapper tobacco best suited for mass-market cigars. The short, somewhat dumpy plants even look less elegant than their shade-covered cousins.
"Broadleaf is not as sophisticated" as shade, says Angel Daniel Nuñez, the senior vice president of tobacco for General Cigar Co., the maker of Macanudo and Partagas cigars.
No one has ever accused broadleaf of being pretty. First, it's thick, so it can have trouble burning evenly. Then there are the veins. Broadleaf can sprout the type of veins that are more commonly found on a grandmother's legs--thick, ugly and impossible to miss. "They're almost like small stems," says Joel W. Gibbons, a broadleaf buyer based in Glen Allen, Virginia.
Blue-collar broadleaf seems to have a fitting price, selling for as little as $12 per pound, an apparent bargain compared to the $45 per pound that top-grade Connecticut shade commands. But because of all the curing, fermenting and sorting required to turn broadleaf into usable tobacco--plus all the waste--it ends up being much more expensive than it seems.
"A good crop of broadleaf for machine-made cigars gives you 60 percent wrapper yield," says Fritz Bossert, the vice president of tobacco purchasing for General. "For premium cigars, it gives you 30 percent yield." Other wrapper farmers claim yields as high as 80 percent. Even worse, cigarmakers say broadleaf takes twice as long to ferment and age as Connecticut shade.
"This is a very thick, oily wrapper," says Litto Gomez, co-owner of the premium La Flor Dominicana brand. "It's a lot more labor intensive than any other type of tobacco."
Because of all the waste involved in working with broadleaf, and all the labor it takes to get the crop ready for rolling, the price per pound is deceptive. Add it all up, and you have one very expensive piece of tobacco. "Broadleaf," claims Bossert, "is the most expensive tobacco in the world."
The tobacco is unattractive, expensive and hard to handle. So why do people bother with broadleaf?
"It has a lot of flavor," says Gomez. "It has the best flavor of all." Gomez uses it on his popular El Jocko Perfecto No. 1, a short fireplug of a cigar that's shaped like a bomb.
Just as Connecticut shade is prized for its mild, neutral flavors, broadleaf is becoming more appealing to smokers due to its heavy, muscular flavors. Smoke a cigar wrapped in broadleaf, and you're likely to taste leather, minerals and steel. It's not subtle.
Broadleaf can be found on many machine-made brands, most notably Backwoods, made by Altadis U.S.A., and such all-tobacco machine-made cigars as Muniemakers and Toppers. But a host of premium cigarmakers have recently turned to broadleaf for handmade maduros. General, for example, has switched from Mexican San Andres Negro to Connecticut broadleaf for its Macanudo Maduro cigars. "It has more flavor," says Nuñez. "It delivers more of a rounder taste." Tabacalera A. Fuente released limited-edition Arturo Fuente Añejos this summer, Fonseca has come out with a new line of maduros, and Avo cigars are now available in maduro as well. All are made with Connecticut broadleaf, as are the majority of cigars in this issue's tasting.
These days, if you smoke maduro cigars, odds are they were wrapped with either broadleaf or Mexican tobacco. If the leaf is thin and fairly dry, chances are it's Mexican. But if it's thick, oily and rugged, it's probably broadleaf.
Connecticut shade and Connecticut broadleaf grow side-by-side throughout the Connecticut River Valley, but they are quite the odd couple. Shade is smooth and elegant, while broadleaf is grizzled and tough. Shade plants are tall and thin, reaching as high as 12 feet under their silky tents. Unlike its blueblood cousin, broadleaf grows in the open sunlight. Shade is picked carefully, leaf by leaf in a series of primings. The leaves are coddled throughout the harvest and sewn together in curing barns. Broadleaf is harvested like a caveman takes a bride--violently. Workers use hatchets to chop down the entire plant, then hang it, stalk and all, inside a curing barn.
Charcoal fires or propane heaters inside the barns are sometimes lit to keep temperatures at the proper levels, but the rest of the curing process is left up to nature. Over a 45-day period, the thick, green, gummy tobacco leaves will lose their moisture to the air, all the while drawing nutrients from the stalk. Growers have tried to harvest broadleaf like shade, in leaf-by-leaf primings, but it didn't work. Broadleaf needs the stalk to get its trademark look and taste. The leaves grow increasingly dark in the barn, and prolonged fermentation and aging in tobacco warehouses make them nearly black.
"This is the stage where tobacco needs the water," says William C. Dunn, squinting in the sun. "The buds are just starting to show." Dunn, 74, takes another look at the small field of tobacco in front of him, which seems to be barely making it out of the dusty tan soil. He scribbles some words into his ever-present notebook, observations on the tobacco that he will refer to later in the season, when he and the owner of the field have to negotiate a price.
Dunn has been buying broadleaf for 50 years. His business card doesn't list a company name; it reads simply: William C. Dunn, Broadleaf Tobacco.
"This is my office," he says with a smile, moving files off the seat of his dusty car. The wheel wells are coated with a permanent skin of dirt. He pulls a box of Ramon Allones cigars from his hatchback and puts one in his mouth. The storage area is more oven than humidor, and the dried-out wrapper (which is Connecticut shade, not broadleaf) soon splits in Dunn's mouth. He only chews his cigars anyway, so there's no chance of a bonfire setting the car ceiling alight as he drives.
Before there was Connecticut broadleaf tobacco, farmers in the valley grew a narrow-leaf type of tobacco known as shoe string, according to a Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station bulletin, Growing Tobacco in Connecticut, by P. J. Anderson. In 1833, a Mr. B. P. Barbour of East Windsor, Connecticut, brought a new strain of Maryland tobacco seed to the valley and planted a crop. Locals were instantly taken with the plant's wide, thick leaves, and it soon muscled out shoe string. Bigger leaves meant bigger profits.
Barbour's tobacco soon took his name, and even today people still grow Barbour broadleaf, though others use hybrids with different names. They all share the same characteristics--a squat plant that grows huge, thick and oily leaves.
Broadleaf lives up to its name. The plants grow some of the biggest leaves in the cigar world, some more than two and a half feet long. One of the secrets to the size is topping, the process of removing the flower of the plant while it is growing.
Farmers pluck the broadleaf flowers (which contain tobacco seeds) when the plant has sprouted from 12 to 14 leaves. Once the flower is picked, the plant will stop growing new leaves, but the ones that are on the plant will be kicked into overdrive. Now, all the plant's energies will be devoted to growing the leaves, rather than reproduction. (Most shade tobacco farmers leave the flowers on to keep their leaves thin.)
This year, according to Dunn, farmers planted more than 2,000 acres of broadleaf in the valley, down from the 2,400 acres planted in 1999. "That was the biggest crop in recent years," says Dunn, even though it doesn't come close to the 18,400 acres planted at the valley's peak, in 1925, according to Growing Tobacco in Connecticut. Dunn recalls how in his youth tobacco barns covered the valley; many have been torn down, replaced by housing developments, golf courses and the like.
Despite being down from record levels, the acreage of the past few years is more than double a typical planting of the early 1990s, when fewer than 1,000 acres of Connecticut broadleaf were grown. Before the mid-1990s, "this business was dead for about 30 years," says Dunn.
The word "Connecticut" in the tobacco's name refers to the valley, not the state. The Connecticut River Valley runs north from Hartford, Connecticut, through the middle of Massachusetts, and touches the Vermont/New Hampshire border. More than half of the broadleaf tobacco planted here is in Massachusetts.
The quality of this year's broadleaf crop won't approach last year's. In the summer of 1999, the valley turned into a blast furnace as a heat wave swept the northeastern United States; it was the perfect atmosphere for growing tobacco. Tobacco loves heat, and 1999 provided it aplenty, resulting in tall, proud plants.
This year is a different story. The 2000 growing season had an ominous beginning, with cool weather that stunted plant growth; many plants still hugged the ground as late as mid-July. But at the time no one was concerned. "We say August makes tobacco," says Nuñez.
August was a disaster. Rain returned in force to Connecticut, along with unseasonably cool temperatures--ideal weather for blue mold, the bane of tobacco growers. An outbreak of blue mold can tear through a tobacco field in a day, turning once-vibrant plants into withered zombies.
As the rain fell and the mercury dropped, broadleaf growers began to spray in hopes of preventing the mold. Most of them staved off the fungus, only to have their plants fall victim to another pest: brown spot.
"The whole Connecticut valley has a problem this year," says Thomas Fraize, a supervisor at Waldron Farms, a Connecticut broadleaf operation. By mid-August, Fraize had lost his entire 36-acre plot to brown spot.
Brown spot is a fungus that lives in the soil. When the soil is agitated, the fungus can be splashed onto leaves, where it becomes airborne and spreads. On plants, it leaves a caustic brown spot that discolors the leaf and can even cut a hole in the plant. Heavy rains can activate the fungus, and Fraize says the high-powered sprays used to fight blue mold may have splashed the brown spot out of the soil and onto his plants.
"We've never been hit with it this hard before," says Fraize. "It used to make just freckles on the leaf, but now it's all over the plants. It's on the trees and everything, not just on tobacco." Broadleaf men weren't optimistic about the outcome for the 2000 crop. "It could end up just as bad as the blue mold of '97," says Dunn, referring to an outbreak that ruined much of the broadleaf crop.
The tobacco farmers of the valley know not to make too much of one bad year. "That's agriculture," they say with a shrug. Good crops and bad crops come and go. It's the nature of the business.
On a better day, a day without brown spot or blue mold, Ben Nascimbeni, the owner of Meadow View Farm in Southwick, Massachusetts, is standing on a small ridge, looking over his 29-acre plot of young broadleaf. A large man with an ever-present smile, Nascimbeni is waiting on his plants, judging when they'll be ready for topping. The plants are small but hearty, standing proud and wide in the sunlight.
"We're pleased so far," he says, speaking in the cautious tone familiar to all farmers. Behind him, the rusted blade of a tobacco hatchet lies half-buried in a thick beam. The tool looks as if it could be 100 years old, but in a month, it will be pried from its perch and swung at the mature tobacco.
"There's very little you can do to modernize this process," says Nascimbeni, standing with his hands in his pockets. He waits for the coming harvest, and hopes for the best.