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Secrets of Connecticut Shade

The hot new thing in the humidor is a wrapper leaf dating back more than 110 years
| By Gregory Mottola | From 100 Years of Fuente—Celebrating a Family Dynasty, January/February 2012
Secrets of Connecticut Shade
Photo/Sarina Finkelstein
Connecticut Shade grown in the United States has tough competition from South America.

Since Connecticut’s first tobacco tent was pitched in 1900, the sandy, loamy soils of the Connecticut River Valley have been carefully cultivated to produce high-quality wrapper leaves known as Connecticut Shade, a venerable tobacco now synonymous with mild flavor. Acres of screen-like netting cover entire fields of crops, filtering the sun’s rays to make the tobacco easygoing and approachable, a perennial crowd-pleaser. And while the demand for strong smokes is on the rise, a curious counter trend in the industry has inspired many companies to release blends wrapped in Connecticut tobacco.

“Connecticut has grown in popularity, because it blends beautifully with almost all tobacco,” says Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, president of E.P. Carrillo Cigars. “And though most people think it doesn’t add anything to the blend, it complements and rounds out the smoke perfectly. I’m seeing a lot of brands coming out with a Connecticut wrapper because there is a demand for a milder smoke, and today’s cigar smoker wants to experience different blends.”

Last year, many premium cigar makers addressed the trend by releasing a coterie of toned down lines and milder brand extensions made with Connecticut wrappers.

From large companies such as Altadis and Ashton to smaller companies like E.P. Carrillo, the industry has taken notice and responded. Gurkha just released a Connecticut line called The Royal Challenge, 601 put out its White Label Connecticut, Room 101 Connecticut debuted last summer, and Oliva Cigar Co. expanded on its popular Connecticut Wrapper Reserve by adding a petit corona and a toro tubo to its lineup. Berger & Argenti, Martín Family of Cigars and Pinar Del Río have also introduced Connecticut lines.

The trend is not at all surprising to Sathya Levin, vice president of Ashton Distributors Inc. The company’s two biggest sellers by volume, Ashton Classic and Ashton Cabinet Selection, are wrapped in Connecticut Shade. “From our vantage point,” he says, “the demand for Connecticut Shade cigars has always been strong.”

Whether the audience is made up of power smokers looking for lighter alternatives or longtime fans of mild cigars, they are no doubt familiar with the brand portfolio from General Cigar Co. The company’s vast range of cigars wrapped in Connecticut appeals to beginners while also keeping a following among seasoned smokers thanks to its consistency.

“Connecticut Shade cigars do so well because the tobacco is synonymous with quality, consistency and nuanced flavor from a taste perspective,” explains Bill Chilian, marketing director for General. “Not only does Connecticut Shade appeal to a wide range of smokers, it is also versatile when it comes to the blending process, allowing the cigar maker to develop unique tastes for the consumer.”

General’s largest cash cow—the Macanudo brand—is defined by its light, effervescent Connecticut Shade wrapper. According to Chilian, Macanudo continues to be the company’s best-selling brand.

General, a company whose Connecticut varieties include Macanudo Café, Macanudo Gold Label, Macanudo Vintage, Macanudo Robust, Excalibur, Sancho Panza and Helix, has made quite an investment in the Valley’s growing region to ensure its hallmark quality and consistency. General is the largest customer of O.J. Thrall, a private agricultural company renowned for its vast acreage of shade-grown tobacco.

“We’re the leader in the Valley now,” says Joe Thrall, a working owner of the O.J. Thrall business. “Fifty years ago there was 20,000 acres of shade-grown tobacco here in the Valley. Now, there’s only about 1,000.”

Thrall explained how a few bad growing seasons and a downturn market can very easily put a shade-grown farm out of business. “There’s always a temptation to get out of this line,” says Thrall. “And there are no newcomers to the shade-grown business. Most are dropping out, moving to broadleaf.”

Connecticut Broadleaf is shade’s darker, heartier cousin, and the tobacco is far easier and less expensive to grow than shade. It requires no tenting, growing in the open sunlight, and the entire plant is harvested in a single chop at the base of the stalk. The dark wrappers are used on maduro cigars. By contrast, Connecticut Shade is a very expensive, high-maintenance plant.

Every last leaf must be tented with a nylon mesh netting (thus the term “shade”) which simulates cloud cover, filtering the sun so that the leaves stay delicate yet flavorful without becoming too thick, dark or nicotine dense. The shade-grown harvest itself is also very labor-intensive, as the leaves are picked in groups of three leaves known as a priming, working up from the bottom. In one day, field workers will only pick and hang a few primings of the plant. The process can take two months.
While all Connecticut Shade is grown from what is now called Connecticut seed, there are variations of that type of tobacco.

A research and seed development center in Connecticut is constantly crossbreeding and germinating different varietals to find the perfect hybrid of size, color, texture, flavor and disease resistance. From a horticultural standpoint, General uses two seed varieties, 8212 and 211, both yielding slightly different results. The 8212 seed was first planted in the Valley in 1982. It produces a large, disease-resistant wrapper and is the most consistent with every planting. The 211 strain is planted early in the season, after the fields have rested. It is an older seed variety, sprouting smaller but flavorful tobacco leaves that turn an attractive golden brown once cured.

The Valley has been producing tobacco for more than 300 years. With its sandy soil and warm micro climate, the land exhibits a perfect water table, providing natural drainage and good aeration—saturated soil without adequate drainage causes the plants to rot.

Because every harvest depletes the soil of necessary nutrients, growers have to replenish the fields after the harvest. Thrall uses about 4,000 pounds of organic cotton seed meal fertilizer per acre. Phosphorus and nitrogen are a few examples of added elements required to keep the land fertile, but the ratios have to be correct to get the proper results.

“Disproportionate amounts of any component will change the properties of the leaf, rendering it too green or yellow, or affecting the leaf’s ability to burn,” says Ernest Gocaj, General Cigar’s tobacco leaf buyer, and former onsite manager for tobacco operations.

Seedlings are planted in small trays and left in a greenhouse to germinate. After the plant is three to five inches tall, it is then transported to the growing fields, usually around mid-May. The primings begin in early July and the harvest ends in September.

After the shade leaves are picked from the stalks, they are transported to curing barns, where each leaf is hung to dry. “Curing time depends on the future of the leaf,” says Gocaj.

“Wrapper used on the Macanudo Gold Label, for example, is hung for no less than 50 days and then put directly on the cigar without any fermentation. Much like a Beaujolais wine, the wrapper is harvested and consumed almost immediately. For other brands like Macanudo Café and Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur, the leaves cure for a minimum of 60 days to achieve a richer, browner appearance.”

After curing, the tobacco is put into bales and sent to the Dominican Republic for fermentation and, eventually, rolling.
Connecticut’s 2010 crop was a stellar one, and the 2011 crop was bountiful as well, although with thinner leaves due to excessive rainfall. But growing in Connecticut is a high-risk, high-cost affair. Many cigar companies have turned to a cheaper alternative: Ecuador.

“Connecticut from Ecuador is much easier to work with, and one of the advantages is that you don’t have to age it as long,” says Perez-Carrillo. No stranger to the market or to tobacco, he is best known for establishing the La Gloria Cubana brand when it was a small operation out of Miami before being acquired by General Cigar. When Perez-Carrillo struck out on his own, he released various cigars with dark wrappers. Last year, however, he released a brand called E.P. Carrillo New Wave Connecticut that features a light, golden wrapper grown in Ecuador from Connecticut seeds. In less than a year, it became his best-selling brand. Not bad for what he calls his first “real try” with the wrapper variety.

Like New Wave Connecticut, most cigars on the market with Connecticut wrappers are really made with Ecuadoran cover leaf. The growing region of Ecuador is not only nutrient rich and pH balanced from the country’s active volcanoes, but no netting, mesh or artificial shading is required—Ecuador’s “shade” is the natural cloud cover that filters the sun. This fact, coupled with the low cost of labor and land in South America, makes Ecuador Connecticut a very attractive alternative to the pricier Connecticut Shade that is grown in the United States.

No cigar company better exemplifies the usage of Ecuador Connecticut than Davidoff of Geneva. The brand was originally Cuban, but once Davidoff’s tobacco and production defected from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s, it used true Connecticut Shade wrapper from Connecticut. In 2001, however, the company switched its signature wrapper to Ecuadoran Connecticut. The reasons, offered by Davidoff’s master blender Hendrik “Henke” Kelner were quite elementary: Ecuador Connecticut was less expensive, had a higher agricultural yield and required less fermentation time after barn curing.

Although they originated from the same seeds and look virtually identical, the Connecticut tobacco grown in Ecuador is different from that grown in the Connecticut River Valley. “Connecticut Shade tobacco from the [United] States starts out with a more bitter taste and takes longer to improve with fermentation and aging,” says Kelner. “Ecuadoran Connecticut is more mild—neutral—and develops faster for use.”

Kelner also added that several consecutive bad crops afflicted with blue mold from the Connecticut Valley diminished the quality of the tobacco and hastened the changeover from the U.S. to Ecuadoran tobacco. “There’s no blue mold in Ecuador,” he says. “With our blends, we have to follow and aim for what the consumer wants. The Connecticut Ecuadoran wrappers are used on the traditional blends, including those found on most Avo, Davidoff and Griffin’s cigars. These brands were established more than 20 years ago.”

For Davidoff, the appearance and taste of the Ecuadoran Connecticut wrapper has become its signature style. “We make about 17 million cigars with the Ecuadoran Connecticut wrapper per year,” says Kelner. “Out of those, approximately 6 million cigars have the Davidoff name.”

The wrapper used by Kelner comes from ASP Enterprises Inc., the largest supplier of Ecuadoran Connecticut to the premium cigar industry. ASP has been cultivating Connecticut seed wrapper in Ecuador since 1971. Most of it comes from Quevedo, a volcanic region in Ecuador’s Los Rios province between Guayaquil and the capital city of Quito. The harvest season in Ecuador is a little later than in Connecticut, starting in July and going as late as December. ASP President David Perez has seen a bit of a spike in the demand for his wrapper.

“Ecuador Connecticut has a very oily, shiny appearance,” says Perez. “But the taste is fairly neutral, so the manufacturers can do what they want in terms of blending.”

Ashton’s newest cigar brand, San Cristobal Elegancia, is made with Ecuador Connecticut wrapper. The Nicaraguan brand is a lighter version of the full-bodied San Cristobal line. Says Levin: “We wanted to come out with a lighter San Cristobal cigar to reach a different audience.”

Along with Davidoff, Altadis U.S.A. Inc. has also built its foundation on Ecuador Connecticut. Altadis puts an Ecuadoran Connecticut wrapper on most of its premium brands. Montecristo, Montecristo White and Montecristo Classic all use the wrapper, as do Romeo y Julieta Vintage and Romeo y Julieta Reserva Real—top sellers in the company’s premium portfolio.

“Ecuadoran Connecticut is a thin and delicate leaf that has a lovely tan color and a distinct flavor,” says José Siejas, general manager for Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., the factory in the Dominican Republic where most Altadis cigars are made. “The veiny leaf produces a smooth, even burn and white ash. It blends very well with Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers. I love working with the wrapper.”

Altadis U.S.A. has more than 15 premium brands that use Ecuadoran Connecticut, the newest of which—Diamond Back—debuted at last year’s tradeshow. The company has also seen a renewed interest in its VegaFina brand, a Dominican cigar rolled with Ecuador Connecticut wrapper. The brand has long sold well in Spain—the company claims that VegaFina is one of the top selling cigar brands in that nation—and it’s now picking up speed in the United States.

“Connecticut-wrapped cigars have always  been very popular and very highly regarded among the majority of newer, as well as very educated and seasoned cigar smokers,” says Janelle Rosenfeld, vice president of marketing for Altadis U.S.A. “True cigar connoisseurs love them, and for good reason. They often comment on the subtle, yet rich flavor complexities along with the pleasing smoking aroma and the lovely ash created by Ecuadoran Connecticut wrappers.”

Consumers may indeed be looking for less powerful smokes, but it isn’t quite that simple. At the same time, they’re demanding a level of complexity and flavor previously not associated with milder tobacco. This poses a challenge for cigarmakers to blend around Connecticut Shade wrapper in such a way as to maximize its flavor potential. Mild for mild’s sake is no longer enough. The idea of being both a mild cigar and at the same time flavorful may seem oxymoronic to some, but not to Christian Eiroa, a consultant to Camacho, a brand known for full-bodied smokes. He believes that he found the perfect middle ground when his company launched Camacho Connecticut a few years ago.

“The Camacho Connecticut has attracted new smokers to Camacho but we have also been able to keep the regular Camacho smokers,” Eiroa says. “Camacho Connecticut was a hit from day one. I believe that the consistency of the look, taste and flavor of the Connecticut wrappers keep customers turning to these cigars. This blend is strong enough to not be mild, but at the same time mild enough to not be strong.”

Regardless of Camacho’s portfolio of powerful cigars, the company’s best-selling cigar brand is a fairly mild Connecticut-wrapped smoke called Baccarat “The Game.”

“Connecticut seed wrappers are by far still the most popular for us,” Eiroa says. “Our Baccarat brand alone outsells every other cigar in the [Camacho] company. From our estimations, Baccarat “The Game” is one of the seven best-selling premium cigars in the U.S.”

One of the most common criticisms levied against Connecticut Shade cigars is their lack of flavor. For many, it is difficult to go back to a Connecticut cigar once they’ve become used to heavier, stronger tobaccos, but brand owner Rocky Patel doesn’t think that you have to necessarily sacrifice taste when blending a milder smoke. His Rocky Patel Vintage 1999 Connecticut brand uses a true U.S.A. Connecticut wrapper and is the best-selling cigar of all his Vintage series brands, including the darker, more powerful Vintage 1990 and 1992 cigars.

“We try to make a mild- to medium-bodied cigar with lots of flavor,” says Patel. “The blend of the Vintage 1999 has spice and pepper but with the Connecticut wrapper, it becomes creamy and smooth. That’s the beauty of the wrapper. It’s tough to smoke nothing but heavy cigars all day. Plus there are a lot more new smokers coming into the market that really want to enjoy cigars.”

While Patel’s Vintage Connecticut line uses Connecticut Shade wrapper from the United States, his new Connecticut line, called Xen by Nish Patel, uses Connecticut seed wrapper from Ecuador.

Xen by Nish Patel was created by Patel’s brother, Nish. It’s a box-pressed Connecticut-wrapped cigar, something that you don’t see much of in the market. “A high quality Connecticut cigar is the way to acquaint smokers with flavor without overpowering them,” explains Rocky Patel. “U.S.A. Connecticut is creamier and milder, but Ecuador Connecticut is thicker, more pliable and has more body.”

The Alec Bradley Cigar Co. took a different approach to the Connecticut wrapper in 2011. According to brand owner Alan Rubin, the Tampa-style cigar of the 20th Century, which was made with Cuban tobacco, was affordably priced, smooth and complex. He attempted to reproduce that experience when he released the Alec Bradley American Classic blend in May. Unlike many other premium Connecticut cigars, the American Classic uses a light Connecticut seed wrapper grown in the Jamastran region of Honduras. The cigars are rolled at Plasencia Cigars in Estelí, Nicaragua.

“Unlike Ecuador and U.S. Connecticut, Honduran Connecticut is thicker, so it can handle more fermentation, which results in more flavor,” says Rubin. “While it isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the other Connecticut wrappers, it offers the flavor profile we were looking for with the American Classic blend.”

General Cigar also tried its hand with Honduran-grown Connecticut last year when it released the La Gloria Cubana Artesanos Retro Especiale in September, a first for the La Gloria Cubana brand. “We saw this Honduran Connecticut wrapper in the factory and we loved the look of it,” says Michael Giannini, brand manager for La Gloria Cubana.

Whether it’s Honduras Connecticut, Ecuador Connecticut or Connecticut Connecticut, the most talented blenders in the premium cigar business are ensuring that Connecticut wrapper stays in the domain of connoisseurship. Ultimately, how it tastes will depend on how it is fermented and blended, and there are no right or wrong reasons to smoke one over the other. Nor does the taste for lighter cigars indicate a pedestrian or amateur palate, as is so often the indictment.

It is true that lighter-bodied cigars can often be the entryway to more challenging, full-bodied tobacco as a cigar aficionado’s palate matures. But is it possible that smokers are reverting back to their first love? Or maybe the trend never really disappeared.

“Consumers who regularly enjoy Connecticut Shade cigars may not be the most vocal of cigar smokers, but they represent a significant portion of the market,” says Levin. “The guys who buy Ashton Classic or Cabinet don’t sit around the shop talking about how strong their cigar is. They quietly buy their boxes, and then they leave.”

"Having worked 10+ years in Conn Shade in Conn and Mass, I hate to see our tobacco being counterfieted elsewhere. South American Conn-seed is inferior in all ways and costs a fraction per pound as the real thing, yet so many unscrupulous cigar makers deliberately try to confuse the public about their top dollar "Connecticut" wrappers, one going so far as to name his Ecuadorian grown tobacco wrapped cigar "Connecticut," and sell it for top dollar as if it were the real thing." —May 6, 2012 10:35 AM

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