Talking Broadleaf With Steve Saka
On Friday, I had a smoke with Steve Saka, the chief executive officer of Drew Estate. Before long, we were talking about the smoke that put Drew Estate on the map in the minds of high-end cigar smokers: Liga Privada No. 9.
Liga Privadas have quite the buzz lately. In our most recent Cigar Insider poll of U.S. cigar retailers, Liga Privada was ranked No. 3 for hottest brands, the cigars consumers request most often in top-tier cigar stores. (It tied with Fuente Fuente OpusX—quite an achievement.) The hallmark of Liga Privada No. 9 is a very dark and very oily Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, and as Saka and I puffed we got to talking about making Liga Privadas, which are always on back order.
“It has seven different tobaccos from seven different vendors,” says Saka. “And it has the most difficult wrapper, Connecticut broadleaf, No. 1 darks.”
Broadleaf is not your usual cigar tobacco. It grows short and bushy, with fat, wide leaves from the open sunlight. Most cigar tobaccos are harvested in a process known as priming, where the leaves are removed from the stalk in groups of three, working from the bottom of the plant. Workers take three leaves from one plant, move to the next, and repeat the process. Days later, they take another three from each plant, until you’re left with bare stalks.
Broadleaf is stalk cut; when the time is right, a worker takes a hatchet, chops the entire stalk, lets the plant wilt a bit in the sun and then spears the plants on a lathe to allow them to hang upside down in a barn on the stalk.
Where Connecticut shade is mild and creamy, Connecticut broadleaf is full-bodied and muscular. It’s gutsy, flavorful stuff.
On paper, broadleaf is relatively cheap, say about $23 a pound, compared to nearly $40 for a pound of Connecticut shade, broadleaf’s more famous cousin. Connecticut-seed wrapper grown in Ecuador sells for a similar price. But Saka and other cigarmakers have told me that broadleaf, when you factor in all the effort and waste, is actually the most expensive wrapper tobacco in the world.
Drew Estate buys broadleaf straight from the barns. “We ship all the tobacco in farm bales in refrigerated containers to Nicaragua,” says Saka. It’s fermented for 18 months to two years at the factory before it can be used. “I still have tobacco from 2009 I haven’t used,” he says.
Broadleaf has remarkably low yields. A pound of broadleaf will deliver a lot less cigars than a pound of something else. Saka said give a cigar company five, maybe five-and-a-half pounds of top-grade Ecuador Connecticut and you can make 1,000 toros. It can take as much as 33 pounds of broadleaf, sometimes even more, to make the same number of cigars.
“Everything about [broadleaf] is traumatically expensive,” Saka says.
So broadleaf is expensive, takes forever to work and all agree it’s a royal pain. So why use it?
“I personally love broadleaf,” says Saka, who started smoking cigars in 1984. Broadleaf blends, especially those by the late Frank Llaneza, were some of his favorites. “I’ve always been a broadleaf fan. It’s sweet, it’s earthy, it’s pungent. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Saka says last year’s broadleaf crop started rough but ended better, but don’t expect there to be a huge influx of more Liga Privada No. 9s. It was a big crop, in terms of leaves produced, but because it had a rainy end to the season it likely won’t result in many of the dark leaves Drew Estate needs for Saka's favorite brand.
For more on how broadleaf is grown and harvested, read my Cigar Aficionado story, One Tough Leaf
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