That Old Black Magic
Smoke a dark cigar lately? Odds are you have. Maduros are becoming ever more popular on the U.S. market, and cigar shop humidors that once were a sea of golden-brown Connecticut-shade cigars are now awash in dark colors, ranging from rich browns all the way to BMW black.
Even as maduros grow in popularity, mystery surrounds the cigars, the methods by which they are made, and even how they taste. Done right, the production of maduros is a time- and labor-intensive process that mellows and sweetens a cigar rather than making it stronger. As more manufacturers return to the traditional methods of curing maduro tobacco, the market is responding favorably—whether it understands the sublime alchemy or not.
"Years ago, the trend was all Connecticut wrapper and light cigars," says Gary Pesh, chief executive officer of the Old Virginia Tobacco shops in the Washington, D.C., area. "The market has changed."
Most non-Cuban cigar brands now have a maduro version. The biggest sellers in the handmade-cigar world, Macanudo and Arturo Fuente, have long come in maduro. Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey were two of the earliest brands to have maduro wrappers. There are maduro La Gloria Cubanas, Ashtons, Fonsecas, La Flor Dominicanas,
Avos, Padróns and many others. Some brands, such as Onyx Reserve and Arturo Fuente Añejo, consist entirely of maduros.
And the dark cigars keep coming. Romeo y Julieta and El Rico Habano added maduro versions last year. C.A.O. created a double maduro called the MX2 in 2003, the first Camacho maduros went on sale in April, and Altadis U.S.A. Inc. was planning on debuting a maduro Trinidad at a July trade show.
"The biggest success we had last year was with Romeo maduro," says Jim Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Altadis U.S.A. "Onyx Reserve is a big one—it just keeps growing. Maduros definitely are in demand."
Dark cigars have great appeal to cigar smokers. In an April poll conducted on cigaraficionado.com, 94 percent of respondents said they had smoked maduros and 21 percent named them as their smoke of choice.
"I prefer a maduro wrapper to everything else," writes user brianbzed on Cigar Aficionado Online. "Up until six months ago," writes forum member Tiny Tim, "I didn't smoke maduro cigars at all. But then I tried some of them and now they're almost all I buy!"
Because of their dark wrappers, maduros can scare off less seasoned smokers, who assume a dark brown or black exterior means the cigar will be strong. "The newer people tend to see maduros as very strong and tend to shy away from them," says Pesh.
The fear is largely unfounded. Most cigars that are sold with the word "maduro" on the box aren't strong at all. In various Cigar Aficionado taste tests, maduros have exhibited largely mellow, toasty and often sweet flavors. "It's kind of like molasses," says Samuel Russell, senior marketing manager for Davidoff of Geneva, describing the taste of maduro wrapper.
Some confusion arises because dark cigars without the word "maduro" in the title, particularly those made with dark, oily primings of Ecuadoran Sumatra or Central American tobacco leaves, can be absolute powerhouses.
Litto Gomez believes some maduro wrappers can have a mellowing effect on a tobacco blend, and he has the cigar to prove it. His La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero Chisel is about as spicy as a cigar gets, and it's strong enough to give even the heaviest smokers pause. His maduro version, which has an identical blend, except that a dark Connecticut-broadleaf wrapper replaces the light-colored Ecuadoran Sumatra leaf of the natural version, is mellow, toasty and somewhat medium in body.
"The broadleaf soaks up the spiciness and adds all of this sweetness," says Gomez, who was surprised by the change the leaf made.
While some maduros—such as the new Punch Magnum—contain different blends than the natural version of the same cigar, many are identical to the originals, save for the difference in wrapper leaf. Christian Eiroa's new Camacho maduros, like Gomez's Chisel, have identical filler and binder blends as their natural versions.
"Maduro" is a Spanish adjective meaning "ripe," and in the cigar business a maduro used to be made only from the highest leaves on a tobacco plant. Because they spend the most time on the plant, these leaves become riper than any other. "Maduro cigars used to be known as the cigars made from the corona leaf," says Eiroa, vice president of Tabacos Rancho Jamastran, maker of the Camacho brand. "The market changed. Maduro simply means dark."
Cigars that are marketed as maduros today tend to have dark brown, black or, in some odd cases, purple-black wrappers reminiscent of eggplants. (The Cuban cigar industry, while it does release very dark cigars, no longer sells any as maduros.) The darkest varieties might be called double maduro or oscuro. And the leaves may come from any part of the plant.
Making a maduro wrapper using traditional methods of natural heat and moisture takes a great deal of time, know-how and a leaf that's tough enough to handle a beating. Most maduros are made from one of two hearty tobacco varieties, Connecticut broadleaf or San Andres Negro. You also see some maduros, such as León Jimenes maduros, made with Brazilian wrapper, and some made with Nicaraguan. Eiroa uses Connecticut broadleaf along with broadleaf seed he grows in Honduras.
Broadleaf and San Andres Negro (which is grown in Mexico outside of Veracruz) are unlike most cigar wrapper tobaccos because they are stalk-cut rather than primed. Priming is a delicate process by which the leaves of a tobacco plant are removed in groups of three, starting from the bottom of the plant and working upward, with farmers taking a break of a few days or more between primings as the leaves mature higher up on the plant. Connecticut shade, Ecuadoran Sumatra, Cuban-seed Nicaraguan, all varieties of Dominican tobacco and a host of other tobaccos are harvested in this fashion. The individual leaves are hung in curing barns on string (either sewn together or tied at their ends) and allowed to cure, or dry.
Stalk cutting is more brutal, and quicker. In a broadleaf field north of Hartford, Connecticut, a handful of workers bend at the waist, swinging short axes with small heads. They aim near the dirt line, chopping at the thick stalks of the broadleaf plants, which look like small bushes with their clusters of fat, wide leaves. After chopping the plant, the worker drops it to the ground to let it wilt in the sun for about half an hour, which makes the plant easier to handle.
"It's a beautiful day to chop," says Harris Cohen, standing in his field in Ellington. It's a fine August day, and the mercury is hovering near 90. Cohen, a large, sunbaked man, is a hands-on farmer who is sweating along with his workers, his shirt stained from the rich Connecticut River Valley soil. The soft sound of repeated chopping hangs in the air, as does the pungent odor of manure from the surrounding fields.
The axe is only the beginning of the rough treatment of the tobacco that can seem positively medieval. After the plants wilt, workers pick each up and spear it on a long wooden lathe tipped with a sharp metal spearhead. The stalk is split on the blade and becomes impaled on the lathe, and is then hung in a curing barn.
All broadleaf gets dark after curing and fermentation, but farmers such as Cohen say Ellington is known for growing a particularly dark strain of the leaf, which used to be a detriment. It's now a plus. "They used to call it cow shit tobacco," says Cohen, who grows tobacco with his brother Sanford. "Now the customers want thicker, dark tobacco."
Although they are grown within spitting distance of each other, it's hard to imagine two more different tobacco leaves than Connecticut shade and Connecticut broadleaf. If shade is Marilyn Monroe, broadleaf is Janis Joplin—full of soul, but not so easy on the eyes.
In the fields, shade is tall, thin and well kept, while broadleaf is short, thick and homely. After processing, the latter is often rumpled and veiny, while shade is silky and smooth.
Broadleaf leaves are larger than shade leaves, but the plant is much shorter. A Connecticut-seed plant grown under shade can easily reach 10 feet or more in height. A broadleaf plant, which grows in the open sunlight and comes from a different seed stock, won't get much taller than three feet. "Waist height is the maximum," says Cohen. Seedlings are planted after the last new moon in May to avoid frost, and the harvest begins 60 to 70 days later.
Altadis U.S.A. buys more broadleaf than any other company. Most of it goes into its popular machine-made brand, Backwoods. "We need to buy enough broadleaf every year to do over a quarter billion Backwoods each year," says Colucci. Buying so much tobacco for machine-made cigars helps the premium end because broadleaf is notorious for being poorly sorted—lower grade tobacco is mixed with better grade, and vice versa. Altadis has need for the higher and lower grade wrappers, and it does much of the sorting in La Romana, where it makes cigars, under the supervision of vice president José Seijas.
"For every bad leaf Jose finds in premium, he probably finds four premium in the domestic pile, which gives you a great selection in premium," says Colucci.
Broadleaf makes an ideal maduro because of its inherent darkness when cured and fermented, plus its thickness. The wrapper leaf is noticeably chunkier and more rugged than shade tobaccos, which are prized for being thin and silky. But thin leaves would easily be damaged or break apart like wet tissue paper under the intense heat and pressure created in maduro fermentation.
All cigar tobacco goes through a curing and fermentation process, but it takes more time and higher temperatures to make a leaf as dark as those used to wrap maduros. After being cured in a barn and turning brown, maduro wrappers are put into bulks to ferment. The weight of the tobacco, plus the moisture in the leaf, causes a chemical change. Impurities, namely ammonia, come off the leaves and heat is produced, turning starches to sugars. When the heat at the center of a bulk reaches the maximum allowed by the tobacco man, the bulk is taken apart, which lowers the temperature. Then it is rebuilt, and the process starts anew.
"Normally you turn the bulk at 115 degrees. Broadleaf, you can have it at 120-plus," says Eiroa. "Broadleaf takes forever."
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, who makes maduro versions of his La Gloria Cubanas and El Rico Habanos, is still fermenting Connecticut broadleaf from the 1999 crop. He plans to use it this year. Connecticut shade, by comparison, can be ready in one year.
Some folks have been known to take a shortcut. "We've never been believers in the painted black maduros," says Eiroa. He describes one fast method of making a maduro known as the cooking method, which is done using a setup reminiscent of a stove-top espresso coffeemaker. "Picture one of those coffeemakers with the coffee in the bottom," he says. "Steam comes up into this one pot with the tobacco inside. The vapor leaks in and adds color to the tobacco. Another method is dipping the tobacco in dye—food coloring or whatever—or you put dye on a sponge."
Rushed methods, such as the ones Eiroa describes deliver maduros with unnatural colors, the darkest blacks and the eggplant purples. Eiroa shuns them, preferring the old-fashioned way. "We like the raw flavor of tobacco," he says. "We're very proud of our farms and what they produce."
The maduro cigars that are painted have drawn the contempt of savvier consumers. "Of course," writes PRCCaption on the cigaraficionado forums, "maduros are only good as long as they weren't painted that color."
Thankfully, the process of painting and rushing maduros to market was far more prevalent during the cigar boom than it is now. Most of today's maduros are the product of a great deal of patience and know-how on the part of the cigarmakers and tobacco growers responsible for the product. If you sit down tonight and light up a maduro cigar, there's a good chance that its outer leaf was planted in the ground many years ago.
"I have enjoyed cigar smoking for 40 years—moving from machine to handmade non-Cubans to Cubans when I can afford it. I'll always take a maduro when I have the choice as I find them fuller and more interesting in flavor," writes new poster Fodya on cigaraficionado.com. "I would probably smoke less if maduros went off the market."
Happily for Fodya—and other cigar smokers—there's little chance of that ever happening.