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The Mystique of Medio Tempo

| By Gregory Mottola | From Brian Cox, November/December 2021
The Mystique of Medio Tempo
Illustrations/Mark Allen Miller

In 1908, Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda attempted to reproduce the savory taste found in seaweed and thus formulated an additive called monosodium glutamate. It’s used today to not only add flavor to foods, but to also enhance the perception of the ingredients in any given dish. In the cigar world, there’s a tobacco that does the same thing. Unlike MSG, this particular tobacco can’t be mass-produced in a lab, nor can it be grown in large quantities. The leaf in question is called medio tiempo, and it’s appearing in more and more cigars, promising an enhanced experience and an added wow factor to your smoke. 

Medio tiempo functions in much the same way MSG does—to bring your other tobaccos together while adding a gustatory giddyup. Lately, cigarmakers are openly acknowledging its use in current blends, and it’s moved from an industrial term to become somewhat of a buzzword among consumers. Medio tiempo is now part of the common cigar lexicon, but it’s not new. Cubans have been using the term medio tiempo to classify their strongest tobacco for decades, and it’s been a well-used standard on the non-Cuban side as well. Few outside the industry had ever heard of it, until 2010, when the leaf got its biggest press with the release of the Cuban Cohiba Behike BHK series. According to Habanos S.A., it was the inclusion of medio tiempo in the filler blend that set Behikes apart from the already vaunted Cohiba line. And made them so much more expensive. It only added to the allure of medio tiempo when Behikes became among the hottest cigars ever released, with the 52 size being named Cigar of the Year. A new buzzword was born and since then, more companies have sought these leaves and now openly market their blends as containing this purported flavor enhancer. 

Medio tiempo is not a varietal of tobacco. Many different types of tobacco plants can produce it. Rather, it’s a late-harvest sprouting of two small leaves that grow at the very top of the plant, above the corona level—a sort of corona-plus. What makes it rare is the fact that not every plant produces these leaves. It’s been said that on any given farm, only one in 10 plants will sprout medio tiempo, so when it grows, it’s coveted, and separated from the other primings for a different fermentation. 

What makes it potent is the sun exposure and the nutrient concentration. Smoking these powerful, little leaves alone can be quite intense, and not really advised for anything other than testing purposes in the blending phase. You wouldn’t puff on them for pleasure any more than you’d suck on a bullion cube or crunch on dried red pepper flakes. You would, however, make it a defining ingredient in your cigar, and that’s exactly how the magic of medio tiempo is unlocked. Once blended with other tobaccos, its intense properties bring weight to the cigar, adding a rich, meaty quality along with amped-up spice and denser, chewier sweetness to every puff. The flavors of the cigar will also come into sharper focus. At least, if it’s used correctly. 

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In Cuba, the first fermentation of all tobacco takes place in the barn. The dried leaves spend 30 days in a large pile before ever leaving the farm. They are then brought to a sorting house for a second fermentation in larger piles called pilones. That lasts about 15 days and is standard treatment. Medio tiempo leaves require a third fermentation, which lasts an additional
90 days, and then they’re packed up to age in a warehouse for a minimum of two years. This is one reason why Cohiba Behikes are so pricey. 

Nine years before the advent of Cohiba Behike, General Cigar had been quietly using medio tiempo in its Partagas Black Label brand. Still used in the line today, these medio tiempo leaves are harvested from the tops of the Havana Connecticut plants grown in the microclimate of the Connecticut River Valley. These Cuban-seed varietals are different from Connecticut shade or broadleaf and the only plant that General uses for medio tiempo. 

“Medio tiempo is a Cuban term,” explains Ernest Gocaj, Scandinavian Tobacco Group’s director of leaf sourcing for Latin America. STG distributes Partagas and other brands through General Cigar, which is its main premium subsidiary. “It means that these two top leaves stay longer on the plant compared to the traditional harvest time. Instead of harvesting every week or 10 days, we keep these two top leaves on the plant for 14 to 18 days.” 

Flavor concentration is the main reason why cigarmakers reach for this tobacco, and Gocaj points to not only enhanced strength, but a more intense sweetness and spiciness as well. “The medio tiempo leaves can withstand very high heat in fermentation and are easily identified due to their black color,” he says. “During natural curing and fermentation, the inherent flavors of the medio tiempo leaves—sweetness, spiciness, earthiness—are enhanced. Therefore, the leaves lend strength and a deeper profile to the blends.”

General never expressly advertised medio tiempo as a component of Partagas Black, and still doesn’t, as the word didn’t mean much to cigar consumers in 2001. Today, the market has changed. Just this year, General released a line of La Glorias called La Gloria Cubana Medio Tiempo, putting the word on the boxes, bands and promotional literature.  

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This tobacco has yet to reach maturity, but when it does, only a few plants will produce medio tiempo, the two leaves that occasionally grow at the very top. (Photo/Mark Leonardi)

General only uses medio tiempo from one seed varietal grown in one place. For John Oliva Jr., third-generation grower and part of the family-owned Oliva Tobacco Co., he harvests medio tiempo from crops in Ecuador and Nicaragua. 

“In my experience, not every plant and not every crop will produce medio tiempo,” he says. “In most cases, this is a function of weather. Crop seasons with a lot of precipitation tend to produce thinner-textured leaves, so by extension, less tobacco goes into ‘medio tiempo’ classification. For our purposes, when we have plants that produce the two top leaves in the corona priming that are particularly thick, we will classify these as medio tiempo.”

Oliva Tobacco is a Tampa-based growing operation (not to be confused with Oliva Cigar Co., based in Miami) that focuses on leaf cultivation and brokerage. It was started by Angel Oliva in 1934 and, through its processing center in Nicaragua, Oliva has libraries and libraries of tobacco from many countries. Called Procenicsa, the Nicaraguan tobacco hub is a major supplier to the premium side of the industry, and a place where many cigarmakers shop for distinct tobaccos of all primings and types, including medio tiempo. 

“We don’t intentionally set out to grow it,” Oliva adds. “We consider it a classification of heavier leaf. They are usually much heavier than traditional ligero. We let these leaves ripen a little longer on the plant in an effort to tame the intrinsic strength level.”

Should you want to shop around for your medio tiempo, Aganorsa Leaf is another major grower in Nicaragua. In fact, it’s one of the largest, and is where Kyle Gellis goes for his medio tiempo. He’s the creator of the cult brand Warped, and while his cigars are distinct, he doesn’t put medio tiempo in all of them. Brands like Skyflower, Moon Garden and Maestro del Tiempo 6102R differ from the rest of the Warped portfolio because of these turbo-charged leaves.

“We use it for very few and unique blends,” Gellis says. “To me, it always has added an abundance of depth to the blend, complexity and intense presence of aroma. It is not a material I commonly use. It has the ability to be dominant and has to be finessed. Too much of it, and you just lost all the other nuances from your fillers.”

According to Gellis, medio tiempo costs him a little more, due to the late harvest and added fermentation time, but he’s completely confident in the product he receives.

“Aganorsa is the foremost expert on the material,” he assures. “I trust them on all aspects of tobacco when it comes to growing, fermentation, classification and sorting. When I use medio tiempo for blends for Warped, I choose the material myself. Once you get to know the material on its own, you know it, you know its texture, its feel, its aroma, its presence.”

Gellis adds that he’s careful not to front-load the medio tiempo when blending, meaning that he doesn’t concentrate the leaf too close to the foot of the cigar. “Let’s say you have the upfront blast of that depth of weight of medio and then it just disappears. You progress through the cigar and the experience drops significantly. It’s a waste of the unique material, in my opinion.”

It should come as no surprise that such potent leaves are also found in the Fuente Fuente OpusX, a small-production cigar that set new standards in strength and exclusivity when it debuted in 1995. The medio tiempo here comes from Cuban-seed tobacco grown at the Chateau de la Fuente farm in the Dominican Republic. 

“That’s what gives you your baritone,” Carlos Fuente Jr. says. “Heavy flavor. More body. It gives you more complexity.”

Few have mined the soil of the Dominican Republic like Fuente, and more than 30 years after he planted those first Corojo seeds in Bonao, Fuente still remains one of the very few people in the Dominican Republic to grow wrapper leaf. He’s careful to preserve the wrapper’s characteristics by making sure his rollers cut the shape as close to the edge as possible. This, according to Fuente, is where much of the wrapper’s strength and personality exist. Combined with the use of thick ligero and even thicker medio tiempo in the filler, the OpusX is a cigar of uncommon potency, known for its heady combination of spice and leather. When he started producing the cigar, Fuente says that many farmers in the Dominican Republic weren’t really interested in the cultivation of medio tiempo. Rather than leaving the last few leaves to ripen on top of a stalk after the rest of the plant has been plucked clean, they’d simply pick off the medio tiempo with the ligero. By allowing medio tiempo to grow and thicken in the sun, Fuente gives the OpusX an added dimension that has kept these cigars at the top of our ratings for more than 25 years. 

You should be leery if anyone ever tells you that their cigars contain the same medio tiempo as the OpusX—or any other of the same tobaccos as OpusX for that matter. Fuente is clear that he does not sell anything from his farm. Any unused leaf grown at Chateau de la Fuente is destroyed.

Leaves that have been classified as medio tiempo tend to be quite small, thick and rough in texture, which is why they’re typically used only for filler. Cover leaf needs to be large and pristine, not to mention thin and easy-burning—four things that medio tiempo normally is not. Yet, Nicaraguan grower and cigarmaker A.J. Fernandez claims that his Ramon Allones brand is covered in medio tiempo wrapper that he’s produced himself by way of a hybrid. If what he’s saying is true, Fernandez may have cracked a genetic code with a tobacco varietal that produces larger, smoother medio tiempo leaves suitable for wrapper. The dark cover leaf isn’t just found on his Ramon Allones brand, but also cloaks the H. Upmann 175th Anniversary Churchill he makes for Altadis U.S.A., which was named the No. 10 cigar of 2019. 

There are, of course, doubters. Skeptics who believe that the term is just marketing jargon and that medio tiempo is nothing more than glorified ligero. Prolific tobacco grower and cigarmaker Nestor Andrés Plasencia isn’t necessarily a skeptic, but you won’t find medio tiempo in his extensive inventories of leaf. It’s not that he doesn’t believe it exists. He just doesn’t find it necessary to cultivate.

“We don’t use medio tiempo but I don’t think it’s a myth,” he says. “What we do is separate the stronger and thicker leaves out of the plant that normally grow in the month where we have more sun light and days are longer like March, April and May. These leaves, in order to protect themselves from the sun’s rays, produce many oils that in our experience give incredible flavors and we use those leaves in our Plasencia brands.”

Why this strong, sun-grown leaf is called medio tiempo is a bit of a mystery. Translated to “mid term” in Spanish, it is not found in the middle of the plant, but rather the top. Nor is it harvested in the middle of the plant’s life, but at the end. It isn’t medium-bodied either, so the name ends up being as mysterious as the tobacco itself. Those who use it swear by it. Whether or not it’s worth the extra cost is a personal value call. If you find a cigar with this booster leaf, light it up and decide for yourself if medio tiempo makes for extra magic in the smoke.

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