For thousands of years, people were using tobacco and it may seem as if everything about it should be well known by now. But even today new types of natural tobacco appear and it rarely leaves faithful admirers indifferent. It’s unfortunate though that the “Black mark” fell on us in this age — each day it’s getting more difficult to smoke, prices are rising on tobacco products, government is getting strict with bans on smoking in all kind of places and overall oppressing us in our rights… But tobacco industry doesn’t stand still, it keeps on making new products and resurrecting good old stuff.
What do we actually know about this magical plant? “Magical?” you might ask? Well, just see for yourself: since it’s appearance in history (6000 years B.C.) it’s been accompanied with magic rituals. Ancient man believed that spirits live in tobacco smoke and to ask for their help one must smoke tobacco leaves. Famous Native-American “ceremonial pipe”, which ended wars by smoking tobacco. Think of tobacco smoke which was used to cover arable land so that there is a rich harvest. Or even a small line of smoke from a tobacco bundle held by a shaman, which opened ways to other worlds and drew shadow images of past, present and future. And do you recall a famous cigar in the hand of a voodoo priest? After all, smoke from a cigar starts the main ritual of worshiping the high voodoo priest Baron Samedi!
If we’ll throw aside all these magical practices, then in the end we have a plant which is very demanding, capricious and which, without human help, could never become what it is today - a thick and fragrant puff of smoke. Yes, without human help, wild tobacco could not even grow - it is too gentle and requires constant care...
But how do you get raw tobacco materials suitable for further use? Tobacco doesn’t grow everywhere. It requires very warm weather, specific moisture level, plenty of sun, fertile soil and thousands of working hands that will take care of it. Such conditions can be found in tropical latitudes, in savannas of the Wild West and in the plains between the jungles in Africa and Asia. But the place where tobacco feels the best is on the islands of the Caribbean Sea.
Tobacco is an annual plant. It means that it is planted every year and every year it’s harvested. Tobacco grows from the seed. Tobacco seeds are extremely small and somewhat similar to poppy seeds. From such a grain in just 3-4 months a huge "Christmas tree" with a height of up to 2 meters grows up. At each stage of growth, a farmer approaches each tobacco bush at least 150 times.
Saplings grow in special nurseries for about 45 days. Before planting, the soil is carefully treated and tilted, following certain standards. Animals are still being used to tilt the soil to avoid its compaction.
Tobacco grows under open sky which creates a rich bouquet of aromas in the plant. As each plant reaches the desired size, the upper bud is plucked out to concentrate the development on larger leaves.
After about 40 days the time for harvest comes. This is hard work, as each leaf must be plucked off by hand. Only one or two leaves can be removed at a time. Thus, harvesting takes place in several stages at certain intervals. To collect all the leaves from one plant, it takes about 30 days. The leaves from plantation are then moved to barns for drying process
The first stage to which freshly picked leaves are subjected is a slow and time-consuming drying process in the air, during which excess moisture is released and color gradually changes from light green to golden brown. The leaves are dried in a traditional way in sheds and barns. The leaves are stitched in pairs and threaded one after another on poles which are reinforced on high racks. As the leaves dry the pole is raised higher and higher. It is necessary to constantly adjust the ventilation and lighting to create natural fluctuation of temperature and humidity. The process takes about 50 days
The first fermentation undergoes in the shed of the tobacco grower. After drying, the leaves are bound into bundles, stacked and covered with fabric. The natural moisture which remains in tobacco after drying causes the first fermentation. Combination of humidity and density of large mass of leaves creates heat. The process is controlled to make sure that humidity and temperature doesn’t go over certain stats. Fermentation is mainly determined by the leaf: it removes excess amounts of sugars and ammonia, lowers acidity and diminishes the amounts of tar and nicotine content. The first fermentation takes about 30 days.
First of all, the leaves are moistened and ventilated – it makes it easier to handle them and lowers the risk of damage. Then they are classified. They are sorted and grouped depending on their taste and flavor. There are three categories: Ligero, Seco and Volado. Volado leaves are gathered from the bottom of the plant and have the smallest strength. Seco leaves are taken from the middle part of the plant, they are the most fragrant. Ligero leaves are collected from the top of the plant, they have the highest saturation of flavor and strength.
After selection and classification on categories by the degree of strength or flavor saturation, which will be important for the design of blends, the leaves continue to be ennobled. Next step is the second fermentation. Tobacco is stacked, which are covered with a cloth. During fermentation, you should carefully monitor the temperature. If the temperature rises too high the stack is dissembled and when cooled down – stacked again but in reverse order (leaves from the top go to the bottom and vice versa). It can happen a few times during the time of fermentation.
Afterwards the leaves are moistened for the subsequent procedure — stripping. During the process main vein is removed. After that, the leaves are smoothed out, stacked and pressed. The third fermentation takes place in barrels.
After the final fermentation leaves are ventilated on platforms for a few days. Then they are packed and transported to the warehouse to go through the careful process of aging. Aging takes place in special conditions (16-18 C ° temperature and 65-72% humidity) and lasts for a few years. Leaves with the greatest strength are kept the longest — for about 3-12 years. Just like wine — tobacco leaf gets better with age.
And only after aging the leaf falls into the hands of a blending master - a man which will create a blend of leaves from different crops, age, countries and continents so that the consumer gets to let out pleasant clouds of smoke, enjoying each and every puff ...
First mention of tobacco took place 500 years ago by Spanish sailors from the crew of Santa Maria on an expedition headed by Christopher Columbus. They saw that during rituals, Indians from the Tainoc tribe (Tainos) twisted mysterious leaves and set them on fire. These same people turned out to be the indigenous inhabitants of Cuba. 1492 became the starting point for further distribution and cultivation of tobacco throughout the planet.
Black Cuban Tobacco (Tabaco Negro Cubano) was recognized as the best in the world due to the unique conditions it is grown in such as the Cuban climate, soil with its special properties, and the skill of tobacco growers with knowledge and culture on tobacco accumulated in Cuba for centuries. This is an exceptional work of its own, which tobacco growers place in their crops.
Tobacco in Cuba is considered to be the property of the republic. Cuban raw tobacco has never been sold to anyone. Habanos is the only company that has the legal right to sell the best Cuban cigars around the world.
In 1907, Cuban botanists brought out a new variety of black Cuban tobacco (Tabaco Negro Cubano), which replaced the Habanensis variety that existed until then. It was the same as its predecessor, but was more resistant to diseases.
Around 1940 a new hybrid variety such as Criollo, which was used for filling and Corojo variety, used as cover leaf, were introduced. In 1992, a new variety of Habana 2000 was successfully tested. In 1998 Criollo 98 was introduced.
In 2006, a hybrid of Habano 2006 (from Habana 2000 & Criollo 1998) was introduced, which proved to be even more resistant to diseases and other unfavorable factors. Most of the 2006/07 harvest was made from tobacco of this variety. A feature of this sortotype is the presence of large leaves and the absence of flowers.
Best regions of Cuba — Vuelta Abajo, province Pinar del Rio
From 2006, Habanos sets minimal age for different leaves for their cigars:
Filling..........Ligero - 3 years
Filling..........Seco - 2 years
Filling..........Volado - 1 years
Bounding leaf........ - 1 years
Cover.....minimal of - 1 year
Cover.....Limited Editions (together with filling and bound leaf) – 2 years
Cover.....Cohiba Maduro - 5 years
Blending is done according to specific standards set by Tabacuba (special subdivision of Habanos S.A. which specializes in growing tobacco, production and aging, as well as bounding and storing). Standards are set for each brand and each vitola. Details on that process are known only to Tabacuba specialists.
Overall the principal of assembling a filling by a master-ligador (master-blender) looks like this:
Volado needs to be very light in flavor but staying aromatic at the time. Seco needs to be medium in both flavor and aroma. Ligero needs to be very strong and potent.
In 1960s USA proclaimed an embargo against The Isle of Freedom, thus leaving itself without Cuban cigars. And Cubans, which left the isle after the revolution, brought over with them the technology, seeds, mastery and faith to resurrect their plantation in a new place.
Nicaragua became a successful tobacco grower just recently in the beginning of 1960s. Tobaconists which left Cuba and settled in Nicaragua started doing what they knew best – growing tobacco and making cigars. But in 1970s a revolution started in Nicaragua and tobacco production had been set to a halt. In the beginning of the 90s another revolution happened and tobacco growing started again. By that time a cigar boom struck USA, the time when sales of cigars multiplied and the arrival of Nicaraguan tobacco was just in time. In just a few years Nicaragua became the second country in the region after Cuba which produced puros (cigars made from tobacco from a single country). If prior to 1978 Nicaragua produced only 30 million cigars each year, now it’s over a hundred million. Growing tobacco and cigar manufacturing is almost entirely a Cuban people effort. Almost all technologists in here are from Cuba. A lot of cigar company owners are also from Cuba: Padron, Oliva, Martin, Perdomo, Torano, Plasencia.
Most common tobacco varieties in Nicaragua are Cuban in origin: Criollo 98, Corojo 99, Havana 92, Havana 2000. But specialists got much further with growing of Havana 2000 in Nicaragua than they got on Cuba. That particular variety isn’t very popular on Cuba. Two main regions where it is grown in Nicaragua are Jalapa and Esteli valleys. Used as filling, bonding and cover leaves. Tobacco from Jalapa reminds tobacco from Remedios on Cuba but differs with a much richer taste, aroma and it’s used as a cover leaf. Tobacco from Esteli can be compared to Cuban region of Vuelta Abajo. Nicaraguan tobacco is different from Cuban. The main difference of Nicaraguan tobacco over Cuban is that while having a typical lively tone it is more soft.
There are two harvests per year in Nicaragua. First harvest takes place in December-January and the second one is in February-March, sometimes it even lasts till April. It’s important to make it before May when drought begins.
Cuban and Nicaraguan leaves are different in their structure. Cuban leaf is porous thus fermentation goes fairly quickly – in just 45 days. Nicaraguan leaf on the other hand is more solid and dense. Fermentation can take up to a year. The soil in Nicaragua is volcanic in nature, unlike on Cuba. Elevation is also different. Esteli is over 600 meters above sea level, Jalapa is over a thousand while on Cuba it’s almost 0. Thus the difference in leaf structure takes place.
Formerly from Cuba, professionals in their craft with numerous years of experience in cigar business. After Fidel Castro took rule of Cuba, Silvio Perdomo for his political views and activities was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His family managed to escape to Florida with the help of Catholic Church.
After Silvio Perdomo was released and returned back to his family, he and his son Nick traveled to Nicaragua, where they purchased best plantations for tobacco in Esteli. Today Perdomo is one of the biggest tobacco and cigar manufacturers. Tobacco leaf from Perdomo family plantation – is an example of best Nicaraguan tobacco.
Prior to 1960s nobody knew that cigar tobacco could be from any other country other than Cuba. But after Cuban revolution a lot of tobacconists left to search for their new homes. And they picked a few nearby places, hoping that Castro regime will be taken down and they would safely return home. Some of them settled on a nearby island of Dominicana. Certain worldwide famous tobacconists fled here: Mendez, Sifuentes, Quesada. They started tobacco production from scratch in the 1960s. And as of today Dominican Republic is one of the biggest tobacco and cigar manufacturers in the world. Main plantations are located in the northern part of the isle in Cibao valley. Also some tobacco is grown close to western isle border around Santiago de los Caballeros and in the south in San Cristobal. Climate of Dominican Republic is different from Cuban. It’s less hot. Due to soil consistency it’s impossible to get cover leaf so they need to import it.
Main varieties of tobacco are Olor Domincano with light aroma and sweet flavor; Pilot Cubano – hybrid variety mixed of Cuban seeds, which differs with high potency and aroma. To supplement all the customers and to mitigate downsides of Dominican tobacco, they started blending it with Brazilian, Columbian, Mexican, Peru and other tobaccos. Dominican cigars are considered to be the lightest in the world, but sometimes there are exceptions.
Starting from 1793 a Santa Rosa de Copana manufactury was working in Honduras. But famous tobacconist Zino Davidoff opened this country to the world. He made his famous cigar Zino in Honduras. Today Honduras is the third most country in the world for tobacco production.
Main regions are – El-Paraiso valley in the southern part of the country. Main manufactories are located in a small town in Danli. In north-western there is a high mountain region with a valley of Kopan. Northern part is Sula valley. Dark and clay soil adds rich aroma and flavor.
Ecuador lies in between Columbia and Peru. Mostly cover leaf for cigars is grown here from Connecticut and Sumatra seeds. Most Honduran and Nicaraguan cigars are “dressed” in Ecuador cover leaf. Sky is mostly covered in clouds in Ecuador and tobacco grows under such a “tent” without sunburn. Thus leaves grow to be thin and have an amazing brown color.
Worldwide famous tobacco regions are located in Brazilian state of Bahia: Mata-Fina, Mata-Norte and Mata-Sul. Addition of Brazilian leaf to tobacco blends makes the flavor more fragrant, deep and cover leaf adds strength. In the middle of the country in the state of Alagoas dark leafs named Maduro grow, which is used as a cover leaf.
This country provides one of the darkest and beautiful cover leaves in the world. Famous Cameroon leaf from Sumatra seeds. They started growing tobacco it in 1950s under clear sky, it lets more magnesium intake into tobacco which ads a nice sweet taste.
Overall around 15 countries worldwide grow high quality tobacco. The ones that I didn’t mention here are: Mexico, Indonesia, Philippines, USA, Costa-Rica, Spain, France, Italy. In certain places where tobacco grows just for cigars, in some places just for cigarettes and ROY mixes and in some for waterpipe tobacco.
There’s also one more type of tobacco I should mention – dark fired tobacco. The overall amount of this tobacco produced is less than 1% of all worldwide tobacco. Mainly it’s used to add fragrance for snuff, snus and pipe tobacco mixes. Bound bundles of tobacco leaves are hanged in a barn and for several days, tobacco leaf dries until it gets a yellow tint. After leaves begin to turn yellow a smoking process begins. Big logs of wood are placed underneath the bundles and then covered with sawdust which is then set on fire. Tobacco is kept above fire for several days. During that process humidity is almost 100% and the temperature inside the barn is held at up to 70 degrees Celsius. Leaves start to change their color and they become dark brown. After that, the leaves are left to ventilate for some time. That’s done by opening all of the ventilation holes of the barn. In the end the finishing smoking process undergoes, but without open fire and at much lower temperatures.
Type of wood plays a very important role. Each type of wood ads its own special note to tobacco. Different countries use different wood for smoking: maple, oak, hickory nut, fruit tree wood is also sometimes used. In the end we receive long dark leaves with specific aroma of smoke and spices. World biggest manufacturers are companies in USA, Poland, Italy and Tanzania. USA mostly produces in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The “smokiest” and most fragrant leaf is considered to be from Tanzania and Malavi.
Let’s be honest – the better the ingredients are, the older the tobacco is (the longest it’s been aged) – the better the product is. Better in its aroma and flavor. You don’t need to add artificial aromas or additives. It’s already perfect, fragrant and savory. Natural vintage tobacco is gentle, has a pleasant aroma and your head doesn’t hurt from it. A good heatproof tobacco is like a spice – it can add that special unique note to a mix. And of course – good tobacco isn’t cheap. But people know the reason for the price.
With Respect, Dmitri Drutsa!