Master blender Hendrik Kelner of Davidoff's Tabadom factory in the Dominican Republic examines tobacco curing in a barn.

Smoke Primer:
No Cigar Before Its Time

Rolling a cigar takes mere minutes; the vast majority of time invested in producing cigars, which can span numerous years, is in preparing the leaf - an incredibly complex, multi-step process full of nuance, mystery, and artistry.

By Doug Fiore

We all enjoy cigars, and we all appreciate the flavors and aromas of our favorite sticks. But, do all cigar enthusiasts truly appreciate the time that goes into the creation of the cigars we cherish? While focusing on the actual labor required to create a cigar is essential, I'm referring here to the time it takes for the tobacco itself to achieve the flavor and aroma profiles that we appreciate so much. If you've ever smelled or tasted tobacco still growing in a field, you will agree that it barely resembles the tobacco we smoke and from which we gain that unmistakable sense of relaxation that only comes from cigar smoking. Not only is the crafting of a cigar a labor intensive endeavor, but the time and commitment that goes into preparing and nurturing the tobacco before it gets rolled into recognizable form is mind boggling. From tobacco plants in the field to stogies in the humidor, tobacco truly is transformed.

In this issue, I focus on tobacco aging with the hope that it will help all smokers appreciate and understand the science behind their enjoyment of cigars. I am not talking about the aging that occurs when cigars are kept in a humidor, but instead we'll focus on the aging that occurs in the period between which tobacco is harvested and the point when it is blended into a tasty cigar. This period of aging transforms the tobacco dramatically, and the many artisans who blend cigars for our enjoyment today know exactly how long and under precisely which conditions their tobacco must be aged to create the specific blends that we love so much.

Hendrik Kelner with tobacco in early stages of curing.

Tobacco is aged for several reasons. First and foremost, aging the tobacco leaf allows the flavors to develop, especially as it continues expelling impurities that would adversely affect the flavor. Second, aging the tobacco further decreases its moisture content which, in turn, contributes to a more even burn rate. If the tobacco were not aged and instead got rolled into a cigar soon after picking, it would be almost impossible to burn, and I'd hate even to consider what it might taste like!

When referring to the "aging" of tobacco, people typically don't realize that aging occurs in three distinct, if overlapping steps. The first of these steps is curing. While there are different methods used to cure tobacco, the method of "air curing" the tobacco, as described here, is the most commonly used.

In air curing, harvested tobacco leaves are tied in pairs and hung up high in curing/drying barns for approximately 50 days. Different types of leaf require different amounts of drying time. The barns used for curing the tobacco typically have doors on all sides that are opened or closed as necessary to help keep the air temperature and humidity constant. After their time in the curing barn, the hanging tobacco leaves will have expelled most of their chlorophyll, which will cause them to turn brown. The leaves will also be drier, both in appearance and touch, because a great deal of their moisture content will have dissipated. It's important to note that at this stage the tobacco is still raw tobacco: it is still filled with ammonia and impurities that must be "worked out" through the processes of fermentation. Curing has merely prepared the leaf for the next step.

A worker pulls a bundle from tobaccos fermenting in pilones at a Nestor Plasencia's Segovia Cigars factory in Estelí, Nicaragua.

The next critical step in the aging process is fermenting. Fermenting is necessary because the cured tobacco leaves from the barn are still nowhere near ready to smoke; in fact, their impurities would adversely affect the flavor and burning qualities of the leaves. Thus fermentation - the natural process that accounts for most of the change and variance in a tobacco's final flavor - plays an essential role. During fermentation, the cured leaves are laid in piles that are two-to-three feet high called pilones. The weight and pressure of these piles creates a lot of heat. This heat is the catalyst for the changes that occur during fermentation. If the temperature of the piled tobacco exceeds approximately 95°F, then the pilones are unraveled to prevent burning. New pilones are constructed, and the process is repeated. In total, fermentation lasts for roughly 30 days. Carefully controlling the temperature and humidity during fermentation allows the tobacco to naturally discharge the ammonia and impurities that remained in the leaves after the initial drying phase. Scrupulous monitoring of the piles of tobacco leaves ensures that fermentation occurs at the correct temperature.

The third important process, which is the most subjective because it has the most variance from manufacturer to manufacturer, is known by the Spanish word, anejamiento. Loosely translated, anejamiento basically means "aging." It refers to a process that never really ends. While the curing and fermenting of tobacco is done under specific, tightly controlled conditions, typically the anejamiento phase is more loosely monitored.

During anejamiento the tobacco leaves cure more slowly, while being stored in warehouses. Without significant moisture, heat, and pressure, the vigorous process of fermentation is halted and the more gentle aging begins. While in the warehouse, these bundles of aging tobacco leaf are labeled with certain key information, including leaf variety, farm where the plant was grown, year and month of harvest, and fermentation times and temperatures.

The specific anejamiento times vary according to leaf varieties, climate conditions, and even production quotas. As a general guide, volados (bottom leaves) cure in about one year; secos (middle leaves) cure in about two years; and ligeros (top leaves) cure in about three to four years

It is the anejamiento times which are referenced whenever cigar manufacturers refer to the minimum number of years that a cigar's tobacco has been aged. For example, the Padron 1926 Serie - a truly fantastic and highly touted premium cigar - is aged for a minimum of five years. This five-year aging refers to the period before the cigar is actually blended and rolled. As we all know, the aging time after a cigar is rolled can extend for quite a while. The distinct taste profile of a Padron 1926 Serie is rooted partially in this anejamiento period of five years.

Hopefully, the next time you light up a premium, hand-rolled cigar you will pause to consider the time and effort that has gone into the careful aging of the tobacco you are about to enjoy. Like fine wines and spirits, the curing, fermentation and aging period of the tobacco leaf is essential to the tastes, smells, and overall sensations we experience from a great cigar. Cherish it, appreciate it but, most importantly, enjoy it!

SMOKE 2012, Issue 2


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