Cigar Basics - Part 1: Seed to Factory

Hi! My name is Trevor.

As soon as I was given the opportunity to bring cigar content to Whiskey & Whitetails, I began making a list of ideas. Though there will be reviews, I want to bring more to the table. I want to provide a place for new smokers to learn and seasoned smokers to grow. A place for information, experiments, opportunities for involvement, and of course, opinions. The best place to begin with these ideas is with the basics. This article is going to introduce terms commonly used in the cigar world, as well as information you will certainly encounter in your journey through the world of cigars. This article, fittingly, is going to follow the lifecycle of the cigar: from seed to smoke.

The Stage: Seed to Factory

The Terms: Varietal, Growing Region, Sun Grown, Shade Grown, Primings, Volado, Seco, Ligero Blue Mold, Black Shank, Curing, Sorting, Grading

As with any crop, it starts with the seed. A term often used when talking tobacco is Varietal. This term refers to the seed variety. There are far too many seeds to list here, but some of the most common varietals include: Corojo, Corojo 99 Criollo, Criollo 98, Sumatra, Habano, Connecticut Shade, Broadleaf, San Andres, Olor, Piloto Cubano, and San Vicente. Each seed produces a unique plant with their own flavor characteristics and uses. Many varietals are hybridizations of other seeds. For example, Corojo was the dominant tobacco in Cuba for most of the 20th century, however it’s susceptibility to Blue Mold and Black Shank, two of the most commonly discussed diseases in tobacco with the ability to wipe out 100% of crop, led to the development of sturdier options like Corojo 99 and Criollo 98. 

As mentioned, each seed has their own flavor characteristics, however, the seed is not the only influence to the characteristics of tobacco. The Growing Region significantly impacts the plant, so much so that tobaccos of the same seed, from the same farm, but in different fields can have different flavor characteristics. Expand this to a different farm, different city, different countiry, or different continent and you can only imagine the variety of flavors that can exist from the same seed. Many things can be held responsible for the resulting flavor differences. Things like the soil content, water content, sun exposure, and overall climate have impacts on the resulting tobacco plant. A prime example is Connecticut Shade tobacco. While most tobaccos are Sun Grown, meaning they are grown without manmade protection from the sun, this Shade Grown tobacco was once exclusively grown in the Connecticut River Valley in the USA under cheese cloths to reduce the sun exposure. This created a thinner, silkier leaf than the thick, rough Connecticut Broadleaf tobacco grown in the sun beside these cheese cloth tents. This Connecticut Shade seed was taken to Ecuador, where natural cloud cover eliminates the need for cheese cloth shading. This move to Ecuador for Connecticut Shade tobacco made a significant impact in both cost and flavor of the leaf. I will touch on these flavor changes in a later article. 

As stated, there are several factors that contribute to the characteristics of tobacco, however, the intricacies do not stop at the type of seed and where that seed is sown. A tobacco plant is broken down into Primings. In essence, these are different sections of the plant, starting from the bottom to the top. In reality, there are many different primings, but most commonly the plant is broken into three sections: Volado, Seco, and Ligero. Each section can be further broken down into subsections. Volado is the section nearest the ground. It gets the least sun exposure and the leaves are thin, light, and easy to burn. However, they are very mild in flavor. Seco is the middle section. These leaves have a little more “life” to them than Volado. Ligero is the highest section of the plant. These leaves get the most sun exposure and are thicker, stronger, and fuller in flavor. The Cuban ideology was that Volado provided the burn, Seco provided aroma, and Ligero provided the flavor.   

Once the plant is harvested, the next step is Curing. This is necessary to dry out the leaves to prepare them for consumption. Again, the Curing  method and time will impact the characteristics of the final product. The most common method of Curing tobacco is Air Curing. A less common method is Fire Curing. Air Cured tobaccos are hung in a barn with good ventilation for a period of time. Fire Cured tobaccos are hung in a barn with a smoldering hardwood fire. Once the tobacco is cured, the leaves must be stripped from the stalk and the Grading and Sorting process begins. Each component of the cigar uses different grades of tobacco. Thes components will be discussed in the following section, but each component utilizes leaves of different sizes and conditions. So the Grading scale can be generalized as wrapper grade, binder grade, and filler grade, but not that there are levels to each grade as well. Once the Sorting process is complete, the tobacco is baled and moved to the purchaser’s factory. 

Feel free to reach out to me with questions, concerns, criticisms, or just to talk at @guitarsandcigarsfarm on Instagram, or through my site

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