Friday, March 24, 2006

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Curing Tobacco

Curing Tobacco: a Necessity
Like many plants, green tobacco is 90 percent water. After being harvested, and before going to the barn, the tobacco has faded a little and the water content is about 80%. It is still too much water for fermentation and the curing is necessary to lower this rate to about 25%. To get 100 lb. of "dry" tobacco, the curing has to eliminate about 40 gallons of water. A full barn of tobacco will need millions of cu. ft. of air to drain off this water! Whatever the curing process is, the barn has to be ventilated!

Change the Nature
If you let green tobacco dry naturally, the color will turn yellow first, then brown. To modify this natural transformation, and to get a different result, a special process has to be applied.

Curing Process
Once harvested, the tobacco must be cured without delay in order to start the stabilization of the material. Without curing, the tobacco would dry and turn to dust as any vegetable. There are four main processes : Flue Curing, Fire Curing, Air Curing and Sun Curing. The last one does not need a curing barn. Cigar tobaccos are generally air-cured, but some light wrappers are flue-cured.

Air Curing
Cigar tobaccos are mainly air-cured (or dark air-cured). They dry in a closed barn with a natural circulation of air. This process is longer than any other but it is the most natural. However, if the air is very humid (in some countries, or during the night), the barn is heated with smokeless fires (made with gas or coal) in order to avoid rotting and to accelerate the process a bit.

Fire Curing
During fire-curing, the barn is really a smokehouse! Wood fires are kept burning in the barn. Smoke is everywhere. The tobacco turns black and shiny. It is impregnated with a nice smoke smell. This process is used in Kentucky and others places that try to match the product (Malawi, Italy). Fire-cured tobaccos are mainly used in roll-your-own , pipe tobacco and dark cigarettes.

Flue Curing
The flue-curing consists of heating the air in a very well closed barn. An outside fire blows hot air (very hot!) into metal pipes running into the barn. There is no direct contact between the fire and the tobacco, the hot pipes just heat the inside air. This process is used for curing Virginia tobacco for cigarettes and Connecticut type wrappers. The goal is to fix the color on yellow to get bright tobaccos.

Air or Fire Curing?
Indonesian tobaccos are often classified as fire-cured, even if they are air-cured. As the growers have to help the curing with fire, the tobaccos are so classified for customs purpose, having the advantage of a preferred duty tariff. It is a way to help the exports of developing countries.

Sun Curing
Oriental tobaccos are sun-cured. No barn, nothing but the sun! The tobacco goes out very yellow and keeps all its sugar content. It is generally a very short tobacco. Leaves are 2 or 3 inches large. The taste is sweet. This tobacco is used for blond cigarette, pipe and short filler cigars. The main producers are Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria. All the countries around these three are also growing oriental tobacco.

Hanging tobacco leaves
For curing, tobacco leaves have to be hung in the barn. The old manner was to thread leaves with a needle on a thin string, one by one. Now there are sewing machines. Leaves are put two by two in a rail and are sewn automatically when pressing the petiole against the rail. The string is attached to a slat that is put on supports in the barn. The barn is filled up from top to bottom, section by section.

- Big Mike

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Big Mike

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The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is the world's largest handmade cigar manufacturer. Although its cigar making tradition is very old, production was boosted in the 1960's with the Cuban embargo. American cigar companies and exiled Cubans, aided by the recent opening of free zones, set up their factories in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros. Later, some European companies came as well. During the 1990's cigar boom, factories grew like mushrooms, both in size and in number. The situation is now back to normal. Dominican cigar rollers and bunchers are very skillful, making well-constructed cigars of all shapes. Dominican cigars, made with a mix of domestic and imported tobaccos, offer the full range of strengths. They are exported all around the world, mainly to the USA and Western Europe.

The cigar industry in Honduras started with tobacco growing and was developed by Cubans and American companies. Factories are located in Danli and San Pedro Sula. Honduran cigars are well made and are exported mainly to the USA. They are becoming very popular in Europe. Honduran cigars, made with domestic and imported tobaccos, offer the full range of strengths.

As with many Latin American countries, Mexico has a strong tobacco and cigar industry that has diversified its production by introducing the growth of light wrapper tobacco seed. Mexican cigars are mainly sold on the domestic market and exported to the USA.

The Philippines
The Philippines has a very long tradition in cigar manufacturing, set by the Spanish before 1900. Made with locally grown tobacco, the cigars are very mild, which is probably the reason why they lose their popularity. Many prefer them because they are an easy smoke.

- Big Mike

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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The Cigar Wrapper

Does A Dark Wrapper Mean A Strong Cigar?
Maybe you have heard that the darker the wrapper, the stronger the cigar. This is both true and not true. Let me explain! It is true if the two cigars you compare are made from the same blend, have the same binder, and their wrapper has the same origin.
You may know that going from the bottom to the top of a tobacco plant, leaves become darker in color and stronger in taste. But things are not just that simple, and this is another example. If you compare a slim panatela and a Churchill, both with the same components and exactly the same wrapper, I bet you will find the slim panatela stronger than the Churchill. It is not true when the two cigars have different blends and binders, or the two wrappers are not of the same origin. For example, rolled on the same bunch, a light brown, Cuban seed wrapper will be stronger than an oily, dark brown, Cameroon wrapper. If you like mild or medium cigars don't be afraid of Maduros: these black wrappers are generally mild and sometimes sweet, compared with some brown ones.

Growing Wrapper Leaf.
A wrapper grower has a dream : to get perfect leaves to produce a Premium Wrapper. As soon as he starts the operation, the dream becomes a nightmare: weather conditions, insects, fungus, viruses, and all kinds of parasites are here, ready to destroy his hopes. From the time he starts setting the seed beds until the moment he picks the last leaf, it is a permanent struggle.

Curing Wrappers
Once properly picked, wrapper leaves are hung up the same day in a curing barn for drying. Draining out the huge quantity of water contained in the green material can be complicated. The process has to be neither too slow, nor too fast. The barn is checked several times every day and ventilation is adjusted according to the humidity inside the barn and the outside weather conditions. If necessary, heaters are used to help the drainage.

Cigar Wrapper Characteristics
To be acceptable as wrapper, tobacco leaves must be clean, evenly colored, shiny, elastic, solid but thin, with veins drowned into the parenchyma, large and without holes. And last but not least, they must burn properly, giving ashes as white as possible. Easy, you think? No, it's a headache to grow and process wrapper leaves! It's difficult to imagine how many people have sweated before you finally smoke your premium cigar.

Is An Open Air Or Shade Grown Wrapper Better?
Traditionally, tobacco grows in open air fields. Wrapper tobacco is a fragile material. At the end, it has to be perfect. Strong direct sun radiation can deteriorate the result. To avoid the risk, fields can be covered with cloths fixed on poles, providing an artificial shade. This process, together with irrigation, allows to grower to keep the growing conditions under control. In some equatorial countries, thanks to a naturally cloudy sky, this expensive equipment is not necessary.

- Big Mike

Monday, March 20, 2006

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The Binder and The Filler

Why Use a Binder?
The first function of the binder is to hold fillers while the bunch dries in the mold and until the wrapper is rolled onto the cigar. It can have just this purpose. But binder can be chosen for it's aromatic qualities, so it will be a part of the blend.

Binder Characteristics
Binders for hand made cigars must be large, solid, elastic leaves. They do not have to be beautiful because the wrapper is going to hide it. But they do have to burn well and have a neutral or good taste! To satisfy these conditions, binders are selected among middle or top leaves. Bottom leaves are too thin, a bit fragile, and often have a sharp taste.

Producing The Binder
Tobacco is not grown specifically for binders, which are a by-product of wrappers or an upgrading of fillers.

Binder Position
Because binder, like wrapper, has a privileged position in the cigar, its influence on the taste is probably proportionally greater than that of a filler leaf. There is no way to measure that, it is just a presumption and manufacturers are as careful when choosing the binders, as they are for wrappers and fillers.

Filler Vineyard
Tobacco is like wine. The characteristics are connected to the country, the province, the village, the variety, the vineyard. And more, as weather conditions are not steady, the year of a crop is important information, at least for the manufacturer.

Aging Fillers
Even if well processed, fillers have to be aged. The more bodied the tobacco, the longer the aging, improving the taste. Tobacco fillers can be stored for years. Once they have reached the optimum, they keep steady. But very light and thin tobaccos can deteriorate if stored too long.

Blend Components
Blend components are bought separately. The tobacco buyer has to taste all of them, which is sometimes tough. He has to know the required characteristics and find out the proper grade for the blend. Fortunately, dealing regularly with reliable and steady tobacco suppliers makes the task easier.

- Big Mike