Intro to Cigars: Growing and Picking
One of the most important things to realize about cigars is that they are an agricultural product, prone to the whimsies of the weather, the complexities of soil composition and the style of their cultivation. This is why no two cigars, even of the same brand, year and model can ever be the same or identical. Similar to the fruits and vegetables we eat, a cigar is a product of the earth and farming procedure.
As an agricultural product, the cigar is also, and therefore, a product of time. Often noted for their "aging" process, a cigar's birth actually begins much earlier than the curing, fermenting or drying periods. In fact, life begins in the plant seed and takes from one year to several years to become a cigar as we know it.
The Filler, Binder and Wrapper
To be accurate, there are usually three general types of seeds harvested for three different reasons: the filler, the binder and the wrapper leaf.
- The filler leaf provides the bulk of the cigar and is often a blend of multiple tobaccos, especially in higher-end cigars. This leaf is a major determinate in a cigar's composition, strength and flavor profile.
- The binder leaf is somewhat optional and, as its name implies, it does the basic casing or rough "binding" of the cigar. It can add some flavor.
- The wrapper leaf encloses the entire cigar and functions as an alluringly shiny cover. However, it adds little substance and flavor. On the other hand, it often symbolizes the type of cigar and quality of its contents.
The Perfect Growing Environment
Tobacco plants and their leaves have varying responses to different temperate zones, under different moisture, soil and heat conditions. Yet as a general guide, Cuba has famously cultivated the finest tobacco because its weather is hot and wet and its soil, though sandy, is rich with minerals.
Tobacco grows in Cuba during its four-month dry season, which averages just 2" of rain per month. Cuba's weather system functions as a model for growing all cigar tobacco leaf around the world, but the process is anything but simple.
Cultivating Tobacco Seeds
Cigar tobacco seeds are especially tiny, comparable to those of dried poppy. This makes them especially weak and fragile, even though they grow a mighty product. Therefore, this delicate beginning must be carefully cultivated.
First, in the early stages seeds must be planted inside, protected from the weather. Here the seed is not actually planted under soil; instead, it is dropped on the top of a tray of dirt where it can sprout and take root without having to push up and out from underneath heavy earth.
After it grows indoors for about two months, the seedling is moved to the field. This can be a harrowing time for the tiny plant, and some may not survive. Out in the field the sprout grows vigorously, and mature in about two months. Growth time depends on the specific plant, weather conditions and the harvester's philosophy (and perhaps superstition).
A tobacco plant must be meticulously cared for as it grows. It requires consistent clipping of tarnished, smaller or unwanted leaves. For instance, in the early stages, lower hanging leaves are pruned, become nodes that grow out, take root and help stabilize the entire plant. Flowers must also be plucked. Also, fertilizer, sometimes applied by hand (measured in fistfuls), is supplied liberally. The plant also often requires some physical support from wood or wire to grow vertically and avoid drooping. Plants grow anywhere from 3 to 10 feet.
Picking and Drying the Tobacco
Most premium cigar tobacco leaf is picked by hand. A standard, and rather story-like, technique is called priming. In this method, leaves are picked three at a time from the bottom up, as the lower leaves mature first. In this way, over several days, the tobacco plant's body slowly disappears, gradually exposing the stalk. Pulled leaves are then put onto lathes. In much of the world, the leaves are sewn together by hand and prepared to hang in an indoor space for drying.
Another method of harvest involves hacking off all the leaves at the same time with an axe or machete. The leaves are then left on the ground, allowed to wilt in the sun, and then speared on a lathe. Whether it's primed or cut, the tobacco next goes to the same place: a curing barn. In the barn the leaves will spend upwards of a month drying and turning from a lush, grassy green into a rich brown.
The cigar is unique and represents a strange dichotomy. At once, it is a product of agricultural variability, while it must also placate the demands of the modern world's insistence on consistency, uniformity and an attractive package. And although the manufacturing process sometimes reigns supreme, it does not erase all elements and qualities of the raw plant. Whether grown in the wet heat of the Caribbean, Philippines, South America or Africa, the industry continues to produce high-quality cigars that quench the cravings and appease the many palettes of smokers around the globe.