To understand the whats, hows and whys of tobacco curing, you kind of have to dig into cigar history. Some say history is boring. Well, they clearly never studied the history of tobacco curing ‘cause it’s chock-full of innovations that push the boundaries of tobacco all in the name of a beautiful smoking experience.
First off, for a refresher let's dig into what tobacco curing really is.
For whatever reason Mother Nature intended, you can’t just go straight from harvesting tobacco primings (aka the parts of the plant) in the fields to rolling it and smoking it.
In its raw, green state the tobacco leaf will be too wet to light or be smoked.
Enter, curing tobacco. A series of carefully controlled processes that all play a very major role in defining the final quality and character of the tobacco leaf. This procedure is normally accomplished by hanging tobacco leaves in a barn with temperatures ranging from 70°F to 78°F in order for oxidation to occur.
This oxidation allows the carotenoids in the tobacco to produce chemicals that help define the aroma and flavor aspects of the cigar, the color of the leaf, and the smoothness of the tobacco.
Tobacco curing entails four essential steps:
This entire curing or aging process continues for a period of months. After the tobacco is cured, it’ll be moved from the curing barn into a storage area for processing.
When talking about tobacco curing, it’s all about the primings.
Aka, the rows of leaves on a tobacco plant, normally there’s around six or so.
The first priming would be the leaves that are closest to the ground, the sixth would be the ones nearest the top. When harvesting, cigar brands typically give a few days between picking each priming, so the higher the priming, the stronger the tobacco ‘cause it’s had more time to turn those sugars into nicotine.
Now that we’ve refreshed what tobacco curing is and what primings are, lets cover the popular curing methods that developed over time.
The three most common methods of curing are:
- Air cured tobacco
- Fire cured tobacco
- Flue cured tobacco
A fourth method, sun curing, is also leveraged with aromatic tobacco.
Air cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry over a period of four to eight weeks. It’s low in sugar, giving the tobacco a light, sweet flavor, and a high nicotine content.
Fire cured tobacco is hung in large barns where wood-fires are kept on a continuous or an intermittent low smoulder. This gives way to a tobacco low in sugar and high in nicotine, and normally takes around three days to ten weeks.
Flue cured tobacco is hung from tier-poles in curing barns. These flues heat-cure the tobacco without exposing it to smoke, slowly raising the temperature over the course of the curing. Because of that, the tobacco is high in sugar and has medium to high levels of nicotine.
Sun cured tobacco dries uncovered in the sun, typically it’s high in sugar and low in nicotine.
Laaast, but not least, after that tobaccy gets cured, there’s one more step.
After going through the curing process, cigar tobacco is usually fermented, sometimes twice and, hell, sometimes even three times.
This is a sort of final stage, or stages, of curing that sweats out the last bits of impurities, especially ammonia. Tar and nicotine are also released during fermentation, along with other chemicals, all adding to the flavor of a fuller tobacco.
And that's the whats, hows and whys of tobacco curing
Keep in mind, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to tobacco curing, each cigar company has their own secret or patented method of curing, so they can leave their own creative stamp on the tobacco.
Hope you enjoyed this piece on tobacco curing. If you have any other interesting aspects you’ve discovered around how, what, or why tobacco is cured, let us know in the comments below!