Any cigar that you’ve smoked has been on quite the journey. From the initial planting to the final product, there’s so many steps taken to ensure that the cigar in your hand is the best that it can be.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through the main methods used for curing tobacco and what impact it can make on your Cuban cigars.
What is Tobacco Curing?
Obviously, you can’t smoke tobacco as soon as it’s been harvested. Like most plants, it’ll still be green and full of moisture and won’t ignite easily. That’s why before it can be smoked, the tobacco leaves undergo what’s known as the ‘curing’ process. This involves drawing out the excess moisture from the leaves so that the leaf can then go on to become a cigar, cigarette or even pipe tobacco.
The curing process follows four essential steps:
Each of these steps involves physical and chemical changes within the leaf that are regulated to produce the desired properties.
Air Cured Tobacco
Air curing is one of the very first methods used to cure tobacco. Early settlers have described how Native Americans would dry their tobacco leaves after a harvest either in the sun or in the shade of their huts.
The leaves were initially picked and piled up in heaps to dry until they realised that tobacco cured better when it was hung up.
How Do You Air Cure Tobacco?
Air cured tobacco is usually stalk-cut (the entire plant is cut down) before being hung up in well-ventilated barns.
The leaves are finished curing when the central rib is free of moisture, and the leaves are the desired colour. This process can take anywhere from three to twelve weeks, depending on conditions and the desired result.
The most critical aspect of air curing tobacco is to ensure that the humidity in the barn remains low. Any moisture can cause the leaf to mould or rot when not properly monitored.
What Does Air Cured Tobacco Taste Like?
When smoked, air-cured tobacco tends to have a mellow flavour due to the low sugar content in the leaves. They also tend to be higher in nicotine and produce a rich, mellow smoke.
Air Cured Tobacco Uses
Burley and cigar leaf are the most common types of air cured tobacco. Burley is much darker in colour and is primarily used in cigarette production.
Sun Cured Tobacco
There are some who consider sun curing tobacco to be the same as air curing, so for their benefit, we’ve lumped the two together. However, there is a vital difference.
Unlike with air cured tobacco, sun cured tobaccos are not hung up in a barn. Rather, they are spread out on racks and exposed to direct sunlight. This leads to a sweeter taste as the rapid drying locks in some of the natural sugars.
Sun curing is mostly used with tobaccos grown in Asian and Mediterranean countries where there’s plenty of sunlight and not much rain.
Sun-cured tobaccos can offer a herbal and spicy aroma which goes nicely with the added sweetness.
Fire Cured Tobacco
It was back in the American Colonies that people realised by using fire in their techniques for curing tobacco, they could not only protect the leaves from getting damp, but also preserve the tobacco. This made it much easier to ship the tobacco abroad.
How Do You Fire Cure Tobacco?
The process of fire curing tobacco is very similar to that or air curing in that the tobacco is hung up in a barn to dry. However, with fire curing, between the second and sixth day, open wood fires are kindled beneath the leaves.
When fire curing, the barn needs to be more tightly sealed in order to keep the smoke inside.
Firing the tobacco can be either a continuous or intermittent process depending on the farmer and the desired finish for the tobacco. The process can take anywhere between three and ten weeks.
What Does Fire Cured Tobacco Taste Like?
The introduction of wood smoke to the curing process imparts a woodsy and smoky flavour to the tobacco. As with air curing, the tobacco tends to be low in sugar, high in nicotine but with an added kick of spice to the flavour.
The kind of wood used in the fires can have quite an impact on the flavour. In Tennessee and Kentucky, for example, they tend to use oak and mesquite, both of which are hardwoods with very prominent flavours.
In order to achieve the desired flavour or colour, it’s not unknown for the farmers to mix the woods during the process.
Fire Cured Tobacco Uses
Due to its overpowering flavour, fire cured tobaccos tend to be used as condimental tobacco. These types of tobacco are used in small quantities to enhance a blend for pipe tobacco.
If you’re interested in the difference between pipe tobacco and cigar tobacco, check out our blog.
Flue Cured Tobacco
Flue curing tobacco was actually discovered by accident.
In 19th century North Carolina, a worker on a tobacco farm fell asleep while watching a barn of what should have been fire cured tobacco. The fires had begun to die and in an attempt to revive them, the worker took charred logs for the blacksmith ship and placed them on the dying fires.
This sudden application of dry heat drove the moisture from the tobacco and resulted in bright yellow leaves.
How Do You Flue Cure Tobacco?
The main difference between flue curing and the other methods is the barn that’s used. In flue curing, the tobacco leaves need to be exposed to heat – but not fire. This is done by moving hot air, smoke or steam through a pipe or flue. The radiating heat in the enclosed space rapidly dries the tobacco to give it that yellow colour.
In today’s modern age, propane is used as the heat source which gives the farmer even more control over the outcome.
What Does Flue Cured Tobacco Taste like?
The most common tobacco used for flue curing is Virginia tobaccos.
Flue cured tobaccos often have a higher sugar content than those produced by other methods, giving them a mild but sweet aroma. They also have lower levels of nicotine.
Flue Cured Tobacco Uses
Much like air cured tobacco, flue cured is predominantly used for cigarette production. In fact, 90% of the tobacco produced in the United States each year is flue cured.
Curing is one of the most vital processes that tobacco goes through before it’s ready to smoke, but there’s still more to come.
After it’s been cured, tobacco still needs to be fermented and rolled before it’s even considered for sale.
If you have any questions on how cigars are made, why not check out our blog where we answer anything you could need to know.