Our final full day in Estelí had us taking a visit to the beginning of the cigar process. As with wine, a great cigar’s journey must begin in the field. One can only make a quality cigar by harvesting exceptional tobacco leaves. Though you can make bad cigars with great tobacco, it is impossible to produce a great cigar with poor quality tobacco.
The journey for the tobacco plant begins when the seeds are placed in small planter trays. Three microscopic seeds are placed in each pod and after they begin growing, the two weaker plants are discarded. Only the strongest survives for the journey to the field. Once placed in the field, the plants are closely monitored for proper water and nutrients.
There are two basic methods for growing tobacco: sun grown and shade. Shade tobacco is grown under a canopy of cheesecloth or some other similar material. This covering limits the amount of sun exposure which produces a silkier, thinner leaf more suited for wrapper production. Since Estelí is know for it’s strong filler, most of the tobacco planted in this region is in the open sunlight.
We were able to walk in a field of some of this famous tobacco and much of it had already been primed. The lower leaves (secco) and middle leaves (viso) had already been hung in the curing barn, so what was left was the prized Estelí ligero. When someone wants to add power to a cigar just a leaf or two of this, depending on the size of cigar, will pack enough nicotine and black pepper in a cigar to make even the most seasoned smoker take notice. This tobacco is some of the best grown anywhere, including that little island south of Miami.
After touring the field we visited one of the curing barns in which all of the tobacco is cured. This is the first step of processing of the tobacco. The leaves hang in the barn until they have released their chlorophyll and moisture. It is called air curing because nothing else is added to this process. Though different farms do this a little differently, all will use a neutral heat source to heat up the barn and draw the moisture out of the cigar. Just think about what happens to you when you sit in a sauna. No oak or other hardwoods are used as this would add a smoky flavor to the leaf. Some plantations even use propane heaters to ensure this doesn’t happen. Others will use small charcoal fires as their heat source.
Once the tobacco is processed, it heads to another facility for fermentation and other processing. The journey is still just beginning for tobacco as it will take intense fermentation to finish the process and give the tobacco its desired flavor profile.
Of course we didn’t only visit the farm we also had the opportunity to do a little shopping in town along with a late afternoon visit to Subculture Studios.
Because there is so much to say about the Drew Estate’s art department I will save that for tomorrow’s blog.
It has certainly been a great trip, with many great friends and an amazing host. I certainly look forward to my next visit.
Chris Gwaltney, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Certified Tobacconist
Follow me on Twitter @abccigarchris