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April,
2010

Poché Perique’s Rebound

By Augustus Faragut

Once on the verge of extinction, a storied southern tobacco processor continues to gain strength and rolls out a new tobacco auction for vintage, decade-aged leaf.

Initiating a new tradition of auctioning vintage tobacco, Mark Ryan, the owner of L.A. Poché Perique Tobacco in St. James Parish, Louisiana, announced the limited availability of three Decade Vintage releases of Perique - two barrels of each vintage (2001, 2002, and 2003). The vintage barrels of Perique will have been aged ten years in the Perique factory before release to the market. Two barrels will qualify as the Decade Series in 2011, two in 2012, and two in 2013.
Mark Ryan, owner of L.A. Poché Perique Tobacco - the last surviving merchant of perique tobacco in St. James Parish - will begin releasing 10-year-old vintage barrels of tobacco each year starting in 2011. The unique preparation of perique involves barrel fermentation under pressure.

L.A. Poché will auction one of the Decade Series barrels a year over the next three years and the remaining barrel for each year will be held back for another decade for a future Two Decade Series. Widely used in pipe tobacco blends in small quantities, a component in some specialty cigarettes, chewing tobacco and even some cigar blends, the strongly flavored anaerobically fermented tobacco is available from the last leaf merchant in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Perique was effectively extinct when Ryan bought the company in 2005 because the former owner had not bought any tobacco to process. It takes at least a year to ferment properly, so the pipeline was empty and no farmers, other than the one exclusively supplying Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., were growing. Since that tobacco is not stripped, it is unsuitable for anything but cigarette tobacco, which can contain some quantity of stems. Realizing his predicament, Ryan bought whatever tobacco he could find on the secondary market and set about ensuring his supply for the next year.

The process of producing Perique remains a traditional craft - not much has changed since the early 20th century. Air-cured tobacco is hand stripped into “frog’s legs,” tied into bundles, and carefully positioned in the barrels. The only moisture added is just prior to hand stripping, to make the leaves pliable. The bundles are placed in whiskey barrels, topped off with a wooden lid, and pressed. Since the barrels are tight, no oxygen is involved with the fermentation that develops the strong flavors present in the final product. The barrels are unpacked at least three times during the active fermentation phase (around five months) and the leaf bundles are then repacked in the barrels in reverse order (former top bundles on bottom and bottom bundles on top). They are then closely monitored for the rest of the year, with periodic increases of pressure. The longer the barrels are sealed and pressure is applied, the more complex the flavor notes become. Perique tobacco itself is rare, but ten-year-old Perique is exceptionally unique.

Celebrating 50 years of service at L.A. Poché Perique: Gene Martin, Grant Martin, honoree Curtis Hymel, Owner Mark Ryan, Dudley Le Blanc.

Ryan has doubled production since 2005, but once a new receiving station with its refrigerated storage is complete, production capacity will quadruple to 400 barrels annually. Ryan is able to ensure supply because he has increased prices to the farmers and eliminated their labor of stripping. As a result, St. James Parish farmers are once again interested in growing tobacco. He is also able to rely on long-term employees. In March 2010, in addition to announcing the availability of decade old tobacco, the company honored Curtis Hymel’s 50 years of employment by L.A. Poché. The tradition of Perique tobacco will continue for at least another generation and will continue to be a component of many blends and styles of tobacco.


SMOKESHOP - April, 2010