This is the first in a series of in-depth tutorials covering the "seed-to-smoke" stages of tobacco cultivation and cigar manufacturing. The series focuses on the key factor in the quality of a cigar: the tobacco's pedigree. This installment addresses the objectives and methods of evaluating (grading) tobacco leaf, which are crucial to the replenishment of genetically desirable seed stock, necessary to perpetuate future generations. Our guide is genetic engineer John Vogel, a 40-year industry veteran. He now manages the entire tobacco farming and cigar-making operation at Tabacos de la Cordillera (Highland Cigars), in Puriscal, Costa Rica.
"All of a cigar's potential... for rich flavor and subtle aroma, for beauty and lustrous feel, for even burning... is written in genetic code," Vogel explains. "This reproductive blueprint sleeps within each fine-sand-sized tobacco seed." A skilled genetic engineer can explore and tailor the seed's unique characteristics, to optimize the tobacco's properties and performance. Equally important, he can preserve a seed's genetic integrity through successive generations, thereby ensuring the consistency of the cigar. The efforts of the most knowledgeable farmers, leaf processors, and cigar makers cannot improve an inferior tobacco strain.
Vogel's invitation to visit Puriscal to help evaluate some tobacco initiated the first of many hands-on experiences as his apprentice, in order to write this series. The two-hour bus ride from my Costa Rican home is spectacular, winding through the mountains, splashed with sun beneath painfully blue skies and cumulus puff-balls. Meeting me at the Puriscal bus station, Vogel's driver Mauricio takes me the final seven miles to Tabacos de la Cordillera. The property is a virtual Shangri-La, secluded and surrounded by low mountain peaks. The valley floor below has its own miniature volcanic mountains, sharply peaked and covered with a jade-green velvet of vegetation.
We sit at Vogel's conference table, the vista a backdrop, as workers carry in dozens of "hands" of leaf. Each hand consists of about 25 shriveled leaves, their stems bound together with palm-frond strands. Their exotic sweet bouquet fills the room. They have just come from the curing barn, where they had hung and dried for about six weeks. There, they had purged themselves of undesirable chemical compounds, and had turned from bright green to yellow to rich brown.
"We'll now evaluate about 200 samples we harvested from two separate plots of the same strain of tobacco plants," Vogel explains. "The samples from one plot represent the present - the crop we are taking them from is intended for commercial production." They were 'primed' (harvested) in the same manner as in a regular growing cycle. The 15-18 leaves on each plant are cut in a series of five to seven primings. "We start with the the seco (dry) bottom leaves; up through the medio (middle) section, and finally the corona (crown) leaves, cutting every few days," says Vogel.
"The second plot represents the future," Vogel continues. "Our major advantage in the marketplace is our ability to maintain the genetic purity of our proprietary 'heritage' seeds, and consequently, our tobacco. We are in the unique position of having a seed bank of pure Cuban seeds from as far back as 60 years. Cuban seed development was at its pinnacle then, unmatched in post-Castro Cuba. We look for the best plants from this second group, to be used for the all-important replenishment of our seed stock." Vogel explains that he harvests the entire plant and examines the roots and stalks to determine their health: their growing vigor, evidenced by plant height, fullness, and leaf size. He checks for damage by pests, diseases, mold, stress, or other weakness.
"We also collect the seeds, which will be our future generations of tobacco," Vogel explains. "We are most careful to identify which plant the seeds and leaf samples come from."
Next, individual leaves are cut from the plant to evaluate and grade, which is the task at hand during the day of my visit.
The work begins. We are to grade each leaf, pulled at random from each hand. Vogel and I both begin examining these samples for their physical properties. Vogel explains that we were looking for wrapper-quality leaf. Lower-grade tobacco would suffice for binder and filler, as their cosmetic flaws were hidden within the cigars. He shows me how to gently hand-stretch each leaf, to text its elasticity. This is important to the cigar roller, to ensure the leaves will not tear while he is stretching and spirally wrapping them on the bound filler. A silky feel on the top surface is desirable, to give the smoker tactile satisfaction. Though leaves with pest- and disease-caused raised blemishes are unsuitable for wrapper, "tooth" - a dusting of naturally-occurring sand-sized grains on the top surface of the leaf - is in fact desirable. Fine veins are a plus, but their spacing needs to be uniform. Otherwise, rollers, who accustom themselves to a given vein spacing from leaf to leaf, could end up with an errant vein at the head, where it is uncomfortable in the mouth. Even small "wire veins" - those with a sharp-edged wiry feel - penalize a sample, as they feel unpleasant in the mouth. Of course, uniformly even color is important: spots, blotches, or other color irregularities indicate pests, disease or stress. Olive-green areas on a leaf also indicate inadequately cured leaf. Residual organic impurities are harsh on the throat and can cause queasiness or dizziness. Large leaves are especially prized, as they are necessary when rolling double coronas and larger.
Though uncertain at first, after a couple of dozen samplings of leaves, I get a good overall feel for the curled-up leaves' quality by simply running them through my hand - feeling their suppleness and delicacy. With each leaf, we assign a rating of "1" (the best), through "2" (acceptable), to "3" (unsuited for wrapper). Each is entered on a chart; the statistical side of leaf valuation, like all genetic study, involves mountains of meticulous record-keeping.
Finally, after a couple of hours of physical evaluation, we move on to the burn test. Vogel hands me each leaf, which I hold over a small alcohol torch, burning a hole in the space between veins. As the leaf burned through, forming a quarter-sized hole with glowing margin, I sample the aroma. It is a delicate operation: a nose held too close to the leaf can be overwhelmed by acrid tendrils of smoke. It works best by holding the smoldering leaf a foot or more away and fanning more diffused smoke toward my face.
Even at that, my sense of smell is tired from trying sample after sample. I have always had difficulty with this when smoking: aroma, it seems to me, is best determined by bystanders. Vogel is critically concerned with a cigar's aroma as well as its flavor, often waving his specimens in the air and getting whiffs of their aroma. He advises me to try exhaling tiny samples of smoke through my nostrils. This does help discern aroma nuances. And so, after four hours of intense concentration, this cub tabaquero clocks out and jumps the bus for home.
Successive articles will explore the planting and cultivation of tobacco, pests and plant diseases, the role soil nutrients play in tobacco quality, leaf processing, cigar manufacturing, quality control issues, and more. Come along, when we continue to seek the answer to, "What makes a cigar memorable?"
SMOKESHOP - June, 2005