From the plant to the cigar: processes of the tobacco leaf
Like all good products, tobacco leaves also take a long time since the plant is harvested until they become a cigar. The fresh, green and moist leaf collected from the fields in which the tobacco plants are grown must go through a series of processes to acquire the color, texture and moisture required for a cigar, as well as the aromas and flavors felt in the smoke.
Harvesting a tobacco plant takes about a month, from making the first cut to harvesting the last leaf. According to the Brand Ambassador of La Aurora, Wascar Aracena, the farmer gradually picks the lower level leaves from the plant, until the top level is reached, depending on the climate.
These are the steps a tobacco leaf undergoes from the moment the plant is harvested until it ends up in a cigar:
- Curing: when the tobacco is collected in the field, it is taken to a farm, where it will be joined in bundles or “hands”, tied with different colored strings to identify the cut corresponding to the leaf level for the curing process.The curing takes about 40 to 50 days, depending on the tobacco variety. Three factors come into play: moisture, temperature and air velocity. Considering these factors, the bundles or “hands” are constantly moved so that the air aids in the curing.When the leaves are taken to the curing farm, they contain 80% to 85% water. This moisture is important to start the curing process, since it has an important role in the color changing process of leaves, from green to yellow. In the second step of the process, the yellow color turns into brown, and the last step of the curing process is completely physical: it’s when the tissue and the main veins of the leaves are dried. Finally, the dried tobacco is subjected intermittently to moisture and drying in order to make the colors in the leaf tissue uniform.
- Pre-fermentation aging (raw tobacco):once the tobacco arrives the processors’ warehouses, it is sorted according to its texture, size, and dehydration. It is then subject to the first pre-fermentation aging process (minimum three months) before being destemmed. During this aging process, tobacco acquires the necessary consistency to withstand the humidity to which it will be subjected during the fermentation process.
- Fermentation: it’s an intense and controlled process with a minimum duration of one year, in which the heat produces significant changes in the chemical composition of the leaves. The tobacco starches are converted into sugars and ammoniacal nitrogen is released, making the tobacco leaf smokable. “The more complete the fermentation, the more balanced the smoke will be”, says the Brand Ambassador of La Aurora.The bundles are undone and placed on piles, sorted by well-identified leaf levels, one leaf placed against each other. The fermentation process is completely natural. The combination of the moisture in the leaves and the pressure (density) of a leaf on top of another in the piles generates heat, which causes the bacteria responsible for fermentation to reproduce. This first process lasts about six weeks before the leaves are destemmed. Tobacco can be fermented 2, 3 and 4 times.
- Destemming of the filler: in the tobacco leaves used in the filler, stems are cut at two thirds from the head of the leaf towards the ends; while in the case of the binder, stems are cut from the leaf removing completely the main vein. In both cases, they are sorted (selected and separated) by texture, by damage level, and classified according to size: big, medium and small.
- Aging: normally, the leaves are placed in bales for two to five years. “The better the aging technique, the more flavor and aroma the tobacco will develop”, notes Aracena.
Since a cigar has three types of tobaccos (filler, binder and wrapper), each is handled with different moisture levels: the filler has 16/17 percent moisture; the binder 16/17 percent; and the wrapper 18/20 percent. The goal of the aging process is the homogenization of moistures, which will still be noticeable once the cigar is lit and burning: the tobacco burns irregularly, with the wrapper burning more slowly.
La Aurora is the only manufacturer with a double aging process in Super Premium lines (rum barrels). The making process of a Preferido cigar takes, on average, nine years with two aging processes. The second aging process is made in oak barrels, that previously contained rum, which gives a distinctive touch to La Aurora products: well accentuated notes of wood and toasted notes from the barrel. The last aging process occurs when the cigar is made.