The Process of Growing Cuban Tobacco
Out of all the countries in the world, Cuba is truly one of the most perfect places to grow tobacco. The West of Cuba, where the acclaimed Pinar del Rio is located, is a region that has earned to the name of being the best place to cultivate tobacco for Cuban Cigars. The region’s climate consists of warm temperatures, high humidity and regular rainfall – but on top of that, the area is home to nutrient-rich, red soil that provide the plants with sufficient minerals. Many claim the soil is the key component to the unique flavour of Cuban tobacco, recognised as being strong, smooth and full-bodied. With those conditions combined with the farmer's valuable expertise, Cuban tobacco becomes the world's most sought after crop.
“SEEDS DEVELOPED IN CUBA”
CRIOLLO & COROJO STRAINS – In the early 20th century, there was an active effort in trying to develop and improve the 'black Cuban tobacco' or Tabaco Negro Cubano. So, in 1937 the cigar industry opened its very first research and testing station in San y Martinez, in the hopes of creating an even better strain of the tobacco. They wanted to develop a strain that provided a classic Cuban flavour while also being resistant to the invasion of pests. So in 1941, the ‘Criollo’ seed variety was created. Since then, this new variety has become the basis of all approved seeds for the cultivation of tobacco for Havana cigars. This strain is used in all Habanos cigars such as the Partagas Serie D No. 4 and the Montecristo Linea 1935 Dumas Cigar. Many years later, this new strain was further developed into another variety called the ‘Corojo’, which is commonly used in growing wrappers for cigars. Today, there are four tobacco research stations where all the Cuban tobacco leaves are researched, controlled and developed.
SHADE VS SUN GROWN – If you travel to Cuba to sightsee some plantations, you might find that certain areas are covered with a muslin cloth. Those plants are called shade-grown tobacco, and they are plant leaf primarily used for the wrappers of cigars. The Muslin cloth’s purpose is to filter the sunlight and trap the heat so that the leaves grow larger and finer. As the tobacco leaves grow, the colour progressively varies over the height of the plant. With the lower leaves being lighter, and the higher leaves darker. The top leaves from shade-grown tobacco will be used for Limited Edition Cigars or dark cigars like the Cohiba Maduro 5 Secretos. On the other hand, Sun-grown tobacco refers to plants that are openly farmed on the fields, exposed by the sunlight. The heat of the sun helps develop the complexity of flavours found in the Tabaco Negro Cubano. Often, these leaves are used for the fillers of cigars, providing the smokes with the signature ‘Cuban’ taste.
Vega Hoyo de Mena
“FROM SEEDS TO HARVEST”
PLANT NURSERIES – First things first, the seed must be selected by Cuba’s Tobacco Research station. They distribute the seed to the growers or Vegueros, free of charge! The seeds are developed and regulated by the researchers to ensure that the seeds are authentic. Then, they are placed in ‘nurseries'. Within these nurseries, the seedlings are protected and are provided with the optimum growing conditions, so that they are able to successfully thrive. The Semi-Vuelta Region of Cuba, located in between the Vuelta Abajo and Havana, has very suitable soil for growing these nurseries. So, once the seedlings have reached the height of about 13-15 cm, they would be large enough to be transplanted to the main plantation. Usually, this whole process will take between 45 to 50 days.
SOIL AND PLANTING PREPARATION – Around summertime, the farmers begin to prepare the soil for planting. Traditionally, the farmers utilise a team of ploughs and oxen to loosen up the soil. However, many modern farms are now employing machinery that will speed up the process. After the soil is sufficiently fertilised, then the farmers will start to disperse the seedlings on the field, which are all done by hand. Approximately, 30,000 seedlings are planted per hectare. Keep in mind, this is done not all-at-once, but the fields are cultivated one after the other so that the workload is spread over the entire growing season.
MAINTAINING THE CROP – Now that the seedlings have been successfully transplanted to the main field, there’s the challenging task of tending the plantation. With thousands of tobacco plants scattered around several hectares, the growers need to be especially careful with maintaining the crop. Once the plant has reached its desired height, the farmers would then manually remove the top bud – this is done to encourage the leaves to grow to their maximum potential. Furthermore, throughout the plant’s life, the farmer would regularly get rid of the side shoots to ensure that the leaves are obtaining the maximum nutrients to themselves. For tobacco that’s used for the wrapper, the farmers would begin to enclose them in canopies of muslin cloth within 10-20 days after being planted.
AND FINALLY, THE HARVEST – After transplanting, it usually takes about 40 days for the plant to be harvested. In Cuba, every single tobacco leaf is handpicked by the farmers, with only two to three leaves harvested at a time. The farmers usually leave a few days in between harvesting to allow the plant to grow to its maximum potential. After the leaves have been harvested, they will be then categorised into the Volado, Seco and Ligero (or Medio Tiempo), each of these leaves has their purpose when it comes to being used for fillers, for instance, the Volado is used for much lighter flavoured fillers. In contrast, the Ligero is used for full-flavoured fillers – while the Medio Tiempo leaf is reserved for special edition smokes the Cohiba Behike 54 Cigar. As for the shade-grown leaves, they will be used for wrappers.
To learn about all-things Cuban cigars, be sure to check out our Cigar Blog:
- The Art of Turning Cigar Boxes into Guitars
- Are 'Thicker Cigars' Better?
- The Rising Value of Cuban Cigars: A Worthwhile Investment