Take in the succulent scent of fresh-cured leaves during our visit to a tobacco drying house.
The dazzling sight of bright green tobacco leaves, red-clay fields, and towering mogotes will lead us to the intoxicating scent of a tobacco drying house. There, we’ll learn why the traditional method of leaf aging is key to Cuba’s production of hand-rolled cigars.
The Process of Growing and Drying Tobacco for Cuban Cigars
Americans and Cubans will always have one thing in common – a love of cigars. And both countries are in luck because the best tobacco in the world comes from Cuba. Knowing the year-long process of growing and drying tobacco will make the next puff on your puro even more satisfying.
Planting, Growing, and Harvesting
Tobacco can be grown almost anywhere, but as in real estate, location is everything. Cuba’s unique Carribean climate and nutrient-rich soil are the keys to its consistent, world-class tobacco. Especially near Viñales National Park in the Pinar del Rio region, where the reddish earth is responsible for over 70% of Cuba’s tobacco crop.
A Cuban Habanos cigar has three parts: a wrapper, an inside binder, and filler. Tobacco grown in the shade is larger, thinner, and therefore better suited for use as a wrapper – which provides most of the cigar’s flavor, making it the most important and expensive leaf to grow. Some of Cuba’s most valuable soil is devoted solely to growing these wrapper leaves.
Rolled between the wrapper and filler are binder leaves, which hold the cigar together. The binder is derived from stronger, less flavorful sun-grown leaves from the middle to upper part of the plant. Filler, on the other hand, is made of different plant sections. Leaves near the top contain the most flavor, while those on bottom provide the smoothest burn. Thus, different leaves are mixed to create filler with the right balance of taste and burn rate.
Approximately five months after planting, the waist-high leaves are picked, bundled, and transported to a barn for drying.
Drying Tobacco and Grading Leaves
Freshly picked tobacco has a high moisture content – making it impossible to ignite. As such, aging is essential to a cigar’s taste and overall quality. The drying process is a balance between time and quality. And similar to wine or liquor, extra time allows for a smoother, more complex taste.
The most common method in Cuba utilizes well-ventilated barns, also known as kiln houses, where freshly picked leaves are hung for 1-2 months. These barns are designed for the area’s specific temperature and humidity – with most drying occurring before the rainy season when the humidity is higher. These air-cured cigars tend to be low in sugar and high in nicotine, leading to a light, sweet flavor.
After drying, leaves are sorted into piles based on their function in the cigar. To ensure an even burn, filler leaves need to have veins removed in a process called “stripping.” Then, these leaves are usually given additional time to cure.
Under colonial rule, dried tobacco leaves were shipped across the Atlantic to factories in Europe – until discovering that rolled cigars better retained higher quality. Cuba’s cigar rolling factories haven’t changed much since. Skilled workers diligently roll each by hand, producing over 100 per day using a rounded knife. But rolling this symbol of national pride is no easy task. Applicants undergo a 9-month apprenticeship, and less than half earn permanent positions. In a lifetime, one roller could make a million cigars.
Now, the next time you enjoy a Romeo y Julieta, La Corona, or Partagás cigar (with the proper rum), you can do so with a little extra knowledge of the effort this treasure takes to make.
This activity is available on our Legendary Cuba tour or can be integrated into a custom-made itinerary. Questions about Cuba or ready to book? Text or call an insightCuba Travel Specialist now at 1-800-450-CUBA (2822).
Ryan Walker is a travel expert and creator of TheGayTripper.com.