Last week, we talked a bit in depth about the process of curing tobacco. This week, we’re taking a deep dive into yet another critical process in the transformation of the tobacco from plant to cigar: the fermentation process.
As you’ve probably already guessed, once the curing process is complete, the tobacco still isn’t ready to be smoked. At this point, it’s still too rough and harsh, containing high levels of acidity, nicotine, protein, and carbohydrates. Fermentation is the process by which nicotine, proteins, and acidity are reduced. It’s also the part of the process that causes the leaves to develop in terms of structure and color, also resulting in the reduction of essential oils in the leaves.
Like great chefs or expert wine makers, all cigar makers add their own unique flairs and secret sauces during the fermentation process—but for the most part, all follow a process very similar to the one we’ve outlined below.
First, the tobacco leaves are put into piles—or pilónes—in order to naturally generate heat. The temperature of the pilónes is monitored carefully by inserting a thermometer into the middle of the pile. While the exact temperature depends on the individual cigars maker’s preference, not to mention the purpose of the leaf, the general rule is to have them reach 96 degrees Fahrenheit before moving on to the next step.
After the desired temperature is reached, the pile is broken down and rebuilt. The tobacco leaves in the center of the pile are moved to the top, the top leaves are moved to the bottom of the stack, and the leaves on the bottom are moved into the middle. This process is repeated until all of the leaves are evenly processed.
The next step involves breaking down the leaves and sorting them by thickness to priming. For some leaves, the process of fermentation ends here. But the thicker and hardier leaves move on to a second fermentation process where they’re restacked into a larger piles and exposed to additional humidity. The same process from before is repeated, this time the leaves underdoing slightly elevated temperatures between 100 and 120 degrees.
Occasionally, cigar makers will add a third fermentation process to infuse the tobacco with their own personal touch, but this is rare and usually only occurs if the cigar maker is not vertically integrated. This happens when they purchase the tobacco from an outside source.
Stay tuned for more to come as we cover the next steps in the tobacco leaf’s journey from the ground into your mouth.