Have you ever looked down at your cigar while enjoying a smoke and wondered how exactly the tobacco was harvested? The harvesting process is actually a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and it requires judgment and expertise on the part of the grower. Countless factors determine which tobacco harvesting methods are used and how they are applied. Growers not only have to choose between two main methods, but they also need to time everything properly during every step of the process. In short, there is a lot of brainpower behind the tobacco leaves before they’re ever even rolled into a cigar.
There are two main tobacco harvesting methods: leaf priming and stalk cutting. Each method has its advantages, and the decision of which to use depends largely on the type of tobacco.
This is the most common method of tobacco harvesting in the present day. In this method, individual leaves are cut off the plant. A grower typically removes only two or three leaves a week, leaving the rest of the plant to grow as before.
The priming process begins about two months after transplanting (tobacco plants are typically seeded inside before being transplanted to outdoor fields). Growers pick the leaves that have begun to lighten in color and curl at the tip. The leaves are removed two or three at a time until the entire plant has been picked.
How early the leaves are picked goes on to affect the character and flavor of the tobacco. Leaves that spend more time on the stalk tend to produce stronger tobacco, while those that are picked first are weaker.
While it is no longer as common as leaf priming, this method was once dominant in global tobacco production. As its name suggests, the method consists of cutting the stalk, usually just above the ground, to harvest the entire plant at once. Its former popularity owes to the fact that it requires less labor, allowing a small-time farmer to cultivate tobacco. For certain strains of tobacco, including Connecticut Broadleaf and San Andres Negro, the stalk cutting method is still used today.
It is not just the harvesting that differs in the stalk-cutting method, but the entire preparation of the tobacco as well. Rather than fermenting the leaves one at a time, as in the leaf priming method, with stalk cutting the entire stack is fermented at once, often underground. The stacks are then dried outdoors for an entire day before being placed in a curing barn for the completion of the process.
Whatever method a grower chooses, tobacco harvesting is a challenge that requires nuance and understanding. There is no idiot’s guide for properly harvesting tobacco, nor a set of one-size-fits-all guidelines. Ultimately, it is up to the harvester to determine what needs to be done and when. A skilled grower can read the tobacco like a book and decide when leaves need to be cut, when stalks are sufficiently dried, and when the curing process is complete. All this knowledge goes toward the production of the high-quality cigars you so greatly enjoy smoking.