A flavored leaf of the future
By William C. Nelson
Photos courtesy of Andy Bailey
As these thoughts get committed to words, tobacco harvest season is in full swing in America. The flue-cure belts on the coastal plains and in the Piedmont are finishing up their “priming” operations, getting their harvests packed into bulk barns for high-temperature flash-drying into the sugary, golden-yellow product that pipe connoisseurs know as Virginia leaf (although most flue-cured tobacco actually goes into cigarettes). Farther west, in hillier country, burley is being hung in open or louvered shelters and barns for a weekslong process of air-drying that will deliver the nearly sugar-free tan leaf that finds use across the product spectrum. Our flavored pipe blends are mainly made of burley.
Meanwhile, in a few, select counties, mainly in certain precincts of Tennessee and Kentucky, and to a lesser extent in Virginia, tobacco barns can be spotted that are pouring forth with smoke. It is not unusual for such a sight to prompt passing motorists to call emergency services with reports of an apparent barn fire. There’s a fire in that barn, all right, but it is a controlled fire, set deliberately and minded intently. The fire-cured leaf that results from this smoky treatment has been likened to the “American Latakia,” although it is a different, more subtle and nuanced product than the Orientals smoked in aromatic woods that go to create Latakia. What do tobacconists need to know about fire-cured leaf, the better to inform their customers?
Dark-fired burley (a genetic offshoot of mahogany and white burleys)—along with the techniques that permit the creation of fire-cured leaf—has been around for two centuries, adding its unique flavor profile to smokeless tobacco products, pipe blends and cigars. And despite the relatively localized and specialized nature of the fire-cured business, its role in the tobacco industry appears secure.
Today, fire-cured production continues to trace a pattern of slow, steady growth year by year, spurred primarily by the increasing popularity of moist snuff, which uses fire-cured tobacco liberally. Now we see increasing numbers of pipe blenders incorporating fire-cured leaf into their recipes, and a segment of the cigar market (led prominently, for example, by Drew Estate) is distinguishing itself with bold new products sporting the barbecued-brisket flavors of fire-cured tobacco. The popularity of fire-cured leaf is also boosted in part by a new cadre of hobbyist pipe smokers. Because many are in fact converts from cigarette smoking, they crave the more concentrated nicotine that dark fired delivers.
Ninety-eight percent of the dark fire-cured tobacco grown in the U.S. is grown in a 21-county area of western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee. That small region now produces around 58 million pounds of dark fired annually, with a lesser amount—maybe a half-million pounds—being produced in Virginia.
A number of factors have combined to localize fire-cured production in these few regions. Dr. Andy Bailey, an Extension professor and tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky, has given considerable thought to how such a limited area came to dominate the fire-cured market.
“It is a good question that I have been asked several times, and I’m not completely sure of the real answer,” he says in response to an inquiry about the small areal footprint of fire-cured production. “We do have good soil in western Kentucky and a good climate that may favor this type of tobacco, but I know it can be grown in other areas of the country, too.”
Bailey says of his region, “It is just tradition here, but why? My best guess is that at the time production started here, we had not only an area of good soils and climate but also a good supply of hardwood timber that was the fuel source for curing.” He adds, “Our location near the Mississippi River that allowed transportation for export may also have played a role in the crop being grown here.”
That abundance of hickory and oak Bailey mentioned, a prominent feature of the nation’s fire-cured regions, probably accounts as much as anything for the traditional locations of fire-cured production. In much of flue-cured country, for instance, coniferous trees are predominant, but that’s not what’s wanted in American fire-cured. One executive at a large leaf-processing firm in Tennessee (he did not wish to be named) says, “Farmers never use cedar or pine for fire curing because those wood varieties impart too much of an off-putting turpentine aroma. That’s one difference between American fire-cured and Oriental Latakias. The Latakia growers use woods that are quite aromatic. Our fire-cured tobacco is a more subtle product.”
Tobacco master blender Russ Ouellette shares similar thoughts on the unique subtleties of American fire-cured leaf. He says, “American dark fired will have familiar aromas because of the hickory that’s frequently employed. I’ve used dark fired extensively for the last 10 years because I really like the nuances it can bring to a blend. I first used it in Hearth & Home Steamroller, then in Black House, and a few blends since.” Ouellette loves using Latakia, but he says the heavier flavors of Latakia are not always optimum for a given blend. “When I want the smokiness to be more subtle, I use dark fired.”
Ouellette mentions yet another aspect of nuance available in American dark fired production, one that is perhaps more attainable and tailor-made in a market of limited reach: “Some farmers will smoke their tobacco three and four times to get more intensity of flavor, and for that reason, leaf buyers and brokers of cigar companies and pipe tobacco manufacturers will often go looking for customized smoking.”
It would be easy to visualize a fire-cured tobacco farmer carefully selecting and stockpiling the best woods for his autumn smoke production, but somewhat surprisingly, that isn’t really how it happens. As our anonymous leaf company executive explains, “The wood used for curing is primarily—almost exclusively, really—byproducts from sawmills. First, slabs are used—the bark-side planks of wood left over from the sawing of logs. But you might be surprised to learn that a lot of sawdust gets used. Many farmers use straw to get a fire started, with wood slabs providing most of the heat. Some farmers may also mix in some wood chips. But sawdust piled over the fire is used to regulate the heat. They cover their fires with sawdust for the smoldering effect, so that there is really little or no actual flame.”
Bailey adds, “There may be some other species like sycamore and maple included, but the hickory and oak hardwoods should predominate. As long as there are no softwoods, these other species work fine.”
One note of particular interest, in view of renewed regulatory scrutiny of flavored tobaccos, is that fire-cured leaf is one way that blenders can impart a distinct flavoring to their products that will be likely to avert regulatory proscription. Several experts we consulted mentioned that, with today’s uncertainty regarding the future of flavors, tobacco professionals are thinking more and more about how fire-cured tobacco can create products with distinctive flavor profiles.
Dark fire-cured tobacco is a product that not very many farmers know how to produce, and the knowledge they call upon gets handed down through generations of tobacco-growing families. Said one leaf broker, “The overall process is similar among all of the growers, but each has his own ideas and ways. It’s more art than science. What worked very well last year might be all wrong this year, depending on conditions. The best farmers know how to tweak accordingly. A lot of knowledge is required, and you have to have the right kind of structures [to accomplish the curing process].”
But as long as these farmers keep tweaking, we can look forward to a future redolent of the smoke from American hardwoods in our tobacco products, which might help keep things interesting even where the dead hand of regulation intrudes. Here’s to the hope that those barns will keep smoking for another 200 years!