Tobacco Leaf Harvesting, Curing, and FermentingA Do-it-yourself Quick Guide
Harvesting Tobacco Leaves
Tobacco is harvested in one of two ways. The oldest known method in use is simply cutting off the stalk at the ground using a curved knife.
The other way to harvest tobacco leaves originated in the nineteenth century. They started to harvest the tobacco plant by pulling individual leaves off the stalk as they ripened, tobacco leaves ripen from the ground upward, so tobacco plant may be pulled several different times before the tobacco plant is entirely harvested. This is also known as "Cropping" or "Priming". These are terms used for pulling leaves off tobacco. The first crop at the very bottom of the stalks are called "sand lugs" as they are often against the ground and are coated with dirt splashed up when it rains.
Curing Tobacco Leaves
Tobacco farmers refer to the drying of the leaf as curing. There are 3 main ways of curing tobacco. Curing methods vary with the type of tobacco grown. The tobacco barn design varies accordingly.
Air-cured Tobacco Leaves
Air-cured tobacco is carried out by hanging the tobacco in a well-ventilated barns, where the tobacco is allowed to dry over a period of four to eight weeks. Air-cured tobacco is generally low in sugar content, which gives the tobacco smoke a light, smooth, semi- sweet flavor. These tobacco leaves usually have a high nicotine content.
Flue-cured Tobacco Leaves
Flue-cured tobacco started by stringing the tobacco into tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barn's "kilns". All flue-cured barns have flues which run from external fed fire boxes, which heat-cures the tobacco without exposing it to smoke, slowly raising the temperature over the course of the curing process. The procedure will generally take about a week. Flue-cured tobacco generally produces cigarette tobacco. Cigarette tobacco usually has a high content of sugar, with medium to high levels of nicotine.
Sun-cured Tobacco Leaves
Most to all sun-cured tobacco comes from countries that produce oriental leaves, such as Turkey, Greece, and the Republic of Macedonia. The sun-cured tobacco process works just how it sounds. The tobacco is placed in the sun uncovered, and is dried out naturally. Generally, oriental tobacco is low in sugar and nicotine and is very popular for cigarettes.
Fermenting (A.K.A. sweating) Tobacco Leaves
This is the process by which ammonia is released from the leaf to make it more sociable. It can be done by heaping the tobacco into large piles called pylons that raise the temperature and humidity, or by use of a kiln with a heater and humidifier. Under the raised temperature and humidity, enzymes in the leaf cause it to ferment. It is not necessary to spray a fermenting solution on the leaf as some suggest - the enzymes will do it naturally. Sometimes this is also referred to as curing. This system of maturing tobacco leaves came from the days when tobacco was shipped by sail. The ship would sit in port for a few weeks, with very humid temperatures and bails stacked tight together. When the tobacco reached it's destination, it was found to smell and taste sweeter. There are two methods of fermenting, stacking and kiln fermenting.
The stacking tobacco fermentation method is used by large growers. Stacks of tobacco weighing around 100 lbs each are wrapped in burlap and allowed to "sweat". The internal temperature is closely monitored. When it reaches 140 degrees, the stack is broken down to release tar, ammonia, and nicotine. The stack is torn down and rebuilt several times until the temp will no longer reach 110 degrees. The stems are they stripped and stacked in a cooler place (65 degrees to age for a time 6 weeks to 6 years).
This is what the smaller grower must use if he or she wants to smoke the fruits of their harvest any time soon. The kiln is a small, insulated container with an artificial heat source that helps to simulate the fermentation. The leaves are placed in the kiln with the lid shut. Heat and humidity are carefully controlled (temp 100 to 130 degrees and 65 to 70% humidity), and the kiln is left on 24 hours a day. Kiln fermenting lasts about 4 to 6 weeks and the relative humidity must be carefully maintained during this time. A short aging period will follow of 4 to 6 weeks or longer until the leaves can either be rolled into cigars or cut for cigarette, pipe, or chewing tobacco.
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Tobacco Leaf Tips
(1) If the leaf is too dry, lower the heat, too wet raise the heat to max 130f. If still too wet lower the humidity.
(2) If the leaves are moist, they will mold in about two or three days. If you put a hygrometer in the chamber you will find that at 70 percent relative humidity they will be very pliable but dry. That is about what you'll want.
(3) Remember, aging will always improve tobacco, and any tobacco leaves can be kiln cured if it has been properly stored (humidity no lower than 50% to 65%). Smoking uncured tobacco is unpleasant and dangerous as the nicotine and ammonia contained can be fatally high, not to mention it will taste like your smoking leaves from your front yard.