Thus, we have tobacco strains such as Virginia, Burley, Cavendish, Perique, Dark Fired Kentucky, Maryland, Carolina, Oriental, Latakia, Tropical... and other less well-known varieties of tobacco bases for blends. However, the blend is not just a question of taking a certain amount and mixing it. There is still another step to consider, essential for more than one reason, not least that the strive for perfection is shared by blenders and smokers alike.
In some respects, tobacco is like wine. For example, there are many different varieties of Chianti, which depend on the plant’s characteristics, soil, climate and process, but also the year of production. The same applies to Virginia, for example, as the many varieties that exist again depend on the type of plant, soil, climate, treatment, but also on the year of production. Both products may vary from one year to the next. In the case of wine, the differences are all part of the game, as the best vintages will be discussed by some, while others are just happy to find the best qualities in the less refined varieties. However, it is different for tobacco.
The consumer who is loyal to a certain brand will expect to find the same blend (more or less) each time a pouch or tin is opened. In order to meet this demand, the blenders prepare for any unpredictable (and predictable) changes in nature by managing large warehouses that are stocked from season to season. Their content acts as a reserve, sufficient to cover the demand for two years. Above all, however, thanks to the presence of countless tobacco bases and their variations, the blenders are able to find the right combination to provide the smokers with the taste, aroma and sensations that they would expect from that particular blend.
How many blends are there? Each company offers numerous, well-defined blends, in order to meet the various needs and preferences of the smokers. If they were added up they would amount to quite a few. However, broadly speaking the blends can be reduced to a few families. What follows is not an ideal, ultimate classification: some experts challenge it, considering it to be excessively generic and note that there are some inconsistencies in the names themselves. But, all in all, it gives an idea of the groups of blends.
English Blend: This is the oldest blend. Not necessarily English, but it was given this name because up to 1986 in Great Britain the old “Tobacco Purity Laws” strictly limited the use of external flavouring agents in tobacco manufacture. Having a full, robust aroma, this blend uses a Virginia base to which are added classic condiments such as Latakia, Oriental, and Perique. A Scottish blend also exists, in which the quantity of Latakia is reduced and the taste is provided by cured Virginia.
American or Aromatic Blend: This is the American counterpart, in which various aromas (vanilla, rum, and cherry) are discernable. In this case Burley prevails, often in the refined Cavendish version, but Virginia is also present, albeit in smaller quantities than in the English blend. The tobacco of these sweet, fragrant blends are subject to ‘casing’, which will be discussed later.
Oriental or Balkan Blend: This is a blend with a strong aroma. Oriental or Turkish tobacco is dominant, with less Virginia and other tobacco bases.
The difference between English and American blends in the last few years has become blurred, after the change in laws in Great Britain. Although there is less difference, there is still a well-rooted tradition that is difficult to change, and the differences have largely remained. A few local variations may also be added:
Continental Blend (European taste tobacco): A finely shredded, flavoured blend of tobacco produced in Continental Europe (thus excluding Great Britain).
Dutch Mixture: The Dutch were amongst the first to blend tobacco, working with imported tobacco. Their characteristic blend, strongly flavoured with coumarin, includes Tropical tobacco and Latakia.
French Mixture: A strong blend, made with dark, national, slightly flavoured tobacco which is then toasted.
Italian Mixture: A blend of usually dark tobacco of local production.
It was necessary to mention these families of different types of tobacco blends, but as we are discussing tobacco and tobacco is made from leaves, let us now turn to the leaves. In the state in which buyers have acquired them, and how they are stored in the warehouses, they are not yet ready for the pouch or tin. Before becoming a fragrant blend, a number of steps need to be taken, constituting a set of simple and more complex processes varying with each type of product that are difficult to analyse systematically. However, generally speaking we can provide a brief outline, out of curiosity.
The moisture content of a tobacco leaf is important, and needs to be controlled according to the conditions. To increase moisture, steam is applied, and to reduce it the temperature is raised and then left to decrease gradually. One of the cases in which moisture needs to be added is when the leaf is threshed, or during stripping when the harder parts are removed. These processes are facilitated when the leaf is pliable and resistant. In case of excessive dryness, the leaf would be reduced to dust. In other cases, the moisture needs to be reduced, as the tobacco process may alternate between moist and less moist stages. It is only at the end that a balance will be achieved that will allow storage and result in the smoker’s satisfaction.
Stripping involves the removal of the leaf’s central rib and stem, which are not necessary for the tobacco. The side veins are often also removed, together with any other foreign matter, and what remains is pure tobacco.
As for cutting, this is a delicate process that requires different equipment for loose leaf and pressed tobacco. Its position in the different stages of the process may vary, but it is almost always necessary, apart from being a feature of the finished product.
Casing, which could be defined as a type of ‘marinating’, is a process that is involved in many tobacco bases, more than one can imagine, and not only with aromatic bases. It is applied in the primary processing stage, or the third ‘leg’ if taking up again the image of a relay race. Its origins go far back in time: sailors, who were seeking ways to keep tobacco fresh and moist during the long voyages, would experiment with different types of sugar mixtures. The practice was then taken up by the blenders, who perfected the process.
Casing, which uses a sort of water-based syrup, serves to enhance the tobacco flavours, not to add flavours in themselves. It adjusts the possible shortcomings of a tobacco blend, as well as keeping the product’s moisture at a constant level.
The syrup is prepared by adding ingredients such as cocoa, liquorice, chocolate, sugar cane, honey, fruit extracts and other components to a certain quantity of water. The mixture is boiled for about four hours and then left to cool down. At this point the stripped tobacco leaves are inserted in a rotating cylinder that continuously mixes the leaves, and the syrup (warmed up) is injected into the cylinder. Absorption into the tobacco leaves is facilitated by vapour, procedures under vacuum and the movement of the cylinder. The process lasts at least one day, after which everything is warmed up and then cooled down again, the syrup that has not been absorbed being eliminated.
There is no single recipe for all occasions: each tobacco strain, each different blend requires its own particular type of casing. Every blender has his own closely guarded secret recipe. The process is applied to most blends that contain Virginia and/or Burley, including all those that bear the word ‘unflavoured’: in these cases, a simple syrup made of water and sugar is used. The addition of sugar also serves to mitigate the harshness of certain tobacco blends and reduce tongue bite.
At this point some tobacco blends are practically ready for the consumer, apart from the last stages before packaging. An interesting phenomenon is the final mixing of the various tobacco fragments in a machine. Other blends may also need ‘topping’, while some still have some important stages to undergo.
Unlike casing, topping or flavouring is the addition of aromas to the tobacco, carried out in the final stages before packaging. Again, unlike in the casing process, the aromatic, alcohol-based solution is unheated and is sprayed onto the tobacco. After resting for a day or two, the alcohol evaporates from the aromatic tobacco.
This is no recent procedure, either. A few centuries ago, sailors transported tobacco from one continent to another in empty rum barrels, and the rum permeated the tobacco, which was much appreciated. From that time onwards, the addition of aromas became widespread and varied.
If topping serves to enhance the tobacco’s potential, scenting adds something. However, it is important that the additive does not betray the harmony of the various elements in the blend, but rather enhances them. It should not overwhelm the precise personality of the blend. In order to achieve the right effect, a mixture of various essences is used, in rather the same way that a new fragrance is produced by blending various olfactory agents.
Amongst other stages in the process that still needs to be considered is the technique of pressing (linked to fermentation), which is essential. The techniques, in some respects, are similar to those used for Cavendish and Perique. However, this time the process is applied on a larger scale and belong to the culture and tradition of the blenders.