As mentioned in the last passage, there are four main curing techniques employed to treat tobacco, although we could further reduce this to two essential techniques. However, this only makes sense if we follow the various stages, and in doing so discover that the procedure is indeed complex. In fact, “curing” depends on the type of tobacco, geographical area and producer. Today the process is the result of an evolution that was at first quite slow, but then gained momentum, where the many different methods gradually became more generic and widespread.
It is well known that in Columbus’ time, tobacco was naturally dried in the sun, although there was also the custom of burying the leaves and digging them up after a while. A 1615 document records that the Spanish in Santa Domingo added a syrup consisting of salt water, molasses, black honey, pepper from Guyana and wine sediment to obtain colour and shine. The Muskogee Indians, southeastern indigenous tribes, dried the tobacco in aromatic wood smoke, in rudimentary smoke houses. Thus, improvements to the tobacco texture were already being made at that time, by using what was at hand, just as today different methods are being constantly experimented. The only difference is that today, thanks to past experience and modern technology, we are able to put techniques to better use.
The first technique results in sun-cured tobacco. Curing tobacco does not mean simply drying it, but the moisture must be removed, and obviously the best natural technique is drying it in the sun. What is important is not only the sun’s heat to evaporate the moisture, but also air ventilation provided by the difference in temperature during the day and night. Thus, this method is based on drying the tobacco in the sun’s heat. However, like drying laundry out in the open, sun curing is only the central part of the curing process, when most of the moisture evaporates. Prior to this the tobacco is placed in the shade to wilt and gradually turn yellow, and subsequently, when the leaves have completely dried out, they are ventilated in specific closed buildings. This also serves to revive the colour of the leaves that have faded in the sunlight.
It is the central method that is the weakest, as it is long, taking about one or two months, in which not only does the sun disappear at night, but there may also be the problem of cloud cover, which the producer has no control over whatsoever and which obviously affects drying time. This is why tobacco is sun-dried in regions where sunlight and heat is constant in the summer months. The leaves are often not constantly left out in the open, but placed on special frameworks inside barns in such a way that the sun’s rays reach the leaves through an open window or a door facing south. If the leaves are kept outside during the day, at night they are then brought inside. This tradition can be found in Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and in other Mediterranean countries, but also in some North-American and Asian regions. These types of tobacco are called “oriental”, as they are strongly aromatic, being low in sugar and nicotine. Thus, they are ideal for a method whose distinguishing feature is in fact to enhance natural aromas. Besides, as aroma is the tobacco’s most important feature, the ideal method to cure it is related to sunlight. However, sun-curing tobacco is only one small part of a wide range of techniques.
The second method results in air-cured tobacco. Air rather than sun plays the main role in curing the tobacco, and the leaves are cured inside barns. Whereas the sun is only used for the central part of the process, here air is used from the beginning to the end of the process, and the leaves are only left to wilt in the field for a day, before being threaded onto sticks and left to hang inside the barn for the rest of the time. Prior to this, the leaves are first selected according to their characteristics and grouped together, or else the whole plant may be harvested and strung together. The leaves or plants are thus left to dry in the barn for the whole curing process, including the period when they turn yellow. Inside the barn light falls indirectly on the tobacco and it is important that the barn is well-ventilated, so that the moisture gradually evaporates and no mould appears, but at the same time the tobacco should not be over-dried. The barn is typically long, with horizontal hinged boards on the outside that can be opened or closed according to the direction of the wind. Sometimes part of the roof can also be opened. Thus, ventilation and temperature is controlled inside the barn, adjusting to the amount of humidity and heat in the air. More recently, the process has adopted the use of fans to accelerate the drying process.
Compared to the sun-curing process, this method is undoubtedly better in controlling the environmental factors, but it still requires care and experience and ventilation is not always enough. For instance, if the temperature drops, the only solution is to add artificial heating, which entails the third or fourth artificial method. Air-curing requires a long period, usually from four to eight weeks or more. It is also labour-intensive, but it is worth it for the resulting uniform colour and natural aroma and taste, even more than when the leaves are sun-cured. Indeed, although sun-curing tobacco is ideal when the tobacco has a strong aroma, air-curing produces better results in terms of delicate and sweet tobacco, low in sugar but high in nicotine. Fine and much appreciated tobaccos such as Burley or Maryland, if we refer to light coloured tobacco, but air-curing is also used for dark-leaf tobacco for cigars and French Blends. As there is a high demand for varieties such as Burley, air-curing in this case is preferred to sun-curing.
As mentioned earlier, one could say there are two, and not four methods for curing tobacco, in the sense of natural or artificial. When one thinks of the early methods of sun-curing adopted by the native Americans for thousands of years, it is evident that they were using a thoroughly natural method. A natural method that was, however subject to various problems. Once the Europeans had launched into tobacco farming, they sought to increase control over various curing methods, improving sun-curing techniques and experimenting with others, such as air-curing, fire-curing to give the tobacco a smoky taste, and adding other substances, in fact the same method used to conserve food. Thus, over the centuries tobacco curing has undergone periods of gradual or fast change, going from a completely natural process to an initially rough and ready artificial process which has been gradually refined. Despite the fact that the processes may adopt some artificial techniques, the two methods described above can be considered “natural”. The other two, artificial processes will be discussed in the next part.