Curing Tobacco – Dokha and Beyond

,Curing Tobacco

The tobacco plant is as diverse, if not more, than any other agricultural product on the market. In fact, tobacco is the most profitable non-food crop on earth. In recent years, the legalization of cannabis in the Western countries may change this fact. For the last 500 years however, tobacco has been the king of cash crops. There are several drying and processing methods of preparing tobacco leaves to achieve the desired results. For instance Sugar content, nicotine content, coloration, taste, and smell can vary greatly with different methods. Native Americans were the first people to experiment with different methods of curing tobacco.

Nomadic Tribes in Western North America would simply bury tobacco leaves. Traditionally, tribes pick, wrap the tobacco into animal skin bundles and bury those bundles underground. After roughly six to eight months, the tribes would return to the area and unearth the aged leaves. This would allow the tobacco to slowly cool down and smooth over time while allowing chlorophyll to slowly degrade. The preferred method of agricultural based tribes in Eastern North America preferred hanging methods. Cultivated tobacco will hang in a smokehouse. These were the same smokehouses that tribes use to preserve fish and meats. The entire plants hang upside-down, which will result in a quicker dry. This is a 4-6 week process. When the tobacco is dry, the plants smoke for 2-6 days by wet woods such as cypress, wild cherry, or wild plumb. This process adds flavor and coloration to the tobacco leaves. Afterward, dry woods such as oak or hedge burn to dry the tobacco leaves for up to two days. Some South American tribes preferred the method of making “Mapacho”. They pick Tobacco leaves and then set them in a bath consisting of water, honey, vanilla beans, and other local plants or flavors. Each tribe had it’s own secret recipe. The leaves soak for 1-2 weeks, they the raise the plant over a bed of  hot coals for an addition 1-2 weeks. Workers apply a mist of water to the leaves occasionally to keep moisture in the tobacco. The leaves finish with a quick sun-dry  and then it is ready to smoke in pipes or roll into small cigars.

Modern day curing and processing methods of Nicotiana Tabacum vary greatly depending on the type of tobacco and finished product. This results in a world of products to choose from. Pipe tobaccos, cigarettes, and cigars have their own unique process to achieve the desired result. These methods include sun-curing, flue-curing, air-curing, and fire-curing, as a result different profiles are born. Fermentation and aging can also play a role in this process.

Sun-Curing – This method is mostly used in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and other regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Growers pick individual leaves from the stems and dry them in the sun for 4-8 weeks. They place these leaves on mesh racks or suspend them on an elevated structure. By far, sun-curing is most common when drying Oriental and Rustica varieties of tobacco. This process produces tobacco sweet and mellow in taste, high in sugar, and low in nicotine. Turkish cigarettes are almost made entirely of sun-cured Oriental varieties.

Flue-Curing Tobacco -This is the common method used in Virginia, a marginal amount of Burley, and Brightleaf tobacco varieties. Growers remove the tobacco leaves from the stem and string them in long rows in an enclosed area in which hot air will pass through a pipe or “flue”.  This indirect heat fixes the sugar and chlorophyll content in the tobacco leaves while balancing the ph of the tobacco to reduce the “bite” and improve smoothness of the smoke. This method is a quick process and is usually complete after 3-4 weeks from harvest to the finished product. Almost 90% of American cigarette tobacco undergoes flue-curing. The finished result is a high sugar, low-nicotine tobacco yellow in coloration and mellow in flavor.

Air-Curing Tobacco – Entire tobacco plants are harvested and hung upside-down by the stalks in well ventilated barns and shaded from sunlight. Fans accelerate the air movement and hasten the drying process. Almost all Burley and cigar tobacco varieties cure in this manner. This results in a darker tobacco leaf high in nicotine and low in sugar. Processors mix smaller quantities of Air-cured tobacco in cigarette and pipe tobacco blends to increase the nicotine content and add flavor to the overall profile. Cigar tobacco undergoes an additional step called “bulking”. Workers stack bales of tobacco in piles to increase the internal temperature to ferment. This fermentation significantly lowers the ammonia content of the leaf, this helps to add the unique taste and smell of cigar smoke.

Fire-Curing Tobacco – Individual leaves are suspended over a small, smoldering fire with a low heat  around 120-130 degrees fahrenheit. This is usually done in an enclosed structure serving as a tobacco smokehouse. This is the quickest curing process usually taking 3-4 days to complete. The heat converts chlorophyll in the plant differently resulting in a unique earthy flavor with a smokey bite. The type of wood used in these fires greatly affects the color and flavor of the resulting tobacco. Kentucky Dark, Oriental Latakia, and Native American Rustica cure the most commonly with this method. Various cigar makers in South and Central America have been experimenting with this method recently with local cigar wrapper and filler varieties. Fire-curing tobacco doesn’t have much affect on on nicotine content or the ph of the leaf resulting in a high-nicotine dark tobacco with a bold flavor.

Dokha Tobacco is blended and cured differently depending on the region and desired result. Farmers Air-Cure most tobacco in dokha blends is  in metal or wooden barns. Some manufacturers Sun-Cure leaves to blend with Dokha. Temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees fahrenheit with humidity as low as 5-10%. The high heat and lower humidity of the Persian Gulf has a dramatically different effect on the air-curing process compared to humid or more temperate regions around the world. This allows the leaves to retain the green coloration of the natural plant, arrests any natural fermentation, and retains the naturally high nicotine content of the strain. This process can last anywhere from one to several weeks depending on where farmers cure the dokha . Sun-drying tobacco bleaches the leaves to a light tan or golden color and fixes the sugar in a different manner. A small amount of this tobacco can be blended with air-cured tobacco to mellow the profile to create unique colder or smoother blends. Dokha is a unique product of it’s environment. The selective breeding of the strain, lack of processing or additives, light cycles, soil chemistry, soil ph, growing conditions, and curing conditions all factors that make dokha the wonderful and unique product that it is. It is difficult or nearly impossible to produce a similar tobacco product anywhere else in the world.