Tobacco Provenance: Connecticut

Familiar to every aficionado, the delightful, light-brown, silky soft, almost golden Connecticut Shade wrappers used as wrappers for almost every famous brand from the Dominican Republic. Connecticut Shade, Connecticut Broadleaf and most recently Connecticut Havana are tobaccos that are remarkable in more ways than one. A narrow, 75-mile long strip in the Connecticut River Valley south of the border to Massachusetts is the home of the only world-class cigar tobacco from the USA. What is more, it is mostly wrappers that are produced here – the king class of tobacco cultivation My editor in chief tapped on the globe: „This time it’s further north, definitely not in the tropics“- or the subtropics, where I have previously been sent on missions in the cause of tobacco. Connecticut is on the east coast of the USA between New York and Boston. Though if you think about it, it’s not that far north, since New York is roughly on the same latitude as Naples.

In The Realm of General Cigar and The Cullman Family

I am only too glad to be sitting in the air-conditioned Amtrak carriage as it pulls out of New York’s Penn Station and heads north-east. In less than three years it will whisk me to the heart of New England, to Hartford, the capital of the „Constitution State“. We have soon left the canyons of the streets in Manhattan behind us, and the signs of industrial decay gradually give way to a more friendly green. The days when you could kill time over a cigar, a bourbon and a game of poker in the saloon car are unfortunately a thing of the past, which gives me the opportunity to read up on my destination. The first European to see the Connecticut River was the Dutchman Adriaen Block in 1614. It was here that the border ran between New Holland and New England. English settlers soon followed. „Connecticut“ is a corruption of „quinetucket which in the language of the Algonquin Indians means roughly „long tides river“ and indeed, particularly after the snow melts, the river carries with it huge quantities of mud-from as far away as Quebec in Canada – which it has deposited at its mouth over the thousands of years to create Long Island.

For shipping it is an obstacle, for the tobacco farmers north of Hartford it is a source of delight. The glaciers that once forced their way southwards left behind them a silty soil-ideal for cultivating tobacco. However, there would be no tobacco cultivation here in its present form without the five generations of pioneering work by the Culman family, followed by General Cigar, a company that today is part of the Swedish Match Group.

It is more than 150 years since the German merchant and wine dealer Ferdinand Kullmann emigrated to the USA and soon anglicised his name to Cullman. He was already interested in cigars, but it was his son Joseph who got into the tobacco business that only began to flourish properly under his successor, Joseph junior. At that time, dark wrapper leaves were grown in Connecticut. Joseph junior managed to get hold of Havana seed and planted it on the flat fertile fields of the Connecticut River Valley. Although his father initially thought he was mad, he was soon won over when the lighter-coloured wrappers caught on amongst consumers.

And it was in this way that the Cullmans became the largest wrapper producers in the state of Connecticut. Edgar Cullman senior, the man at the helm of General Cigar for decades and who had learnt his trade from H. Anton Bock, tirelessly bought up brand names (such as Macanudo, Excalibur, El Credito or Don Sebastian) and factories, thereby creating a huge cigar empire. Edgar Cullman junior continued this family tradition. All the family learned the business by working their way up, and all five generations have shared the love of tobacco, Joseph Cullman iunior: “You need a feel for tobacco, for its soft silky leaves-and either you have it or you don’t.

Propangasofen in Connecticut

At the beginning propane gas stoves help with the drying in the barn |  Photo: Sebastian Zimmel

Angel Daniel Núñez

Someone who definitely has this feeling is Daniel Núñez, now the highly occupied COO at General Cigar. By now he is more at home in an airplane than in the tobacco fields, and so I was lucky to find him in his office in Bloomfield, a few miles from Hartford and not far from Interstate 91. I am greeted by a friendly athletic man in his mid fifties. It’s easy tosee that he has spend decades in the sun-kissed tobacco fields. His moustache is showing the first touches of grey, and his face is regularly lit up by a broad smile. A Macanudo Hyde Park from the Café series, harmonious, mild and creamy on the palate, creates a relaxed atmosphere, as does my mention of his taskmasters, some of whom I had also met, Ramón Cifuentes, Alfons Mayer or Edgar Cullman senior Indeed, Daniel Nunez, born in the Dominican Republic but not actually in a tobacco field, has had a hard training.

The most demanding was no doubt Ramón Cifuentes from an old Cuban tobacco dynasty, who taught him punctuality – even today, Daniel Núñez can still be found at his post at six in the morning extreme cleanliness in the fields and in the sheds, and a comprehene knowledge about tobacco, from the seed to fermentation. Edgar Cullman senior was also a great motivator. Daniel Núñez is not a man of many words, he is rather a man of action, and so we are soon sitting in his SUV on the way to General Cigars “Farm 3“. He reveals himself to be a car freak who used to spend his pocket money on repairs and tuning when he was young. His first wage went on a Ford Mustang, while today he drives an Audi Even from afar we can see the huge white tents surrounded by green, stretched out over the fields of Shade tobacco. Over 1200 acres (1acre 4047m2), of which 260 are cultivated by General Cigar itself.

It is the end of July, and the harvest is in full swing. We are cheerfully welcomed by a group of tobacco pickers. The work in the fields is no picnic, in particular what is known as sukkering, in which the bottom leaves are removed to let the upper leaves grow better. The workers have to bend down all the time as they make their way on the clay soil through the tobacco bushes at temperatures approaching those in a sauna Daniel Núñez looks small next to the plants, the lower layers of which have already been well and truly plucked, while the tips are tied to the tent roof using lengths of wire. There are small droplets of sweat on his forehead as he holds an attractive leaf up to the sun. It feels soft, silky and slightly sticky. He is satisfied. „Let the tobacco talk to you“, was the message from one of his teachers. „You can see when the tobacco is smiling.

It was only in June that the tobacco seedlings were planted on the well-prepared soil. Connecticut Shade, I am informed, „Hazelwood“ variety of Cuban tobacco that was once crossed with Sumatra. The first attempts were not very encouraging, until someone noticed that Sumatra flourished under a natural cloud cover. These clouds are now imitated by the tents, which is how these beautiful, light, thin, silky, delicate leaves are produced. During the growth period, Connecticut gets more rain than Cuba, and the wrapper leaves need more rain than the filler tobaccos.

Golden Connecticut Shade – A Dark Broadleaf

Goldene Connecticut Shade Deckblätter

The rewards of the efforts: marvelous, golden Connecticut Shade wrapper leaves | Photo: Sebastian Zimmel

The pickers work their way up the plant in a number of primings (pickings) that are often at an interval of a number of days. A unique feature of the Connecticut plantations is that the delicate leaves are laic on a long mat placed between the rows of plants to prevent them getting dirty or coming into contact with the soil. The mats are then moved onwards by one of the pickers using a machine that resembles a bicycle and finally bundled up and placed in baskets. On the way to one of the drying sheds, we stop off at a field of Connecticut Broadleaf.

This is a variety that grows in the full sunlight, with all its leaves being harvested. The latter are thicker, coarser and very sticky to touch, almost like fly-paper, and yet if treated correctly they produce good binders or even dark and sweet Maduro wrappers. Daniel Núñez does not even attempt to hide his pride in the drying shed before us. It is around 60 metres long and 12 metres high and wide – „a Bentley among barns“, and more than worth its 100,000 US Dollar. It also explains why Connecticut Shade is so expensive. A Casa del Tabaco in the Caribbean costs a fraction of the price, and wages are also considerably lower. A shed like this can dry the tobacco harvested from three acres-and General fills 125 of them each year with Shade tobacco.

A pound of wrappers can cost up to 50 dollars, making it one of the most expensive agricultural products generally. Pairs of leaves are sewn together using huge sewing machines. 22 leaves are then hung on each rod, and up to 13 storeys of rods are stacked in the shed, always keeping the right distance from their neighbours. Many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts have been made toplant Connecticut Shade elsewhere in the Dominican Republic, in Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, and even in Cuba. But nowhere did it prove possible to copy the colour, the texture or the aroma, with Ecuador perhaps coming closest.

The first drying stage, which takes between 6 and 7 days, is assisted by propane gas stoves that are watched over around the clock. An intensive and thick smell pervades the sheds. The next stage uses air-drying, with a sophisticated system of ventilation flaps ensuring that the humidity that the hygroscopic tobacco leaves absorb in the evenings is given off during the daytime. And after six weeks in the shed, the light green of the leaves has turned into a beautiful light brown. Two rods, or 44 leaves, are packed in each box and sent to the Dominican Republic, where the labour-intensive fermentation process begins. The leaves are relayered repeatedly, sorted, packed and stored for several months.

But the detailed description of this process is another story. The Macanudo wrappers undergo a very special treatment. They are returned, packed and fermented, to Hartfield, Massachusetts, where they spend the winter, becoming even milder, softer and more harmonious. I am permitted to take a look at the research station in Bloomfield. Sun-ripened Connecticut Havana Seed is the missing link between Broadleaf and Shade tobaccos rich in essential oils, full in aroma and more flavoursome than Broadleaf. Back in New York, relaxing in a soft leather armchair in the exclusive Club Macanudo in Manhattan’s Upper East Side,I reflect on the impressions of my visit. Smoking a mighty Macanudo Gold Label

Lord Nelson, I gaze at the smoke and suddenly recall Kate Caullman Hedges, another member of the tobacco family, with whom I stood at the top of the World Trade Center many years ago. „You have to love tobacco“, was her advice- and I’ve stuck with it ever since.


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