As the ever-expanding array of cigar smoking options continues to grow, the need for more diverse and resilient seed strains becomes more paramount than ever. Cross-pollination, seed saving, growing environment augmentation, and soil nutrient investments are all in the cards, with countless other considerations stacking the deck.
Broken down to its bare stems and seeds, there are five attributes that all tobacco growers look for in a cigar tobacco strain: a resistance to disease and pests, a sizable annual yield, leaf size and texture, flavor, and aroma, and combustion. Over the past century alone, countless seeds have been crossbred with other strains in the hopes of creating the ultimate tobacco plant. A crop that harbors all of these traits, and which can survive in almost any tropical environment.
But while growing techniques, curing practices, fermentation methods, climate, and the ever-expanding use of various strains of tobacco seed differ greatly from plantation to plantation, there is one thing that every top-tier cigar has in common: All of its leaves are grown in a select few regions of the world.
While cigar brands have long known consumers prefer puffing on a blend of different tobacco leaves in order to obtain a diverse smoking experience, the countries where this leafy foliage thrives share many of the same geographical underpinnings.
So grab your geography caps, cut a Criollo, and reach for that atlas, because the regions of the world where cigar tobacco is grown are just as fascinating as they are diverse.
Hot and Heavy Humidity and the Right Soil Make the Magic Happen
If you want to grow cigar tobacco, and see it truly flourish, you are going to want to spread seed in an environment that receives loads of sun, with lengthy summer growing seasons, fertile yet well-drained soil, and high humidity levels playing equally vital roles.
No matter where it is cultivated, what portion of the cigar body it becomes, or which strain of seed is used, every variety of tobacco destined for cigar production is grown the same way. Rows are spaced 1 meter (3 feet) apart, with plants neighboring one another in 38 to 68 cm (15 to 27 inches) increments. This permits easy tending and harvesting, and allows ample room for sunlight to reach each tobacco plant without it shading-out its neighbors.
Tobacco plants thrive best in rich, well-aerated soil substrate with good drainage and level coverage. Whereas tobacco that is intended for binder and Claro cigar wrapper duty is often grown in sandy, loam-rich soil, more robust, fire-cured tobacco and Broadleaf cigar filler prosper best in silty volcanic loam, as well as loam soils that are heavy in clay.
Germination typically takes place beneath a layer of mulch or cloth, followed by transplanting to the field at 8 to 10 weeks. Although transplanting machines are indeed a thing in the tobacco business, a vast amount of the world’s tobacco continues to be a hand-planted affair.
Being that tobacco is tropical in origin, successful cultivation means frost-free periods of 100-130 days from the date of transplanting to full maturity. The majority of the tobacco found in cigars favors muggy, warmer weather as well, which explains why the majority of the cigar-producing nations on the planet are near the equator.
While other forms of tobacco can handle colder and even monsoon-rich climates–like wild Aztec tobacco, for instance–the Broadleaf varieties and Cuban seed strains found in almost every cigar type sold today prefer life in one of the following regions of the world.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Regardless of whether you adore or abhor the guy, Christopher Columbus and his band of European expeditionaries were the first Eurpeans to record the sight of tobacco being smoked in a somewhat cigar-like fashion. Excerpts from their voyages clearly illustrated seeing tribes from Cuba and the Central Americas smoking long bunches of twisted tobacco leaves, with cured palm leaves and corn husks serving as the cigar wrapper. One can only imagine what we would be smoking today if cigars were still produced in such a fashion.
If the cigars we smoke are the rockets that take our olfactory senses on intergalactic adventures, then the island of Cuba has to be the mothership where it all began. It doesn’t matter what form of cigar style you favor, or what region of the world the tobacco hails from. The centuries-old tradition of Cuban cigar production has crafted a methodology that has no substitute, and is the backbone behind modern cigar culture.
For most Americans, the word “embargo” is the first thing that comes to mind when the phrase “Cuban cigar exclusivity” is uttered. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll discover that there is so much more to Cuban tobacco than political pressure and punitive repercussions.
Unlike many regions of the world where tobacco is produced, Cuban tobacco is harvested, cured, fermented, and hand-rolled exclusively within the country where it originated. Not only does this emphasize quality control, but it also eliminates expenses by keeping the entire operation “in-house.” Not to mention earmarking each cigar produced in such a fashion as “100% Cuban-made.”
As for the whole growing side of things, the vast majority of Cuban tobacco cultivation remains concentrated on the western end of the country, where it has been farmed for centuries. Naturally, soil and climate play a massive role in this cash crop’s locale, as the eastern end of the island rarely produces tobacco with the same caliber of complexity or suppleness.
Tobacco Nerd Note: The word cigar is derived directly from the Spanish word cigarro. Although there is some debate as to how the Spaniards came to adopt this nomenclature, historians point to the fact that it likely originated from the Mayan term “sik’ar" which means “to smoke.”
When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and abolished the Batista regime, many cigar makers decided to jump ship and relocate to the countries surrounding Cuba. One of the most Cuban refugee heavy was the neighboring island of the Dominican Republic, where entrepreneurial minds (and sizable sums of financial influence) found a new home for the countless Cuban tobacco seeds that were smuggled out of the country.
Unlike Cuba, the Dominican Republic relies upon its northern territories for the farming of cigar tobacco, with the Yaque Valley producing what many consider to be the best harvests on the planet. Although the river bearing the same name as the valley it rolls through brings valuable resources to tobacco crops each year, it is the soil that accumulates at the base of the mountain range toward the north that makes this region so ideal.
According to tobacco experts, a combination of cool mountain air, fertile, clay-rich soil with superior drainage, and long summer days all make tobacco the ideal cash crop for those living in the Yaque Valley region of the Dominican Republic. That’s not to say that other areas of the island don’t produce outstanding tobacco, with industry moguls like Tabacalera A. Fuente growing some of the best cigar wrapper offerings in the biz across the southern regions of the country.
Tobacco Nerd Note: In 1640, Connecticut farmers began importing tobacco seeds from Virginia in the hopes of creating their variant. Despite the region’s short growing season and inconsistent summer weather patterns, the sandy loam in the Windsor area of the state yielded extremely flavorful tobacco, especially when shielded from the sun with cheesecloth. While southern climates lend themselves to a wider variety of tobacco growing options, both Shade and Broadleaf variants of Connecticut seed continue to be grown in large quantities in the Connecticut River Valley. This has caused the state of Connecticut to be recognized as a cornerstone of cigar culture, with seeds stemming from this region being utilized in many of the world’s top cigar-producing countries.
For many cigar enthusiasts, Nicaragua is the gold standard for the production of some of the sweetest, spiciest, and most full-bodied cigars on the planet. For tobacco cultivators and aficionados, there’s a little bit of everything in Nicaragua. From lush, rainforest-like valleys, to rocky, yet surprisingly rich volcanic soil along the Pacific coastline, the diversity of tobacco-growing regions within this country is staggering.
But it wasn’t always like this. Social upheaval, coupled with the Contra fiasco of the 1980s turned many of the nation’s tobacco fields into war zones, and with neglect came soil erosion, nutrient deprivation, and an international lack of interest in Nicaraguan tobacco. This was not only due to the United States’ ban on trade with Nicaragua from 1985 until 1990 but due to an overwhelming international distrust of anything coming out of the country.
Nowadays, creamy Connecticut wrappers and floral Habano fillers are in plentiful supply in Nicaragua, with some of the highest-rated cigars on the planet being comprised exclusively of Nicaraguan tobacco. Much of this success is due to companies like Padrón Cigars, a family-owned and run operation that has insisted that the tobacco in every cigar it produces is Nicaraguan grown, and sun-grown at that.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Thanks to advancements in scientific ingenuity and technology, scientists have been able to determine that indigenous tribes were cultivating, harvesting, and smoking ancient forms of tobacco as far north as the North American interior northwest (Plateau). These discoveries predate any European settlement in the area and highlight the robustness of the tobacco plant.
It’s impossible to mention Nicaragua cigar manufacturing, and not include the fact that one of the countries it shares a border with produces some of the finest tobacco products on the planet. This is of no surprise, as the climate, terrain, average annual rainfall, and many other climate-specific considerations are nearly identical to that of its neighbor to the south.
Recognized brands like Camacho and Punch have long been produced in this Central American region, and in recent years companies like Alec Bradley, CAO, and Rocky Patel have also made Honduras their home. Granted, growing climate is responsible for much of the success these brands have experienced in the past few decades, but there’s a deeper story here than just topography and sunshine.
When the whole Contra bloodbath began to force entire villages to relocate in the 1980s, many of the commoners fled to nearby Honduras. Being that tobacco has long been a signature Nicaraguan cash crop, many of the people who ended up in Honduras specialized in the farming, curing, and production of the leaves that make our cigars.
Needless to say, a vast majority of these refugees made Honduras their home, and as the proverbial tobacco torch was passed from parent to offspring, a new generation of Honduran cigar manufacturers emerged from the ashes. Today, Honduran tobacco history and cigar culture are as much a part of the economy as they are a family touchstone and a time-honored career aspiration.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Like vineyards and hop varieties, each tobacco plantation has its own unique climate, soil substrate, and method of plant care, thus making a particular style of cigar as bespoke as the farm where the tobacco is grown. This individuality is further enhanced by the curing and aging of cigar tobacco, with the fermentation methods used during the making of Maduro cigar wrappers imparting additional levels of distinctiveness.
East of Mexico City, near the shoreline of the Gulf Coast, resides one of the most unique tobacco-growing habitats in the world: The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas. Long gone is the raging volcanic action of yesteryear, and in its place flourishes organic abundance of epic proportions.
For tobacco growers like the Turrent family, this range of sleeping volcanoes is not only their home but their financial lifeline. Tobacco has been produced here for centuries, with the Turrent family first forming its legacy in 1880.
It is here that San Andrés black tobacco is grown in abundance, a Maduro staple that has found its way into cigar manufacturing facilities in every aforementioned country save for Cuba. For enterprising brands like Rocky Patel, the use of tobacco leaves from this region of Mexico has brought with them both impressive sales figures and critical acclaim.
Although an impressive amount of tobacco is produced at the Turrent estate(s), not all of it gets shipped to other countries for production. The tobacco grower’s in-house Te-Amo brand is still very much alive and kicking after 60+ years, with spin-off boutique brands like Casa Turrent earning extremely high marks from aficionados and weekend smokers alike.
Even though cigar tobacco has been known to grow in other regions of southern Mexico, it rarely comes close to matching the quality found within San Andrés black tobacco. Part of this is due to the introduction of a hybridized strain of tobacco known as “Habano 2000,” a variety that thrives in this area of Mexico, but struggles to produce consistent crops in neighboring cigar-producing countries to the south. Part of this has to do with the unique type of volcanic earth amassed at the base of the San Andrés mountains, and the fact that early summer’s torrential rains in the region are always followed by a lengthy growing season that lasts well into November.
For cigar manufacturers, it is the wrapper leaf hailing from this area of Mexico that is of particular interest. Originally brought over from Cuba, this hyper-localized black tobacco features the sort of suppleness and dexterity that you want when constructing a cigar. From a flavor and aroma standpoint, the sweet, rich flavor of the leaf and consistent combustibility also make it one of the highest-rated wrappers on the market.
Tobacco Nerd Note: A single tobacco plant can produce anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 seeds in a season. The abundance of seeds produced by the tobacco plant gives a solid explanation for why it was so easy for people to smuggle various strains out of Cuba, and propagate them in various areas around the globe.
As opposed to the sleepy volcanoes that produce Mexico’s prized black tobacco, the lush mountain ranges found on the western side of Ecuador are anything but dormant. Layers of volcanic ash build atop all that they touch in this part of the world, creating a unique growing environment for some of the richest tobacco on the planet.
As the blanket of volcanic ash permeates the air, it not only enriches the soil but also acts as an organic sunscreen for the rows of tobacco growing in Ecuador’s misty mountains. It is here, directly beneath the earth’s equator, that cigar brands like Oliva cultivate their own proprietary blends of cigar tobacco. The mixture of consistent cloud coverage, volcanic ash, and looming mountains makes for an ideal organic shade-grown environment for soft, thinly veined tobacco.
This sort of growing climate is not only ideal for Connecticut and Sumatran tobacco but richer strains as well, many of which were brought over during the Cuban Revolution. Due to this unique growing environment, wrappers from Ecuador tend to be a prized commodity in the cigar world. This has led to the coining of the phrase “cloud-grown,” which many feel to be the most appropriate name for the Ecuadorian environment that lends itself to tobacco production.
Tobacco growing in the United States has a long history that predates the arrival of Europeans. Way before Colonial rule and the advent of Connecticut broadleaf tobacco, or the arrival of the Spaniards in the southern reaches of Florida, indigenous tribes smoked ancient forms of tobacco. However, it would take centuries until the discovery of shade-grown techniques could transform much of the “New World’s” eastern regions into a mecca for Claro cigar tobacco production.
Unfortunately, much of the tobacco grown in the United States these days is no longer intended for hand-rolled cigars, as even the cultivation of prized plants like the Connecticut Broadleaf has been outsourced to the other countries on this list. The cost of labor may have been one of the primary factors behind the demise of cigar tobacco cultivation, but there was way more to it than just dollar figures.
The eastern United States is also not known for its volcanic soil, and outside of areas like Florida, farming environments are hampered by shorter growing seasons and harsh winters. There is also something to be said about the skill level of the workers in cigar factories in places like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, where multiple generations of skilled laborers can often be seen hand-rolling all manner of uniquely shaped cigars alongside one another.
That’s not to say that there are not any premium cigars still being grown and produced in the United States. Handcrafted cigars in Miami and Tampa are still very much a thing, with brands like Florida Sun Grown out of Clermont, Florida growing and rolling long filler cigar tobacco the old-fashioned way.
Tobacco Nerd Note: Founded in 2012, Florida Sun Grown is the first farm in Florida to grow long filler cigar tobacco on a commercial scale since 1977. Since its inception, the brand has gone on to work with industry figureheads like Drew Estate, Davidoff, and Corona Cigars to name but a few.
Sumatra. It’s not just for island adventures and rich coffee drinkers anymore. Tobacco farming in Indonesia is big business, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the island to whom the tobacco strain owes its name. The middle-of-the-road tobacco flavor produced here lends itself to many of the fillers found in cigars produced in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and other Central American countries.
Sadly, much of the tobacco grown in Indonesia is not considered to be of very good quality, with the majority of the matured leaves ending up in European machine-pressed cigars or cigarettes. Even though Indonesia has many of the same elements as many of the world’s leading cigar tobacco-producing countries (tropical, volcanic action galore, long growing season, etc), much of its soil struggles to produce consistent crops due to nutrient depletion and erosion issues. There’s also Indonesia’s typhoon season to consider, which takes place every year from September through December, ruining countless acres of tobacco with each onslaught.
That being said, there is one area that still makes some damn fine long filler for constructing the core of a cigar body. Nowhere is this more apparent than in East Java, just north of Jember. It is here that you will find one of the world’s most fertile tobacco growing regions, a sliver of land that produces some of the world’s best cigar body filler.
Tropical to the point of being almost considered a jungle, the soil in this part of Indonesia produces outstanding tobacco. Experts claim that the humid climate, coupled with the cooler air from the forested areas around the site allows the small plantations that harvest this exclusive tobacco to provide it with a level of care unlike any other.
Cameroon and the Central African Republic
As for cigar tobacco cultivation in areas of Africa, countries like Cameroon in West Africa and the Central African Republic produce an excellent cigar wrapper leaf. Favoring the Ecuadorian approach, almost all of the tobacco that comes out of this area of Africa is sun-grown, including those smooth wrappers that bear the Cameroon nameplate.
Although various other forms of tobacco grow within these two African countries, Sumatran varieties have long been the go-to. What began with Dutch traders bringing tobacco seed from the far reaches of Asia, eventually turned into French colonized plantations in the mid-1900s. By the time the 1980s rolled around, cigar smokers around the world knew the name Cameroon, as the medium-bodied, earthy wrappers coming out of Africa earned rave reviews and international recognition.
Here, the growing seasons are long and rarely fluctuate, with dense cloud coverage rendering the use of canopy covers pointless. The soil is also quite potent in these regions of the world, with many of the plantations using little to no fertilizer in the fields.
Although the country of Peru shares a border with Ecuador and boasts many of the same geographical similarities as its northern neighbor, it rarely receives the same level of credit for the tobacco it produces. This is something that may change over time, as Peru’s volcanic activity and rich mountain cloud coverage offer an outstanding environment for more than just one cigar type.
Cigar manufacturers have recognized this fact, with brands like Montecristo launching an entire line of cigars that rely upon Peruvian tobacco. Major cigar manufacturers like H. Upmann, CAO, and Avo have also capitalized upon Peru’s robust long-filler tobacco crops in recent years, a promising sign for the country’s financial institutions.
One final note, is that the emergence of 100% Peruvian smokes have yet to make a splash on the cigar scene. This is likely due in part to the fact that the country continues to export almost all of the cigar tobacco it produces to neighboring nations and does not have as nearly as impressive of a cigar manufacturing resume.
As you can see, there is more to cigar tobacco than just Cuban crops and Connecticut shade wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
We could go on to great length about the tobacco leaves coming out of Brazil, Trinidad, Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, and Syria, but the smoke that is coming out of these nations tends to be limited to specific cigars that often utilize the country’s name as a marketing method.
Where a tobacco plant is seeded, the seasonal climate changes that it encounters as it grows, and the level of care provided by plantation workers all play a massive role in whether or not it flourishes. But much like the grapes utilized in the wine we enjoy, and the hops added to the beer we guzzle, this adult-oriented product doesn’t rely upon geography for it to flourish. You just have to enjoy the experience it provides and come back for more when it’s all said and done.