Cigar Tobacco: Shade-Grown vs Sun-Grown

When it comes to cigar debates, few are as heated as the one over whether shaded tobacco is smoother than the sun-grown stuff. Everyone experiences a cigar differently, but the divide runs deep between these camps. 

But today’s topic is more than just a discussion about taste. As a heavily cultivated cash crop, quality control remains a cornerstone of every step of the tobacco production process. And sometimes the summer growing season is a little hotter, or the nutrients in the soil aren’t the same. Crop consistency is an ongoing challenge, and this is oftentimes a factor in the quality between shade-grown and sun-grown tobaccos. 

Regardless of the weather, cigar smokers continue to buy millions of shade-grown and sun-grown cigars every year. Some of them truly understand the significance of the product in their possession, many others do not. 

But is one actually better than the other? That depends on your outlook and a whole lot of human intervention.

Digging Up Tobacco’s Roots

To truly understand this entire grudge match, one must first look at where the tobacco plant comes from. We won’t get into that whole horticulture history lesson today, just note that the majority of the cigar tobacco grown in the world hails from humid, lush, heavily vegetated environments. Got a dash of volcanic ash to throw into the mix? Great. Tobacco loves the stuff. 

While central and south America and its surrounding islands immediately come to mind, countries like Cameroon, Indonesia, and the state of Connecticut all produce quality cigar tobacco as well. We’ll focus a bit more on the latter of these, as Connecticut stands as the origin of the whole shade-grown tobacco phenomenon.

Regardless of their environment, most tobacco plants rarely crest 2-meters. Sun-grown tobacco is broad but rarely gets past shoulder height, whereas shade-grown variants tend to be more willowy and notably taller. Regardless of what their height may be, both forms of tobacco develop softer, lighter tinted foliage when an organic canopy is present. Hence the leaves toward the center of the tobacco plant being milder or pailer than those toward the top.

“Personal preferences are like palates. Both are easily offended by the unexpected.” -Anonymous

The Sun-Grown Factor

Just like that barfly down at the local watering hole who’s spent entirely too much time outdoors, tobacco leaves also tend to toughen up when left out in the sun. When tobacco is grown in direct sunlight it forms a coarse, leathery form of foliage. Its center spines also become broader, and a more prominent aroma develops, which can be detected even when the leaves are still on the plant.

Part self-defense factor, part positive repercussion, the heavy concentration of oils, resins, sugars, nicotine, and chlorophyll that materialize when a tobacco plant spends its entire life in the sun is mind-boggling.

However, older leaves toward the bottom tend to remain shaded by the foliage growing above. It may not be a full-blown shade-grown sort of scenario, but the softness of the leaves toward the center of a tobacco plant is often instantly recognizable by touch alone.

Tobacco Nerd Note: For more on the complexities of growing and cultivating, be sure to check out our pillar post that’s all about the many different types of tobacco leaves. Not all, but most tobacco plants are typically harvested from the ground up, and this in itself greatly affects the cigar flavor profile and smoking experience.

Taking an Expensive Stroll Down Shady Lane

Tent canopy. It’s not just for glamping and backyard patios anymore.  

When it comes to tobacco, certain cigar types prefer to be primed or picked after being allowed to languish in partial sun. That sort of dappled lighting that you find in the rainforest. You know, the sort of environment where tropical plants like tobacco flourish.

But from a large plantation owner’s perspective, hunting for tobacco in a jungle adds entirely too much to the bottom line. Neatly cultivated rows are the obvious choice, with very few outcroppings or obstacles around them to interfere with daily plantation work. 

So with shade far away, the only logical option is to diffuse the sunlight via translucent man-made materials that had been suspended on poles and then held down with rigging. 

What started with hand-sewn sheeting and scrap cloth, evolved into sprawling rolls of cheesecloth, and ultimately on to nylon tent materials. Despite its added expense and inconvenience, the methods used to promote healthy shade-grown tobacco of today are undeniable. 

Hacking away at an organic forest canopy is dangerously hard work, especially when you have thousands of priceless tobacco plants growing underneath. Adjusting the level of sunlight a shade-grown tobacco plant receives either by removing or adding a nylon sheet is the safest and swiftest method. You can also change the sheet out in its entirety for a different density as you so wish for producing a different cigar type. Consistency and quality control are both elevated exponentially when “man-made shade” is utilized.

Tobacco Nerd Note: Tobacco isn’t the only plant whose flavor benefits from shade. Coffee has long been known to offer more sensuous undertones and reduced bitterness levels when cultivated beneath a canopy. Long utilized, but recently rediscovered on a massive scale, shade-grown coffee has seen an explosion in interest in the past few years alone.

Sun-Grown Stereotypes, Well-Founded or Completely False?

Prized for its resilient structure and robust smoking sensations, sun-grown cigar tobacco is both feared and adored the world over. 

Spice, sweetness, toast, richness, aroma, strength, body, flavor, and every other discernible accent from the tobacco plant is magnified under direct sunlight. From a cigar master blender’s perspective, this offers an outstanding opportunity to craft a filler that is loaded with substance. Over the years, many a cigar flavor profile and cigar type has been enhanced by Connecticut Broadleaf tobacco, and not just from a sensory perspective either. 

The solid structure of this hearty Connecticut-bred leaf lends it to be an excellent aid in both construction and combustion. It also feels fantastic, with its rich oils adding a fantastic texture to the outer layers of a cigar.

Sun-grown tobacco was never intended to be “just filler.” Cigar wrapper selections of the sun-grown variety come in a broad array of colors, textures, oiliness levels, flavors, and strengths. Over the past few decades alone some of the top-rated cigars on the planet have come cloaked in a sun-grown wrapper, with the most vibrant being of sun-grown origin throughout.

For most cigars though, the art of blending tobaccos for a multi-tiered result is where all the action is packed. A balanced premium cigar blend is like a fine blended scotch whiskey or an imperial stout with a massive grain bill. Variety and equilibrium are the objectives.

Indulging in sun-grown stuffed, shade-grown wrapped premium cigar blend is a type of multitasking that packs a punch. This has caused the vast majority of stogies produced today to be of a blended cigar type, and the reasoning is simple. A beautifully blended cocktail can hit the spot when sipping liquor on the rocks seems too abrasive. 

One final note about sun-grown tobacco worth mentioning is that certain growing environments are prone to far more organic shade than others. Mountain peaks and cloud coverage are both uncontrollable aspects to consider, as they can either hurt or help a light-dependent crop like tobacco.

Take Ecuador for instance. This South American country receives an insane amount of cloud coverage every year, especially up in the northern reaches of the Andes mountain range just south of the capital, Quito. Volcanic activity also plays a role here, not just in the soil that is produced, but in the sunlight that it obfuscates.

A concoction of consistent cloud coverage, volcanic ash, and massive mountain peaks make Ecuador the ideal organic shade-grown environment. In recent years, the phrase “cloud-grown” has grown in popularity, as it accurately depicts Ecuador’s unique tobacco-growing climate.

The Connecticut Disconnect

All too often, you will overhear a person referring to a Connecticut leaf-wrapped cigar as one of mild strength and color. This is a very misleading statement.

Classifying an entire area of the world as “guaranteed mild tobacco land” is like referring to all ale as “strong beer.” Both are entirely too broad of a generalization.

Connecticut Broadleaf is an excellent example of a robust tobacco varietal. While the shade-grown sibling evolves beneath a tent, it's darker, more broadly built big brother soaks up the sun’s rays. Bolder, and far squatter of stature, Connecticut Broadleaf cigars tend to feature a much more venous tobacco leaf wrapper, and a flavorful one at that.

That’s not to say this style of tobacco and the cigar type it creates is going to be stronger. Cigar body, strength, and flavor are all different characteristics, and like the topic of today’s discussion, vary greatly depending upon personal preference.

Another common Connecticut misconception is that cigars rolled with these unique leaves cost the same. Wrong again, hombre.

Every square centimeter of topado tent–as well as the clasps, grounding staves, canopy support poles, and rigging that keep it all together–cost money. The human labor that erects and tends to this coverage costs money too, as does the transportation and storage of these humongous canopies. 

All shade-grown tobacco succumbs to additional expenses. 

Sun-grown tobacco, conversely, requires little more than an ideal growing environment and a dash of human care along the way. Keep this in mind next time you go cigar shopping because the prices between sun and shade-grown can sometimes be staggering.

Tobacco Nerd Note: For sun-grown Connecticut Broadleaf tobacco plants, life tends to end rather dramatically. Unlike most shade-grown cigar leaves, which are slowly harvested from the ground up throughout the growing season, sun-grown varieties are felled all at once. Allowing the entire plant to reach maturity, and then abruptly harvesting it at once serves two purposes. It saves precious man-hours, and it allows the plant’s leaves to form a more notable character.

Parting Puffs

Depending upon the sort of smoking experience you are after, shade and sun-grown tobacco can either be deemed delicious or be labeled as “entirely too strong,” or “bland beyond compare.”

But whereas personal taste plays an immeasurable role in how we perceive tobacco smoke, there is much that can be attributed to the quality control that goes into a cigar’s cultivation and production.

There’s a reason why the majority of people who prefer a milder smoke continue to reach for a shade-grown wrapper, whereas fans of full-bodied stogies fawn over sun-grown leaves. The curing, fermentation, and harvesting processes may influence a bevy of sensory experiences, but it all starts with where the tobacco plant itself is grown.

We suggest trying an array of wrapper shades, starting with a cigar flavor profile you’ve never tried before from a tobacco brand you know and trust. 

Here at Klaro Cigars, we only select the finest 90+ rated premium cigar blend options from around the world for the Klaro Monthly Cigar Subscription Program. Some of these cigars may surprise you. Others will be extremely true to style. Regardless of whether it be shade-grown, sun-grown, or something in between, experiencing the myriad of cigar options that are out there is why we are all on this journey together.