A few years back, I spent an entire weekend with famed Porsche builder and automotive celebrity Magnus Walker at the annual Ohio Concourse d’Elegance historic automobile event. While at the occasion, I distinctly recall overhearing two gentlemen nearby questioning whether or not it might be best to notify the authorities about a homeless man sneaking into the event.
They were referring to Magnus, whose unkempt beard, dreadlocked hair, and tattered designer jean jacket had caused them to falsely label him as a grifter. Little did these gentlemen know that the man they were blatantly judging was the guest celebrity of the show that weekend, and one of the wealthiest individuals in attendance.
Passing judgment. We all do it, regardless of whether it is intentional or involuntary, and it doesn’t just apply to attire and personal hygiene. The same can be said for cigar culture, where the uninformed immediately assume that just because a wrapper is dark in color, it must be full-bodied.
For the uninitiated, the notion of a maduro cigar being mild in flavor is about as obtuse as it gets. But as you shall soon discover, judging a wrapper by its color doesn’t always warrant an accurate assessment.
What Makes a Maduro Cigar Different?
Maduro tobacco has evolved to a point where it now covers a spectrum so wide, that even the wrapper leaf that it lends its name to must be subcategorized. That said, the blanket term itself does encompass more than one specific cigar type and production method.
Throw this Spanish based word into your favorite translation app, and you will likely end up with a definition that resembles the following:
/ma'duɾʊ/ (also madura /ma'duɾa/)
ripe, ripened, mature, adult, fully-fledged
This isn’t just about a dark wrapper, or some classification pertaining to a particular seed strain or tobacco growing region of the world. It transcends descriptors, turning a cigar’s body, flavor, and strength levels into just a secondary afterthought.
Making a maduro cigar requires skill and an immense understanding of tobacco cultivation and curing. Part chemistry, part compost, the art of crafting these earthy cigars has required more trial and error than any plantation cares to recall.
The leaves that are grown for Maduro cigar production are almost exclusively of a wrapper variety. This means setting aside the most prized (and expensive) leaves of the tobacco plant for maturation, a risky endeavor that leaves ample room for multiple margins of error. However, if done properly, a master cigar producer can take the most unassuming-looking green tobacco leaves, and turn their chlorophyll-rich canopy into an amusement park for our olfactory senses.
Controlled levels of sun exposure, postponed harvesting, pressurized curing, extensive fermentation methods, or a combination of some (if not all) of the above determine the depth of the color perceived. Based upon the grade of augmentation, shades of maduro run anywhere from a ruddy brown to a jet black tint that even Batman would envy.
On one end of the cigar style spectrum, you have the Colorado Maduro, a rich, reddish chestnut brown colored wrapper that can be a bit spicy and full-bodied if pulled from the top of the tobacco plant. This is followed by the plain old maduro wrapper, which many consider being almost dark roasted coffee in color. After that, you’ve got the “Double Maduro,” which is extremely opaque, and commonly used interchangeably with the word “Oscuro,” which is about as dark as it gets.
Darker wrappers can often be a bit on the oily side, with certain cigars like The Cellar Reserve Limitada 15-Year Soalro Maduro from Ghurka boasting a natural sheen that is impossible to ignore. This isn’t some specialty smoke either, but a core product within the brand’s portfolio.
Today, the maduro cigar wrapper is one of the most popular styles of smoke, as the old stigma that opaque equals “strong tobacco” has slowly but surely been set straight by industry experts and those who aren’t afraid of the dark.
How Maduro Wrappers Got Their Start
Maduro-wrapped cigars are a relatively recent invention. This is due to the fact that for the longest time green Double Claro “Candela” cigars and Connecticut Shade leaves were all the rage in much of the world. The majority of the darker tobacco that was grown either was set aside for limited production releases for particular clients or vendors, or ended up being smoked by the farmhands that tended to the plants as a “year-end bonus.”
For much of the world, this unique style of cigar did not become a smoking hot sensation until about half a century ago, when cigar smokers began to demand more robust and complex flavor profiles. In response to this demand, cigar brands began to experiment with ways in which they could take your garden variety cigar wrapper leaf, and turn it into something far more earthy and complex. Unfortunately, this also led to some rather shady maduro production methods, resulting in countless cigar shoppers being duped into purchasing maduro stogies, only to discover that they had procured a counterfeit product.
While it is rare to see these practices being used on the top-tier cigars of today, the act of dying tobacco leaves with a boiling hot blend of water, molasses, and previously damaged maduro wrappers was quite common at one point. By doing this, nefarious cigar manufacturers were able to cut corners financially, bring their product to market faster, and fool the untrained eye of inexperienced cigar smokers. Splotchy, unevenly colored maduro wrapper leaves are always a dead giveaway that the fermentation process has been sidelined in favor of faster results, and should be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately, these shady tactics have long been exposed and are virtually nonexistent nowadays. The maduro cigars of today are almost always 100% naturally fermented the old-fashioned way, with zero corners cut or dyes added along the way.
But in order to get to this point, the development of some incredibly creative harvesting and fermentation methods had to be both tested and proven to work time after time. And as the public’s interest in maduro cigars grew, so too did the number of tobacco seed varieties that were set aside with dark intentions.
How to Make a Fermented Maduro Cigar Wrapper
A long time ago, maduro cigar wrapper production came exclusively from the oldest leaves on the tobacco plant, which coincidentally sit right at the top, where the strongest concentration of sunlight can be felt.
Instead of harvesting these leaves along with all of the other tobacco on the plant, plantation workers would allow the upper foliage to continue to mature and darken until it had ripened almost to the point where it would be considered to be spoiled by some. This not only produced a very appropriate name for the style of dark tobacco leaf wrapper, but it also made for some very full-flavored smoke, as all of that time in the sun kicked that chlorophyll conversion process into overdrive.
While certain cigar manufacturers still rely upon Mother Nature to turn tobacco leaves into a maduro wrapper, this practice has been almost completely replaced by the use of fermentation, time, and a massive amount of sweat equity.
Step 1: Chop it Like It’s Hot
After being allowed to ripen on the plant to the point where they are deemed ready, tobacco plants are either chopped to the ground via a stalk-cut or stripped of their leaves, a method that is called “priming.” The leaves are then allowed to wilt in the sun before being hung to dry. This curing stage can be conducted either out in the field on makeshift poles or under the cover of a barn roof or open shed.
Step 2: Ferment With Fervor
Once the wrappers have expelled most of their moisture and turned brown, they are transported to an indoor fermentation area. There, the leaves are layered horizontally lasagna-style, in large piles called pilonés. It is within these hulking heaps that any residual moisture left within the leaf is exfoliated, as, in true leaf mulch fashion, the pile of maduro leaves slowly begins to break down. As the starches convert to sugar, the weight of the tobacco stacked atop applies pressure, turning the center of the stack into a compact, piping hot oven.
Routine temperature checks are vital during this stage, as they ensure that the tobacco is fermenting at an appropriate heat range. Too much heat and you’ve got full-blown decomposition on your hands. Not enough heat and the maduro fermentation process gets stuck in limbo.
Step 3: Stay Calm, And Remain Patient… Really Patient
If all goes well, the center of the piloné will eventually hit 140–150° Fahrenheit, at which point the leafy structure is disassembled by hand, and then reconstructed, with the outer leaves being moved to the center for even fermentation across the board. This process will be repeated many times, with fermentation durations, rotation schedules, and bulk height varying depending upon how rich or dark the finished product needs to be.
All told, the maduro fermentation process takes at least five years before it can be considered mature, with double maduro and oscuro variants requiring even lengthier fermentation periods. This labor-intensive, lengthy procedure has caused certain brands to skip the fermentation method entirely, and utilize a technique that “cooks” the tobacco leaves with steam and heat. Cooking tobacco leaves until they turn into a maduro may not be traditional, but it isn’t illegal either, and it’s definitely a lot better than dying a leaf black.
Tobacco Nerd Note: If allowed to reach too high of a temperature, the leaves within a piloné could begin to smolder, potentially setting the entire heap ablaze. Although it is exceedingly rare to see tobacco barns go up in smoke due to improperly rotated bulk tobacco, the right mixture of moisture, excessive pressure, and thermophilic bacteria have been known to cause temperatures to soar in organic matter. This can create an extremely dangerous situation, especially when the room you are standing in is filled to the rafters with drying tobacco leaves.
Types of Tobacco Used to Make a Maduro Cigar Wrapper
The maduro wrapper selection process requires a rigorous amount of vetting, not just after the leaves are harvested and fermented, but before the seed ever hits the soil.
Pampering will only get you so far when producing maduro cigar wrapper tobacco. The additional strain placed on the plant due to lengthier leaf maturation times, followed by high heat oven curing conditions, and prolonged, multi-stage fermentation processes push tobacco leaves to extremes.
Over the past few decades, countless tons of top-shelf maduro tobacco have either been repurposed into less premium products or disposed of in their entirety due to not surviving the hardships placed upon them.
This explains why to this day, sun-grown varieties of Broadleaf tobacco, with their veiny, thick leaf construction hold the title belt as the top choice for maduro wrapper production. These squat, oily, and ultra elastic leaves not only lend themselves to the earthy, sweeter undertones that maduro smokers prefer, but are also far more resilient and darker in color than their softer, shade-grown siblings.
Something like a Connecticut Shade wrapper would disintegrate rapidly if subjected to anything beyond an initial maduro fermentation stage, as intense internal temps within the piloné, or during the stack’s restructuring prove to be too harsh for this delicate wrapper.
And while Broadleaf tobacco grown in Connecticut continues to be the go-to wrapper for many maduro producing cigar brands, there are some outstanding maduro cigar wrapper alternatives.
Almost all of the varieties of tobacco listed below have been proven to perform well during the maduro conversion process, with certain seed strains surpassing Connecticut Broadleaf in regard to structure, color, and flavor.
Soil and climate have just as much to do with the quality and flavor of cigar tobacco as the variety of seed being cultivated. For instance, maduro tobacco grown in the lush basin regions of the San Andres mountain range on the Gulf Coast of Mexico has quickly become a favorite tobacco-growing region for the world’s top cigar brands. Meanwhile, Padron prefers the rich, volcanic soil of Nicaragua for its maduro wrappers, earning the company equally high points from casual smokers and critics alike.
Fermentation timeframes will also vary depending upon which part of the plant is used. Lower, more shaded leaves called seco, are rarely fermented for very long, whereas the thick ligero leaves toward the top can spend a half-decade or more fermenting.
In order to get a tobacco leaf that can stand up to the abuse that maduro wrappers must endure, direct sunlight and a method called “topping” must be implemented. Topping is essentially the act of pruning a tobacco plant’s flowers so that all of the nutrients that would normally go into producing seed can be rerouted to those lush leaves we adore.
For maduro wrappers, the best leaves almost always come from the upper portions of the plant. Here, the added benefit of additional oils and sugars within the leaves adds even more value to the crop, as tobacco blenders have discovered that the more flavorful upper portions of the tobacco plant can often be balanced by these sugars.
Tobacco Nerd Note: As the maduro cigar craze continues to evolve, cigar manufacturers have gone to great lengths to bring fresh buying options and limited release dark leaf offerings to market. This has led to the crafting of some very creative maduro wrapper variants, with companies like Perdomo leading the way, as the brand stuffs 6-year aged Cuban-seed Nicaraguan maduro wrappers inside repurposed bourbon barrels for an additional 14 months of aging.
Smoking and Storing Maduro Cigars
Now that’s not to say that all maduro cigars are sticky, sweet, or mild in flavor. Like their lighter-colored Claro cousins, maduro tobacco harbors flavor profiles that are as far-flung as the growing regions where it hails from.
As with any hand-rolled, long-filler cigar, its internals can greatly influence how a maduro tastes, burns, and evolves as it is smoked. Maduro blends can vary greatly, as there is no regulation on what this style of cigar must entail outside of its dark, heavily fermented wrapper.
This creates an endless array of flavor profiles and strength options for master blenders to choose from when crafting a maduro cigar. Spicy, Colorado Maduro tobacco filler stuffed inside a peppery ligero Nicaraguan binder and finished with a Brazilian maduro wrapper is going to have a considerable amount of strength. In contrast, something like an Oliva Serie V Melanio Maduro is going to be much more mellow, with the additional aging of its tobacco contents providing a chocolaty flavor and milder spice notes.
But while extra fermentation does indeed help mellow out most forms of maduro tobacco, it does create its challenges for the average cigar smoker.
Thanks to its tough genetic makeup, and oily nature, maduro tobacco takes some time to burn. This can cause uneven burn issues to surface, or worse yet, dead spots to develop. Lighting etiquette has a fair deal to do with whether or not a maduro cigar burns properly. So when in doubt, toast first, and make sure that the foot (the end of the cigar that you light) has been lit in its entirety with a torch flame lighter or Spanish cedar before you begin to puff away.
Being that most maduro cigars are teaming with oils, tannins, sugars, and other sticky stuff, the need for a lower humidity setting is often a prerequisite, especially when storing them in large quantities. Too much humidor humidity can cause all manner of issues to arise, with poor combustion and uneven burning being the least of your worries when the appearance of mold makes its way into your humidor.
Tobacco Nerd Note: The terms cooked maduro and roasted maduro were coined during the cigar boom of the 1990s, when certain tobacco brands struggling to keep up with demand, began heating maduro tobacco leaves in roasting ovens to expedite the fermentation process. While it may not be illegal or misleading (especially when the maduro cigar is advertised as “oven treated”), purists abhor the fact that this practice came to pass.
Hopefully, by this point, you’ve decided that it might be time to give a maduro cigar a try, or maybe another try if that first experience wasn’t your cup of caffeine.
Regardless of how you feel about the subject, there is one fact that cannot be ignored: Maduro cigars are the coffee of the tobacco world, and they tend to get a bad wrap. Wait a sec. There’s a dad joke in there somewhere…
Available in a multitude of flavor profiles and strengths, maduro tobacco offers everything from spicy and floral, to chocolaty and earthy flavor profiles. Hell, we’ve even got bourbon barrel-aged variants on the tasting menu, along with a load of vintage options from the biggest names in the biz.
It may not be for everyone, but for those who are into an earthy, rich cigar smoking experience, there is no substitute for the complexity that a finely crafted maduro cigar provides. Granted, you have to be in the mood for something complex and rich, but as the information above clearly illustrates, that does not constitute a full-bodied smoking experience.
This is one of the primary reasons why bespoke cigar subscriptions have become so popular in recent years. Being able to choose a particular flavor profile or strength level, and exploring the wide array of shades, flavors, and styles that arrive every month provides cigar smokers the chance to step out of their comfort zone and experience the best tobacco on the planet.
Looking to learn a bit more about maduro tobacco or cigars in general? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be more than happy to get you the answers you crave.