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By: Lindsay Heller
Unless you're a self-professed nerd when it comes to tobacco, the term "fermentation" probably doesn't mean much to you; if you want to learn why this process is crucial to making your cigars the best they can be, then please read on.
At the risk of oversimplifying a painstaking process, most handmades undergo two fermentations for three key reasons: to remove ammonia, allow for an initial aging of the leaves, and to draw the natural nuances of the tobacco to the surface. This is something which cannot be forced, and not short-cuts taken, otherwise your cigar will surely let you know during the smoking experience.
After the mature leaves are harvested—aka "primed"—the newly-picked crops are tied together, and hung in a barn adjacent to the fields known as a casa del tabaco. Moisture needs to be carefully removed from the leaves in these curing barns before the first official fermentation begins. Temperatures are carefully altered between 70°F to 78°F over the course of approximately six weeks, opening and closing the doors and windows as needed to control the temperature inside. During this process, the tobacco goes from green, to yellow, and eventually dark brown.
Post-curing, the tobacco is carefully bunched in gavillas (or 'hands') containing five or more leaves. As these gavillas begin to accumulate, they are then laid in pilones ('short piles'), which generate a lot of heat. A PVC tube is inserted into the middle of the pile with a thermometer inside to gauge the temperature, as different types of tobacco are fermented to different standards. Generally speaking, once a reading of 95°F is achieved, the pilones are disassembled, and the gavillas are shaken out to remove excess moisture while cooling the leaves simultaneously. Each pile is then reassembled, and this process is repeated for approximately 30 days. After the final disassembly, the leaves are sorted into wrappers, binders, and long-fillers; those identified as best for binders and fillers will now have their thick stem removed.
If you ever go inside one of these active fermentation rooms, you'll never forget the overwhelming stench of ammonia that fills the air, but the removal of this naturally-occurring chemical is a key part of the process.
After reclassification, the leaves are piled into larger structures known as burros, which can be anywhere from 4' to 6' tall. This second fermentation is sped along as the burros are re-humidified, and their internal temperatures are monitored just as they are in the pilón stage. (A disassembling and reassembling occurs continually over the course of roughly 60 days.) This secondary fermentation has the greatest impact on the aromas and flavors of a finished cigar, as the final bits of ammonia are removed, and thus the tobaccos' natural essences can speak more clearly on the palate.
It's worth noting that the length of fermentation varies based on where the leaves originated on the tobacco plant. Ligero leaves take the longest amount of time, as they are both dense and full of natural oils due to their sun exposure. When working with seco or volado leaves from the middle and lower part of the plant, respectively, less time is needed during this second round. It's for this reason that temperatures are watched rather carefully, however, making sure each pile remains between 108°F to 140°F for ideal results. Should the middle of the burros become warmer than 140°F, the tobacco will begin to "burn out," and won't be suitable for premium cigar use. While this can happen, specially-trained workers know it's necessary to disassemble/reassemble any burro that reaches an excess of 140°F, so no part of the harvest is lost.
A THIRD FERMENTATION BEFORE AGING?:
Just like a chef honing a recipe, tabaqueros may choose to ferment their leaves a third time prior to being aged before rolling. This extra step isn't required, but there's a difference of opinion on whether or not this third round provides measurable results. (Some believe a third fermentation creates a more nuanced experience on the palate, while others feel it puts the leaves at risk of losing vital properties which affect aroma and flavor.) Of course the origin of the tobacco, as well as crop health can play a deciding role in this equation, as we must keep in mind leaf quality can vary greatly year-to-year solely based on weather patterns during the growing season.
It's interesting to note that triple fermentation does occur more with cuban tobacco than it does with the non-Cuban brands readily available in the US market. (Cuban Cohibas are triple-fermented, for example.) While manufacturers don't often disclose this type of information in their marketing, Perdomo fans will recognize that the '91' rated Reserve Champagne Noir does boast of two years of aging in bourbon barrels after being fermented three times over.
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