Making sense of Connecticut cigar tobacco

A primer on Broadleaf, Shade, and Ecuadorian Connecticut

Connecticut Shade and Connecticut Broadleaf
A cigar with a Connecticut Shade wrapper (top) and a cigar with a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper. Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

The impact of the 406-mile-long Connecticut River on the world of premium cigars can hardly be overstated. The name “Connecticut” is a French adaptation of a Mohegan word meaning “beside the long tidal river,” and it is precisely beside that long river — but especially in the Connecticut River Valley — that tobacco took root and became a staple in American cigar culture.

Mass production of cigars began in the 1800s, with manufacturers beginning to brand their cigars. The products had matured as a business, fueling tobacco farming. In the 1830s, there was tobacco growing on about 1000 acres of farmland in the region. By 1921, tobacco had spread to about 31,000 acres.

Novice cigar smokers and those who are stepping into their local cigar shops for the first time might be a bit confused by the seemingly conflicting “Connecticut” labels they’ll find on a number of products. Without a bit of background information, making sense of Connecticut’s significance in a humidor can be tough. Even some seasoned smokers don’t quite get it. Really, there are three primary kinds of tobacco with which you should be familiar to understand the “Connecticut” designation.

Connecticut Broadleaf is Hearty, Dark and Strong.

“I believe it was a Dutch explorer named Adriaen Block who first witnessed indigenous tribes trading tobacco along the Connecticut River,” said Nicholas Melillo (who you can follow on Twitter at @NickRAgua), a Connecticut native and the founder and master blender at Foundation Cigar Company. “To my knowledge, most of the tribes throughout the state, even outside the valley, were growing tobacco. When European settlers came in there, they noticed these intervals — or meadows — that came through that area of Hartford and even as far north as Massachusetts.”

At the time, Nicholas said, lots of people grew their own tobacco and made their own cigars on homesteads. What they were growing was largely a variety known as shoestring tobacco. When a man named B.T. Barbour brought a new variety from Maryland, it was (by most accounts) hybridized with shoestring, and so the variety we now know as Connecticut broadleaf was born.

“Broadleaf is grown in direct sunlight,” said Nicholas. “It’s a much thicker, veinier leaf. It’s darker and it can go from a rosado to a very oscuro, dark color. Broadleaf came into favor in the late 1800s and into the 1900s because the leaf was so large, meaning you could get tremendous yields from it. The leaf is earthy and naturally sweet.”

Before he started Foundation Cigar Co., Nicholas (who is also known by his nickname “Chief of the Broadleaf”) was a blender at Drew Estate, a manufacturer whose factory is in Estelí, Nicaragua. He’s widely credited with having led the blending of, among others, Liga Privada No. 9. The Liga 9 blend includes a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper, and that remains one of Drew Estate’s most sought-after products.

Nicholas said that Foundation will release a cigar whose blend incorporates Broadleaf later in 2016.

Another well-known cigar with a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper is the Arturo Fuente Añejo. This cigar’s Broadleaf wrapper is aged in a cognac barrel, which gives it qualities you’d be hard pressed to find in other cigars. Añejo took the No. 3 spot on Cigar Snob’s list of the Top 25 cigars of 2015.

"Connecticut Broadleaf has this sometimes honey-like sweetness and natural sweet aroma, which can’t be replicated anywhere else."
— Nicholas Melillo, founder and blender at Foundation Cigar Co.

Connecticut Shade is Lighter in Color, Strength, and Flavor.

Broadleaf is dark, hearty, and relatively strong. But when many people think of the “Connecticut” category of cigars, the products that come to mind tend to have very thin, silky, light-colored wrappers. They also tend to be lighter on strength and more neutral in flavor. That tobacco variety is Connecticut Shade.

“Shade came to the Valley in the 1890s and early 1900s,” said Nicholas. “It’s a variation of Sumatra tobacco that was brought to Connecticut. At the time, lots of tobacco fields in Sumatra were covered by jungles and trees, so they were naturally shaded.”

When tobaccos like Broadleaf are grown in direct sunlight, the plant sends more nutrients into the leaf, which results in hearty texture and more oils (and, in turn, more flavor). That natural shade condition in which this Sumatra tobacco was grown produced the opposite result: a delicate, mild tobacco. While the Connecticut River made the soil around it fertile ground for tobacco, the region is light on jungle cover, so farmers recreated those conditions artificially by growing the new seed variety under tents. To this day, you can find some farmers in Connecticut growing Connecticut Shade tobacco under cover of cheesecloth.

One example of a cigar with a Connecticut Shade wrapper is the Montecristo White Vintage Connecticut.

So What is “Ecuador Connecticut”?

Rookie smokers with a basic sense of geography might be thrown for a loop when they see this. It’s pretty simple, though; growing the Connecticut Shade tobacco variety happens to be cheaper outside of Connecticut, but the variety retains the name that made it popular.

When it comes to Connecticut shade wrapper, it’s a much more neutral style wrapper,” said Nicholas. “It doesn’t have the thickness and strength that a Broadleaf might have. Ecuador ended up taking over because of yields. They can produce Shade tobacco naturally because of their persistent cloud cover.”

That natural cloud cover means that farmers don’t have to invest in maintaining shady conditions artificially. Add to that the fact that labor is cheaper in Ecuador than in Connecticut, and it becomes clear why Ecuadorian Connecticut has become so attractive to cigar makers — especially considering the fact that this variety’s flavor and strength is mild to begin with. This is a large part of the reason why the farming of cigar tobacco began to decline in Connecticut in the 1950s.

One example of a cigar with an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper is the Oliva Connecticut Reserve.

Growing Connecticut Broadleaf outside of Connecticut is a different story. The variety relies much more heavily on the sedimentation and nutrient-rich soil of the Connecticut River Valley for its signature sweetness and strength, so replicating that anyplace else is difficult (if not impossible). That’s why Connecticut Broadleaf is rarer and more sought after than its lighter Shade counterpart.

“You can take Broadleaf and grow it in Nicaragua. They actually do grow Pennsylvania Broadleaf there, but it’s nothing like what is grown in Connecticut,” said Nicholas. “Connecticut Broadleaf has this sometimes honey-like sweetness and natural sweet aroma, which can’t be replicated anywhere else.”