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Of course, one of the most important elements to creating great cigars is the raw materials. Taste, aroma, ash color and burning qualities are directly related to the soil and climate conditions. The size, color and texture of a cigar leaf is determined by the variety of seed planted. Tobacco seed planting time typically encompasses the months of September and October, and the seeds germinate and grow for about six weeks. The heartiest of these seedlings are transplanted to the fields where they grow about six more weeks until maturity. By this time, the plants have reached a height of almost five to six feet and the leaves start to hang. Here, the growers begin picking, or "priming," the leaf. Usually two to four leaves are taken per priming.
There are three types of leaf on the plant. The mildest-flavored leaf, volado, is from the lower portion, the slightly richer flavored leaf, seco, is from the larger, middle section of the plant, and finally ligero, from the top section of leaves, is the strongest in terms of taste. A well-balanced blend often consists of leaves from all three of these sections.
The plant continues to grow until about January. Each plant is primed as many as six times - this begins first with the volado, then gradually moving up the plant, with a total yield of up to 18 leaves per plant. The green leaves are then sorted by size and texture and braided together with palm strips. Marred leaves are rejected. The leaf is draped over long poles in wooden barns where it is allowed to dry in the tropical heat for three to eight weeks. During this time, it begins to slowly change color from green to splotchy yellow and eventually brown. If a lighter colored leaf is desired, the still partially green leaf is taken to a sealed room where it is heated to control the darkening process. At this point, it is sent to packing houses where it is graded by size, texture and color. The different categories, wrapper, filler and binder, are determined and the leaf is tied together in groups of leaves called "hands."
A second growing season, from December until about April, is also common. The downside is that this crop is often subject to colder and more damp conditions - an environment that can be conducive to Blue Mold infestation, a major concern of tobacco farmers. Once Blue Mold has been established, it can spread quickly and devastate an entire country's crop. In 1990 and again in 1992-1993, Cuba lost most all its crops to this fungus. It also affected the Dominican Republic in 1984. In addition to Blue Mold, tobacco crops are subject to many other afflictions. Blue Shank, Mosaic Virus, and of course the dreaded tobacco beetle.