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Harvest!

July 22, 2011

I’ve been pretty busy of late so posting here has been light. My time has been consumed by summer activities including my gardening and working some really strange hours. The good news is, that my gardening labours are finally bearing fruit. Or leaves. Depends on how you view it. I have been harvesting tobacco for the past month or so. One leaf at a time.

0207 024The plants took off about two months ago after lying still in the garden for four weeks or so. Suddenly they started to go up, and out. Taking the advice that I could find on internet forums, I have been harvesting leaves as they yellow on the stalk. The leaves get hung on strings in my woodshed and they die slowly and turn a rich golden brown colour. This is known as “colour curing” and is necessary unless one wants to smoke green leaf, which isn’t particularly attractive either to the eye or the palate. I have invented a system that allows me to add leaves to my strings at one end and remove finished leaves at the other. Henry Ford would be proud of me. 0207 023The leaves are heavy when picked but dry out to be extremely light. Some of that weight will be put back as curing goes on as I need to rehydrate the leaves later, but that’s another story. As my leaves dry, I store them in a cardboard box where they will wait for further treatment. One can decide to simply leave them hanging where they are and they will naturally air cure over about six months to a year. I can’t wait that long so I decided to attempt fermenting my leaves.

There are several ways to achieve fermentation. The simplest is to stack the leaves in piles and monitor the internal temperature of the pile. A natural fermentation will generate heat and when the centre of the pile reaches 50° one simply opens the pile and rearranges the leaves. Fermenting tobacco releases unwanted substances and will generate a smell of ammonia. Once that smell is gone, the tobacco is ready for aging or storage. This process requires constant monitoring and a lot of work. Not really my cup of tea. If you screw it up, you get compost.

I decided to build a fermenting cabinet. One needs a container large enough to hang tobacco bundles in, a heat source, humidity and circulation. I considered building a cabinet out of wood and styrofoam. I had made plans and drawings. I consulted with other growers. And then a miracle happened. Our old refrigerator broke down. I now have the perfect container for my fermenter and my dear lady has a new fridge. Everyone’s happy.

My set up is simple, because I’m not a genius and I hate complication. Keeping it simple has always been my motto.
So.. I ran an electric lead into the fridge through the condensation outlet, so I didn’t need to get too technical with the tools. I hooked up a light bulb and an old computer fan to the lead and plugged it into the wall. Hey presto, light, heat and circulation. Humidity is supplied by an old paint tray filled with water. That gives me a large surface area of water to evaporate and it provides the exact 75% humidity I need to ferment. Luckily, I get the right temperature from the light bulb too. Had it been too high, a weaker bulb would have done the job, too little and a stronger one would have had to be inserted.
I found an old tubular curtain rod and cut it to length so that it fits across the top shelf supports in the fridge. My tobacco gets hung, in tied bunches, on that.

I hung a thermometer in the fridge together with an old hygrometer from a humidor. That gives me a method of controlling the heat and humidity inside the cabinet.

I fitted a locking latch to the door to keep it firmly closed and, finally, I drilled a couple of holes in the sides of the cabinet to allow air in at the bottom and out at the top. Air comes in at the bottom left and out at the top right.  Heat rises, as does the water vapour and it appears to work as I want it to. I can see steam leaving the outlet holes in the evening. The fan provides circulation inside the box.

I paid pennies for the whole set up.  Cheapest thing I ever built.

All I need to do, is top up the water tray in the evening and check the tobacco for mould. If that appears, then I’ll stop the process, dry the tobacco again, brush off the dead mould and then restart the fermentation process. Apparently, that’s OK and is not detrimental to either the tobacco or me.

My first tobacco will be ready in about two weeks. Then I’ll have to figure out how to store it and age it. The best of it all is, that it will be smokeable from that point on.

I can’t wait to try it!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 17:36

    Great post! I think every pipe smoker has dreamed of growing their own tobacco, but you sir, have done it! I look forward to hearing more about how providence and invention collide to create this greatness!

    Thanks Brad. I’m really looking forward to filling a pipe with it. I have no idea as to what I may have achieved as far as taste and quality goes, but if nothing else, I can use it to dilute or fortify bought brands of tobacco. Either way, it will get smoked and it will reduce my tobacco bill!
    Providence and invention? More like luck and clumsy experimentation..! But hey, it’s passed the time and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it so far. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but even she is beginning to cheer me on… There may be hope for me yet!
    Exile.

  2. John permalink
    July 28, 2011 12:37

    Bravo! I look forward to a review of ‘Exile’s Blend’.

    Thank you John. So do I..! Actually, the tobacco has been hanging in my woodshed, which is half full of oak wood ready for the stove next winter. I love the smell of that old oak. Hoping that the leaves might absorb a little of the aroma, I thought I might call my tobacco “Old Oak Virginia” and “Old Oak Orinoco”. But then again, what do I call it after I’ve blended the two varieties?

    Oh no. More worries..!!

    Exile.

  3. Jim permalink
    July 29, 2011 02:29

    I was recently in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and they have several buildings that are used specifically to dry tobacco. The aroma was incredible, something that certainly needs to be enjoyed in person at least a few times in ones lifetime.

    Indeed. I’d love to visit a real tobacco farm one day. If for no other reason, than to see how it’s done and smell the stuff on a grand scale.
    I envy you and your experience.
    Exile.

  4. Brian permalink
    October 14, 2013 16:08

    How did your tobacco smoke? I can’t see any later posts where you report. Have you grown more in latter years?

    Brian

    Hi Brian. Yep. I grew some more the following year. I didn’t grow any this year as I still have so much leaf left and once it’s dry, you can store it forever… I use it to dilute bought Virginia blends and it smokes very well. I’m still experimenting with fermentation but due to work pressures and other domestic problems, I’ve had to put the project on the back burner.
    Exile.

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