Our cigarettes are the result of a complex production process in which all the stages are integrated.
There are around 12,000 tobacco seeds in a gram. The seeds are so small that they have to be nurtured in specially protected seedbeds for 60 days before transplanting to the field. After a couple of weeks, soil is banked up around the seedlings for protection and to let them develop a good root system. Two months later, the flowers and some of the upper leaves are ‘topped’ to concentrate growth in the remaining leaves, like ‘pinching out’ tomatoes. As the plants grow, the farmer provides appropriate nutrition and watches out for pests.
In a few countries the crop is mechanically harvested, but more typically, the farmer will harvest it by hand over two to four months, taking off two to four leaves per plant as they ripen.
Curing is a carefully controlled process used to achieve the texture, colour and overall quality of a specific tobacco type.
During the cure, leaf starch is converted into sugar, and the tobacco changes colour from green to lemon, to yellow, to orange to brown, like tree leaves in autumn.
Type of curing is the most important factor of taste. There are four main curing methods:
Air-cured tobacco, such as Burley, is hung in unheated, ventilated barns to dry naturally until the leaf reaches a light to medium brown colour. At this point, there are virtually no sugars left in the leaf.
Heat is introduced into a barn via pipes from an exterior furnace, like radiators connected to a central heating system. This controlled heat allows the leaves to turn yellow/orange, at which point they are fixed, containing a high amount of sugar. Virginia tobacco is flue-cured.
Leaves are strung out on racks and exposed to the sun for 12 to 30 days. The sun's direct heat fixes the leaves at a yellow to orange colour with a high sugar content. Oriental is the most prominent of the sun-cured tobaccos.
Fire-curing follows the same principle as producing smoked ham. Brushwood is burned under the leaves, drying the tobacco and producing a smoky fragrance. This is mainly used in pipe tobaccos or Fine Cut.
After curing, the farmer grades the leaves into different leaf positions, qualities and colours, packs them into 30-50kg ‘farmer bales’ and takes them to a buying centre or auction for sale.
After curing, the leaf is processed through a green leaf threshing plant. During threshing, the lamina is separated from the stem and subjected to a series of quality checks to ensure all sand, dust, scraps and foreign matter are removed. During processing, the moisture in the tobacco is brought down to a safe ‘keeping’ level and the processed tobacco is packed into 200kg cardboard boxes for shipping to manufacturing sites.
Manufacturing tobacco products is a large-scale operation.
When processed tobacco leaf arrives at the factory, it is checked for quality and carefully blended with other tobacco and any ingredients that the brand recipe may call for, such as flavourings that balance the taste.
Keeping track of the various types of tobacco and blend components in use is a highly technical process and computers track production runs. Moisture content is also crucial. If it is excessively dry, the tobacco leaf will crumble; if it is too moist, it may spoil during storage. The blended tobacco is treated with just the right amount of steam and water to make it supple and is then cut into the form used in cigarettes. Excess moisture is then removed so the cut tobacco can be given a final blending and quality check.
Cigarette making, once done entirely by hand, is now almost fully automated, with the cut tobacco, cigarette paper and filters continuously fed into cigarette-making machines. Quality is a top priority. Each cigarette is automatically quality controlled to ensure that it meets every aspect of its specification.
Packing machines put them into the familiar brand packs, wrap the packs in protective film and group them into cartons and cases. There is more testing at each stage to make sure the cigarettes are properly protected before the completed cases are ready for distribution.