Note: I had the pleasure of attending Nick Melilo’s presentation at the PCA 2024 Convention & Trade Show. I did my best to transcribe his words and gather the images used during the slide show, although I wasn’t able to procure all of them. Some images are substitutes and not the exact originals showcased, however they communicate the same content as the originals.

Windsor is right on the heart of the Connecticut River and was one of the first places that started growing cigar tobacco. What was happening at the time was because the Rustica strands were so intense, they started hybridizing these seeds with different seeds that were being traded from the Caribbean, Cuba, Virginia, to make them a bit less potent, otherwise people would be falling on the ground all the time. So these seeds started hybridizing Rustica seeds with Nicotiana Tabacum seeds, and they started growing in Windsor, Connecticut, right in the valley. They were so fertile because of the lake bed of Lake Hitchcock, it left these perfect meadows for growing black tobacco, cigar tobacco. So throughout the 1600s or 1700s, there was a gentleman by the name of General Putnam who was sent to bring some of the first Cuban seeds in the early 1700s to Connecticut. Mainly, the cigar industry in the 1700s was a cottage industry for the most part. People made cigars on their homestead, on their farms. It wasn’t until we get to the late 1700s and early 1800s that the first cigar factory in the United States was built in 1810 in Suffield, Connecticut. I had the pleasure to work closely with Abdel Fernandez from AJ Fernandez; he came up to Connecticut.

That is actually a picture of us at the site where the first cigar factory was in Suffield, Connecticut. It’s not there anymore but the Cigar Association of 1930 erected this stone memorial for the cigar factory. 

As we get into the early 1900s, we’re gonna get into the seeds that are grown in Connecticut. You had something interesting that started in the early 1900s – you had the invention of the cigarette machine. So, you had a lot of tobacco being grown. It started to dip a little bit with the invention of the cigarette machine leading up until kind of World War II. You know, a lot of the troops at the time were given cigarettes in their packs, but Connecticut remained kind of a powerhouse of cigar production. Production in New Haven, Connecticut, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in Hartford, Connecticut, and these factories mainly were making cigars using Cuban filler. The relationship between Connecticut and Cuba goes back hundreds of years.  The manufacturing of cigars in Connecticut were mainly done with Cuban fillers using different Connecticut wrappers that were being grown in the valley.

Mainly throughout the years, there’s three main seed varieties that were grown in the valley. The one to the left you have is the Cuban seed, the middle is your Connecticut broadleaf, and then the infamous Connecticut shade on your right side. These pictures, as you can see, are a little bit dated. I love old tobacco history; these images come from the department of agriculture from the early 1900s. But if you can see, notice the difference between these 3 tobacco varieties. There’s some very distinct differences. With the Havana seed, notice the stock of how the leaves are growing on the leaf. OK, look at the broadleaf. You can see from the short stalkiness, the wider leaves, you can see this plant almost looks more like a filler plant. I’ll get into that a little bit more; it’s shorter, it’s stockier, heavier leaves. And look at the tremendous difference of the Connecticut shade. Much different in the stock position, in the height of the plant. And we’re gonna get into those details in a second.

So, Cuban seed. We know that Cuban seeds were being traded in the late 1600s, 1700s, and then also in the 1800s. The department of agriculture actually started working on enhancing the Cuban seed because there was issues with different diseases in the fields. So, in the 1880s, the department of agriculture actually started distributing seeds to farmers, and they were working on the seeds to strengthen them instead of using different pesticides or chemicals in the fields. One way is to make the seeds stronger and healthier, so they actually worked on the seed. This is where one of the varieties called 142. We produce a cigar called Tabernacle 142 Havana seed, one of my favorite sticks. This came from that period of when they really worked on developing, making this stronger in the field, more resistant against disease. What does that do? It makes for a healthier, stronger plant, which in my opinion produces amazing flavor and taste. One thing about the Havana seed from Connecticut, for me, it’s one of the most unique seed varieties in the world. It has a tremendous amount of oil which produces incredible flavor, but it’s tremendously difficult to ferment, taking between 2 to 3 years in fermentation piles. 

OK, the infamous Connecticut broadleaf. Connecticut broadleaf is actually from what we know is a hybridization of a local seed from Connecticut and seeds that came up from Maryland. I’m constantly doing research because I find things changed throughout my different research. This is pretty much accepted that Connecticut broadleaf was a seed that was hybridized with a local Connecticut seed and a seed that came from Maryland, and we don’t know exactly what the origin of that seed was, but it was brought on because, you can see from the leaves, from making smaller cigars, you can get a tremendous amount of yield because of the larger leaves. Unfortunately, we’ll get into this a little bit later on, it’s quite a challenge for growing broadleaf because, as I said before, this plant compared to wrapper-grade plants looks and acts more like a filler-style tobacco. Filler-style tobaccos are shorter, they’re stockier, they don’t get very tall. Most wrapper tobaccos, this is not the case; they get much taller: 8 feet, 9 feet, and they’re much thinner in the cellular structure of the leaf and the yield. For premium handmaids cigars, it is difficult yielding tobacco compared to other wrapper tobacco. So just to give you an idea, you know Connecticut shade between 4 to 6 pounds, can yield you 1000 cigars with broadleaf, it will take 25 pounds to yield you 1000 cigars. And we’ll also get into some of the challenges in the field.

OK, Connecticut shade. This is an interesting one. So Connecticut shade was actually developed in the late early 1900s because of pressure coming from sales of Sumatra leaf coming from Dutch tobacco traders. So the Dutch had settled Sumatra, Indonesia. They were growing tobacco in jungles, fields that were cut out, and they were protected by the cover of jungle. So the plants were not getting full sun exposure because of the jungle. That produced a very high yielding, smooth, silky wrapper tobacco, and this was crushing the sales of Connecticut broadleaf and Havana seed in Connecticut. So the department of agriculture started working on the development of trying to solve this problem with a new seed variety. So after many years of experimenting, they took Sumatra seed, Cuban seed, and broadleaf and hybridized them together and this became Connecticut shade. This is what we know it’s Connecticut shade. So this was developed in the early 1900s and then a brilliant gentleman came up with the idea of mimicking the jungles of Sumatra by covering the fields with cheesecloth tents. This is what we call tapado. This was developed in Connecticut in the early 1900s. This is used currently in Cuba for growing all their wrapper tobacco. It’s being used now in Nicaragua, it’s used now in many, areas that are trying to grow wrapper tobacco. So this cheese cloth, it produced a micro climate underneath this tent of a 10% higher humidity, less temperature, less sun exposure, and it produced a beautiful, golden, high yielding wrapper tobacco.

Here your picture of Connecticut shade in Windsor. You can imagine the labor that’s involved in putting cheesecloth tents on hundreds of acres of fields in the Connecticut River Valley. This is actually a *picture of me in Ecuador and that is Connecticut shade. So ironically after many years, Connecticut shade dominates the valley for 100 years, it becomes one of the most popular Wrappers still is, you know, I think in the cigar world. At the end of the 90s, at the 80s, the scene was brought down to Ecuador…

*picture not provided

In the next installment, Nick Melilo dives into the nuances of Ecuador Connecticut shade, Foundation Cigars and more. Stay tuned for Part Three!

Alex Mesrobian

Alex Mesrobian is a writer, stand-up comic and scratch DJ who resides in his birthplace, Los Angeles, CA. He has performed at colleges as well as several venues and festivals including the Comedy Store, Hollywood Improv, Ice House, Steve Allen Theater and others. He is currently a writer for the Emmy award-winning animation studio Klasky Csupo Inc.