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.

I had the pleasure of speaking with David Perez from ASP Tobacco actually a couple of hours ago. He was one of the first, along with his father, to bring Connecticut shade to Ecuador. From the late 80s until the present, Connecticut shade production in the valley has gone down to almost nothing. So, as far as my knowledge goes, there’s no one currently growing shade under shade. There is a lot of experimentation happening in the valley using Connecticut shade seed, but it’s grown in the sun. A friend of mine, John Foster, is one of the farmers leading the way in experimenting. Unfortunately, no experimentation happened at the end of the 80s when they brought the seed down to Ecuador.

Ecuador is interesting because it has cloud cover during the growing season all the time. This thin layer of clouds acts as the natural shade, so it’s not necessary to put cheesecloth tents over the fields. It took about five years to acclimate, and then the seed really started taking in Ecuador throughout the 90s into the 2000s, and slowly the production has gone down. 

The picture here in *Ecuador is actually the plant; this is what they call desflorado. You might’ve heard the term. This is one of the only places that I know that actually lets the tobacco flower. OK, so you can see those are all tobacco flowers. That’s not common. Most tobacco plants are topped around 55 to 60 days. The idea is to try to get the energy to go from not producing a flower into the leaves. What’s happening here is they actually want it to flower because they want to lose weight. Usually, when you let tobacco flower you lose about 2% per acre. Most people don’t want that because they don’t want to lower the weight, but in this case, it makes the leaf thinner, which is great for wrapper tobaccos.

Connecticut faces a lot of challenges, and the biggest challenge has been weather. We start the growing season in April, that’s when the seed beds start. We’ve been plagued, unfortunately, with a lot of rain over the past seven years. Last year was the third rainiest growing season on record since they started recording. Five years ago broke the record. So, unfortunately, we are starting in April. That’s when the seed beds start. It’s about 55 to 65 days there, then they are transplanted to the fields. At 55 days we’re topping and in about 65 to 70 days, that’s when harvest begins. The issue we run into is when we get into July and August. The heat builds up; if anybody knows Northeast Summers, it does get really hot, and by August, you have a tremendous amount of humidity buildup and you have to go through micro-tornadoes, hail, storms, wind. This is not typical for growing cigar tobaccos. Most of the cigar tobaccos that we’re smoking are grown in the dry season. Nicaragua… we don’t have to face, you know, we couldn’t grow tobacco during the rainy season in Nicaragua; you wouldn’t have any tobacco left. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in Connecticut.

So, you know, we’re faced with yield problems. About three years ago, 20% of the crop came out. So when you add that to what I was saying before with broadleaf, it’s already a style of tobacco that is more of a filler binder-style plant, you add in the weather conditions, this poses a great challenge when it comes to yield. For this reason, we have certain brands that we make, one being the Tabernacle, which I’ll talk about a little bit in a second. We’ve been forced to kind of allocate these products because we don’t have enough, and that’s based purely on the amount of tobacco that’s coming out of the fields. Now, remember, after we get through the curing barns, you know, harvest at 65 to 70 days, then we’re in the curing barn for another 60 days. That’s another big challenge, curing barns. You can have a beautiful crop in the fields but if you don’t know what you’re doing in the curing barns or you don’t get the right weather, that beautiful crop can become a disaster pretty quickly. So then once that happens, we’re shipping it in 45-high cube containers refrigerated down to Nicaragua. Then it gets sorted and selected based on texture, and then it’s going into fermentation for almost two years.

Can you ferment tobacco much quicker? Of course, you can. I always compare it to my grandmother’s pasta sauce. She’s using the freshest ingredients, low heat, simmering for eight hours. OK, that’s one way. The other way you can go get a can, pop it off, and throw it on the stove, completely different experience. That’s the same with cigar tobacco. Lower temperatures, longer, is how you’re preserving the essential oils from the leaf, the flavor, and this makes a tremendous difference in the smoking experience because what happens is, when you turn up those temperatures really hot, you’re losing the good stuff to the elements. You can get it done quicker, you can burn right, it can look alright, but you’re kind of losing a lot of the goodness.

Another interesting thing in the Connecticut Valley is stalk cutting. We do not prime tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley, mainly everything is stalk-cut. This is where we harvest the plant right at the stock, so it’s cut right at the base of the stock, it’s left in the field to wilt depending on the climate, a couple of hours, and then it is hung in the curing barns by the stock. This is different compared to priming. A lot of people have heard of priming, that’s when you’re actually removing the bottom three leaves, then you’re waiting six days and removing the next three leaves until the plant is completely primed. This has benefits in that we feel, especially with broadleaf, you’re still getting the nutrients from the stock system, for me, that helps keep the tobacco really oily and adds to the flavor, and it also has a bit less handling compared to the priming of tobacco.

Priming of Connecticut shade was done in the Connecticut River Valley, unfortunately, now it’s become way too expensive, so the practice, I haven’t seen it used in many, many years, unfortunately. OK, you get a free cigar if you know what stalwart means, anybody? What? “Oil?” No, (laughs) it means strong and steady. Is that what you said? (laughs)

I started Foundation Cigars in 2015. (applause) Thank you, thank you very much. We launched at the show in 2015. It is very important for us, the PCA, so, you know, launching the company, it would’ve been much more economical to be in Florida, definitely from a tax perspective, most of the cigars come in through Florida, but I felt it really important for the image of Foundation that we represent Connecticut. So, we’ve actually put our office in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley. I’ve teamed up with my buddy, John Foster, who is here at the show. Joh Foster is one of the oldest tobacco growers in Connecticut. His family goes back to the late 1600s.

So, we’ve built our office right on John’s 300-acre field in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley. I thought it was really important, I think, for Connecticut and the industry, you know, as time has gone on, a lot of people, through the 80s, have gotten out of the industry and growing. All of the different challenges from the legislative standpoint, you know, we had challenges, of course, from the FDA. So, unfortunately, a few people have gotten out of growing, but John and Foundation have really been connected because he really sees the vision in the importance of Connecticut, the history of Connecticut, and also investing in the Connecticut River Valley, and we thought it important to carry the torch in the Connecticut River Valley. So, this is what we’re trying to do.

These are some of the brands that use Connecticut tobacco for Foundation products. We have the Havana seed, which is used on the Tabernacle, the Connecticut Broadleaf is used on our Tabernacle Connecticut Broadleaf, and also our Charter Oak cigars. Charter Oak is actually the symbol of Connecticut; it is actually also one of the first symbols of American independence. It was actually an oak tree in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley that was used to keep one of the Connecticut charters from the British to keep the colony rights. So, I wanted to do a brand that was really paid homage to all of these Connecticut brands of old, leading up into the 90s, there were tons of Connecticut brands: Money Maker, F.D. Grave, Top Stone, fortunately, Chris Topper from Topper Cigars, he’s still making cigars. He has a tremendous history of using Connecticut tobacco, and his family goes back to about 1894. He just told me today he found an old document that went back to 1894. Many of these brands kind of faded into the twilight at the end of the 90s. So, I thought it was important to develop a brand that kind of paid homage to these brands of old, and that was our Charter Oak brand. Connecticut Shade, unfortunately, as I explained, not much shade is being grown in the valley, so most of the Connecticut shade being used on the product is Connecticut seed, but it is being grown in Ecuador.

In the final installment, Nick Melilo shares a story and answers questions from the audience. Stay tuned for Part Four!

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.