Sweet, Strong or… Understanding the Maduro Wrapper


Customers often come to Georgetown Tobacco asking for cigars with a maduro wrapper.  We’re happy to oblige… We have lots of them!  Customers who choose a maduro often expect it to taste stronger and sweeter than cigars with a natural (i.e., non-maduro) wrapper because of its darker color.  Is that true?  Does the maduro always provide a stronger and sweeter flavor?

Since a wrapper constitutes on average just 10% of a cigar’s construction, can a maduro wrapper contribute much to a cigar’s profile?  And is a maduro always darker?  In fact, “maduro” is a term that encompasses a very broad set of flavor and color characteristics—so broad that its meaning can get confusing.  So let’s take a closer look at what a maduro cigar really is.

”Maduro” (aka capa negra) describes only the wrapper of a cigar.  It does not describe the “bunch” (the filler and binder), and is never applied to pipe or cigarette tobacco.  The leaf used to produce a maduro wrapper is not specific to any country, region, or seed varietal, though typically a heavier leaf is used (more on that later).

In its most basic sense, maduro refers to the way in which wrapper leaf tobacco is fermented.  Fermentation is a two-step, multi-month or year process in which leaves are stacked into huge pilones (piles) and burros (bundles).  The heat and pressure that develops in these piles starts fermentation, a natural process that darkens the leaf, changes starches to sugar, and most importantly, expels ammonia (a naturally occurring substance in all tobacco leaves).

All cigar tobacco is fermented—without fermentation, a cigar leaf would be unsmokeable.  The leaves used to produce maduro wrappers are piled and fermented separately from those that will become binder or filler because they must be subjected to higher pressure and heat (up to 165 degrees, rather than the 120 degrees for natural wrappers, binders, or fillers) and for a longer time to produce the dark color and sweeter taste often associated with maduros.  It is this extended and hotter fermentation that causes more of the natural sugars of the leaf to be released and that produces a more complex flavor.

In fact, the term “maduro,” which means “ripe” or “mature,” refers to a leaf that has “ripened” due to this hotter, longer process.  The more demanding maduro fermentation process requires a hearty, stronger leaf.  Often, but not always, Connecticut Broadleaf, Brazilian Mata Fina tobacco, or leaves from San Andres Mexico are used to create a maduro wrapper exactly because their relative strength allows them to endure a longer fermentation.  Leaves from the top of the plant, called “ligero” leaves, are also usually used because they are thicker and can withstand the higher heat and pressure needed to create a maduro wrapper.

A dark brown color usually results from this more severe fermentation process.  But the fermentation process that is uniquely applied to maduro leaves can actually result in a number of colors, from the reddish brown of a Colorado maduro to the dark brown of the true maduro, to an almost black color, all depending on the manufacturer, the exact length of fermentation, and the leaves chosen for the wrapper.   In fact, the Cubans call a light greenish-tan leaf “maduro.”  So don’t be surprised if the color of one maduro isn’t quite the same as that of another.

So far, so good.  Let’s summarize.  A maduro results from a fermentation process that produces wrappers with more oil and sugar because it is longer and conducted at greater temperatures and pressure.  Because a leaf’s oil and sugar content are proportional to the degree of darkness, dark wrappers like maduros will contain more oil and sugar and are expected to offer a fuller, more complex taste.

OK, so maduros are always sweeter than their non-maduro counterparts, right?  Well, maybe.  The more vigorous fermentation process used to create a maduro wrapper does indeed produce more sugar in a leaf.  But a cursory review of online cigar reviews of maduro wrapped cigars showed that only about half mentioned “sweetness” as a noticeable flavor attribute, and of those, most mentioned it only in passing.  So depending on the overall profile of a cigar’s flavor and the refinement of your own palate, you may or may not notice an appreciable sweetness in a maduro wrapper.

So if not necessarily sweeter, then maduro cigars are always stronger, right?  Not necessarily!  If you’ve read anything about maduros, you’ve come across plenty of literature about their strength and flavor.  This is where things get confusing, because the term is NOT associated with any particular taste or strength profile.  Maduro wrappers have been described as both “oily” and “not too oily”; from “full bodied” to “well balanced”; from “toasty sweet” to “meaty”; from “sweet and mild” to being “thundering rich and heavy”; from “smooth and refined” to tasting like the “dust on a country road.” They can be characterized by a “nut sweet taste and mild aroma” and with flavors that suggest espresso, hickory, or chocolate.  So equating “maduro” with strength or a particular flavor is a popular misperception.  In fact, the longer a maduro wrapper is fermented, the smoother the smoke will be because of the release of more ammonia and other impurities.  Additionally, the overall blend, the tobacco plant’s place of origin, the length of aging (aging is different than fermentation!) and the point at which the leaves were harvested from the plant all contribute to the overall strength and flavor of a cigar.

So if you’re looking for a simple description of what to expect from a maduro’s flavor, well, you’re out of luck.  There is no generally agreed upon idea of what a maduro is supposed to, or actually does, offer.  Even its supposedly obvious sweetness is often overlooked.

Of course, the best way to discover the characteristics of a maduro is simply to try one, or several. Better yet, compare a maduro with its natural wrapper counterpart.  Padron cigars, featuring Nicaraguan tobacco in both the bunch and the wrapper, are offered in both maduro and natural varieties. Padron ferments their maduro wrappers for two years to achieve the color and complexity they seek.  There is a great video on YouTube during to learn more about how Padron cigars are made.

Want something with a slightly milder profile?  Try the Arturo Fuente Chateau or Double Chateau in Maduro.  By smoking both the maduro and natural versions, you’ll quickly perceive the impact of fermentation and how it influences the way the cigar tastes.

Let’s finish with some fun maduro facts.  Maduro wrappers were a rarity until about 40 years ago and only gained favor with evolving consumer tastes and the desire for different flavors.  Because more of a leaf’s oil is released during maduro fermentation, a maduro cigar can burn more slowly than one with a natural wrapper.  Maduro cigars are occasionally called “Spanish Market Selection (SMS)” cigars.  Finally, maduros are best paired with chocolate, and are sometimes considered a dessert cigar because of the sweetness they can offer—if you can taste it!