At Georgetown Tobacco, we sell over 50 brands of loose leaf and tinned pipe tobacco. One of my favorites is our 1261, named for the first address of our shop at 1261 Wisconsin Avenue in Washington before we moved to our current location at 3144 “M” Street.
The 1261 is an aromatic blend of burley tobaccos that provides wonderful room notes and that I find to be a tasty, easy smoke because it lacks the sharpness of Latakia or Perique. I often recommend it to our novice pipe smokers, but our experienced smokers enjoy it too.
Given that the 1261 is a burley blend, I thought I’d see what I could find about this family of tobacco and how it’s grown. Boy, did I find a lot! So here we go….
What Is Burley?
Burley is a family of tobacco, originally grown by George Webb and Joseph Fore using seeds from a plant in Kentucky that exhibited more thinner and pale leaves than usually seen in tobacco plants of the time. Frederick Kautz subsequently grew it 1864 in Ohio and found it cured differently, proving its difference from other families of tobacco.
Realizing the potential of a new type of tobacco, Kautz grew and harvested 20,000 pounds of burley, then and sold it at St. Louis fair in 1867 for $11,600. Burley was here to stay. Production subsequently shifted largely to Kentucky and Tennessee.
The burley of 1867 isn’t what we smoke today. In my reading, I found 24 varieties of burley tobacco categorized by yield, growth rate, resistance to diseases, number of leaves per plant, the plant’s height, date of maturation, and quite a number of other factors important to farmers.
Farmers choose varieties that combine highest yield with highest disease resistance and quality (of these, disease resistance is by far the most important factor). Hey, if at the end of this article you’re thinking of growing burley, varieties KT 222LC, Hybrid 403LC, and Hybrid 404LC provide the greatest yield, though neither of the hybrids offer resistance to black shank disease, one of the most common and destructive tobacco diseases, and one to which burley is particularly susceptible.
Too much information already? Well, now you see how hard it can be for a tobacco farmer to determine exactly which variety to plant and harvest.
Burley vs. Virginia:
Burley leaves are thinner than those of Virginia tobacco, are lighter in color (off white to dull yellow) and have a pH of around 7. The neutral pH of burley can temper the more acidic and sharper taste of Virginia (which has a pH of about 5) which is why it’s often blended with Virginias.
Burley tobacco also has a little more nicotine than Virginia and is usually bolder than Virginia tobacco and a little dry, though the intensity of the flavor depends on what part of the plant is used to make the blend: the higher up on the plant, the stronger the taste.
From Seed to Harvest:
Planting and early growth of burley tobacco is similar to other tobaccos and starts with planting seeds in trays in green houses in loamy soil in early spring. Tray selection, sanitation, media selection, water quality (water can’t have disease causing organisms, and can’t be too alkaline), and fertilization selection are all controlled in the greenhouse. Because burley is much more susceptible to chill injury than dark tobacco, temperature is closely controlled. Pests such as bloodworms, shore flies, fungus gnats, slugs, cutworms, pill worms, aphids, and thrips all have to be eliminated. (What the heck is a thrip?). Pathogens have to be controlled. And heaven forbid if Pythium Root Rot, Target Spot, or the science fiction sounding Rhizoctonia Damping Off is found.
Like other tobaccos, seedlings are transplanted to fields in May and June. And as in the greenhouse, diseases must be prevented. I’ve identified at least twelve different diseases or pathogens that affect burley tobacco in the field. In July and August, when 10 to 25% of the plants have at least one open flower, they are topped by removing the terminal bud which allows upper leaves to get larger and thicker. Plants continue to ripen until their upper leaves become yellow-green and the stalks become off white, usually in September. Later in September, plants are stalk cut— the entire plant cut down near soil line. (The picture above is an illustration of a field of stalk cut tobacco.) The plants then dry in the field for three to four days when they will lose about 20% of their weight. If harvesting is left to October, the leaves will not cure properly due to lower temperatures and humidity. Fields can yield c. 2800 to 3000 pounds per acre.
Burley cures (i.e., dries) in barns with temperatures between 60 to 95 degrees F and with humidity about 72-75%. Happily, the temperatures in Kentucky where most burley is grown are in the 60-95 degree range during the curing season and fall in the 72-75 range on average, though relative humidity can be much higher at times due to dew or fog.
Curing of burley tobacco is best in early fall and not late fall, and tobacco harvested earlier cures more easily. In fact, this is so important that the differences in burley quality are largely determined by date of curing and not variety differences.
Most of the changes to burley leaves occur during the first four weeks of curing (two weeks for yellowing and two for browning). Because curing happens in open barns, weather conditions affect curing with the ultimate quality of the leaf influenced by outside moisture and temperature.
The most important factor to leaf color is temperature, with low temperatures resulting in a green leaf; but the most important factor in overall leaf quality is humidity: the greater the departure from optimum humidity range, the greater the damage to the leaf. In fact, 2022 was one of the worst air-curing seasons ever due to dry conditions in Kentucky. Commercially available digital temp and humidity instruments monitor conditions and are even connected to mobile devices for remote monitoring. Fans are used in bigger barns to optimize air movement. Studies have documented the best locations for these fans in the barns (fans should be at the center bottom rail of every bent (a “bent” is the open spaces, a narrow and tall division, in a barn).
There is even a proper procedure for filling the barn: fills should start on the SW side of the barn to take advantage of air movement. Other rules: never hang fresh-cut tobacco (tobacco harvested earlier) under partially cured tobacco since water evaporating from fresh may cause partly cured tobacco to darken. Best location for curing barn is on a ridge, hill or high point to take advantage of winds. Standard barn is 40’ wide, 60’ long, and 20’ high.
Today, burley tobacco is one of the most frequently grown types of tobacco, along with Virginia. In this country, it’s grown almost exclusively in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, but it’s also grown in Argentina, Malawi, and Brazil. The USDA estimated that 2022 U.S. burley crop at nearly 70 million pounds, selling for an average of $2.25 to $2.30 per pound. As large as this figure sounds, however, the future of burley production is not all optimistic.
Burley: A Precarious Future:
Burley is the main component in cigarettes, so burley growers face tight markets given the worldwide decline in cigarette smoking. In fact, Kentucky burley growers have lost over 70% of their market over the past couple of decades, and the number of Kentucky farms growing burley declined over 90%.
Other factors threatening U.S. burley growers are aging farm population and deteriorating farm infrastructure, demands on tobacco companies by policymakers, tax increases, and increased imports of burley tobacco which now account for over 50% of burley usage by U.S. cigarette manufacturers (surprisingly, African burley is of lower quality than that grown in the U.S., suggesting that price is a driving import factor since African tobacco is cheaper than its U.S. counterpart).
But the good news is that none of this—decline in production, diseases, and pests–affects you, the casual pipe smoker. Burley is still in plentiful supply, and we’ll not run out of our 1261 blend any time soon. In fact, while you’re here, you can also try our Chesapeake and Raven blends. Chesapeake is an aromatic mild burley sugar cased for sweetness. Raven is rich and moist, blended with Cavendish.
Pipe smoking is a wonderfully relaxing pastime. Hope to see you soon in Georgetown Tobacco. Bring your pipe and try some burley!