Flue cured. Brightleaf. "Old Belt." Virginia tobacco has been referred to by a variety of names over time, and has cultivated a formidable reputation among many as the pinnacle of tobacco. Virtually all blends containing the noble strain advertise its presence, and this is not a new practice by anyone's standard.
Tobacco - B.V. (Before Virginia)
It all started with the English colonies of North America, and the introduction of tobacco to the settlers by the indigenous population. Natives had been smoking tobacco all throughout the Americas for millennia before Europeans even considered traversing the Atlantic, but what was found in their stone pipes would be almost completely unrecognizable as tobacco by the modern smoker. Nicotiana Rustica, or "wild tobacco," was the tobacco grown, harvested, cured, and enjoyed by the Native North Americans. Similar to a dark Burley, this leaf contained roughly three to nine times the nicotine content of most modern tobaccos (depending on the varietal), and was burned for recreation as often as it was for religious ceremony. By any modern metric, this was some rough stuff. The high nicotine content meant that very little was needed to feel an effect, and the stimulating properties immediately made tobacco a valuable commodity. This was the tobacco first known to the settlers of Jamestown, but it still wasn't "Virginia tobacco."
The advent of Virginia tobacco started with John Rolfe (the future husband of Pocahontas), who was a sailor, and had ventured to many areas of the New World. Rolfe was exposed to the native tobacco of the Orinoco River Valley, and found it to be preferable to what was available in the colonies to the North. When he left for Jamestown in 1611, he took seeds with him in the hopes of introducing a superior "brand." Upon arrival, he immediately planted the seeds. After harvesting, Rolfe elected to abandon the curing techniques of the natives, instead adoptiing the curing methods utilized by the Spanish in their colonies. The finished product was a sensation, becoming so highly sought after in England that supply couldn't remotely meet demand. Rolfe's innovative processes and use of South American seed had produced something completely different. and was colloquially referred to as "Virginia tobacco" (even though Rolfe had officially branded his product "Orinoco"). This new leaf is what sparked the rush to produce tobacco, and is what saved Jamestown from becoming just another failed English colony. Virginia tobacco was a superior product to its predecessors, there is no doubt; However, this tobacco still wouldn't be recognizable as the Virginia we know today. The first Virginia tobacco was closer to what many would identify as light, naturally sweeter burley. Still, this was what was known to the smoking world as Virginia for the next two hundred years.
A Happy Accident
After the war of 1812, a desire arose for a milder, sweeter tobacco. Farmers in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania experimented with curing methods, and a somewhat successful product was being produced by "flue curing," Flue curing (drying the tobacco in closed barns with indirect heat) dries the tobacco leaf at a much quicker rate, and as a result, conserves the sugars that are lost by conventional air curing methods. This product was closer to our beloved golden tobacco, but still not quite there.
In 1839, a farmer in Caswell County, North Carolina, planted some of the new bright leaf crop. After harvesting, the tobacco was hung in the curing barn to undergo the flue curing process overnight. The farmer, Captain Abisha Slade, tasked one of his slaves with overseeing the curing process. At some point in the night the poor man fell asleep, and with no one to tend the coals heating the barn, the fires went out. Upon waking he was horrified to find that the tobacco had not been curing and, in a panic, restarted the fires full blast in an attempt to make up for lost time. The increased heat did indeed speed up curing, and as a result, saved far more sugar than had ever previously been saved. When morning came and Slade examined the crop, he was astounded at what he found: Bright, golden, sweet tobacco. Virginia tobacco, as we all know and love it, had finally arrived.
To this day Virginia is the most sought-after variety out there — More blends utilize this fragrant, saccharine leaf than any other. Virginias can be found in many quality aromatics, as the base in the best English style blends, and presented neat as pressed and matured flakes. Virginia tobacco is in such high demand all over the world that it can be found growing in many other locations besides the United States (including Africa, Canada, and even India).
Tobacco - A.F. (Anno Folium, In the Year of our Leaf)
Virginia tobacco's legacy has endured centuries, and that won't be changing anytime soon. While it is readily available in exceptional quality in the flue cured varieties we all know, the air-cured version is still around as well. If you want to taste history, I strongly recommend sampling it in all of its forms! Below are some of my personal favorites that I often share with customers who call in to our customer service line, looking for the best of what Virginia leaf has to offer:
Air/Fire Cured Virginia:
Gawith Hoggarth & Co - Happy Brown Bogie
Samuel Gawith - Brown No. 4
Flue Cured Virginia:
Mac Baren - Pure Virginia (also contains some air cured Virginia)
Capstan - Flake (Blue)
GL Pease - Union Square
Wessex - Campaign Dark Flake