Burning Gold: The Legacy of Virginia Leaf

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 Innovation

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)

Cornell & Diehl - Interlude and Opening Night

GL Pease - Union Square

Wessex - Campaign Dark Flake

Category:   Tobacco Talk
Tagged in:   Literature Tobacco Virginia


    • Alain L. on May 25, 2018
    • Great Post, Thanks !

    • Thomas Greene on May 28, 2018
    • Thanks for the history lesson!

    • Tom Fortin on May 29, 2018
    • Great article!

    • Matthew M. on May 31, 2018
    • What an entertaining read. Thanks, Kaz.

    • greg alexander koliaga on June 1, 2018
    • a great article! keep up the good work!

    • Andrew on June 1, 2018
    • Excellent!

    • Kaz W on June 1, 2018
    • Thanks everyone!

    • Dennis Duckett on June 1, 2018
    • Entertaining and very informative.

    • Turd Furguson on June 1, 2018
    • Nice bit of history, thank you!

    • Stan Ruszkowski on June 5, 2018
    • Good read. Very informative.

    • Robert R on June 13, 2018
    • Accurately researched and well written. Thank you.

    • Todd N on June 23, 2018
    • Kaz, what are your thoughts on the best method for packing broken flake tobacco?

    • Kaz W on June 25, 2018
    • @Todd N - Good question. For me, it depends on the tobacco. I like most of my broken flakes ("ready-rubbed") tobacco with little to no additional prep or breaking up and a medium pack. Every tobacco blend burns a little differently, so it will really come down to your personal preferences.

    • Ed Dougherty on July 12, 2018
    • Great read. Living in Caswell County, NC with tobacco farmers for neighbors I have a real appreciation for the history and another good excuse to explore a variety of Virginia leaf.

    • Donald T. on July 15, 2018
    • What a nice summary of an obviously vast history of information worthy of volumes of books. I wouldn't have the guts to leave any history out, whereas you managed to hit the highlights with such perceived ease and authority. Much appreciated Mr. Walters.

    • Mark G. on October 31, 2018
    • Very Interesting piece of history, I like learning as much as I can about our hobby!!!

    • Dave Nelson on June 2, 2019
    • Kaz...
      great article, nice to know some history. I have a question. The first photo in your article, is that a tamper made by the Bremen Piper? Germany-based YTPC member? Sure looks like one.

    • Cassie D on June 4, 2019
    • @Dave Nelson, glad you enjoyed the article! This tamper belonged to one of our employees, so we aren't sure who made this one. I'm sorry I couldn't track that down for you!

    • John Gioannetti on September 22, 2019
    • The seeds John Rolfe took were from Trinidad (Where I'm from and live)

      Trinidad is the most southerly island in the Caribbean, about 40 miles long by 40 miles wide that is just off the coast of Venezuela and the Orinoco River ..... Only 7 miles away.

      Trinidad & Tobago is one country but 2 islands.

      The word Tobacco is derived from the name Tobago, which is what the indigenous Amerindians called the tobacco leaves that they rolled to smoke (cigar like)

      Practicality no tobacco is grown here anymore, and Tobacco is imported for cigarette manufacture.

      On an island of approximately 1.4 million, you would be hard pressed to find a dozen pipe smokers.

      Pipe tobacco is limited in availability and variety. Captain Black and Borkum Riff.

      There are a few more cigar smokers, but not many.

      I have to bring in all my own tobacco from USA, and I have major hassles with customs bringing in about 1.5 lbs per month for my own use.

      Additionally I pay about 75% extra in duties, taxes ect. on top of the list price in USA.

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