Burley is a relatively young tobacco varietal, dating only to 1864, but it became very popular very fast. Two planters, George Webb and Joseph Fore, are credited with Burley's discovery. They procured seeds from a tobacco plant in Kentucky that was different: it had leaves that were less broad and of white/yellow tint, and they tried planting these seeds in southern Ohio. The result was a new varietal that responded best to air curing, was high in nicotine, low in sugar, and had leaves that were oily and rich.
Burley almost immediately became a huge crop for Kentucky and Tennessee, and within 20 years, it accounted for more than a third of all tobacco production in the U.S., with more than twice the production of Virginia tobacco.
Growing Burley is a problematic and time-consuming affair. The crops are started in March of each year (in the U.S.) when the minuscule tobacco seeds are started in styrofoam trays, which are then floated in specially designed beds of water and kept warm by a covering of plastic. Typically, this planting of seeds is at intervals so that the plants mature at different times.
The seeds become plants about three or four inches tall in about a month and are ready for transplant to the fields. In the old days, the transplanting was done by hand, bending over all day for as long as there was daylight and moving the plants from the trays to the earth, one at a time. Now there are mechanical tobacco setters to perform the worst of the back-breaking labor, though farmers still experience long, arduous days during planting.
farmers still experience long, arduous days during planting
Tobacco requires constant care, and farmers must monitor the crop and apply fertilizers when appropriate as well as deal with insects, disease, and aggressively ambitious weeds. At the seven-week mark, flower buds begin to grow at the top of each stalk, and these buds must be cut in a process called "topping" the plant. Without topping, each plant's resources will be directed to the flowers for the plant's biological goal of reproduction, and that mechanism diverts resources from the leaves. Those leaves are the goal of the farmer, though, so by topping the plant, the leaves are supported and continue to grow and mature.
A natural step for the Burley plant is to produce suckers, which are shoots that appear where the lower leaves meet the stalk and are an attempt by the plant to produce more leaves. As is implied by the name, these suckers divert nutrients from the leaves already on the stalk, and they have to be chemically removed to ensure the continuing growth and health of the current leaves. Suckers also block air circulation through the leaves during curing, so it is essential that they be removed.
After about five months of growth, typically in August but sometimes as late as September, it's time for harvesting, which has traditionally been done with hatchet-like knives used to cut the stalks at the base. The stalks are pierced and hung upside down from long sticks called, rationally enough, tobacco sticks, each holding about six stalks.
The stalks are pierced and hung upside down from long sticks called, rationally enough, tobacco sticks
The Burley is then transported to the tobacco barn to be hung and cured. It has to be moved quickly lest the leaves lose moisture and become more likely to bruise. After about six weeks of air-curing, when the leaves have changed from yellowish-green to brown, the stalks are taken to the stripping room where the leaves are removed and graded according to their stalk position. For pipe tobacco, the leaves from the midpoint to near the top are most used.
During the air-curing, sugars break down almost completely, leaving very little sugar content, in stark contrast to Virginia tobaccos, which have high sugar content. Burley has its own characteristics and blenders take advantage of them.
"Burley readily accepts flavoring," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender for Cornell & Diehl. "It's more absorbent than the very oily leaves of Orientals or Virginias due to the air curing. Burley can therefore easily absorb moisture, aromas, flavor additives, and even the flavors of other tobaccos in a blend." That makes Burley a particularly versatile component. Burley is often the most prominent ingredient in Cavendish because of its easy acceptance of flavoring.
"Burley can therefore easily absorb moisture, aromas, flavor additives, and even the flavors of other tobaccos in a blend"
That's an especially attractive characteristic. Burley is relatively neutral and easily integrates flavors from casings and toppings, while component tobaccos blended with it are more pronounced in their own flavors, accentuated in contrast by Burley's neutrality. Burley also brings a gravity of perceived strength to a blend because of its high nicotine content.
The lack of sugar in Burley has other advantages. "It's less likely to bite," says Jeremy, "and tends to burn slowly, and that's because of the lack of sugar. Sugar is an accelerant that can be a major factor in hot, bitey smokes." That's why Virginia blends are often smoked more slowly, a technique that reduces tongue bite while still permitting the enjoyment of high-sugar content leaf.
However, low-sugar content also brings disadvantages. "Burley can taste one-dimensional, with little flavor change throughout the smoke. That's why Burley is almost never the only leaf type used in a Burley blend. You need something in that blend to add sweetness and tartness, to brighten the flavor and maintain interest. That said, Burley can be quite delicious on its own, and I do enjoy it straight occasionally."
"Burley is almost never the only leaf type used in a Burley blend"
Cornell & Diehl primarily uses White Burley from Maryland and Dark Burley from Kentucky. "White Burley is more mellow," says Jeremy. "It's softer, evoking nutty and chocolate flavors, and flavors of cocoa. Dark Burley, on the other hand, is much stronger in nicotine, spicy and earthy in character, with flavors of clove and wine, as well as dark chocolate."
C&D has built a significant reputation for its impressive blending of Burley blends, able to leverage the leaf's nuanced flavors for particularly satisfying and flavorful mixtures. The Burley Flake series, for example, is especially popular with those who appreciate Burleys, and blends like Old Joe Krantz and Oak Alley are additionally well received.
Whatever your favorite Burley blends may be, it's worth noting that the time and labor invested in growing, curing, and processing Burley is intensive — but certainly worthwhile. No other tobacco so readily adapts to accompanying flavors while providing such a rich, nutty, and chocolaty base flavor, and its strength certainly makes an impression that brings us back to its satisfying character for smoke after smoke.