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What is Burley Tobacco?

burley tobacco hanging on lines

Burley tobacco is one of the most widely enjoyed tobaccos around the world, and an excellent example of why American-grown tobacco is such a special part of the tobacco industry.  This light, mild leaf is mainly associated with cigarettes, and continues to be one of the biggest exports to come from America, with a history that’s every bit as significant.

Where Does Burley Tobacco Come From?

Burley tobacco is an American original, and 70% of it is cultivated in the state of Kentucky, with 20% coming from Tennessee.  It’s produced in other countries as well, but it’s primarily associated with the American south.

Burley tobacco was developed in 1864, by George Webb and Joseph Fore.  It was first grown in Higginsport, Ohio, from Kentuckian seeds, and was noted for its distinctively light color, ranging from white to yellow, and the fact that it cured differently from other leaves.  Within just a couple of years, the farm was harvesting 20,000 pounds of this new tobacco, and even being sold for $58 per 100lbs at the St. Louis Fair.  Shortly after, it made its way into Kentucky and Tennessee, making up 36% of the country’s tobacco production. 

Burley tobacco is air-cured, which allows it to maintain its lightness and mellowness.  It’s stalk-cut, and also allowed to cure in a barn for several weeks, which allows the leaves to go from their pale color to yellow, and then brown.

The original type of burley tobacco is “white burley,” which gets its name, of course, from its very light leaf color.  But, over time, burley tobacco has diversified, and in Kentucky, you can also find dark burley, which you’re more likely to find in cigars.  Dark burley has been fermented to enhance its color and flavor. 

Burley tobacco, like we said, is most typically associated with American cigarettes.  But, you can also find it in plenty of pipe tobacco blends.  Despite the fact that some pipe smokers consider it low-brow, the reality is that white burley blends beautifully with other tobaccos, being incredibly versatile and bringing out the nuance in more flavorful tobaccos.

The climate of Kentucky, Tennessee, and neighboring states is ideal for growing large volumes of burley tobacco, but the plant is particularly prone to certain diseases like blue mold and black shank, and is commonly infested with aphids, budworms, and tobacco hornworms.  This means that additional care needs to go into cultivating to avoid these common problems.  The plant is topped frequently to reduce flowering and encourage more leaf growth, by redirecting the plant’s energy.  Typically, the seeds are germinated in March or April, and transplanted in May, where the plant grows over the next couple of months before it’s harvested.

What is the Leaf Like?

The leaves of burley tobacco are medium in size, and light brown in color.  Some burley tobacco will be yellower in color, and that’s an indication that it cured more quickly than what was intended. 

Nicotine and Sugar Content

Burley tobacco is considered to be a high-nicotine, low-sugar variety.  Because of this, historically, it’s typical for burley to have sweetness added to it, either with humectants or sugars, and sometimes flavors are added to it as well. 

Flavor Profiles

White burley tobacco is not inherently sweet, but like we said earlier, it’s often sweetened and sometimes flavored, as you’ll find in many brands of cigarettes.  Naturally, it has a very smooth and nutty taste, with woody undertones, and a subtle hint of cocoa.  As for dark burley, which is more commonly found in cigars, the flavor tends to be spicy and earthy, with classic “cigar” notes. 

Smoke Quality

White burley is a popular choice for cigarettes for a number of reasons, but a lot of it comes from the smoothness that is inherent with each draw.  Despite its high nicotine content, it isn’t known for being a harsh tobacco, and that makes it easier to smoke throughout the day.  Dark burley is also quite smooth, and so, is commonly remarked on for its velvety inhale.

Burley Tobacco: An American Staple

Burley tobacco has been a mainstay of the American tobacco industry since the Civil War era and was virtually an overnight success.  Its smooth, mild, and nutty flavor makes it an easy crowd-pleaser, and it’s the perfect tobacco for cigarettes – even pipe tobacco blends benefit greatly from its versatility.  To this day, the US grows more burley than any other type of tobacco, and most of that can be found in Kentucky.  Ultimately, despite its association with cigarettes, we strongly suggest that you consider pipe tobacco blends that utilize burley, so that you can appreciate what it adds to the flavor and smoke.  It may not be the most prestigious tobacco of all time, but we truly believe that it adds a lot to a tobacco blend.

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