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The journey of tobacco: From field to cigarette stick – a blend of art and technology

The Journey of Tobacco: From Seed to Smoke – A Blend of Art and Technology

Jun 23, 2017


Author: Sharad Aggarwal is the Executive Vice-President, Operations at Godfrey Philips India.

When tobacco is crafted to bring out its intrinsic characteristics and is done so by using modern machines, it becomes both science and art. When blueprints for exquisite blends and tastes exist as tobacconists’ talents, and automated machines reproduce this hand-crafted excellence, you know that you are witness to a rarely seen blend of two often-contradictory capabilities in the world of tobacco manufacturing.

The number of elements and the science that goes into making a cigarette has been touched upon in Making cigarettes – tobacco, paper, high-tech manufacturing and the art of blending. But the story and journey of tobacco, the key element, is one that meanders between fields, research labs, curing barns, skillful leaf procurement centres, massive tobacco manufacturing units, extensive consumer testing initiatives before it finally reaches the end-user.

Every step of tobacco processing is monitored &supported by developments in both modern R&D and talents of skilled tobacco-craftsmen.

While tobacco was a wild-growing plant in native South American regions, it is today a hugely viable cash crop. In India alone, tobacco is cultivated in the southern region of the country and is a source of livelihood for over 34 million people. With the number of cigarette brands across the globe expanding rapidly, the key lies in being able to pinpoint exact customer preferences. The process of identifying the differentiator begins at the cultivation stage itself by improving agricultural practices. GPI’s Insight Tobacco Institute is led by a team of technically skilled personnel who continuously work in tandem with scientists, farmers & big multinationals. The institute has made pioneering strides in identifying and improving the tobacco plant in the following ways.

  • Achieving higher leaf biomass with leaf-quality suitable for smoking and one that meets international standard
  • Development of plant protection measures, such as innovating on eliminating sucker branches effectively
  • Creation of high yielding varieties to improve productivity ratio of land
  • Development of pest resistant varieties of tobacco
  • Development of hybrid tobacco to help break yield barriers and combine high productivity with improved leaf quality
  • Cultivation of tobacco plants with amongst the lowest TSNA levels in the world
  • Unique irrigation techniques to save inputs such as water and the amount of labour required

Curing is one of the most crucial steps in making the tobacco suitable for its end use. Any deviation in following the set process will lead to a huge loss for both the farmers & the manufacturers.GPI’s agriculture-centric initiatives work on communicating the importance of this to the farmers. The leaves need to be dried to maintain optimum moisture levels& make them ready for the subsequent processes. The curing method used varies depending on the type of tobacco. The design of tobacco barns is also dependent on the method being used. The three main methods used to cure tobacco leaves (for use in smoking products) are:

  • Air curing: As the name suggests, tobacco leaves are hung in well-ventilated curing sheds for 4-6weeks and allowed to air-dry.
  • Flue-curing: Tobacco is dried in specially designed barns having flue pipes inside and external fire-fed boxes to heat-cure the tobacco leaves.
  • Sun curing: The tobacco is placed in the sun, uncovered and is dried out naturally.

While the methods described above may sound very basic and labor-intensive, the processing time, quality and usability of the tobacco leaves are all improved with in-depth research into barn-modification techniques, use of agri-waste for fire-fed boxes to reduce input costs and other energy saving innovations. The smoke quality of leaves cured by different methods have their own signature tastes.

Tobacco blending is both science and art and is a complex process – one of the most important aspects that infuses the differentiating elements in a cigarette. While automated machines and computer assisted analyzers maintain precise proportions of various elements in a particular blend as per the pre-defined mix, creating the blend itself is nothing short of an art form at GPI’s Insight Tobacco Institute. Masters of tobacco blending, who have in-depth knowledge on tobacco types & their intrinsic qualities, select the right types of tobacco from different regions to create varying types of blends. Years of experience on selection of tobacco allow them to make the perfect combination by just visually looking at the tobacco, smelling and manually mixing leaves and other elements like flavours. One such testament of GPI’s commitment to handcrafted excellence is a globally popular cigarette brand Black and Gold, a blend created by master-tobacconist Macro Polo.

Once the blends are created on small scale, they undergo series of tests before they are produced on a pilot scale. The pilot samples produced are then subjected to various analytical tests using sophisticated instruments at the lab. The trained product testing panel approves of the product, which is then put into production for commercial sale. During this large-scale production, all the product components are fed into automated systems to ensure product integrity as per the original pre-defined recipe. The journey of tobacco is long, complex, technical and artistic all at the same time.

While profit margins, sales volumes and mass-produced generic cigarette blends have come to dominate operating strategies of large tobacco companies, Godfrey Philips, has over the past 80 years, invested financially, logistically and philosophically in keeping alive the craftsmanship of expert tobacconists. The understanding that customers’ smoking preferences can be very varied dictates the approach towards reviving old techniques and specialized systems.

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