Tobacco leaf processing

From farmer to finished product 

Tobacco leaf undergoes a number of processes before it finally becomes a cigarette, rolling tobacco or another tobacco product, such as snus

Directly after harvesting the leaves are cured. This removes the moisture from them and plays a fundamental role in giving tobacco its flavor and aroma. It also turns the color of the leaves from green to yellow or brown, as the chlorophyll in them breaks down and the natural starches found in the tobacco plant turn to sugars.

The leaf growers

There are three main ways of drying and curing cigarette tobacco:

  • Air curing – burley – in unheated enclosed areas
  • Flue curing – virginia – in a barn heated by pipes
  • Sun curing – oriental – where the leaves are left to dry in the sun

While ‘drying’ may seem like a basic process, the end result is open to infinite variety, reflecting the weather and nutrients in the soil during growing, individual skill and expertise, as well as the type of drying process used.

So after curing, the leaves are graded to reflect their quality.

Leaf grading

This grading is important because leaves from many different sources may be blended to create a particular tobacco brand. As with grapes used in wine making, while the quality and characteristics can vary with each harvest, consumers demand consistency of taste, colour and bouquet.

In fact, it can be argued that the tobacco producer’s role can be even more challenging as, unlike wine, consumers do not expect or want any variance from year to year.


The cured leaves are aged before going into the manufacturing stage. Here the tobacco is cut, conditioned and blended.


Tobacco leaves are traded as a commodity around the world. Increasingly, countries are moving from traditional trading floors, where the price is decided by auction, to contract-based systems, where buyers establish contracts with individual farmers to purchase their leaf. One thing that remains constant is the level of expertise required in buying the right amount of tobacco of the right quality to satisfy consumer demand.

Leaf-buying companies are the link between growers and tobacco product manufacturers such as JTI. However, for part of its requirements JTI also acts as a leaf-buyer. This means that as well as purchasing directly on the auction floor, we are also establishing farmer contracts in a number of countries, including Brazil, Malawi, Zambia and the United States.