Introduction: Tobacco Fermentation / Curing Chamber for Cigars

Tobacco is an age old, yet amazing plant, which has become increasingly popular among hobbyist in recent times!

Perhaps it is a distraction from daily stresses and allows an escape to simpler times. For some, growing tobacco is an absolute obsession...and its easy to see why! Tobacco starts from shockingly tiny seeds and grows a million fold into a 6-7 foot monster in just about 5 months. You too can join the ranks of tobacco plant enthusiasts and with some luck and planning, your efforts may be rewarded with a homegrown cigar!

Growing and harvesting is a perquisite to fermentation covered in other guides, available here . This instructable picks up after you have air cured your green leafy bounty and is one possible way to simulate the needed conditions for fermentation at home. **Tobacco sowing season is NOW! March-June,get started TODAY!**

This project was created last year (2008 harvest) to provide address a common question in the tobacco growing hobby, discussing the critical points of curing tobacco. Also provided is an example of how one may be able to affordably recreate the conditions needed for tobacco fermentation. No oil heaters required!

Step 1: Before We Start...

Before starting here's a small note of discretion: Typically tobacco growing hobbyist raise and cure these plants for the pure enjoyment of taking care of this fast growing monster! There is great potential for a wonderfully cured crop at the end of the growing season, however this hobby shouldn't be taken as a way to save on your tobacco spending money as there is a lot of time and labor invested with a lot of potential for crop failure due many factors: both while growing then the potential of mold during the curing process!

On the plus side: Home grown tobacco contains far less chemicals and no additives when compared to the stuff the tobacco industry produces. Buuut, it is still good to note the same surgeon general warning that "smoking is bad for your health", etc.

That being said, lets get started! Whoo-hoo!

Step 2: Supplies

What you will need:

-Air cured Tobacco leaves, Seeds with growing instructions are available here :
Havana tobacco seeds are good for making cigars, particularity cigar wrappers because of the broad leaves, flavor and smooth appearances once cured. A good recommended fill blend for a home grown cigar is 30% Havana leaf and 70% Virginia leaf with a Havana wrapper.

-Cheap, light weight foam cooler: if you ever wondered what to do with that leaky foam it is!
-Corded clamp light reflector light fixture, (avail. at home depot, clamp assembly is not needed)
-30W light bulb (heat source)
-Aluminum foil
-Clean paper towels
-Plastic bag
-Sterilized spray bottle (use bleach solution to clean, rinse and dry thoroughly)
-Distilled water

Step 3: The Curing Process

Curing is a 3 part process:

1) Drying (color curing): to take out majority of the moisture.

The best way to do this is pictured on step 1, hang leaves to dry and let nature take its course: Gather your harvested green leaves, use a zip tie at the stems and bundle into 1-4 leaf bunches, (be sure to allow air between the leaves, if the leaves stick together, they will mold). This process takes about 3-4 weeks.

2) Fermentation: Sweating out ammonia, and a few other complicated chemical processes. Fermentation also stabilizes the leaf so that it doesn't decompose further in storage.

Fermentation is the trickiest part, and is what this instructable is intended to outline. Fermentation is the limiting factor for hobbyist!

3) Finally aging which we are all familiar with, which includes factory storage and storage in a humidor.

There are several ways to ferment at home. This is a cheap and accessible possibility to achieve the conditions required for fermentation.

I personally didn't run into any problems, but this set up is risky and definitely not UL rated . I do not recommend that anyone follow this procedure, please use discretion with the project. I did have a hard time sleeping at night with the chamber light bulb on. The light was plugged into a ground fault interrupter outlet so that if it overloaded, I would have a small means of safety at very least. And I always unplugged the light when leaving the house. Unplugging would have some impact on the fermentation process depending on the length of interruption, but better to unplug than to not have a house when you get back.

Step 4: Fermentation and the DIY Fermenter

Cigar tobacco producers ferment tobacco naturally by creating huge piles of air cured leaves. Essentially creating a compost heap where the internal temperature is carefully monitored along with the humidity levels.

Basic idea of the home chamber is to simulate the internal temperatures of a tobacco pile as seen at tobacco production facilities. Basically you need heat (approx 120 degrees) and humidity of about 75%, if this can be sustained for approx 4-6 weeks, fermentation will be complete.

In this fermenter, these conditions are achieved by a light bulb heat source, directed by a reflector dish towards the pile of air cured tobacco under it.

Paper towels misted and saturated with distilled water is placed on top of the cured tobacco hands with some plastic wrap over it to hold in the moisture, I do a good deal of misting with distilled water about twice a day.

Step 5: Aromatic Stages...

During the fermentation, there are several aromatic stages:

-Week 1-2 smells like wet grass.
-Week 3 smells very strongly like raisins.
-Week 4 the tobacco chamber should have the sweet smell of a walk in humidor. The tobacco color should also change to a much darker hue of brown.

-An extra week or two of fermentation beyond the 4th week wouldn't hurt.

Step 6: Q & A

The following is a helpful "Q and A" following this project. Questions by inquiring hobbist , answers by me, (Surf Monkey Coconut)!.

Q: Cool setup- never seen it done like that before. Any concerns of the foam smell transferring to the tobacco?

A: I know the foam smell you are talking about, Its an undeniable chemically semi-sweet smell...I've experienced it in the past when using a hot wire to cut foam doubt very toxic!

In my past experience as well as experiences in this fermenter, insulating foam is for the most part stable and inert; It won't off-gas unless it is melting. In terms of my fermentation chamber, there is no problems with overheating or melting...yet!

There are several websites dealing with curing chambers and the standard home made type is made of foam wall insulation and an oil heater. All I can think of is fire hazard!! Dedicated home growers use old refrigerators with a heat source.

I did see a fermenter made of ply-wood, and i can tell ya, that one would most definitely off gas formaldehyde and other such chemicals found in the adhesives.

Q: So you haven't noticed any sort of ammonia smell coming from the tobacco?

A: I really haven't! Although I may not be identifying the ammonia as released from tobacco leaves correctly.

When I think of ammonia, I think of a sharp biting smell, the chemical smell from either a bottle of windex or urine..(I once had mice as pets, which had that horrible smell...)

When I was researching tobacco fermentation I pictured those fermentation barns in central America to be awful, perhaps like walking into a tear gas chamber...Taking this into consideration I have my fermentation cooler in an unused bathroom which has the ceiling vent on a timer (it turns on for 10 mins every hour). But really, there are no unpleasant smells to be vented. I even leave the bathroom door open.

I did miss a stage in my above aromatic observations...between the wet grass and raisin stage there was a strong cereal toasted corn flakes, which probably lasted for the entire 2nd week. But to me, all of these smells were delicious!! I wanted to just bury my nose in the leaves during the raisin stage, but for purposes sterility, i resisted!

Q: I wouldn't imagine such a small batch would give off an overwhelming smell of ammonia.

A: Very true! This is just 3 hands of tobacco and it does have quite the aroma associated with it! A factory barn with hundreds of thousands of hands fermenting, well...that would be a whole different level of aroma.

Q: Surf Monkey Coconut, your insurance agent called me looking for you. He said he needs to do a random check inside your house but you keep on ignoring his calls.....

Anyway that is soo cool. Also how do you keep the humidity. I realize the leaves are moist at first but after the moisture evaporates do you have to have any humidification device in there?

A: yeah, as you can imagine, lamp is very similar to an oven, where the dry heat generated constantly takes away the humidity. I don't really monitor the humidity too much, I just give it 15-20 distilled water misting on and between the hands about 2-3 times a day, just to keep the leaves semi-moist.

On one end you want to keep the leaves from getting soggy to avoid mold and decay, and at the other end you want to keep the leaves from becoming dry and brittle without moisture, fermentation not will occur.

Keeping it right in the middle keeping the leaves are warm and supple seems to be the goal..The layer of wet napkins and saran wrap helps a little to hold in moisture between mistings. Also, in the images above you can see the vent holes I cut in the top and bottom of the cooler...I have since plugged them up to hold in the humidity...there was too much ventilation going on.

That being said it is taxing to spray the leaves so often. In the next batch I think I will see if placing the leaves in a large plastic bag will work better.

The essential pieces for fermentation is 120 degree heat and humidity. The fermentation cooler I built is, in my humble opinion, is a very cheap and affordable chamber for the home enthusiast.

since taking the pics, I have modified and refined the design making it even simpler...ive plugged the holes, and took out the aluminum foil, and put the second batch of leaves in a large plastic bag with a twist tie on the top to better hold in the moisture.

Really its just a foam cooler with a $5 light from Home Depot now...

Oct. 26, 2011 UPDATE:

In the final version of this fermenter, a (I simply used a cooler with no air holes, just one hole punched at the top for the light fixture). I've found this setup makes the temperature get much too high, (due to the excellent insulation of the cooler, the cooler gets cumulatively hotter and hotter). To counteract this situation, I have replace the bulb with a lower wattage, 32 watt and put the light on a timer, set to go on for 30 mins then off for 45. This seems to be the right amount of heat!