Burley is one of the most loved, and yet one of the most disrespected types of tobacco. One of the reasons for the scorn is that Burley is ubiquitous. It’s used in virtually all ways tobacco can be used. It’s found in cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chew, snuff, snus and even cigars. But one of the common misconceptions is that Burley is Burley…not by a long shot. Burley is a fairly large-leafed tobacco that grows in a fairly-well spread out area of the United States, but it’s also grown extensively in Africa and in Mexico. I’m sure that it’s also raised elsewhere, but I’m not aware of large commercial amounts grown outside the areas above.
Burley is characterized by being high in natural oils, but low in sugar, making it the yin to Virginia’s yang. But there’s more than one type of Burley, which is where things can get confusing. Most of the commercial Burley is loosely lumped into the type called white Burley. Actually, true white Burley isn’t grown anymore, but this type is fairly neutral in flavor, even though it still has a decent nicotine punch. Its flavor is nutty (think walnuts and pecans), without a lot of sweetness. It’s neutrality is one of its strengths, however. It can be used to lighten the flavor of a blend, and the fact that it doesn’t have a strong flavor makes it perfect for aromatics because it absorbs casings and top-dressings readily. Because it’s not very sweet, it is often combined with Virginias to keep a blend from becoming too bland or sour.
There’s another type of Burley, often called dark Burley. It is darker in color, but the big difference is in the flavor. It’s bold and spicy, and packs even more of a punch than white Burley. For practical purposes, some people use the terms dark Burley and dark air-cured interchangeably, but the tobacco farmers see them as distinctly different. The main use of dark Burley is to add body and spice to a blend. It’s also used extensively in the Italian-style stogies, most notably those from De Nobili and Parodi. Here’s where another issue arises. Some folks refer to dark-fired Kentucky as dark-fired Kentucky Burley. In common usage, it’s not far off, but once again, the farmers would disagree.
Because of its high nicotine content, it’s understandable why it would be used in chew and snuff. It’s also part of the reason that both of these forms of tobacco are heavily flavored or scented, to cover up dark Burley’s otherwise strong flavor. Many other tobaccos began as Burley, but have evolved into something else over the years. Most cigar leaf shares some roots with Burley, and the unique Semois, grown in valleys in Belgium came from Burley seeds initially. Oriental and Turkish tobaccos may have started as Burley seeds as well, but the evidence is anecdotal at best. I make this conjecture based upon an experiment that was done decades ago. One of the cigarette companies wanted to save money by growing Oriental varietals here in the US, so they brought seeds over here and planted them. In the space of a few generations, the plants were more like Burley than Orientals.
So, despite what many people believe, Burley isn’t just the base for heavily-flavored aromatics or “codger blends”, and it doesn’t have to be tame in flavor. It can be all those things, but it can be much more. I’ve used it in blends that you wouldn’t suspect contained any Burley, and companies like Cornell & Diehl have turned them into an art form. So the next time that you see that there’s Burley in a blend, don’t just write it off. Burley is a very versatile leaf.