Chewing Tobacco Production

Chad Jones


One of the most interesting things about tobacco is the wide variety of ways it can be consumed.  I am primarily an oral tobacco consumer, and there are many ways that I enjoy smokeless tobacco.  It can be placed in the upper lip, as with snus.  It can be put in the lower lip, as with dipping tobacco.  Or, it can be put in the cheek, as with chewing tobacco.  Today we’re going to be talking about chewing tobacco, which is one of the older forms of oral tobacco consumption in the Americas.


Each of these products aforementioned involve a different production method, which separates the product in terms of how it is used, how it tastes, and the general experience, as a whole.  Chewing tobacco is no exception.  Swedish Match’s phrase “from the seed to the can” has always been a favorite of mine, because it all begins with a seed.  I would be remiss to describe the production process if I didn’t begin at the beginning, and that’s how we are going to start off today. 


There are four main processes involved in the production of chewing tobacco:  growing, curing, fermenting, and aging. 


Growing Tobacco

Every story has a beginning, and with tobacco it all begins with a seed.  Tobacco growth, according to history, originated in Mesoamerica.  This is something that goes back thousands of years, think prior to Columbus in 1492.  Tobacco in the Americas would be historically smoked, inhaled, or chewed.  Chewing tobacco is one of the oldest forms of tobacco consumption in the world.  The tobacco cultivation process is an annual one.  The tobacco seeds are spread on top of soil, which is different from the process used to grow vegetables.  From there, sunlight hits the seeds and begins the germination process.  Two months later, a tobacco seed can grow into a full plant.  After this, the tobacco is harvested.  There's a number of ways to harvest tobacco, but it's usually but cutting the tobacco at the stalk. 


What’s interesting about chewing tobacco is that it uses more imported tobacco than American moist snuff, or dipping tobacco, uses.  American moist snuff Is usually 90% or higher in American tobacco.  Chewing tobacco can go as low as half of that, in terms of how much American tobacco is used.  That’s not really a big deal to me, because good tobacco is grown all over the world. 


Tobacco Curing

Once the tobacco is harvested, it goes through a curing process.  This process can vary, and the type of curing depends upon the type of tobacco.  Generally, there are four main types of curing:  air, fire, flue, and sun curing. 


Air Cured Tobacco

This is an open air process in which tobaccos are hung, usually by string through the leaf, in a barn for a period of two to four months.  Tobaccos that are cured this way are usually lower in sugar.


Fire Cured Tobacco

This is another process involving a barn.  As a farm owner, I like all the barn involvement.  A continuous fire is kept going in these barns, and the process can take a few days to up to a few months.  These tobaccos end up lower in sugar, but with a higher nicotine amount.


Flue Cured Tobacco

This is a large percentage of US tobacco production, but it's usually more common for cigarette tobacco.  It's also a method commonly practiced in North Carolina.  This process involves tobacco hung from poles in barns.  They receive a form of indirect heat, which is different from fire curing tobacco.  The tobacco can then be heat cured, but not cured by fire/smoke as with fire cured tobacco.


Sun Cured Tobacco

This process is when the tobacco is cured by direct exposure to the sun.  It varies according to the country.  Some countries will cure the tobacco by laying it on bamboo mats in the hot sun.  This tobaccos are higher in sugar, but end up lower in nicotine.



After curing, the tobacco is then fermented.  This is when hardwood slabs are placed on the floor of the barn and topped with sawdust.  The amount of heat within the barn varies, but it usually depends on climate.  This is a process that occurs in the fall, traditionally.  The barn conditions remain smoky to ensure the proper flavor characteristics.  The smoke usually sticks to the tobacco and leaves which give it a unique, but distinct flavor of smoky tobacco.  This process can take anywhere from 1-3 months in total. 



After the fermentation process, the tobacco is processed and will be delivered to factors.  From there, it's sorted, and put into "hogsheads", or wooden barrels, where it will be aged.  After that, the final product is created, which varies depending on the final intended product and the company.


The Production Process

There are a variety of ways the chewing tobacco can be processed. 

Loose Leaf Chewing Tobacco

This is the most common form of chewing tobacco.  The tobacco is cut into long strands and sweetened.  These long, shredded strands are then packaged in the pouch/envelope bags that are common of loose leaf chewing tobacco.  This is used by taking a big pinch of the chewing tobacco, pressing it into your cheek with your thumb, and chewing it a few times.


Plug Chewing Tobacco

This is a tobacco that is formed into a square shape.  It looks like a brick, or block.  It's not as common today, but it is still enjoyed.  To use it, you can either bite off a piece, or cut off a piece with a knife.  I usually bite it, it's easier that way.  The chewing tobacco is used by putting the wad of tobacco into your lip, and, of course, chewing it. 


Twist Chewing Tobacco


This is a tobacco that is formed by wrapping the tobacco around itself and forming a sort of tobacco rope.  It's not very common today outside of Appalachia, but I've seen it here and there where I live in the South.  It's used much like plug tobacco, where a piece is bit, or cut, off.  Then, it is placed into the cheek and chewed like the other forms of chewing tobacco.

 Final Thoughts

While chewing tobacco is not as common now, it was once the dominant form of smokeless tobacco consumption in the United States.  It’s not something I do full time, but it’s a form I enjoy.  I use snus most of the time, but this is probably a second favorite.  I like it more than dipping tobacco, because it looks like tobacco.  It’s the actual tobacco leaf, right there in a pouch.  While the production methods may vary from product to product, this is one that gets you as close to the tobacco leaf as humanly possible.  If you’re a tobacco lover like me, this is a format that doesn’t get discussed much, but is still a traditional way to consume tobacco that shouldn’t be overlooked.