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A mixture of flue cured, or bright Virginias, create a light and sweet tobacco, often with a hay or grassy flavour. A skilful blender can produce tobaccos with honey and citrus flavours, naturally. The light nature of the tobacco makes for easy combustion, but can burn hot if smoked too fast or poorly packed. Pressing into a flake, thicker cuts or even sliced twist help reduces the heat. With a little practice and gentle smoking, you will be rewarded with a complex, subtle and gentle tobacco.
Red & brown Virginias fill in the middle ground of the Virginia spectrum. Thanks to the darker leaf from the extra curing time, these tobaccos burn slower and cooler. Red Virginias hold some of the sweetness and come across as slightly fruity; the browns on the other hand, are much more nutty, woody and earthy.
Dark Virginia is subject to more direct heat through being hot pressed or stoved (literally, cooked). This removes most of the sugar and gives the tobacco a very deep, almost black, colour. Dark Virginia is favoured by experienced smokers, as it is strong, cool, slow burning and packed full of earthy, smoky, leathery flavours and is produced in a wide array of cuts: plug, twist, flake, spun cut, ribbon and shag.
Virginia is commonly blended with other tobaccos, the array of flavours act as a backdrop for some of the more aromatic leaves. Still classed as within the Virginia category, we have blends with Burley, Maryland & Kentucky. Like Virginia these are all different.
Burley has almost zero sugars, (usually) moderate in nicotine and a nutty flavour profile, sometimes with cocoa notes. Burley is a very absorbent tobacco and picks up surrounding flavours from tobaccos and flavourings. When mixed with Virginias, it has very little flavour, but slows down the burn rate and adds a little nicotine kick. Often it can’t even be detected in the taste, but in the body it’s there. Air cured in open barns, the Burley is a golden brown colour and known as White Burley in North America.
Dark Fire Cured Burley is also known as Kentucky, a rich, pungent tobacco. Like Dark Virginia, Kentucky packs a big hit, with a complex flavour to match. Filled with earthy, smoky, woody and almost cigar tastes. Often blended with Dark Virginias, for a smoke you know you have had.
Maryland is a rare tobacco these days; it crops up in blends from time to time, with all the same characteristics of burley, but this air cured tobacco is noticeably milder. With that said it’s surprising to see how this tobacco has fallen out of vogue.
Perique is a rare tobacco, originally only produced in St James Parish (Louisiana), but now produced elsewhere within the state of Louisiana. What starts as Burley is subject to a long fermentation process under pressure in barrels. Over the 12-18 month period, the tobacco takes on a very rich and pungent aroma. To smoke on its own Perique is a very dry & spicy tobacco, with a figgy and almost vinegary edge. Commonly used in strong Balkan & English blends (see below), it is also mixed with bright Virginias to produce a VaPer (Va =Virginia & Per = Perique). Due to its rarity and power, VaPer blends often only use up to 5% Perique. The low volume of Perique combined with the flue cured Virginia produces hay/grass-like flavours, with a slightly peppery and pungent twang. To keep the smoke cool and smooth, these are commonly produced as a flake or sliced twist. Due to the high Virginia content, these have to be smoked like Gold Virginia’s to avoid tongue bite. Many favour taller and narrower tobacco chambers, as this build up of ash is faster and keeps the smoke cool.
So far we have only talked about tobacco varieties from North American descent; the Mediterranean/Middle East also have some interesting tobaccos. Commonly produced in Turkey, with a few coming from Greece and Cyprus; these small leafed tobaccos are air cured and then fermented to remove any acidic tastes; the result is a highly aromatic flavour. With a different method of curing, Orientals can be from the dry and creamy Turkish Izmir to the beautifully smoky Cypriot Latakia (originally produced in Syria).
Usually blended with Virginias, Cavendish and Burleys and grouped by the tobacco content, these tobaccos are popular among experienced smokers as the flavours are often very rich and pungent. Latakia is the most widespread and widely used Oriental; due to smoke curing, this tobacco has very oaky, smoky flavour. The tobacco leaves are strung high up in barns and pine and herb fires are lit at the base. The fragrant aromas from the smoke penetrate the leaf turning it black. Like peated whiskies, Latakia is not for everyone and when smoked produces a strong aroma. Even though Latakia has a big flavour, it is not overly strong (nicotine wise) and smokes very cool.
The march of history has seen these names developed and no real distinct definitions of English, Oriental, Balkan or Scottish now exist. These definitions are given after centuries of debate, but not everyone agrees…
Oriental blends. Often contain no Latakia (but sometimes do) and are made up from Virginias/Burley with a high Oriental content. These blends tend to be a little mellower with highly aromatic flavours, but without anything being added to the blend. Not so common in the UK.
Balkan Blends. Thanks to the success of the iconic ‘Balkan Sobranie’ in the last century, these mixtures are still very popular today. Made up from a base of creamy Orientals and Virginias, topped off with a dash of Latakia and from time to time Perique. Balkans are smooth, generally medium in strength, based on the Virginias used and quantity of Perique (if used). A wide variety of Orientals can be employed, from Turkish to Macedonian leaf.
English Blends. Not to be confused with the general style of unflavoured tobaccos. In England most blenders only use Latakia and a few use a little Turkish Izmir (or other Orientals). As a result, an English mixture contains more Virginia with a little Oriental, compared to a Balkan blend. These tend to be similar in strength to the Balkans, but are often woodier and less creamy too.
Scottish Blends. These do not differ massively from English blends; they are usually higher in Virginia content with (Virginia based) Cavendish tobaccos added for extra sweetness. Most people group Scottish and English together into the same category.
If you like the rule of three, you’ll appreciate that tobaccos can be aromatic, non-aromatic or English blend.
Aromatic tobaccos have casings, or flavors, added during the manufacturing process. Some common casings are maple, chocolate, vanilla, rum, apple and cherry. Depending on the amount of casing used, one of these blends can also be deemed semi-aromatic or lightly aromatic.
Non-aromatic tobaccos rely solely on the natural ingredients of the tobacco for flavors and aroma. Frequently, to increase sweetness, the tobacco is specially aged or fermented.
English blend refers to English tobaccos that, up until 1986, didn’t allow additives. Today an English blend is any containing Oriental tobaccos. The most common consist of Latakia, Virginia and Perique tobaccos (more on those in a bit). The overall strength of the blend—mild-, medium- or full-bodied—depends on how much Latakia is mixed in.
This doesn’t refer to hypnotism, patches or other attempts to quit using tobacco. Quite the contrary. Curing is the post-harvesting process necessary to make tobacco consumable. In its raw, freshly picked state, tobacco is too wet to ignite or smoke. Because, you know, moisture and fire don’t really mix.
Air-cured tobaccos are dried naturally in large barns sheltered from the sun. An entire plant or individual leaf can be dried this way, and the resulting byproduct of this three-month process is sugar.
Flue-cured tobacco was originally strung onto sticks hung from poles in curing barns with flues running on externally fed fire boxes, exposing it to smoke while slowly raising the temperature. (The 1960s saw some of these convert to gas-fueled systems.) This process takes about a week and produces tobacco that is high in sugar with medium/high nicotine levels.
Fire-cured drying is natural and completed with wood-fired fumigation, traditionally of the oak variety.
Sun-curing is applied to mostly all Oriental tobaccos, which are grown in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and adjoining countries.
You probably didn’t think there was so much to tobacco, did you? Well, there is. And we’re still just getting started. Now it’s time to cut the tobacco. There are a number of ways to do so, some of which are more fun than others, but all of them make for a tasty smoke.
Flake cut tobacco consists of large and flat flakes. Flakes must be rubbed out to separate the flakes. That means rubbing it to loosen the tobacco in the palm of the hand prior to smoking. Flakes are basically big blocks of tobacco sliced into three-inch flakes. There is also a large type, the six-inch flake—sounds like a really bad case of dandruff.
Slices are essentially the same as flakes but thicker. Easy.
Ready-rubbed flakes, a.k.a., the lazy man’s flakes, have been rubbed out before packaging. Even easier.
Ribbon cut is tobacco that has been cut into long, thin ribbons. These are not as long or as fine as shag.
Curlies have no relation to Moes or Larrys. These long, thin slices of tobacco are cut from twisted “ropes” and cut into small circles.
Twists are made like curlies, except that they are cut into one- or two-inch pieces. Twists are not frequently seen, like a Yeti, so if you do see one, at the very least snap a pic.
Shag tobacco is very shredded and very fine. This tobacco is known as Sherlock Holmes’s preference, even though at that time it was considered inferior. Not so elementary after all, eh?
Plug tobacco is soaked in honey, which acts as a bonding agent as well as a sweetener. Post honey, the tobacco is molded into round molds before packaging, which is sometimes referred to as “spun-disc” tobacco. A knife is used to flake off pieces.
Cube cuts are pressed and chopped into small, square pieces.
But wait, there’s more…
The pursuit of the right tobacco flavor can be all consuming, but oh so delicious. With so many different flavors, it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s start here.
The mildest of all blending tobaccos, Virginia is a good burner. It lights easily, has the highest natural sugar content and is used in basically all blends. It’s got a light, sweet flavor and ranges from bright yellow to medium brown in color. The lighter colors are spicier and the darker colors are more complex in flavor. About 60% of the American tobacco crop is Virginia.
Thicker than Virginia, bet less popular—sorry, buddy—Burley has a soft, nutty flavor, burns slowly and coolly and is used in many blends. High in oil, low in sugar, it is the anti-Virginia. Since its flavor is pretty neutral, it accepts outside flavorings (i.e., casings) well.
A fire-cured Burley tobacco produced in, wait for it…Kentucky. Its aroma is not as heavy and is very aromatic and unique. The nicotine content tends to be higher, so it’s used in limited amounts.
Similar in character to Virginia, but not as rich in flavor. It is a good way to dilute a blend without changing character.
Bright Bright is, well, bright. This very light tobacco is grown in the Carolinas and has a mild flavor.
A curing and cutting method, not an actual type of tobacco leaf, but its rakish-sounding name makes it more interesting, don’t you think? This flue- or fire-cured process brings out the naturally sweet Virginia flavor and creates a tobacco that is mild, light in taste and easy to pack.
A product of a Burley-growing process native to Louisiana. It is a slow-burning dark tobacco renowned for its very spicy flavor. Juices are pressed out of the leaf, fermented and then reintroduced to the tobacco. The process is repeated, which makes a dark reddish-brown tobacco that is tart, spicy and sweet. The nicotine content is kind of overwhelming, so Perique can’t be smoked by itself—about 5% is the maximum.
A very dark tobacco that has a robust, sweet flavor.
Yet another process/not actual tobacco. Syria- or Cyprus-grown, the leaves are hung in huts above fires fed by wood burning on the floor. Over time, the smoke saturates the tobacco, turning it black and giving it a distinct flavor and scent. Dark and full-bodied, Latakia gives off a smoky aroma similar to burning leaves. Weird fact: When short on wood, peasant farmers would use camel dung for cooking and heating in the winter. How about that?
These tobaccos refer to a general group that is spicy and fragrant and usually high in sugar. They’re grown in Western Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Macedonia and Syria, and different types include Xanthi, Komotini, Drama (as strong as its name suggests), Serrus, Samsun, Izmir, Yenidje (spicy, but smooth), Basma, Dubeck, Bashi Bagli, Smyrna and some others.
Although primarily used in cigars, cigar leaf is also at times used as pipe tobacco. This adds richness, sweetness and some spice.
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