How A Cigar Is Made
One of the more fascinating things about cigar making is that its basic art of construction has not changed in well over one hundred years. That is why a handrolled cigar is the perfect complement for those of us who appreciate the artistry of hand craftsmanship. Even machine-made cigars must still rely on various degrees of hand labor. Premium cigars, however, are an anomaly, for even though each one is individually made by hand, we do not want them to be different in terms of construction and quality. If anything, we want them to be the same. To fully understand the intricacies of a good cigar, we must first go to the very roots of cigar making. And those roots literally emanate from the tobacco plant itself.
Each geographic area in which a tobacco seed is planted will give that plant—and the subsequent leaves that ultimately end up as a cigar—a distinct characteristic. That is why a Honduran cigar tastes different from a Dominican cigar, which tastes different from a Havana. However, given the world as a whole, there are extremely few areas that have the perfect combination of soil, temperature and rainfall to produce a tobacco crop worthy of making a high-grade cigar. Most of these microclimates are in the Caribbean or in the nearly identical latitudinal regions of Mexico and Central America.
Certainly one of the most famous tobacco growing and cigar-making areas today is the Dominican Republic, a fascinating island paradox that is home to both the 10,000-foot-high Pico Duarte mountain and the crocodile-infested Lago Enriquillo which lies 144 feet below sea level. It is a land where they produce cigars worthy of an emperor’s humidor, and yet the government periodically—and without warning—shuts down the power system to entire areas of the country in order to conserve electricity.
Consequently, the large scale Fuente factory, for example, has learned to keep a diesel generator with 20,000 gallons of fuel on standby at all times, so that its cigar making operations will not be interrupted.
In the Dominican Republic, which produces the majority of the world’s premium cigars today, there are two primary fertile valleys for tobacco, the Real, which was named by Columbus and means “Royal” in Spanish, and the Cibao. These valleys, which posses a variety of soil textures, yield two of the most luxurious, long leaf filler tobaccos ever rolled into a cigar. Specifically, they are Olor Dominicano (a native Dominican seed), and Piloto Cubano, a strain that originated with precious Cuban seed that was transported to the Dominican Republic by cigar makers fleeing Castro. Thus, when you hear about “Dominican-grown Cuban seed,” or “Cuban seed Dominican tobaccos,” they are referring to Piloto Cubano. There is also a lesser-quality Virginian tobacco grown in the Dominican, but this is mainly used for local consumption and doesn’t apply to high-grade cigars.
Ironically, up until 1993, the incredibly rich growing areas of the Dominican Republic produced filler and binder. And for the most part, there is still no major supply of Dominican wrapper, as the right combination of soil and seed has yet to be found on a continuing basis, brands such as OpusX notwithstanding.
That is why most brands made in this famous tobacco-growing country must import their wrappers from other areas, such as Connecticut in the USA, Cameroon from Africa, and with growing frequency, Java and Sumatra from Indonesia as well as San Andrés tobaccos from Mexico. The quest for a Dominican-grown wrapper goes back to the 1980s, when there were attempts by General Cigar Corporation to grow Connecticut seed wrapper in the Dominican for some of its flagship brands. Unfortunately, this exercise did not prove commercially viable. However, in 1992, I witnessed the first experimental planting of Cuban seed wrapper in the Cibao Valley by the Arturo Fuente family. This historic moment was captured in the photo you see elsewhere in this chapter, showing thirty-five- to forty-five-day-old seedlings being planted in the fields. Of course, no one knew it was going to be an historic moment at the time. But as it happened, 1992–93 was an especially good growing season in the Dominican Republic, and even though some plants were lost in heavy winter rains, enough were saved to eventually create excellent rosado wrappers that have since become the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the first Dominican cigar that could finally be called a “puro.” That is, a cigar in which the filler, binder and wrapper are all grown within the borders of a single country. Since then, other companies, such as Davidoff, have followed suit.
To the west, across the Caribbean Sea, is Honduras, second largest producer of non-Havana premium cigars in the world. A rugged country, with jagged, prehistoric-looking mountains covered with jungle, one would not be surprised to encounter the outlaw inhabitants of Jurassic Park roaming this tropical wilderness. Only 20 percent of the land is cultivated, but it is here that some of the world’s richest tobacco is grown, primarily in the Jagua and La Entrada valleys. Yet it has only been fairly recently that Honduran cigar makers have been allowed to grow and import tobaccos that are not native to this land of the Mayan civilization. Thus, we are now able to enjoy rich Honduran cigars whose flavor is given additional subtleties with wrappers, binders, and fillers from other countries.
Honduras’ sometimes argumentative neighbor to the south is Nicaragua, the largest republic in Central America (roughly as big as England and Wales combined), a land of volcanoes and other eruptions of a more political nature. In Nicaragua there are two fertile valleys, the Jalapa and Estelí, where some of the world’s most exquisite filler, binder and wrapper are grown. Recently the area of Condega, near Estelí, has also seen increasing tobacco cultivation. This area is located near the Nicaraguan–Honduran border, and possesses soil that many farmers say is as close to Cuban earth as you can get without going to Cuba. There is also the island of Ometepe, which is composed of two volcanoes (one dormant, and one still quite active) rising out of the great expanse of Lake Nicaragua. It is here that a very exclusive, sweet, and pliable tobacco is grown and primarily used for filler. All of this soil-rich diversity is why, when Nicaraguan cigars are good, they are very good. Therefore, it is frustrating to realize that there are some potentially fantastic tobacco-growing regions in Nicaragua that cannot be cultivated because of ongoing tensions in the area. Hopefully, this situation will change.
Mexico also has areas capable of producing some excellent tobaccos. Perhaps the most famous is the valley of San Andrés Tuxtla, located in the State of Veracruz, southeast of Mexico City and one hundred miles south of Veracruz Port, on the Gulf of Mexico side of the country (I tell you all this in case, after smoking a Te-Amo down to the band and tossing back a few Herradura Añejo tequila “shooters,” you suddenly become inspired to visit the birthplace of your cigar). Here you’ll find the oldest cigar factory in Mexico, La Prueba de Balsa Hermanos, which was started in 1852. Cigar tobacco is also grown on the Pacific side of the country, in the neighboring state of Oaxaca’s Valle Nacional. To the north, in Guadalajara, is the well-known Ornelas factory. Another tobacco-growing region is in Nayarit, near the coast above Puerto Vallarta. Mexico is noted for its superb binder leaf, as well as producing a sturdy and spicy wrapper that lends itself ideally for Maduro. Of course, the country grows filler tobaccos as well. And it is a good thing they do, for up until 1996, the government required all cigars to be made of 100 percent Mexican-grown leaf, although now things have eased up a bit.
Although the United States produces tobacco in numerous areas of the country, two of its most celebrated crops come from Connecticut, specifically, the Housatonic Valley region. Here, the finest shade wrapper (100 acres) and broadleaf (800 acres) are grown, and a comparison of these two acreages will give you the ratios of both tobaccos for an enthusiastic world market. Because of the unique sandy soil in this one area, Connecticut shade-grown wrapper has an unforgettable taste that has never been duplicated in any other part of the world, not even in Cuba, where the seeds are now being planted on an ongoing basis. The entire growing area of the Connecticut River Valley, which stretches from Hartford north to the Massachusetts state line, possesses a two-mile wide strip of incredibly rich topsoil, deposited there centuries ago by an ever-narrowing river. Because of the richness of this farmland, Connecticut shade has become one of the most popular wrappers in modern times.
In spite of all these excellent tobacco growing regions, the fantastically fertile island of Cuba, the largest in the West Indies, continues to shine like a star jewel in the cigar maker’s crown. Located just ninety miles south of Florida, Cuba has maintained its reputation as the ultimate cigar-producing country since the days of Columbus. In fact, through the years, the resilient lore of the Cuban cigar has managed to survive catastrophes both natural and manmade, including wars, diseases, and embargoes. Just what is it that makes the legendary cigars from this particular island so unique? It is not the cigar makers or the factories, for I have seen equally skilled workers—many of them exiled Cuban cigar makers themselves—in the Dominican, Nicaragua, and Honduras. And I have seen much more modern cigar-making facilities in other parts of the world. Besides, you can always train or hire experienced cigar rollers. Nor is it the weather, for many famous cigar-making countries have identical climates, with an abundance of warm, humid, sunlit days and cool, breezy nights. And the weather can change. But not the soil. And therein lies the main secret of the Cuban mystique. There is no other place that has such an abundance of coarse, rich red earth (although Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and one small valley in the Dominican Republic come extremely close). It is the soil that provides the final ingredient in the magic elixir that gives Cuba the perfect ecosystem for tobacco.
All Cuban cigars are puros, in which the wrapper, binder, and filler tobaccos are only grown in Cuba.
When one speaks of Cuban tobacco the words, “Vuelta Abajo” usually give most knowledgeable aficionados a sudden rush of adrenalin. This one area, an abundantly lush valley located on the western end of the island in the Pinar del Rio province, is world renowned for its shade-grown wrapper and filler, the two most taste dominant tobaccos in any cigar. But there are three other well established growing regions in Cuba besides the constantly spotlighted Vuelta Abajo. Moving from west to east along the island, they are: Partido, which also grows filler and a very excellent wrapper (although not as good as that in the Vuelta Abajo); Remedios, in the central part of Cuba, which grows filler and binder; and two sections of Oriente on the easternmost section of the island, both of which also grow filler and binder. However, of these four tobacco-producing regions, only the Vuelta Abajo is capable of growing crops for all three ingredients of a cigar: wrapper, filler, and binder. Even if the same Cuban seeds were planted elsewhere on the island, the harvested tobaccos would not be of the quality that this one microclimate is capable of producing. At one time, the topsoil of the Vuelta Abajo, particularly in the Pinar del Rio area, was over two feet deep.
It is a little-known fact that in the years just prior to the embargo, most of the Havana leaf being exported to the US for stateside cigar making was taken only from the Remedios area. Cuba kept the high-grade Vuelta Abajo tobaccos for their own brands. That helped establish the mystique of the Havana-made cigar, and is the reason why the taste of a good handmade long-leaf Havana has never been duplicated outside of Cuba. However, it should be pointed out that there are certain machine-made Cuban brands now being manufactured in other countries, such as Germany and Canada, using carefully selected imported Havana tobacco. It should also be mentioned that, in the past, all Cuban filler, binder and wrapper tobacco was sungrown, but today the wrapper leaf is almost all shade grown. Which is another reason why a Havana cigar made today does not taste anything like the pre-Castro cigars of yesteryear.
But whether grown under sun or shade, today the demand for filler, binder, and wrapper leaf grown in the fertile farmlands of the Vuelta Abajo has never been greater. Therefore, on a visit to this legendary area, I found it somewhat reassuring to discover that, even with Cuba’s faltering economy, when more and more land is—at best—being rotated between tobacco and food crops, this one naturally enhanced section is being preserved for tobacco as much as possible.
Of course, there are other noteworthy areas in the world that are famous for their tobaccos. Ecuador, because of its almost perpetual cloud cover, produces some of the finest natural shade-grown wrappers in recent history. The subtle spiciness of Cameroon comes from the foggy, humid regions of West Africa (although Cameroon seed is now also being grown in other countries as well). It makes a thin but very flavorful wrapper, the supply of which, unfortunately, is rapidly becoming almost non-existent due to internal problems within its native country. And of the Cameroon that is grown, less than seven percent is suitable for the manufacture of premium cigars.
Which brings the focus for a replacement leaf to Indonesia, a nation made up of more than 13,000 islands, of which fewer than 6,000 are populated. Although rice is Indonesia’s main agricultural crop, it may soon be overtaken by tobacco. From the fog-carpeted valley floors beneath Mt. Bromo in Java, to Sumatra, a large island in the western part of Indonesia, come delicious wrapper leaves that are now used for both humidified and non-humidified (i.e., Dutch-type) cigars. Another popular region for both “wet” and “dry” cigars is Brazil (mainly in Bahía), which is also finding increased use in filler blends. Other popular cigar tobaccos occasionally come from Jamaica (which grows filler and binder but no wrapper) and the Philippines, with lesser known regions, including India, Costa Rica, and China, scattered throughout the world.
The largest tobacco growing area in China is near Qujing City, in the Yunnan Province, located in the far southwestern region of the country. Although tobacco has been grown in that country before, it was more or less a dormant industry for cigars until recently. China started renewed tobacco planting operations in 1942, but did not start opening up its product to the outside world until 1988. Much of their government controlled tobaccos are flue-cured and used for cigarettes, but, recognizing the growing importance of the worldwide cigar market, the Chinese are now producing a mild and very sweet tasting cigarillo. They are also attempting to break into the premium cigar field with brands such Great Wall, but so far with very limited success, primarily due to the rather flat taste of the tobaccos. Whether any of these Chinese cigars will ever become a European or American staple remains to be seen, but it is an interesting trend for international cigar smokers to follow. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it took a cigar to finally break down the trade barriers and bring the East and West together?
These shade grown seedlings in Honduras are ready to be transplanted in the fields.
No matter where in the world tobacco is grown, everything starts with the seed and the soil. Inasmuch as the world’s most popular cigars come from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba, let’s follow the life of a typical cigar (I realize that’s a paradox, as no cigar is really typical) in any of these three countries, from seedling to cedar box.
First, it is important to realize that the tobacco seed determines the size, color, texture, and type of plant you will get, while the soil and the climate are what create the taste, aroma, ash color and burning qualities of the end product. That is why where the tobacco is planted is just as important as how it is planted.
Life for a budding cigar begins in September and October, when the pinhead-sized tobacco seeds are first planted in protected, transportable trays or beds. It takes approximately forty-five days for the seeds to mature enough to be transplanted in the fields. During this initial growth period, the seedlings are carefully watched over and nurtured by the farmers, much as a nanny guards her youngsters in a nursery. Ironically, cigar smoking is not permitted around the tiny tobacco plants, for fear that a virus could be transmitted to the seedlings by a microscopic residue of ash. Interestingly, there is not as much danger of infection from Maduro cigars, where the extra intense heat of fermentation has most likely killed any potentially harmful organisms in the wrapper.
After about forty-five days, the strongest plants are relocated to the tobacco fields, where they are carefully transplanted in rows, at very precise distances from one another. Shade-grown tobacco is planted under a suspended ceiling of cheesecloth or synthetic mesh, to screen out the direct rays of the sun. Sun-grown tobacco, on the other hand, is planted without this artificial cover.
These Piloto Cubano seedlings are 35 days old. Eventually, they will become shade-grown tobacco.
Given enough sun and water, and depending on the texture and density of the soil, the plants mature at a rapid rate, and in roughly another forty-five days, they are ready for their first harvesting, or priming, in which certain leaves are stripped off of the main tobacco stalk. These are the leaves that will be ultimately dried, aged, and made into cigars.
There are three basic types of leaves on each tobacco plant. Going from the bottom to the top, they are: Volado—the mildest of the leaves in taste; Seco—a medium flavored leaf, which comprises the largest middle portion of the tobacco plant; and Ligero—the strongest in taste. Thus, the closer you get to the top of the plant, the thicker the leaves become and the heavier the taste. Normally, it takes a blend of all three of these leaves, in varying proportions, to make a cigar.
Planting the seeds taken from the greenhouse beds. (Nicaragua)
After 35 to 45 days, the seedlings are planted in fields, at a precise distance apart from one another. Notice the second man from the left, who uses a stick to mark the spot where each seedling is to be planted. A long string, barely visible in this photo, marks the row. Excessive water in this Cibao Valley field was caused by a heavy downpour the day before. (This photo, taken in 1992, depicts the very first planting of OpusX wrapper.)
The three basic leaf classifications of the tobacco plant. Volado is the mildest in taste. Seco has the greatest concentration of flavor and aroma. Ligero is the strongest in both texture and taste.
Adding more Ligero produces a stronger tasting cigar; using mainly Seco and adding Volado lightens the taste considerably. But a cigar made of only Seco tobacco would normally be too bland and characterless.
Usually two to four leaves are taken from a plant during each priming. During the course of a tobacco plant’s growing season, which can last until February, there will be a total of five to six primings per plant, starting with the bottommost leaves, as they are the first to mature. This permits more strength to go into the upper leaves as time passes. Because they are neither light nor heavy in texture and taste, the center leaves around the Seco classification are among the most versatile for cigar making, while the thicker, heavier Ligero leaves on top are ideal for wrappers. Because the upper leaves are permitted to stay on the plant the longest, they receive more nutrients, which results in a heavier textured leaf and a stronger tasting tobacco.
Most of the leaves used for Maduro wrapper—which requires a much more intense fermentation period (as we shall see later in this chapter)—comes from the upper portions of the plant, which can take the heat, so to speak.
The three distinct shades of the three basic tobaccos used in cigar construction: (l.) Seco, (r.) Ligero, and (bottom) Volado. The strength of their flavors corresponds to the depth of the color of the leaves. For reference, these are all Dominican tobaccos.
This worker is picking off the top flowers of shade-grown tobacco that will eventually be used for wrappers. The flower is never used in a tobacco plant, and by removing it as soon as it appears, more strength goes into the leaves. These plants will spend approximately 85 days in the fields during which time they will grow to a height of 5½ to 6 feet.
For all its thick, exuberant foliage, each tobacco plant will only yield fourteen to eighteen leaves of a quality suitable for cigar making. Sometimes, weather and climate change permitting, there can be a second planting in December, which pushes the harvest season all the way into March and April, thereby providing a much-needed bumper crop of tobacco for the cigar factories. But because Mother Nature is involved, a lot can go wrong with the crop between seed planting and priming.
One of the most universally feared diseases among tobacco farmers is Blue Mold, which can best be described as the AIDS of the tobacco industry. It can appear almost overnight, scarring the tobacco leaf beyond use and completely destroying the plant. Transmitted by microscopic airborne spores, Blue Mold often starts on the underside of a leaf and rapidly spreads from there. There is no problem with Blue Mold as long as the weather remains clear and dry, because in order to thrive, this dreaded enemy needs lots of rain, cold days and very little sun—not your typical Caribbean weather. But once it occurs, the stage is set for disaster. Sudden moisture in the air and a drop in temperature can trigger a Blue Mold epidemic that can spread like a prairie wildfire, destroying a country’s entire harvest. Crop dusting and fumigation are the only defenses against this plague, but they are not always effective.
In Cuba, for example, they regularly spray every young seedling against this dreaded fungus, but in 1980 Blue Mold still managed to destroy virtually all of that nation’s tobacco crop, putting 26,000 workers out of business and resulting in a $100 million loss of revenue because all exports of cigars were virtually halted. In 1984 this plague attacked the Dominican Republic and in 1985 it hit Central America, in both instances with devastating results. And in 1992–93, after one of the coldest, wettest winters in history, accented by a debilitating shot from Hurricane Andrew, Blue Mold again struck at Cuba’s tobacco heartland. Honduras got hit with this plague in 1996.
A healthy Havana leaf from the Vuelta Abajo. This is the start of what could ultimately become a great cigar.
Consequently, in Honduras, where the growing season normally runs from September through March, many farmers now start planting in the off-season—sometimes as early as July—in order to take advantage of unusually good weather and to keep most of the maturing crop away from the potentially cold, wet months of winter. The downside of this practice is the danger of wearing out the soil by too much concentrated planting.
Black Shank is another self-descriptive tobacco disease, which attacks the stem and turns the entire inside of the stalk black, eventually destroying the entire plant. Equally descriptive in name and despised by farmers is the Mosaic Virus, which produces a blue, mottled appearance on tobacco leaves. One of the most effective methods of controlling this scourge is having the workers wash their hands in milk when the seeds are taken from their beds and replanted in the fields. I guess all those ads were right; milk really does make a difference!
And let’s not forget the common nemesis of farmers everywhere, bugs—specifically, aphids and the dreaded tobacco beetle, Lacioderma, which many of us have had the misfortune to encounter in our humidors. These little beasties lay their eggs right in the tobacco leaf. Within twenty-two days the larva hatches into a worm that gorges itself on the leaf before finally metamorphosing into a pinhead-sized brown beetle and flying off. Of course, by then the tobacco leaf has been destroyed.
Tobacco bugs have gotten to this Ligero leaf. The left portion of the leaf will be stripped away, so that the right side can still be used.
Other unseen dangers await the tobacco grower. Back in the early 1960s, when the Honduran cigar industry was just getting started, tobacco fields were cleared and planted right up against the thick, untamed forestland. Nobody realized that within this vegetation dwelt millions of caterpillars, which looked upon the tobacco fields as one fantastic all-night diner. Soon, hordes of these creatures advanced out of the jungle, crawled en masse across the shade cheesecloth, and began to devoir entire tobacco plants, right on down to the stems. These Honduran crawlies had never seen such a succulent feast spread out before them in such a manner. Eventually, the farmers had to clear the jungle well beyond the borders of their cultivated land, and then fumigate the entire area.
With all of this potential devastation, it is a wonder that any tobacco manages to survive at all. But survive it does, thanks to constant surveillance by farmers, the use of pesticides, and in some cases, even picking bugs off of the plants one by one, as I have seen them do in Cuba. When each leaf is finally separated from its stalk (primed), the farmer can breathe a sigh of relief, for there is less chance of losing the crop once it is literally “in hand,” so to speak.
Once the leaves are primed, they are classified by size and texture (not color, because at this point every leaf is green), and carefully braided together with palm strips. These rows of freshly picked tobacco leaves are then taken to curing barns in the fields, where they are draped over long poles, called cujes, and hung up out of the sun.
Here, the leaves are fanned and caressed by the warmth of gentle Caribbean breezes for a period of three to eight weeks (depending on type of tobacco and the weather), during which time they gradually lose their moisture content.
A worker holds leaves that have been stricken with spotted plague, and which have been removed from otherwise healthy plants.
During this natural air-curing process, the leaves slowly change in color, going from green to patches of yellows and then to brown, which eventually spreads over the entire leaf. If a lighter color is desired, the leaf is removed from the open air drying racks while still partially green and taken to a sealed room where artificial heat is applied. This controls the rate of final coloring and keeps the leaf from becoming too dark. As each leaf dries in the curing barn, it is pushed together to make room for more leaves coming in from the next priming. This procedure goes on until the entire barn is crammed full of air cured leaves, a welcome sight to any cigar maker. Or smoker, for that matter. But the tobacco is still a long way from becoming a cigar.
From the curing barns, the leaves are shipped to packing houses, where workers separate and grade them by size, texture, and now, color. This grading and inspecting process will be constantly reoccurring throughout the entire cigar-making procedure, and is one of the reasons we have so many high-grade cigars today, instead of just “cheap smokes.” As an example, when buyers come to the packing houses to inspect the tobacco, some of the many factors they check for include color, size, thickness, elasticity, texture, prominence of veins, oiliness, holes, spots or other blemishes, aroma, and taste of the leaf both lit and unlit. It is not unusual to see a buyer take a raw leaf from the bale, roll it up, and smoke it in order to get the pure essence of what he will be paying for. In a way, it is like test driving a car before you purchase it. Broken leaves are set aside, to see if there is still enough area to be used for binder, wrapper, or filler, depending on the type of tobacco. To paraphrase a popular public service slogan, a good plant is a terrible thing to waste. Once graded, each category of leaf is tied together with a strip of palm tree leaf into twenty-leaf bundles, called “hands.” From here, a most unusual process of fermentation takes place.
Open-air curing barns are typical of the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, enclosed curing barns are used.
Photo by Domingo Batista
An older-style curing barn in Cuba. Pre-revolutionary barns were made of thatched palm leaves, but as they succumbed to the elements,not the least of which were hurricanes, they were replaced with tin structures. This transition barn has thatched sides and a tin roof. Most of Cuba’s current barns are now made of wood and are enclosed.
A worker stands on stilts called zancos to spread cheesecloth covering over fields of tobacco seedlings that will one day become shade-grown Honduran wrappers. In the evenings, this covering is raised to let heat escape so the plants can cool.
In the Dominican Republic, cured tobacco is transported in serones, coarse bales made of woven palm tree Cana leaves.
These rich, barrel-cured Havana filler leaves from the Vuelta Abajo will eventually go into Cohiba cigars.
Once brought into the shed, the green tobacco leaves are laced together for air-drying.
Hanging the fresh cut tobacco leaves for drying. (Nicaragua)
This is definitely a job for the sure-footed.
Plenty of air circulation is needed in this hot and humid Caribbean climate in order to properly dry and cure the leaves.
At the factories, the hands of tobacco are gathered into huge, free standing piles, called “burros,” or bulks, which are square in shape, weigh from 8,000 to 10,000 pounds apiece, and stand anywhere from three to six feet high. By stacking so many hands of tobacco on top of one other, air is unable to circulate and is trapped inside.
When the leaf loses its upward arc and the main vein turns from light green to white, it is an indication that it is ready to be primed.
Photo: Domingo Batista
The cured and dried leaf, already tied in a hand.
Nestor Plascencia inspects the condition of the air-dried leaves from his farms. This is a skill done by sight, touch, and smell.
As a result, a natural heat slowly builds up within the bulk, releasing moisture, plant saps, and ammonia nitrate from the tobacco leaves. Indeed, upon entering the warm fermentation rooms, the heavy, stinging odor of ammonia is almost overwhelming. This natural fermentation process, which is known as “sweating,” physically changes the makeup and characteristics of the tobacco. The color slowly darkens, starches in the leaves gradually turn into sugar (which is why we sometimes taste a subtle sweetness when lighting up a cigar), and the entire leaf gains character and finesse, just as a caterpillar emerges from its cocoon as a delicate butterfly (not those Honduran caterpillars, however). It is imperative that each bulk be made up of exactly the same grades and textures of leaf, or they will not all cure at an identical rate and the bulk will be ruined. Water acts as a catalyst in fermentation, and on those days when it is raining, every bulk in the fermentation rooms dramatically increases in temperature.
To keep track of the fermentation process, a long thermometer is thrust into the bulk and the temperature noted at precise intervals. Rarely is the temperature allowed to rise above 160 degrees Fahrenheit, for the higher the temperature, the darker the tobacco will become and the more strain will be put on the leaf. In Cuba they do not let the temperature get above 120 degrees for most of their leaf. Normally, in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, the temperature for filler tobacco can go from 120 degrees to 160 degrees, while the temperature for wrapper leaf is monitored to fall within the 90- to 120-degree range. That is because wrapper leaf is generally a lighter and softer tobacco and cannot withstand such a hot and heavy fermentation.
The one exception to all of this is Maduro, which must reach a temperature of at least 165 degrees—and usually much higher—in order to darken properly. Thus, a Maduro cigar requires a relatively thick, sturdy leaf, usually from the Ligero portion of the plant. On the other hand, if a Seco leaf can be properly fermented into a Maduro, you will have a noticeably mild tasting cigar. Two of the best leaves for fermenting into Maduro are Connecticut sungrown and Mexican leaf from the San Andrés valley. The longer these tobaccos are fermented, the milder the taste. A long fermentation period also has the effect of darkening the leaf. Thus, the generalization that all Maduro cigars are strong tasting is not true. One has only to light up an otherwise visually imposing Macanudo Maduro or an Ashton #60 Aged Maduro to prove this point. Sometimes water is added to Maduro to help raise the temperature, and very often the leaf is put in a pressure cooker to artificially increase the heat and moisture to better control the coloring. As an aside, Cuba produces very little Maduro.
After the leaves have been cured in the fields, they are brought to warehouses where they are sorted by hand. Many workers roll their own cigars out of the same product they are sorting, as evidenced by the woman on the right.
No matter what type of tobacco is fermenting, as soon as the heat reaches the desired temperature, the bulk is “turned,” or rotated, which is done by taking all the top leaves and placing them on the bottom (in essence, starting a new pile), so the bottom leaves invariably end up on top. As each hand of tobacco is taken off the bulk, it is shaken vigorously to dissipate the heat stored within the leaves.
Then the fermentation process begins all over again, only with each turning of the bulk, the temperature does not rise as rapidly or as high as it did previously. It can take anywhere from six to ten turns to properly age and color a bulk. This process can go on for twenty to sixty days, depending on whether the leaf is Volado, Seco, or Ligero, with Volado taking the least amount of time and Ligero requiring the most fermentation. In the case of Maduro wrappers, the fermentation process can continue for six months or more, which explains why these cigars are usually more expensive; they simply take longer to make.
Once the fermentation process is completed, each leaf is meticulously separated from the bulk, sorted, inspected and graded. In the case of wrapper leaf, the distinction is made according to the color it received during fermentation (i.e., Claro = a light golden brown; Colorado = medium brown; Maduro = dark brown; Oscuro = brownish black). Each leaf type is packed in bales made of bark from the Royal Palm tree, tied with palm fronds, marked as to the type of tobacco, its origin, and the date of storage, and then put in the cigar factories’ warehouses for aging. Here, the tobacco sleeps for anywhere from one to three years, and sometimes even longer. Most factories keep a minimum of eighteen months’ worth of tobacco on hand. That way, they are assured of having enough raw material to get through a less than bountiful growing year, or a losing bout with one of the plagues. Naturally, this ties up a tremendous amount of inventory and capital, which cannot be turned into a profit until it is made into cigars and sold. But to produce a cigar that remains consistent, year after year, there must be enough available tobacco to blend the old in with the new, much like a fifty-year-old cognac can be a blend of twenty-five and seventy-five-year-old cognacs, so that the taste will average out to fifty. It is the same principle with cigars, for the minute our favorite brand changes taste, we utter the death cry, “It’s not the same anymore!” and abandon it forever.
This worker is casing Primero Rosado, a Number 1 cured wrapper that is ready to be worked. Notice how he opens the leaves of the hand for total coverage of the water spray.
Leaves are graded by color, texture, and size.
Photo: Domingo Batista
The cured leaves are brought to the warehouse for their initial grading.
Photo: General Cigar
During less demanding years when cigar consumption was languishing, companies like Consolidated Cigar Corporation (now Altadis), General Cigar, and A. Fuente used to have huge stores of tobacco that went as far back as the 1980s. Unfortunately, the overwhelming demand for cigars during the boom years of the 1990s depleted this decades-old reserve supply of vintage tobaccos. With the end of the boom followed by a dip in cigar consumption caused by the Great Recession these stores of aged tobaccos have been allowed to build up again.
During fermentation, the temperature is constantly checked to make sure the bulk is turned at precisely the right moment.
Today, with a notable increase in cigar consumption—although nowhere near the three hundred percent annual growth that it knew during the boom—supplies of aged tobaccos are back, which bodes well for the future of super-premium cigars. However, it has raised a very interesting philosophical question for the cigar companies: Do you continuing aging your tobacco as non-profit-producing inventory that ties up precious cash, or do you release it sooner in order to make cigars that will turn into instant revenue due to escalating demand? The answer is what separates the good cigars from the bad.
Arranging tobacco in a bulk for fermentation.
Certain numbers oriented people have elected to create cigars as quickly as possible, so that their expenditure in leaf is quickly multiplied into profit. But those companies who refuse to age their tobaccos and choose instead to make a quick killing—or rather, a quick cigar—rarely get repeat orders for their green, harsh-tasting products, either from tobacconists or their customers. That is why we see some brands disappear almost as fast as new ones come on the scene. On the other hand, the responsible manufacturer who takes long-term pride in his product puts the emphasis on quality and will opt to wait and let fermentation take its natural course. That is why the three largest firms mentioned above as well as a great number of other manufacturers are experiencing unprecedented demand for their brands.
For the most part, warehouses full of eight- and ten-year-old tobacco bales are pretty much a thing of the past, with a few notable exceptions like General Cigar (which has massive inventories), and the Padrón and Fuente families (although the Fuentes lost a lot of forty-year-old tobacco in a catastrophic warehouse fire a few years ago). However, responsible cigar manufacturers are still holding back production so that their tobacco can properly cure. After all, it takes time to adequately age a leaf. But it is time well spent. As justice will have it, cigars made with properly aged tobaccos actually reap far more returns on investment, for once a cigar has a reputation of excellence, it gains a steady following that translates into loyal customers and repeat sales.
During this all-important storing/aging process, there is still a very mild form of fermentation going on, but nothing like the dramatic changes that had previously occurred. At the precise time, the aged bales are opened, inspected, and the hands of tobacco are shaken out and rehumidified in a fine mist spray. This is called the “casing” process. Although from a casual glance it appears as uncomplicated as spraying your backyard with a garden hose, the texture of each leaf is different and requires varying amounts of moisture. The wet tobacco is then hung on racks so that the water will gently trickle down the entire body of the leaf. As anyone who has ever over-humidified a cigar knows, tobacco leaves are highly absorbent, and they take to the casing process well. Soon, the stiff, brittle leaf that came in from the aging warehouse is transformed into a thin, pliable membrane that can easily be wrapped around your finger. In a way, the tobacco has been brought back to life after a long sleep.
Once they are moisturized, the leaves that are to be used for binder and wrapper go through the stemming operation, where the central vein in each leaf is completely removed, either by hand or by machine. This separates the leaf into right and left hand sides, which is extremely important in the case of wrappers for handrolled cigars, as there is a definite pattern that must follow the natural form of the leaf. For long leaf filler tobacco, the stemming operation takes place at the warehouses, before fermentation. In this case, only 25 percent to 75 percent—depending on the country—of the bottom of the stem is removed, to hold the leaf together during fermentation.
After casing and stemming, the leaves are inspected again, then graded, and finally hand sorted into wrapper, binder, and filler tobaccos. These three categories of leaf are then sent to the blender, where they are separated into specific recipes for each type of cigar made at that factory. These recipes are the most closely guarded secrets in the cigar business, and you will have an easier time getting Angelina Jolie’s private cell number than you will in getting a blending recipe from any cigar maker.
The creation of a blend is what gives every cigar its character, and most importantly, its taste. Therefore, it is critical that all of the components are brought together in precisely the right proportions for each brand. That means the cigar maker must have an acute knowledge of tobaccos, and what each one can do.
At Nestor Plasencia Segovia factory in Estelí, the old time method of hand stripping the tobacco vein is still used. (Nicaragua)
For example, a strong tobacco generally burns slower than a lighter-tasting tobacco, so a strong-tasting cigar will usually last longer than a mild one of the same shape. In the area of Dominican fillers, as another case in point, Olor and Piloto filler leaf look very similar, but they each produce very distinct differences in taste. To further complicate matters, each of these two-leaf categories has multiple subclassifications within their own leaf type. The cigar maker must know them all, not just by name, but also by appearance, how they taste, and how they burn.
And then there are wrappers. When specifying Connecticut, for example, it is imperative to differentiate between broadleaf, US shade-grown, Ecuadorian grown, and so on. It is also important to know that a Cameroon wrapper grown in Ecuador (where much of this wrapper comes from today) will have a different taste and burn rate than a Cameroon leaf from Africa, which is distinct from the Mexican-grown Cameroon.
After fermentation, the leaves are again cased. At General Cigar, a “conditioning wheel” is used to spray moist air into the hands of tobacco so that they will be pliable enough to be worked.
And by that same token, in Cuba a wrapper grown in the Partido region can taste different in a finished cigar than a wrapper that was grown in the Vuelta Abajo.
All of this is simply to show the vast potentials that exist for creating a plethora of cigar brands, each with its own individual characteristics. Within that seemingly endless realm, you have the three components that go into the makeup of every cigar:
Filler—This is the “heart” of a cigar. Filler can be made of either long leaf, that is, strips of tobacco that travel the length of the cigar in one piece, or short filler, smaller cut up pieces that are usually used for machine-made cigars. Long leaf filler has the capability of producing a long ash, whereas short filler, by the very nature of its smaller pieces of tobacco, normally cannot form a long ash without crumbling. Long-leaf filler is more expensive, and has come to be associated with premium (i.e., high-grade) cigars. However, there are many excellent cigars, such as those produced by the Grave, Topper, and Finck companies in America and Villiger in Switzerland, that use short filler. And some cigars use a unique mixture of both long and short filler, which is sometimes called a Cuban Sandwich (see CigarSpeak in Chapter 9).
Then there is “chopped” filler, which is finely cut tobacco, often used in the better grades of Dutch-type dry cigars. “Scrap” filler, on the other hand, is the leftovers of all the above, and is usually found in less expensive cigars and in many counterfeit Havanas. The filler of a premium cigar can be composed of anywhere from two to as many as five different types of long leaf tobacco. It becomes impractical to try to pack any more than that into the relatively limited confines of a cigar’s body. Besides, the more varieties of leaf you use, the less total proportion of each there will be. Most blenders use two or three tobaccos quite effectively, although some utilize as many as four or five different long leaf tobaccos in their filler blends.
Stripping involves the removal of the center stem, which has the texture of strong twine. Tobacco is stripped by hand or by machine, as in this General Cigar operation. Machine stripping is faster, but some leaves, like Java, must be hand stripped so that they do not tear. It is for this reason that some companies employ both methods of stripping.
The tobacco leaves are sorted after they are brought in from the curing barns in the fields.
After stemming, the leaves are sorted by color and size. (Note the sorted tobacco leaves placed on the sorter’s thighs. It is this practice that gave rise to the legend of Cuban cigars being rolled on a woman’s thighs.) In this leaf separation room of Havana’s Partagás factory, wrapper leaves are being sorted into their own internal classifications, such as Marevas, Robusto, Chicos, and Pirámides. A Marevas leaf, for example, will be used to make the Montecristo shape, but will also be used for the Bolivar Petite Corona, as these two cigars use the same shape, color, and size leaf.
Binder—This is the “blanket” that holds the filler in place. It is a specialized leaf, for it must be strong enough to do the job, yet it has to impart a complementary flavor to the filler and wrapper. One of the many hallmarks of a premium cigar is that it boasts a binder made from a natural tobacco leaf, as opposed to many less expensive mass-market cigars that use homogenized binders, which are made from leaf particles and cellulose. Thus, the phrase, “all-tobacco,” has a very real and important meaning when you see it imprinted on a box of cigars.
Wrapper—In many ways, the wrapper is the most important part of a cigar, not just because it provides 30 to 60 percent of the flavor, but also because it is the embodiment of the cigar’s total character. To a smoker’s eyes, the wrapper is the cigar. The quality of the leaf, the color, the texture, and the aroma all combine to give us a very distinct impression of a cigar even before we light it up, no matter what the binder and filler underneath that wrapper may be. If the wrapper leaf is not appealing to all of our senses, chances are we will not smoke, let alone buy, that cigar. That is one of the reasons why good, well-veined, evenly textured wrapper leaf is so expensive; it literally and figuratively holds everything together.
Using the above three components, a skillful cigar maker can create a masterpiece out of tobacco leaf, just as a talented painter can turn a blank canvas into a work of art. If you consider the filler to be the colors red, blue, and yellow, the binder white and the wrapper black, then the cigar maker’s cutting board becomes an artist’s palette from which he can create an endless number of masterpieces, using every imaginable hue in the rainbow, or in this case, every possible combination of taste, aroma, and burn rate. That is one of the greatest beauties and challenges of cigar making. Somewhere out there is a perfect cigar for everyone, and it never has to be the same cigar!
In creating their products, some cigar makers will hit upon a perfect filler-binder-wrapper combination and use it with minor variations for each of the brands within their line. That way they can produce a family of cigars with basically similar characteristics, and very often a smoker who likes one of their brands will also like another. Other factories, such as My Father Cigars, will create a distinctly different blend for each of their brands, opting for a wider spectrum of tastes among their various cigars, and hoping, therefore, to appeal to a wider spectrum of customers. And still others will create a highly popular blend and use that exact same blend on different cigars, only changing the bands and the boxes in order to appeal to brand loyal smokers. (I therefore find it especially fascinating to note the different ratings many of these exact same cigars often get in independent tastings.) None of the above practices is any better than the other; in fact they are the very reasons we have so many excellent cigar choices today. But because there are so many brands from which to choose, one of the biggest challenges for factories is establishing and maintaining a consistency of appearance, draw, and taste for each of the brands they produce. Consistency is one of the most important characteristics of a good cigar. And that is where the cigar maker comes in.
Basically, there are three different ways to make a cigar, even though the advertising literature of various companies may sometimes give them different labels or use more generic descriptions. They are:
Handmade—The entire cigar is bunched, rolled, and trimmed by individual hand labor. It can be one person working alone on a single cigar, or the work can be divided between a buncher and a roller working on the same cigar. The main criterion is that the entire cigar is completely made by hand from start to finish.
Machine bunched/Handrolled—The filler is bunched by machine, and then the filler/binder combination is turned over to a cigar roller, who puts the wrapper on by hand. This technique is often simply referred to as machine bunched.
Machine-made—The filler, binder and wrapper are completely assembled by machine.
Slightly complicating our acceptance of these definitions is a law that states any cigar that is machine bunched can legally be called a handmade cigar because the wrapper is still put on by hand. In fact, if you take a machine-made cigar and only stop the mechanized production long enough to manually put a tobacco cap on the head, in some instances you can still legally refer to it as a handmade product. But legal loopholes and advertising puffery aside, in order to keep things in their proper perspective throughout this book, I shall refer to the above three categories in their purest definitions, just as I have categorized them. Fortunately for the consumer, many people in the cigar industry are now starting to adopt these same definitions.
To my mind, the handmade cigar is a cigar in its purest form. It is the way Cuban cigars were made before there were any Cubans. It is the way the best premium Dominican, Honduran, Nicaraguan, and Mexican cigars are made today. It requires more work and opens itself up to more failures than any of the other two methods (ironically, a machine-made cigar is the most consistent of them all, because everything is regulated and controlled), but in my opinion, the handmade cigar is also the most aesthetically rewarding cigar to smoke.
The handrolled cigar begins with the cigar maker taking a prescribed amount of the filler blend recipe and forming a cylindrical “bunch” of these tobaccos in his hand. This is not as easy as it sounds. The filler is not rolled, but is actually crimped in the hand, so that the different tobaccos fold over one other. In essence, the tobacco leaves are gathered up like an accordion, which has the effect of creating numerous horizontal air canals, which translates into an easy drawing cigar. This method also ensures an even distribution of all the leaves used in the blend.
There is also an old Cuban technique called entubar, in which each leaf within the bunch is rolled into itself, like a mini-tube, thus insuring a smoother draw that maximizes the flavors of all of the tobaccos in the bunch. Much more labor-intensive than the accordion fold, but either way, when you light your cigar, you are tasting the entire spectrum of tobaccos in the filler.
A poorly made cigar will have its filler “booked.” That is, the leaves have been laid one on top of the other and folded over like the pages of a book. This has the effect of concentrating a lot of tobacco on one side (the spine of the book, so to speak), which means you could only be smoking a concentrated portion of the blend. In addition, the more tightly packed tobacco along the spine of the book can cause your cigar to burn unevenly down one side, while the looser “pages” of tobacco create overly wide air channels that can cause you to hyperventilate and your cigar to burn hot. Not a good thing for either of you. Obviously, filler should not be booked; an accordion or entubar fold is what you’ll find in a good cigar.
The filler is then placed on the binder leaf and rolled, either by hand or utilizing a rubberized rolling guide known as a Lieberman (the fellow who invented it) or a Timsco (the company that sells it). This creates a “bunch,” which is simply a cigar without its wrapper.
The bunch is placed in a wooden mold shaped to the exact size of the cigar shape the roller is making. Each mold holds approximately ten bunches. When the molds are full, they are stacked in a bunch press, which puts pressure on the molds and squeezes the bunches into shape. The partially completed cigars stay in the bunch presses for fifteen to forty-five minutes, depending on the size of the bunch and the practice of the factory. At various intervals, the bunches are given a quarter turn within the molds, in order to prevent tobacco ridges forming where the two mold halves come together; these ridges would be visible underneath the wrapper, which is not what you want to see in a well-rounded cigar.
(Left) Long filler tobacco leaves being bunched for a premium cigar. (Right) Quality short filler is made from long filler-leaf tobaccos. In this photo, the short filler contains four grades of Mexican tobacco plus Cuban seed and Olor, with a touch of Brazil for additional flavoring. This pre-blended tobacco will be put into the filler canal of a cigar-making machine.
Next, the formed bunch is removed from the mold by the cigar roller, who places it on a wrapper leaf that he has expertly and swiftly trimmed to the proper size with a flat, rounded “Cuban knife,” also known as a chaveta. The wrapper has been placed upside down on the cutting board (la tabla) so that when it is rolled, the smooth outer surface of the leaf will be showing. Experienced rollers will roll the leaf tip, which contains the mildest concentrations of oils and flavors, into the foot or tuck end of the cigar, while the base of the leaf is formed into the head of the cigar. Thus, the smoke and taste of the tobacco will all work toward the fuller flavored part of the wrapper as the cigar is being smoked.
The components of a long filler cigar (L. to R.): Four types of filler (this can vary from two to four or even more, depending on the brand), the binder and the wrapper. A completed cigar is in the foreground. The tobacco was photographed on top of a filled bunch mold.
In an experimental station at the Altadis factory in La Romana, a worker is taking the various components of a filler blend and separating them by percentages in compartments, in order to achieve more consistent control of the blends that go into each cigar.
Using a thumbnail-sized round piece of tobacco cut from a portion of leftover wrapper leaf trimming (so the color will match the wrapper), the cap is smoothed down over the head of the cigar and glued in place with a flavorless natural gum from the Tragacanth tree. Some cigar makers, for reasons best known only to themselves, insist on adding a sweetener to this substance, in the mistaken belief that it enhances the flavor of the tobacco. The cigar is then placed in the wooden groove of a “tuck cutter” and deftly trimmed to its proper length.
This entire cigar-making procedure, from rolling the bunch to trimming the tuck, is done with such unbelievable swiftness that it blurs in the camera’s lens unless an exceptionally fast shutter speed is used. Therefore, it’s not surprising to learn that a skilled cigar maker can roll as many as 700 cigars a day, although factories like Honduras American Tobacco, S. A., makers of such excellent cigars as Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, and Rey del Mundo, purposely hold their best rollers down to no more than 500 cigars a day in order to maintain quality. In the huge Arturo Fuente factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, some cigar rollers can also turn out up to 500 cigars a day, but the average cigar maker there will only produce from 150 to 200 cigars per a ten-hour workday. And when it comes to special hard-to-do shapes, such as the Hemingway series with its perfecto tuck, even the most highly skilled worker can only create an average of seventy-five of these unique cigars daily, which is one of the reasons they end up costing more than an easier-to-roll Fuente 8-5-8 Flor Fina, for example. In Cuba, the average worker turns out approximately 135 of the larger sized cigars per day; smaller cigars get completed at a faster rate. Which is not to say that smaller cigars are easier to roll. In many ways they are more difficult to make, not only in the physical sense, but also because it takes quite a bit of skill to fit more than one or two leaves into the filler blend (which means the wrapper and binder must augment the slightly reduced taste of the filler).
Once the leaves are sorted into filler blends, they are taken to the rollers.
Speaking of taste, because a small ring size burns hotter than a large one, a roller may decide to leave out some of the stronger-tasting Ligero to compensate. A smaller ring size also increases the possibility of “plugging” a cigar with a wayward piece of tobacco, thereby interfering with the draw. On the other hand, a large cigar is even more challenging, partly because any defects in workmanship or tobacco leaf can show up more readily. It is also more difficult to construct a large bunch so that all of the different leaves in the filler are equally distributed along the entire length of the cigar, which must be done in order to prevent one particular tobacco from dominating the taste. That is why a cigar roller who has gradually worked his way up into being able to make the larger sizes is paid more than a worker who only makes smaller shapes. Even if his skills are temporarily needed to make coronas, for example, a worker who has graduated up to making Churchills must still be paid his Churchill rate while making the smaller cigar.
Indeed, there is a form of class system among cigar rollers, and oddly enough, nowhere did I find this to be more in evidence than in Cuba, where the most skilled workers sit closest to the front of the galera, while the less experienced are at the back of the room. Cuba has seven categories of cigar makers; the lower the number, the fewer and less complicated the shapes that can be made by each worker in that category. And yes, even in Cuba, a category seven worker will be paid more per cigar than a category five individual. That is one of the reasons a complicated shape such as a Pyramid or a Double Churchill—whether it is made in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, or Honduras—costs more. It simply is more expensive to produce. The other reason, of course, is that it takes more tobacco to make these big-bodied cigars.
Most factories have training programs so new cigar makers can gradually replace the old ones. Given the increased demand for cigars, these in-house cigar schools have assumed a rigorous new importance as additional rollers are needed to boost production. But in some factories, las tablas that were formerly reserved for students are now occupied by experienced rollers who each can turn out hundreds of additional cigars per day. In Cuba especially there is a critical shortage of rollers, as more and more people try to leave the island and fewer young Cubans want to enter into such a mundane job.
Preparing the wrapper. Notice the five remaining bunches in the cigar mold to the cigar roller’s right, and the trimmed bits of the foot in the tray in front of her.
Photo: Nestor Plasencia factory in Estelí, Nicaragua
Smoothing and finishing the cap on a Churchill. The tobacco must be kept moist so that it will be pliable and easy to work. (Nicaragua)
The marble head, or rounded cap, is the traditional way of finishing a premium cigar.
A perfecto tip requires extra skill to make (which is why you rarely find them on counterfeit cigars), and is the easiest to clip.
The Curly Head, made by twisting the extra long leaf left on the cap, is an old Cuban style that has been resurrected by many of today’s cigar makers. Because it involves an extra, time-consuming step, it is usually found on only the best cigars. (Notice the white bloom on the head.)
But no matter what the country, apprentices traditionally undergo one to two years of training, after which time the one out of 100 who qualifies can usually make up to 150 cigars a day. But not all the shapes. It takes a minimum of six months to learn to make even the most basic of cigars, at least six years to become skilled, and a full twenty years or longer for a cigar roller to become a master torcedor. Unfortunately, in an effort to increase production, the learning curve has been dramatically accelerated in some countries and, especially in Cuba, many rollers are being given complex shapes to make after only five years’ experience. This is why we sometimes get cigars that are rolled too tightly, packed too loosely, or made undersized.
Cigar rolling is tedious, monotonous work, and many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century factories had a lector de tabaqueria reading out loud to the craftsmen to keep them from rolling their eyes instead of their cigars and mentally slipping off into oblivion. Many times, the choice of literature was the classics, like Homer’s Odyssey or passages from Shakespeare. As a result, cigar rollers used to be some of the “best-read” individuals in their neighborhood. Of course, the radio put an end to the cigar reader in most factories, but in Cuba this nostalgic worker’s perk is still being practiced. Except now they listen to the latest news being read from selected South American publications. Or government programming. Only at the Arturo Fuente factory in the Dominican Republic did I hear music being played to the workers instead of localized versions of radio talk shows. And a surprising number of cigar-making companies elect not to have any audio entertainment at all, now that workers have their own personal listening devices to keep them entertained.
At the Fuente factory, a roller bunches the filler. Notice the bunching presses in the background.
At the Altadis factory, hand rollers work with hydraulic bunching presses located at each station, thus co-mingling updated innovations with traditional cigar rolling methods. In this way, many companies are preserving their handmade craftsmanship while looking ahead to the twenty-first century.
The wrapper is rolled around the bunch.
The Lieberman machine, a rubber mat that is rolled by hand, assures overall consistency in bunching. Notice the bunch, near the cigar roller’s hands, starting to pick up the binder leaf.
The completed bunches are placed in wooden bunch molds.
Some wooden molds are not available for special figurado shapes. This Avo (7x36/54) Pyramid, for example, is bunched in a paper mold.
But whether handmaking cigars to the accompaniment of a reader, the radio, an MP3 player, or the human sounds of silence, every worker in every country has one common characteristic: they all genuinely seem to take great pride in their work. In Cuba, for example, no matter which factory I visited, I was greeted by the enthusiastic clatter of chavetas being pounded on las tablas, which remains this cigar-making nation’s traditional and inspiring salute to visitors. Of course, it was pointed out by the lector, at the time I was the only Norte Americano to have visited their factories in quite a while. And the fact that I was writing yet another book about cigars produced another round of chaveta rattling.
But even in the other Caribbean countries, every worker smiled when I stopped to take a closer look at their handicraft, and most of the people either blushed or beamed when I photographed the cigars they were making, as if I was taking pictures of their children. Another reason everyone seems so happy, I suspect, is that they all have jobs, no easy feat in a Third World country. Indeed, the cigar industry is a major factor in the employment rate of nations such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Those who have the dexterity and talent can have a job for life, and it is not unusual to find a torcedor in his seventies who has been with the same cigar-making family or factory for more than fifty years.
Once completed by the rollers, the cigars are tied in bunches of fifty, and affixed with a slip of paper giving the cigar maker’s name, the name of his supervisor (who has been constantly inspecting the cigars as they were being made) and any other pertinent information the factory may require, such as types of tobacco used, the shape of the cigar, or its brand. This is done as a check; in case any cigar in the bunch fails to measure up to standards, the foreman will know whom to confront. Because each roller is paid by the number of cigars he or she makes, cigars that are rejected are deducted from the worker’s pay. The cigar bunches are then weighed to make sure the proper amounts of tobacco have been used, and are passed through a ring gauge to determine that they are the proper diameter for their shape. And once again, they are given a close visual inspection.
When the bunches are ready, the roller spreads the wrapper leaf on the cutting board and trims it with the sharp chaveta.
Because the tobacco has to be overly moist in be worked by the cigar maker, the completed cigar must now be reduced in its moisture content so that it can be smoked. In addition, the various tobaccos within each cigar must “marry,” or blend together, much as a chef’s special sauce must be allowed to simmer on the stove to blend all the spices. Only instead of a stove, the cigars are placed in an aging room. It is here, in these traditional, temperature controlled Spanish cedar chambers that the cigars are allowed to rest for a minimum of three weeks while their humidity levels are evened out and the flavors from the filler, binder, and wrapper are permitted the luxury of getting to know one another. Some cigars, many of which fall into the “vintage” category, are aged longer than others. Dunhill Aged Cigars, for example, are aged for a minimum of three months. The Fuente Hemingway and Chateau Fuente cigars are aged for at least six months, as are the Ashton Cabinet Selection Vintage cigars. Fuente’s limited edition Don Carlos cigar and the OpusX are aged for a minimum full year, as is the Cuesta-Rey’s Diamond Crown. Davidoff’s Dominican cigars are aged in their warehouses in Connecticut, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam for as long as one and a half years. On the other hand, Padrón does not age their completed cigars, but opts to box them for shipping and letting them age in transit.
Producing the Perfecto-style foot of a Hemingway cigar.
The very skillful process of cutting and shaping the flag of tobacco that will become a “finished head” of a premium cigar. It takes an experienced cigar maker to create this style of head.
The completed cigar is trimmed to size in the tuck cutter.
Cuba used to age their hallmark cigars, such as the Partagás and Montecristo, up to a full year or more in cedar cupboards that date back to the last century.
Unfortunately, many Havana cigars are now aged in those same cupboards for as little as six days, due to an insatiable demand for Cuban cigars and that country’s crucial need to turn her tobacco crop into cash as quickly as possible. Thus, they can’t really afford to let most of their cigars age any longer, with the exception of a few brands, such as their flagship cigar, Cohiba. This has had the disastrous effect of some smokers buying fresh Havanas and smoking them “green.”
As an example, when I was in Cuba I purchased a box of Romeo y Julieta No. 4s directly from the factory. Just how directly I was soon to discover. In my excitement to actually have a full box of Havanas in my possession (forget the fact that I was still in Cuba; I was excited), I opened the box and lit one up that evening while sitting by the pool of the Havana Riviera (the former Riviera Hilton). It was a perfect moment. The Cuban moon was full, rising slowly over the skyline and starting to reflect upon the water.
Every cigar is individually inspected after they are made and before being aged. (Nicaragua)
Once the cigars are inspected, they are rebundled and weighed, as another check for the proper tobacco contents.
The night air was cool, with just a touch of breeze, and in the background I could hear the surf quietly lapping against the breakwater that lined the scenic Malecón highway. I struck a match. I warmed the foot of the cigar, gently turning it. Then I took a puff. My palate was met with the hollow harshness that comes from a freshly rolled cigar. Correction: a too freshly rolled cigar. It had not been aged. Out of desperation, determined to completely smoke my first Havana in Havana, I struggled through the cigar and accomplished my goal, but it was not a pleasant experience. I never reopened that box until back in the States three months later, when I removed the No. 4s from a humidor where I had been storing them. The sight of the cigars instantly brought back pleasant memories of my trip. So, bracing myself for the worst, I went out on the porch and lit one up. To my pleasant surprise, this time the Romeo y Julieta was a much tamer smoke. It had time to mellow in my humidor, and that made all the difference between a barely tolerable cigar and an enjoyable one. A year later I smoked the very last cigar from that box and found it to be rich, creamy, and full of flavor. Additional aging had done it. The moral of this story is, when smoking Cuban cigars, chances are it will be much more rewarding if you come across a box that has been allowed to age in a dealer’s humidor for at least a few months. Or plan on aging them yourself before firing the first one up. On the other hand, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Honduran cigars are already well aged and ready to enjoy when they arrive, although in Chapter 4 we’ll talk about aging them even further.
After the cigars have been aged in the factory’s marrying room, they are again inspected, and then sorted by color. There are approximately sixty different shades of brown, and each cigar must be separated by color before it is boxed. It is a great source of pride for both the cigar maker and the cigar smoker to be able to open a box and see the exact same shade of wrapper on every cigar.
It doesn’t make the cigars smoke any better, but it is an indication of the pride each company takes in its product. Although some Havana brands are not color sorted in the purest sense of the word, they should at least have the darkest cigars on the left hand side, going to the lightest wrappers on the right. And it is a common Cuban practice to put the best cigars on the top row, so if buying a box of Havanas, check the bottom row as well.
A cigar is checked for the correct ring size. The cutout notch in this Cuban gauge is used for measuring length. Ring gauges can be made of wood, brass, or plastic.
A Cuban quality control inspector in the La Corona factory randomly selects cigars and forces them open to visually ensure that the required leaves in the blends are all there and in the correct proportions, and that the filler tobaccos have not been twisted, which would interfere with the draw.
Once the cigars have been grouped into the same color categories, they are banded. Each band must be put on (by hand, of course) at exactly the same height on every cigar, so that they will all line up perfectly when the cigars are boxed. Some cigars, especially some of the special presentations or limited editions like the Davidoff Gold Band and the OpusX Angel’s Share, are double banded, which I always thought was an elegant extra touch. However, recently this extra banding has been taken to extremes, with some of the bands covering up more than half the cigar, which defeats the purpose of having a beautiful wrapper. Obviously the only solution is to remove this extra band, which makes one wonder why it was put on in the first place.
Finally, the cigars are carefully slipped into cellophane sleeves to keep them from becoming damaged during transit. Some cigars, including most Cubans, are shipped in cedar boxes “naked,” or without cellophane, as cello will considerably slow down and even halt the otherwise continuous aging process. Personally, I prefer uncellophaned cigars and make it a practice to remove the cellophane from every cigar the instant I get the handmade box home (this will enhance the aging process in your humidor).
Yes, even the boxes are made by hand, usually by the same factories that make the cigars. There are two types of cigar boxes: 1) a cedar plywood “dress box,” in which you rarely see the wood because every available space is covered with a multitude of labels and separate edging designs, and 2) an all-cedar “cabinet box,” which utilizes German-made brass hinges and nails so they won’t rust while being stored in a dealer’s walk-in humidor. Most of the cedar used in making cabinet boxes for Caribbean cigars is Honduran-grown African cedar. Other sources for cedar are Mexico, Nicaragua, and the US Plywood for the dress boxes comes from Taiwan, Korea, and Brazil. Cuba grows its own plywood, but must import the heavier cedar from Honduras.
Every band is put on by hand, one cigar at a time. Notice the measurement guide to the left of the cigar, so that each band will be put in exactly the right spot.
As a final step, the cigars are once again inspected, re-checked for matching wrapper colors, and boxed.
Photo: General Cigar
Color sorting is a tedious yet exacting skill.
A very young Carlos “Carlito” Fuente, Jr., circa 1992, inspects the Hemingway Masterpiece in his factory’s cedar-lined aging room that includes electric bug zappers. Another company, Altadis, uses a system of electronically induced sexual energy that lures bugs to their amorous deaths. There is no limit to what some companies will do to preserve our cigars!
All of Cubatabaco’s cigar boxes are made by just one factory in Havana. Some of the most beautiful cigar boxes are made in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The fancy routed and shaped boxes for Fuente’s Don Carlos and Cuban Corona, for example, could both have a very satisfactory afterlife as jewelry boxes. And many lacquered cedar boxes are impressive enough to put on a silver serving tray. General Cigar uses a handsome mahogany box to appropriately show off their Macanudo Vintage and Partagás 8-9-8 cigars and their Cohiba Luxury Selection is nothing short of a modernistic work of art. Likewise, The Foundry’s 2014 Hell-ion and Hal-ion offerings are far from being traditional, with a futuristic spin accented by a sticker that proclaims, “Made with Martian tobacco.” Meanwhile, back on earth, smaller companies usually buy ready-made boxes from the United States. But most firms find it is more efficient to make their own.
These early twentieth century boxed Cuban cigars bring top dollar on today’s collector market.
The mammoth US cigar boom of the nineties created an unprecedented demand for cigar boxes, which resulted in an overharvesting of cedar, and I remember some companies asking merchants to return their empty boxes so they could be refilled and recycled again. With “recycle” being one of the most popular buzz words today, one wonders why this practice isn’t still being followed? Don’t be surprised if mahogany is the next new trend for cigar boxes. Some may even try plastic, but many of us will balk at that.
Fortunately there are still enough trees to make paper, for cigar companies often produce their own labels. However, rather than continue with expensive four-color printing, many factories are now imprinting individual cigar names and shapes in one color over a multicolored label that has been preprinted by an outside vendor. Cuba, of course, was the first to put a full colored label on a cigar box back in 1837, when cigar maker Ramón Allones decided that his cigars needed some eye appeal. That label remains largely unchanged today. Cubatabaco prints most of their four-color labels in the La Corona and H. Upmann factories. Most of the other large factories, like Altadis, maintain a regular print shop for their labels, and Fuente even has their own silk screening department for attractively decorating certain boxes, such as their Hemingway series.
This rare set of Austrian brass cigar shape gauges, which date from the late nineteenth century, were used by Vienna’s cigar makers to insure quality control.
With the boxes assembled and labeled, the cigars are carefully placed inside, with a colored ribbon or turned-up piece of cellophane always present on one of the top layered cigars, in order to facilitate its removal. Prior to cellophaning, some cigars have been pressed together to give them a square shape, a practice that originated to keep the cigars from rolling off of the table.
Others are left in the round, which always struck me as being more natural; let ’em roll. And a few, such as Henry Clay, have purposely been given a rough, out-of-round surface on the wrapper. It’s all a matter of each cigar’s character, with little effect on how the cigar will smoke, although box-pressed cigars will taste slightly different than the same cigar in the round. Then the cigars are given one final inspection, and that person will usually put an identifying stamp or tag on the box before it is nailed shut. By hand, of course.
It is difficult to tell a machine-bunched/handrolled cigar from a handmade cigar, except by price. The draw is the same, sometimes even better, because there is less chance for human error in the bunching process. Machine-bunched cigars are usually less expensive, which is why manufacturers first began to utilize this procedure back in the 1950s. Because they are often referred to as “handmade” cigars, little differentiation has ever been made between the two. Up until now, that is. Actually, there is a sizable amount of hand labor that goes into each machine-bunched cigar, and some of the best values can be found in this category. An excellent example of a popular machine-bunched/handrolled cigar is the Honduran-made Primo del Rey.
In making this cigar, the pre-blended filler leaf is fed by hand into a machine that automatically bunches it. In the meantime, a worker places a rough-cut binder leaf over a template.
A mechanized blade drops down and trims the leaf precisely to the template form. The machine then picks up the binder, glues it with clear gum arabic, rolls the filler leaf into the binder and tumbles the finished bunch onto a conveyor belt. From there it is picked up by hand, trimmed, and placed into the cigar molds. From that point on, the machine-bunched cigar is treated exactly like a handmade cigar, going to the hand roller, and following the exact same steps of inspections, color sorting, and aging.
The Making of a Box
Cedar is cut, marked with the date, and air-dried for at least a year. In Honduras, the terrain is so rugged that logs often have to be flown out by helicopter. When ready, they are cut into boards, air-dried and then kiln dried.
Boxes are assembled by hand with nails, glue, or staples, depending on the company and the brand of cigar.
The multi-colored bands of a cedar plywood “dress box” are individually glued on by hand.
So these cigars could actually be referred to as semi-handmade, although I think machine-bunched/handrolled is a more accurate description.
The third category, the 100-percent machine-made cigar, is normally reserved for low-priced, mass market products such as King Edward, Optimo, Dutch Masters, Antonio y Cleopatra, and El Producto. All these popularly priced cigars are produced by giant mechanized factories located in either America or Puerto Rico. Practically all of them utilize some form of homogenized tobacco leaf (HTL), a process owned by General Cigar Corporation, although there are other variations as well. Basically, homogenized tobacco is an artificially produced product that is composed of tobacco stems and fibers, which are mixed with water and other organic liquids to produce a pulp-like material. In fact, the HTL manufacturing process is a lot like making paper, except for the fact that tobacco is used instead of wood. And rather than take the form of a natural tobacco leaf, HTL comes off of a drying belt and is formed into rolls, which are in turn fed into the cigar-making machines. About 90 percent of all mass market cigars are made with HTL binder and 60 percent of these cigars use HTL wrapper as well.
In making a mass market, machine-made cigar, short-filler is rolled into the binder. From there, the bunch is force molded by a crimper into the desired shape, which includes forming the head. The shaped bunch is then dropped into a basket, where the wrapper is automatically rolled on. The completed cigar is then mechanically pressed to give it a desired shape. These machines can easily make from 500 to 800 cigars a minute. With this kind of speed, wrappers and binders undergo a tremendous strain, and sturdiness of homogenized tobacco becomes a necessity.
Unlike natural wrapper leaf, which has a definite texture to it, homogenized wrapper appears as a flat matte finish. Homogenized wrapper can be made in any color. Not by fermentation, as with natural tobacco leaf, but simply by adding artificial coloring. Thus, an HTL wrapper can be produced in one continuous sheet of Claro, EMS, Maduro, and even chartreuse, if that is your idea of a good time. Some years ago, an enlightened manufacturer actually printed tobacco leaf veins on his HTL wrapper to give it a more natural look. However, many mass market cigar smokers were not accustomed to seeing real tobacco veins on their wrappers, let alone fake ones, and they began to grow uneasy over these strange lines on their favorite Panetelas. So the practice was discontinued.
A far more palatable option for homogenized tobacco is the addition of flavoring, once a popular trend, and cigars that give the smoker a hearty dose of rum, vanilla, apricot, or cherry are still found on today’s less expensive smokes. I suppose one could even fantasize about having a cigar flavored like a porterhouse steak, for the ultimate experience in smoked meat.
Ironic as it may seem, machine-made cigars are often the most uniform cigars that can be made, because their construction is automatically regulated, with little margin for human error. The use of homogenized tobacco is also a tremendous help in controlling the burning rate as well as the color of ash. In fact, one of the whitest ashes possible is found on mass-market cigars. Not that a white ash is of particularly great significance, as we shall discover in Chapter 4. Mass-market cigars also provide one of the mildest smokes in the world. That is because the ingredients used in these cigars are actually designed to tone down the taste of tobacco. Which is why so many of the people who favor these cigars, the most notable of whom was the late George Burns, can light up ten to twenty cigars a day with no ill effects. After all, George did live to be 100.
There is a very distinct difference between mass-market cigars, which are machine made, and regular machine-made cigars that are not in the mass-market category. Three notable examples are the excellent short filler cigars by F. D. Grave, the Topper Cigar Company, and the Finck Cigar Company. For the cigar connoisseur who prefers the Dutch-type European variety, there are some very worthwhile machine-made cigars, such as the various products from Schimmelpenninck, Ritmeester, Villiger, Agio, Gallaher, and Christian of Denmark, just to name a few. Many of these cigars actually fall into the small cigar and cigarillo categories; some are all-tobacco, while others use homogenized binder in conjunction with the same tobacco filler and wrapper as found in a handmade cigar.
Most dry cigars are machine bunched, using short filler. Sometimes this filler is so short, they can put as many as twenty different kinds of tobacco into a single cigar. The bunch is machine wrapped in either homogenized leaf, or, in the case of some of the more expensive cigars, natural leaf. Depending on price and size, the wrapper is put on by hand or machine, and can be either natural leaf or homogenized. A thin coating of tobacco powder is often dusted over the wrappers of some cigars in order to give them a more uniform color. A typical factory worker in Europe can turn out 2,000 Dutch-type cigars a day. But keep in mind, these are much smaller than the humidified cigars of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Although Habanos S. A. would rather focus attention on its handmade products, machine-made cigars in Cuba are still among the best, because they are produced with all Havana tobacco. Of the thirty-one Cuban brands currently being exported, twenty-six include at least a few machine-made cigars in their lineup, usually in the smaller sizes. Some notable examples are: Quintero Chicos, Partagás Culebras and Petit Bouquet, and H. Upmann Perfectos. All Cuban machine-made cigars are currently being manufactured in the H. Upmann and La Corona factories.
Of course, an obvious question is, if some of the better-quality machine-made cigars are so good, then why even bother with the expense of producing handmade cigars? For one thing, it is difficult to get a machine to properly distribute all of the long leaf filler in a bunch. It still takes a human hand to get an even mix throughout the blend. That is why a handmade cigar always has its own distinctive taste.
Another factor is the ability of the human eye to properly gauge and guide the hands through the cigar-making process; each cigar becomes an individual tribute to this craftsmanship. Then there is appearance; a handrolled cigar has its own distinctive look. And taste, for only the very best tobaccos are used. And then there is that indefinable aura that emanates from every premium cigar, no matter what its size, taste, or nationality, simply because of the fact that it is handmade. Of course, you pay more for all these extra features, tangible or not, but that has always been the price of handcraftsmanship.
Even machine-made cigars require a significant amount of handcraftsmanship, as evidenced by the before-and-after twists of Villiger’s “AWEG” cigars, a style of culebra.
Even among the various factories that specialize in premium handmade cigars, there are different methods and philosophies involved. For example, in Cuba, a single skilled worker makes the entire cigar, from beginning to end. This is the traditional method of the historic torcedores, a method that is still followed in most non-Cuban factories today. Additionally, in Cuba there are small flags posted by the benches of workers who have excelled in their craft. (Interestingly, I’ve not seen this “reward” system practiced anywhere else.) In the Honduras American Tobacco factory, makers of such excellent cigars as Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and Rey del Mundo, for example, a separate bunch maker assembles the bunch and then brings it over to the cigar roller. Normally there are two bunch makers per roller, as the rolling operation in this factory is twice as fast as the bunching. This speeds up production while maintaining quality, as the bunchers can devote all of their concentration to this one aspect of the cigar-making process.
A cigar-making machine at the La Corona factory in Havana. The revolving template is for binder leaf, which will be automatically cut and fed into a bunching machine. In the background, an inspector examines the finished product.
In the Fuente factory, they prefer to use one buncher per roller, taking care to pair the speed of each team so they are compatible. This family-owned factory has also established a “Hemingway Hall of Fame,” where the top twenty rollers who make the Hemingway cigar ply their craft in a room that contains inspirational articles of Hemingway memorabilia. The fact that a single room has been devoted to the making of one style of cigar is significant, and could only be done by a factory the size of Fuente, the second largest producer of Dominican cigars in the world. In their Santiago factory alone there are 300 torcedores in the main galera, along with fifteen supervisors and one master supervisor. Plus their own highly efficient Cigar Protection Device: a burly guard packing a semi-automatic Colt Government .45 (I don’t know about the cigars, but it made me feel safer. After all, these factories are located in Third World countries). And only in the highly efficient Honduras American Tobacco factory did I see some of their most skillful workers making two different cigar shapes at the same time, so that if bunches for one shape were not forthcoming, the roller started on the second shape.
This same Honduran company also has a scholarship program for children of the workers. In the DR’s Tabacos Dominicanos factory, where Avo, Griffin’s, and Davidoff cigars are made, a strict inventory control is practiced, wherein each worker must personally sign for the filler, binder and wrapper leaves that he or she uses each day, and is held accountable for them in relationship to the number of cigars produced. Other factories also use this technique, and it is especially prevalent today in Cuba, in an effort to halt the smuggling of leaf used in off-premise (i.e., counterfeit) cigars.
Maria Luisa Almanza, who was Chief of Production for the Partagás factory in Havana, inspects cigars that are being box pressed.
But perhaps the most innovative of all is Altadis, the largest producer of premium cigars in the world (H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta, Don Diego, Montecristo, etc.) Here, in the only factory on the southwestern La Romana side of the island, a number of novel approaches have been implemented in the age-old art of cigar making. The traditional cigar rolling techniques remain intact, but some of the new variations include a mechanical suction test on bunches (now practiced by a few other companies as well) to ensure that each cigar will produce a satisfactory draw, with different calibrations to compensate for different shapes; a Lonsdale would require more suction than a Rothschild for example. Only after a bunch passes the suction test is it rolled into the wrapper. And rather than tighten the bunch press by hand, hydraulic presses have been installed at each cigar roller’s station. These presses are automatically timed to release the bunch presses at precise intervals. Indeed, it is a bit disconcerting to be walking through this giant factory and hear the self-timed hiss of numerous bunch presses opening up hydraulically. In addition, experimentation is currently going on to test the feasibility of replacing wooden cigar molds with plastic ones, and of doing away with the traditional chaveta in favor of pizza cutters!
For anyone who has visited any of the cigar-making countries recently, it is obvious that the current smoker’s renaissance is having a dramatic effect on an industry that essentially hadn’t changed in over one hundred years. Although production has become more efficient, a cigar is not something that can be rushed. And wrappers, especially larger sized leaves, continue to be an ever-growing (or rather, non-growing!) problem. At one point in the Dominican Republic the prices being paid for top grade filler tobacco had gotten so high that everybody was growing it and there was a shortage of curing barns. Thankfully, reality has settled back in. Consequently, farmers, who can remember sitting on bales of tobacco hoping that a buyer would someday come along now find that there is a ready market for their crops.
With the cry going out for more tobacco, more land is being cleared for this precious weed, and longer growing seasons are being implemented. New countries are being explored, just as they were during the Cuban revolution and immediately after the embargo. In addition to already established cigar-making meccas in the Caribbean and Central America, look for increased activity in Costa Rica (which has an untapped wealth of potentially rich tobacco-growing soil just an hour’s drive from the capital of San José), Brazil, the Philippines, and, of course, Indonesia, where even Connecticut shade wrapper is now being grown (and sometimes referred to as Sumatra, which it is not).
Nicaragua, where the government controls ninety-eight percent of all tobacco, continues to hold the greatest promise, as we are seeing more cigars from this country than ever before. The same is true of Cuba, where new land is being cultivated and new strains of seeds, including Connecticut shade, are now being grown, and special releases of established brands are being produced specifically for countries such as Britain in an attempt to increase production and profit. The political turmoil in the West African enclave of Cameroon has resulted in many tobacco recipes switching to other leaf, usually Indonesian. Today authentic Cameroon wrapper can only be found on a few classic brands, such as Partagas and Hemingway.
The end result of all this will be newer cigars, many made with newer strains of tobacco, and perhaps even newer shapes. In addition, as cigar smokers become more sophisticated and demanding and refuse to settle for second-rate tobacco in poorly rolled cigars, the survivors in this new era of cigar wars will be those cigars that continue to offer the best quality for the money.
Whether it is made by new methods or old, created by hand, machine, or a combination of both, today’s cigars are a unique gift from the past. In the case of the handmade premium cigar, considering the fact that more than fifty pairs of hands and eyes have guided it down the path to completion, it also represents one of the last great bargains left in a cost-conscious world. But how do we get our money’s worth from something that we are about to send up in smoke? That is a question we will answer in the next chapter.