From seed to smoke
The making of a premium hand-rolled cigar is a complicated process of many steps. In some factories, a leaf may be touched by human hands up to 100 times before the cigar is completed. Combine the delicate nature of the aged leaf and the frequent contact with human hands and it’s a wonder cigars are so perfectly made.
Growing and Harvesting
Tobacco growing and harvesting has a direct impact on taste, aroma, ash color and burning qualities of the resulting cigar. Each facet is impacted by the soil and climate conditions as much as the tobacco variety planted. The variety of seed planted determines the factors of tobacco size, natural color and texture. The actual tobacco seed is barely visible to the naked eye. Hundreds would fit on the tip of your finger. Tobacco seeds are typically planted between the months of September and October, and the seedlings grow for about six weeks. The strongest of these seedlings are selected and then transplanted to the prepared tobacco fields were they grow about six more weeks. At maturity the plant will reach a height of around six feet. At this time the harvesting phase can begin. The field hands begin picking, or “priming,” the plant by hand. Usually two to four leaves are taken per priming.
The leaves of a tobacco plant are classified into three types. The mildest-flavored leaf, is from the lower portion, and is known as “volado”. A slightly richer flavored leaf, known as “seco”, is primed from the middle section of the plant. Finally from the top section of leaves, and the strongest in terms of taste, the “ligero” leaf is located. A well-balanced blend often consists of leaves from all three of these sections.
A plant is primed up to six times, beginning with the “volado”, then moving up the plant. Each leaf must be handled carefully so as not to cause damage. The fragile green leaves are then sorted by size and texture and tied together and draped over long rods and hung in great wooden barns where it is allowed to dry for three to eight weeks. During this time the temperature and humidity are controlled to enhance aging. The tobacco begins to slowly change color from green to yellow and eventually brown. Once the cigar masters are satisfied with the color of the tobacco, it is sent to packing houses where it is separated and graded by size, texture and color. Each leaf is now designated as a wrapper, filler or binder, and the leaf is tied together in groups of leaves called “hands.”
What follows next is a series of fermentation periods. At this stage, workers create “pilons” or piles of slightly moistened tobacco in huge bales or stacks; closely monitored temperatures inside the bales control how much the tobacco “sweats” during this early stage of fermentation. To guarantee even fermentation for all levels of the “pilon” the tobacco may be “turned”, or rotated, up to three or four times before fermentation finally ends. The process releases ammonia from the tobacco making its noxious presence known to the nose. Fermentation also causes the release of the majority of the nicotine content.
Workers then use high pressure presses to compress and wrap the fermented tobacco into bales of uniform size, usually surrounded by burlap. Each bale is now ready to age. Standard aging time is 18 months to two years, although some manufacturers keep inventories of tobacco as old as 10 years. A cigar maker’s proudest sight is a vast warehouse stacked with aging tobacco bales as far as you can see.
Making the Cigar
A cigar’s actual tobacco blend or recipe is created by a master blender. This man is charged with the duty of combining selected tobaccos to create a balanced, harmonious smoke featuring a particular taste. A cigar will contain a blend of between two and four different tobaccos depending on its ring gauge. A roller’s table has shoe box sized sections that are dedicated to each type of tobacco leaf to be used in a particular cigar. This is the actual “formula” for the cigar being made that day.
The roller takes the filler leaves and arranges and presses them together in his hand. Around this blend he then places down on this roller’s desk the “binder” leaf- a leaf designated to hold the blend together. He skillfully rolls them together into a “bunch”. The bunch is then cut to the appropriate length and placed in half of a 2 piece wooden cigar mold. Once the mold is full of bunches, the roller fastens the other half of the mold in place, he puts the entire box into a screw press creating the pressure needed for the bunch to hold its shape. The pressed cigars will remain under pressure for about one hour. This usually includes releasing the mold one time after about 30 minutes to rotate the cigars in the mold for improved uniformity.
Cigar factories usually set the rollers up in teams of two. The first bunches, while the second applies the wrapper.
After pressing is complete the roller removes the bunch from the molds and wraps it with the wrapper leaf, a supple, very elastic and visually appealing leaf. This maybe the trickiest and most valuable step in the rolling process. This stage creates the aesthetics of each cigar, a major consideration when purchasing or smoking. Very carefully, while keeping a delicate and constant pressure on the bunch and the wrapper, the cigar roller rolls the wrapper around the bunch. In order to gently secure the loose end created by the rolling process a bit of vegetable gum, consider it a natural glue, is applied at the head so the cigar won’t unravel.
From the scrap of the wrapper remaining the roller cuts a small circle of tobacco, not quite the size of a dime. This “cap” is placed over the open head of the cigar. It is secured in place by another touch of gum, and the cigar is now finished.
The finished cigar is placed atop to roller’s desk for spot inspection by the ever hovering supervisors. The supervisors inspect each cigar for weight, length, as well as feel for any hard or soft spots. Defective cigars are often rejected at this stage. Since most rollers are paid per cigar rolled, rejects can be costly to a day’s pay!
Aging the Cigar
From the rolling bench the freshly rolled cigars move to the aging room. A rest in the aging room allows the different cigar tobaccos to “marry” and create a more balanced smoke. Most factories age their cigars for at least 21 days, and some leave them in the aging room as long as 180 days.
The Cigar Box
This is final resting place for each cigar whose long journey began as a seed the size of a pin head. After aging, the cigars are graded and sorted for color. A line of fine cigars may have different wrapper shades from box to box, but each cigar in any one box should display a wrapper color of all one shade. The box is affixed with a country stamp, and usually sealed with very small nail, pounded with -as you would expect- a very small hammer. After the box is sealed with cellophane, the package is complete. The next step is a retailer’s shelf.