Ultimate Cigar Guide – How Cigars Are Made
A cigar is basically a tobacco leaf wrapped around other tobacco leaves that are called binder and filler. By many the cigar is considered the finest and best way to truly enjoy tobacco since it is truly just tobacco and moisture, due to humidity, that you are enjoying. Why is this important to understand from the beginning, one needs to know what a cigar is and why it is so important not only in how it’s made but also how it’s enjoyed.
Most likely when Columbus landed in Cuba he found the people of Cuba rolling cigars. Clearly this would then bring cigars back to Spain, Portugal and the rest of Europe at that time but really only those in the “know” would smoke these crude and rudimentary versions of what becomes today’s cigar. As early as the late eighteenth century factories that made cigars consistently began to exist in Spain and other parts of Europe. This is when cigars truly became what they are today. For many at that time cigar smoking was for the affluent and the aristocracy and oddly enough for men only – women found it vulgar and due to this the birth of the Smoking Club arose in England and the rest of Europe; dare I say the prototype Cigar Lounge? As time went on cigars have gone in and out of fad, style or desire but never really left the culture or society and cigars have held their own for many decades as the finest way to truly enjoy tobacco. As a simple note in history cigars started to become machine made in the early 20th century but we will only be discussing hand made cigars here.
One thing to think about is the great people that have smoked cigars and why they are important to us today.. Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few, have all been part of why cigars still exist today and the way cigars have been perceived by society, they in many ways have kept the cigar industry and the joy of cigar smoking alive.
All high quality, also known as premium, hand made cigars use the same raw materials in them. From the inside out the primary materials are tobacco. Fillers create the inside and these leaves may have blemishes or imperfections but are a key component to the cigar since they allow it to burn. It is not important that these filler leaves be of the best visual quality. What is important is that they burn and assist in developing the cigars flavor profile. The filler leaves are held together by a binder leaf. This is one single leaf that holds the fillers uniformly together and again does not need to be visually appealing but plays a key role in both construction and flavor. Lastly a single, finely textured leaf that is uniform in appearance and visually without blemishes is used as the wrapper to finish the cigar. The wrapper leaf is the most important of the three sets of leaves since not only is it what you see but it also is what drives a good part of the flavor since it touches your lips, tongue and mouth. As a secondary part of the cigar one must realize how it is held together. A nondescript, organic and tasteless gum is used to hold the entire cigars together. This gum is mainly used at the head, the top round end, of the cigar and rarely anywhere else. Lastly, a band is applied, usually printed and made of paper, so that the smoker recognizes their cigar and the manufacturer can showcase their brand.
Before the Rolling Table:
To understand cigars one needs to know how they start, simply as a seed. The seed is incredibly small and one seed grows into one plant. Thousands of seeds are able to sit in the palm of your hand so to think that this tiny little item makes the great cigars we smoke is amazing to me. The seeds are first sorted, then planted into their own pod, watered and watched from anywhere for 6 to 10 weeks and most importantly kept out to direct sunlight. After they’ve grown to about 6 to 8 inches and have established a strong route system they get moved to the ground or off to a larger covered area to continue to grow. This takes several months to happen.
Once the tobacco plant is ready, the leaves get picked and cured to create the aroma that the cigar gives off. The way the leaves are cured is they are hung inside a well ventilated curing barn on strips of wood. The curing process makes the leaves go from green and flexible to dry and a yellowish brown color while breaking down the natural chlorophyll and ending up with carotene. This process is known as air curing and is the preferred method for most growers and Master Blenders. However, as in any industry there is more than one method. Flue Curing is similar but smaller batches are hung into a smaller curing barn that is manually heated to help the process happen faster. Flue curing does have an issue that heats the leaves which can cause them to be over dried and additionally it does not let nature truly impart “nature’s wisdom” on the tobacco.
Once the leaves are cured then they get sorted by color and size and either used or sold. Yes one thing that we smokers need to realize is that not every manufacturer has their own farm and not every brand has their own factory. Farmers will sell the crop to cigar makers and depending on the maker they sell it fermented or not but most is sold with some form of fermentation on it. To ferment the leaves are tied into bundles of about 10 to 15 leaves in total. The fermentation process is a long process that takes from six months to 5 years depending on the desired outcome and the leaves themselves. The purpose of fermentation is to develop the aroma further but also bring out the tobacco leaves flavor. This is done by the chemical change in the termination process. Many manufacturers will then ferment further to get the desired taste and flavor in the leaves they bought or grew. Once fermentation is complete the leaves are sorted again by hand.
The sorted leaves go to the stripping area where the long hard vein, or stem, that runs down the middle of the leaf is removed. This is either done by hand or a machine. Once the vein is removed the leaves are stacked into books so that these leaves can be sorted again and prepared for final production.
Now the fun part of rolling. cigar. All the work before this is just making the tobacco ready to be rolled and it is a lot of work and time to get those precious leaves ready to be in the hands of the rollers. Rollers work either individually or in pairs. If individually they do the entire process that will be described, but a pair split the duties of the process. Every manufacturer is different, but most of the factories I have been to work in pairs. To start the roller takes the number of filler leaves they need to create the cigar and blend for that cigar. Yes filler leaves are not all the same kind nor do they need to be from the same country. The roller places the leaves in accordance with the blends in their hand and begins to bunch them together. The bunching process is very important since master rollers can feel the balance, weight and eventual draw of the cigar. It is important that the roller does not allow the filler portion to have anything in it that can affect the draw for the smoker. Once the fillers are done then the roller takes the binder leaf and wraps it around the filler in a cylindrical fashion. This can be done by hand or with a machine worked by hand. The addition of the binder is to hold the fillers together and provide another component to the cigar’s “recipe”. This crude looking cigar that lacks the wrapper is then put into molds and held together so it can not only take form but also stay in form until it is ready to be wrapped.
Wrapping the cigar is probably the hardest part of the process. It requires a delicate yet firm touch to make sure the wrapper goes on evenly and does not break in the process. Additionally it requires a good set of eyes to make sure that the wrapper is perfect and without any imperfections what so ever. For the aforementioned reason, this is why many factories work in pairs. The roller that creates the bound cigar (binder and fillers) usually has strong hands that are trained to feel the inside part of the cigar. While the roller that wraps needs delicate but firm hands and keen eyes to make sure that in the end the cigar is visually perfect.
The leaf that is being used for the wrapper is laid out in front of the roller and cut with a curved shape tool that is called the chaveta. The roller cuts the wrapper leaf to create the final piece that will wrap the outside of the cigar. Carefully the roller creates a spiral wrap that becomes what we the smoker look at on our cigars. The roller cuts the ends so that they can prepare to place the cap which is the final part of the cigar. The cap is a circular piece of tobacco that covers the very end of the cigar and seals it making it ready to be packed. The finest cigars have a triple cap which is the end of the whole wrapper leaf itself. A smaller piece of tobacco that wraps around the head of the cigar to give it shape and strength and lastly the round piece of tobacco to finish the cigar for appearance. If you look at the end of a cigar at the head you will see what seems like three seams or lines and this is a completed triple cap.
Once the cigar has been completed by the roller it often goes into a special room for aging. The Aging Room lets the cigar rest and allows the oils from the specific tobacco leaves to marinate together adding to the eventual flavor of the finished cigar. Also since many times in the rolling process the cigar has to be made wetter than one wants when it is smoked the aging room allows the cigar to return to a proper level of humidity and balance, it also may go into a drying room prior to the aging room if it is tobacco that needs extra water to work the rolling process.
Once the cigar is aged and ready to be packed it will first go through a quality check to make sure it is 100% ready. Next the band is applied by hand and then it is ready to go into a box. Interestingly enough there is one step prior to boxing which is whether or not the cigar gets put into a cellophane tube, or a metal one, wood one or is it just without some form of inner packaging. If the cigar is put into a tube this is done prior to being put in the box. The cigars are then stacked and ready to go in the box so that the consumer can enjoy them.
One item that is important to bring up in the process of understanding how a cigar is made is the vast amount of quality control the best cigar factories have. From the moment the tobacco is a seed all the way to the moment it leaves the building to be shipped to the consumer every single step has a quality check point, at least one but often more. Quality control is the key to having a cigar be the very best. From the cigars look to the eye, its taste in the mouth, the burn, the draw, how the band is placed, the packaging and even the way it just looks in the ashtray is all part of quality control. I know for most you might be thinking why so much? Other industries have quality control but why would the cigar industry check at every step? Simply put, the cigar industry is one of the last industries that nearly every single part of the process is done by hand, the hands of skilled humans that have taken years to learn their one specific part of this very long process. People that have a passion for their craft, a love for the leaf and a pure desire to turn out the very best product that they can. These people are in the hundreds and they all play a part in the cigar you are smoking, hopefully while you read this blog. These are the people that also enjoy the cigars that they make with family and friends like we do, over good food or drink, at the lounge or out and about, with good conversation, but most of all with the people they work do hard to please – We the Cigar Smoker! These people that quietly work behind the scenes in Quality Control are what makes your cigar the very best it can be. Remember them the next time you cut, light and smoke that great cigar.