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29th January 2019Cigar Production: A Primer
Fair warning: cigar aficionados tend to get a little obsessed.
From creating the perfect whisky pairings to curating the most exclusive collections, to know them is to love them.
When selecting exceptional quality cigars for the best flavour profile and smoking experience, knowing a little about how they are made is helpful. Here we have a quick primer on how cigars are produced around the world.
At the most fundamental level, a cigar is tobacco filler wrapped in whole tobacco leaf. Historians believe that the earliest cigars were rolled by native Cubans, with the practice spreading across the old world through trade and transport.
Most experts would agree that the best environment for growing tobacco is found in Cuba, Nicaragua, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic so production facilities near the growing fields are at a natural advantage.
These days though cigars are manufactured across the globe, from the Philippines and Sri Lanka to Russia. The American cigar industry spreads from the closet point to Cuba geographically, Miami, and up through Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.
Originally made by hand, the industry has mechanised to support the growing number of enthusiasts worldwide. Nevertheless, many of the greatest cigars today are still made painstakingly by lifelong artisans.
After harvesting, the tobacco leaves are cured. This is where they acquire the dried brown colour of the finished product. Cured leaves are then fermented in large casks known in the industry as hogsheads. Some of the cigar’s unique taste profile occurs during the curing process. During fermentation, the aroma develops further. A luxury to be appreciated slowly, a really great cigar may have been fermented for as long as 5 years.
A resource-efficient product, cigars use most of the tobacco leaf as raw material. The small and broken leaves form the core of the cigar, known as the filler. Whole leaves that are less than immaculate are used as a binder to hold the filler in place. The largest and most uniform leaves are then used for the wrapper. This is important because, although some cigars are made with all the leaves from the high-quality region, others use a lower-quality leaf for the filler and binder. These cigars may also use flavouring agents in the filler leaves.
In high volume facilities homogenised tobacco leaf (made with pulverised scraps) is used as a filler because its consistency is more suitable for machines. Although each production house has its own trade secrets, most cigars will use a flavourless gum to hold the wrapper in place.
The finest cigars are still rolled by hand. Artisans pack the filler and wind the wrapper in an even spiral around the cigar. A rounded knife called a chaveta trims any imperfections. Most production houses, whether mechanised or traditional, employ a dedicated examiner to check for imperfections and ensure that they fit the correct shape, weight and size profile.
The last step sees cigars fitted for their trademark banding and wrapped or boxed for sale. Cigars are generally boxed by wrapper shade, with care taken to ensure colour constancy within the box. As well as improved aesthetics, this practice ensures consistency in flavour profile. Consistency should also be expected in draw, which refers to how evenly the smoke moves through the cigar.
Doing your own quality checks is important, especially for unknown or new brands. Checking for consistent size, shape and colour is a good start. The wrapping should have a spiral of uniform veins with the leaf tight and smooth across the interior. Knowing what to look for is half the battle.
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