The process that takes a handful of seeds and turns them into a premium cigar can take years — maybe decades — to move from start to finish. During the complete life cycle of the tobacco that is rolled and boxed for consumption, over 100 people’s hands will touch that tobacco.
Cigar tobacco seeds are sometimes referred to as “Black Gold.” No bigger than grains of pepper, a Mason Jar of tobacco seeds can literally provide plants for an entire field.
As with other money crops, tobacco seeds are collected from successful plants from the previous growing season. It truly is selection of the fittest.
Unless the farmer is looking to create a hybrid tobacco, the “sex” parts of the plant may be bagged to prevent cross pollination. Thus, the genetics of the tobacco strain are maintained and perpetuated throughout the years.
The typical cash crop of cigar tobacco starts out in a hothouse with individual seedlings being nurtured to a size where they can successfully grow to maturity in the field.
Tobacco plants are grown in rows with enough space in between for a human to walk. As the plants grow, they are closely monitored. Upon maturity, the process of harvesting — Priming, Stalk Cutting or Stalk Priming occurs.
PRIMING: This is a week’s long process where two or three leaves are removed from the plant at a time. Starting with the most mature bottom leaves, they are collected carefully by hand and laid flat in collection baskets for movement to the barns.
STALK CUTTING: In some cases, like with Broadleaf tobaccos, the entire plant is cut down, collected and transported to the barns from processing.
STALK PRIMING: This is a old Cuban harvesting system where whole sections of the tobacco plant are cut away over time and transported to the barns. Stalk Cutting is really not used in modern cigar tobacco production.
CURING, FERMENTATION & AGING
The tobacco that is brought back to the barns starts by being bunched in tightly controlled groups of like tobacco. As there are generally six primings in the life cycle of a tobacco plant, there are six different bunches of tobacco produced in three categories — Volado, Seco and Ligero. Priming bunches may be combined to consolidate them into these three categories, or they may stay separate for more subtle blending needs.
Basically, the bunched tobacco is taken from being a raw green leaf in the field to being a carefully maintained and aged semi-dry leaf ready for rolling into a cigar.
Over its life inside the barn, a tobacco leaf is micromanaged to the point where at any time in the process someone can read a tag on the bunch and tell you everything about that leaf from the moment it came out of the field. This process makes it easy for a cigar blender to know what to expect from that particular leaf when it is bunched and rolled into a cigar.
While the physical attractiveness of a leaf that’s used for filler or binder tobacco is of little concern, the flavor characteristics must leave no room for variance.
The most expensive tobacco in any cigar is usually the wrapper leaf. A wrapper leaf must be blemish free, smooth to the touch and consistent in color with others used for a particular cigar. AND, that leaf must taste just like the rest of the wrapper leaves selected for that blend — there’s quite a bit of sampling going on daily to maintain this consistency.
MAKING THE CIGAR
First, stacks of ingredient tobacco are placed on the roller’s table. They have the recipe in their head and deftly grab a leaf of this and two leaves of that until they have built the proper handful of filler ingredients. They will roll that bunch between their hands and the rolling table with just enough force to create a rough cylinder of tobacco through which the smoker will be able to draw. Too loose and the cigar will fall apart or simply burn in a terrible pattern. Too tight and the smoker will not be able to draw air through the bunch — it will not be smokable.
Once the filler bunch is right, the roller then applies the binder leaf around the filler bunch. the binder adds structure and holds the filler bunch together.
Once the binder is applied, the cigar goes into a mold to set it’s proper shape into place. Under pressure, the cigars in the molds expand and contract within the confines of the mold to match the shape of their particular mold.
When the raw cigar is removed from the mold, it generally looks like a shaggy version of the finished product. The roller will then take the basic cigar and complete the blend with the wrapper leaf .
Once the wrapper leaf is in place, the cigar will be cut to size, stray leaf edges will be cut away and, in the case of Pareo (rounded head) cigars, the cap structure will be cut from leftover wrapper leaf and glued onto the head of the cigar with goma (usually vegetable pectin.)
POST ROLLING AGING
Whenever tobacco is moistened and manipulated, it begins to ferment and release ammonia. it takes roughly three weeks for that process to run its cycle and the cigar to be safe to smoke. While a three week old cigar may be safe to smoke its life in storage may just be beginning.
Depending on the master blender’s plan, cigars may be stored in bunches for weeks, months or years so that the tobacco may age and flavors may mature to the best possible levels.
Some people playfully refer to this part of the process as “cooking.” Like a cake, the raw ingredients come together to create the master blender’s vision during that in-house aging period.
BANDS, BOXES AND TRANSPORT
Once a cigar is properly aged, the bundles are taken from the aging room and, in most cases, cigar bands are carefully applied to brand aka identify the cigar. These bands must line up perfectly when the cigars are placed into their respective boxes.
Assuming the bands are in the right spots on the cigar, they may or may not be placed in cellophone. This is done to protect the cigar from less than careful handling on the store shelves and to give the retailer someplace to put a price tag. While a box of uncellophoaned cigars is beatutiful, careless customers can easily damage the wrapper leaves on these cigars making them unsmokable. (Believe me, it happens TOO OFTEN!)
Once in cello, or not as the case may be, the cigars are grouped into small groups where the wrapper leaf color is generally the same exact color. Natural variations in the final wrapper leaf color can be successfully managed in this segregation process to make all the cigars in one box look as identical as a naturally grown product can.
Once they are carefully placed in their respective boxes, they are usually sealed with some sort of tape, label or tax stamp, wrapped in cellophane and queued for shipment to the producer’s various warehousing facilities across the world — United States, Europe, Australia, etc… Almost all cigars travel to their target warehouse facility via shipping container via boat.
ONCE THE SHIP ARRIVES
In the US, when the ship arrives, the containers are unloaded and the cigars are quickly taken through customs. Checks are written for excise taxes and the pallets of cigar boxes are taken to the company’s humidified and temperature controlled warehouse facility so that they are staged for shipment to individual retailers.
The typical cigar shop gets their boxes of cigars commingled in a cardboard box finished off with some sort of packing peanuts or even newspaper. UPS, DHL or USPS (FedEX no longer allows tobacco products to be shipped through them) deliver boxes to the retailer. There’s few boxes of this, a few boxes of that, etc… to be unloaded at the shop.
Once unloaded, the retailer places the boxes back into a humidified environment — either a cabinet or walk-in humidor. Usually, they crack open a box, take a whiff of that fantastic new cigar aroma and place them on the shelf for consumers to buy.