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The premium cigar that you’re smoking today is the result of years of hard work and dedication by hundreds of people working in the tobacco fields and cigar factories. Each step in the process of growing tobacco; curing, fermenting, and aging it; rolling it into a cigar; and aging the finished cigar some more before it’s ready to be packaged and sent to retailers and thus guarantee maximum enjoyment.
Mistakes during any one of the processes can be costly and ruin a tobacco crop or produce substandard cigars that disappoint consumers and could potentially spoil a company’s reputation. While the potential for disaster is always present with each step, tobacco growers and cigar manufacturers have greatly lessened the likelihood of ruining a tobacco crop or producing bad cigars by following a well-defined set of techniques and traditions that have remained largely unchanged for centuries. The following is a very brief description of the science and magic, of creating a premium cigar from the seed beds and greenhouses in the tobacco fields to a retailer’s humidor shelves.
The goal of every tobacco plant is to reproduce. A beautiful pink flower filled with as many as 1,500 tiny tobacco seeds grows atop each tobacco plant. Tobacco growers remove the flower (a process known as topping) from most of the crop each year, enabling the plant to grow bigger, thicker leaves that are perfect for cigar production. They keep the flowers atop a few of the better plants to preserve the best seeds for future crops.
An annual tobacco crop begins in seed beds inside greenhouses. After approximately three weeks, the seeds have sprouted into tobacco plants that are about 1 inch tall. Workers select the plants with the strongest and healthiest roots and carefully move them into trays with individual pods containing fertilized soil. Here, the plants continue to grow for a few more weeks until they are strong enough to transplant into the tobacco field. From seed bed to field takes approximately 45 days.
As the tobacco grows, its leaves are periodically harvested in primings when field workers remove leaves in four basic stages. The bottom priming is volado; the second priming is seco; the third priming is viso; and the fourth priming is ligero. Volado leaves typically don’t have the body for premium cigar production while the seco, viso, and ligero leaves are moved to the curing barns.
When the harvested tobacco leaves come to a curing barn, they are tied or sewn together in pairs and hung on sticks, known as cujes. The cujes, holding dozens of tobacco pairs, are raised into the rafters in a curing barn to begin the air-curing process. Over approximately two months, the tobacco dries, and the chlorophyll breaks down slowly turning the tobacco’s color from green to brown. During the curing process, the cujes are rotated from the top of the barn to the bottom so that each leaf receives roughly the same amount of temperature and moisture conditions to ensure their consistent curing and uniform color.
Once the tobacco has been cured, it’s graded by size, color, and condition, and moved to a tobacco processing center that’s often part of a cigar factory. Here, tobacco is stacked in piles, or pilones, each approximately three feet high by four feet wide by eight feet long and weighing several thousand pounds. Fermentation slowly removes ammonia and other impurities from the tobacco leaves while at the same time developing the leaves’ innate flavor and aroma through a process that involves the natural heat created from the stacked tobacco. Several times throughout the process, the pilones are torn down and restacked, moving tobacco from the top to the bottom and from the inside to the outside. The fermentation process takes months to complete with the thicker leaves taking as much as two years to complete. Once it’s been fermented, the tobacco is again sorted by size, color, and condition before it’s then packed into bales and set aside in the warehouse for aging.
A cigar brand is essentially built on consistency. The only way a cigar company can guarantee the consistency of its cigars is ensuring that it has a large tobacco inventory to moderate the differences between each year’s crop. Tobacco ages in the bales for a long time, sometimes as much as a decade or more before it’s used in cigar production.
When a cigar factory needs the tobacco for rolling into a cigar, the bales are moved from the warehouse and unpacked. A day before it’s rolled into a cigar, the tobacco is re-humidified to make it pliant and reduce the chance for damage to the leaves. It is then sorted once again by size, color, and condition for selection into wrapper, binder, and filler. The center stems of the leaves selected for wrappers are removed and those leaves are once again sorted for consistency in color and size.
The specific filler, binder, and wrapper leaves are piled together to complete a particular cigar brand’s composition and stored until they’re needed by the cigar production team, which consists of a buncher, or bunchero, and roller, or rollera.
Buncheros combine three to five of the filler leaves and wrap them inside the binder. The individual bunches are then placed in a cigar mold. Once the mold is filled, it’s placed in a press to create pressure to give the bunch its shape. The bunches are rotated several times under pressure to avoid creating seams in the cigar.
After being in the press for several hours, the cigar bunches are removed from the mold and are prepared for their wrapper application. A rollera uses a curved cutting device, called a chaveta, to trim away excess tobacco from the wrapper leaf. She then deftly stretches the wrapper leaf and rolls it onto the bunch. Depending on the cigar’s shape, she uses a variety of techniques to finish the head and applies a bit of natural vegetable gum to fix the cap onto the top of the cigar.
The finished cigars are typically placed in 50-count bundles, or wheels, to await inspection by quality control managers. These managers weigh the wheels, measure all the cigars, and select a small sample to test for draw using a machine. They will also choose some cigars to smoke to ensure the cigars’ quality. Once they pass the rigorous quality control checks, the finished wheels are placed inside an aging room where a cigar’s individual tobacco components’ humidity levels are stabilized, and their flavor characteristics begin to “marry” into the overall flavor profile of the cigar.
Finished cigars can age inside a factory’s aging room for months or years before being prepared for shipment to premium cigar retailers. When it’s time for the cigars to be shipped from the factory, the wheels are removed from the aging room and broken down.
An inspector sorts the individual cigars by color to ensure uniformity in their appearance and places cigars of approximately the same color back into wheels that contain enough cigars to fill a particular brand’s box or bundle count. The wheels are then taken to the packing room where they are once again broken down and the individual cigars receive their bands, are often placed in cellophane and packed inside the box with each cigar lined up with the front of the band facing the top of the box to assure a beautiful presentation on a retailer’s humidor shelves.