'Working the Leaf' for a Great Cigar

Great cigars don't just happen. If the process of creating a cigar were a 100-mile journey, one of the final steps - assembling the leaf, or the act of rolling the cigar - would amount to only the last few yards of the adventure.

Make no mistake: that final stretch requires great skill and finesse, and left in the wrong hands, will easily doom what might be an otherwise great smoke. But without fine tobaccos to assemble - the preparation of which takes the remaining 99-plus miles of that theoretical journey - great cigars are simply impossible to produce, even in the most adept blender's and roller's hands; think of it as inferior ingredients in the hands of a fine chef.

In the world of cigars, the journey starts with the farmers. In fact, the biggest portion of a tobacco leaf's destiny is preordained before it even sprouts; it is usually determined by the selection of a tobacco type to plant, and the choice of a geographic region and farm in which to plant it. Change the seed, the soil, and the climate, and you'll grow an entirely different type of tobacco.

From there on, art and science converge. Technology has helped increase efficiency, consistency, and quality, but without the time tested talents of those who live and breathe tobacco every day, who pass on the painstaking and often fickle art of growing, curing, fermenting, and aging tobacco down from generation to generation - science alone couldn't carry the day.

It's the tobacco that tells the cigar maker when it is ready, not the other way around. And tobacco handlers can spend a lifetime learning how to read the signs.

From the very first days in the field, farmers nurture the plants with food and water, and direct their energy toward growing tasty leaves, not just large plants.

But they can't control the weather, and when the weather doesn't cooperate, experience plays a huge factor in making the most of less-than-ideal circumstances.

Most harvests are conducted in waves called primings - culling a few leaves at a time from specific areas of a plant, a process perfected over decades. Curing barns, packed tight to the rafters with harvested leaves, host a transformation of green leaves to golden brown, where humidity and temperature must be monitored and precisely adjusted to guarantee proper results.

Fermentation piles, or pilones, demand the most knowledge. Different leaf types and varieties require their own pace and duration, and are rebuilt multiple times to expel impurities and off-flavors, and to coax forth a leaf's full potential. Aging provides the final touch, ensuring blenders a vast array of quality "ingredients" from which to blend - and for rollers to assemble - a great cigar. It may be "working the leaf," but for true artisans, it's not work, but a passion.

- E.E.H.

SMOKE 2012, Issue 4


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