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Thursday, March 12, 2020

CIGARS 101.7: Manufacturing & The Art Of Rolling

The cigar rolling process is as much an art as it is science.  There are many intricate processes which must come together precisely to create a premium cigar; it is impossible to teach the process with just words, pictures and videos.  It is also impossible to appreciate the complexity of cigar making without feeling, hearing, touching and smelling the process in real life.  Regardless, we will attempt to educate you about the art of cigar rolling and help you appreciate the artistry and the talented men and women who bring it to life. 

After añejamiento, the leaves must be unpacked, inspected and sorted.  Once again, leaves are sorted by texture, color, size, priming levels, quality, etc...  Perhaps you are noticing a theme here; tobacco is ever changing and it must be sorted, tested, and selected at every stage.  This precision will help ensure blend consistency and the highest quality standards: there are no shortcuts to making great cigars!

After añejamiento, the tobacco will be too dry to work with, so it will be re-humidified (mojo) in order to be handled during the stemming process.  Wrapper and binder leaves will have the entire stem removed so that each leaf will produce two separate halves: each half will be able to wrap or bind one cigar.  Wrapper and binder stemming can be assisted by a machine, but the process still requires dexterity and a skilled operator.  

The thicker/lower part of the stem will be removed from filler leaves, but the length of stem removed will vary based on the priming level and/or desired effect of the component.  Stems are actually an important part of premium cigar filler.  Stems add "fortaleza": body and strength.  Many people mistakenly think a stem in a premium cigar is a sign of bad quality, but there are important and nuanced reasons for them being there!

After unpacking, sorting, mojo, and stemming, there will be more sorting and testing!  The leaves needed for the current rolling project will be set aside to finalize blend proportions and other leaves may be put aside to age for future projects.

Every premium cigar, depending on size and blend design, will usually include three to five filler tobaccos.  The filler leaves will often come from different countries, regions, farms, seed varietals/plants, and priming levels.  In addition, the filler leaves can come from different vintages/crops and have undergone distinct fermentation processes and aging/añejamiento.  The cigar maker or master blender will have determined the exact proportions of each leaf component that will go into a particular cigar's blend; these components will be allocated to cigar rollers (by weight) to begin production.

The first step in cigar rolling is bunching the filler tobaccos together and applying a binder around the bunch.  Many larger factories have a division of labor where bunchers/binders are separate from the rollers who apply the wrappers.  There are also many factories where the buncher and wrapper are the same person.  Regardless of the factory's labor structure, bunchers and wrappers are all considered highly skilled cigar rollers.

While whole leaves are used in premium cigars, the bunchers will have to tear and partition leaf parts to create the precise proportions/recipe that the blend requires.  For example, too much ligero can make a blend too strong or effect the burn rate; not enough ligero can make the flavor seem flat.  Every leaf component and proportion plays an integral role in the flavor and burning characteristics of the cigar!  In addition, there are many bunching techniques, some are more complex while others lend themselves better to certain types of tobaccos (ie. density and oiliness).

At this point you should understand the challenges of creating a perfectly consistent product: even minor inconsistencies can be expected within a box of cigars, or a particular production run.  The biggest challenges will occur when trying to replicate a brand's flavor profile, year after year.  Weather, soil, and climate changes will effect the raw materials that go into a cigar.  All of these complications make wine and spirits manufacturing seem simple by comparison: blending liquids is much easier than blending leaves! 

Adding more complexity to the process of bunching, each cigar vitola is designed to express itself in a certain way: some start smooth, build in body, increase in spice, change in the middle or at the end, etc... So, every cigar is a complex sculpture meant to burn, taste, smell and develop in a specific way!  Once the roller sculpts the bunch, they will apply the binder leaf to the outside, then place the cigar in a mold.   

Cigar molds, made of either plastic or wood (traditionally), are shaped to the exact dimensions of the vitola being created.  The bunch is placed in a mold then put in a press for approximately 30-45 minutes, then rotated.  This happens several times to avoid having any seems on the bunch which could potentially show through the wrapper leaf.  The bunched cigars will typically stay in the press until they are ready to be wrapped.  

Hand wrapping a cigar is one of the most impressive artisanal parts of cigar making to watch.  It takes a great amount of dexterity to stretch the wrapper just right, roll the bunch, continue pulling the wrapper taught, apply the goma, and create a perfect looking cigar body.  While cigar wrappers are applied at high levels of humidity so they will be pliable, they are still delicate and rollers must use precision to trim out blemishes, veins, spots, or any other imperfections from the wrapper leaf.  Some very large wrapper leaves, if expertly trimmed, can be used to wrap two cigars, so precision is important.  Furthermore, the process of rolling figurados is more complex than a straight body parejo, so there are many challenges and skill levels required to make beautiful cigars.  

The crowning achievement of cigar rolling is head finishing.  After all of the effort that went into creating the cigar, finishing the head is especially important.  A simple head will close the cigar and keep it from unraveling, but there are many different types and styles of head finishing.  More intricate finishing techniques, like Flag & Cap, will provide extra wrapper layers to reinforce the head and maintain its integrity when in the smoker's mouth.  Cigar heads can either be simple and functional or an elevated expression of the cigar maker's artistry.  Similarly, the foot of a cigar can be cut flat or finished in an artistic and technical manner. 

After the cigar is made, they are typically placed in bundles of fifty.  Factory managers will inspect each cigar by hand and sight: they will select cigars from the bundle and gently squeeze the body to ensure consistency and check the vitola measurements.  In addition, every bundle must be weighed and be within an acceptable weight range to know all of the cigars were rolled to spec.  The inspector/manager will also need to confirm that any left over component leaves are within the acceptable range: too many leftovers mean the recipe has not been followed.  Many factories will also put cigars in a suction machine/draw tester to ensure they are not plugged.  Lastly, there will be people testing the finished product to make sure quality is on point.  Due to the complexities and challenges of producing perfectly functioning products out of rustic leaves, cigars are regularly removed from production, thrown out, or separated to be sold as seconds.  

Cigars that pass quality control inspections will be too humid to be smoked by a consumer: if you do smoke one, it will taste very different than the intended final product.  Finished cigars need time to settle down to 70% humidity and allow all of the tobaccos to marry: this process can last three to six months for most premium cigars.  The process of cigar aging is called cigar añejamiento and it will last until the cigar is smoked.  

Finally, every premium cigar will get its own dress and boxing when they are ready to be shipped to retailers.  Special cigar bands, cedar sleeves, box labels, cellophane, and assorted embellishments will be applied and used in packaging.  But, not before another sequence of quality control standards and selecting processes take place.  Cigars will be inspected, from foot to head one more time and then they will be sorted by color so the box you open is as consistent and beautiful as possible.  

This is the art of cigar rolling, in brief.  It is an extraordinary journey for a bunch of leaves that will return to dust when properly smoked!  

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