A cigar is a tobacco leaf wrapped around a tobacco leaf filling. Bigger than a cigarette, and taking longer to smoke, the cigar is considered by aficionados to be the finest way to enjoy tobacco.
Cigars come in several shapes and sizes. The standard shape is the round-headed cigar with parallel sides. Perfecto refers to a cigar with a pointed head and tapering sides; Panatella is a long, thin, straight cigar; Cheroot is an open-ended cigar, usually made in India or Asia. A special vocabulary denotes cigar sizes. From the smallest [3.5 in (8.9 cm)] to the largest [7.5 in (19 cm)] they are the Half Corona, Tres Petit Corona, Petit Corona Corona, Corona Grande, Lonsdale, and Double Corona. A set of initials usually stamped on the bottom or side of a box of cigars refers to the color of the tobacco leaf: C C C is Claro (light); C C means Colorado-Claro (medium); C means Colorado (dark); and C M stands for Colorado-Maduro (very dark). The darker leaf is generally the stronger tobacco.
The earliest cigars were probably those rolled by native Cubans. Columbus encountered Cubans smoking crude cigars, and subsequent Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to the New World brought back cigars to Europe. Many sailors smoked cigars, and brought the habit to port cities, but the habit did not become widely popular until the end of the eighteenth century. Cigar factories existed in Spain at this time, and in the 1780s factories were established in France and Germany as well. English officers who fought in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars brought cigars home to England, where they became a fad with the upper classes. Cigars were expensive, especially because of high import duties on them, and by the end of the nineteenth century, they had become a mark of luxury. Smoking cigars was for men only (even smoking in sight of a woman was considered vulgar), and special smoking clubs called divans sprang up where men could enjoy their habit.
In the twentieth century, cigars were associated with notable public figures, from presidents to gangsters to entertainers. Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone, and Groucho Marx, to name a few, were all avid cigar smokers. After World War II, the cigar increasingly became the old man's smoke. Instead of being considered suave, the cigar became something conspicuously inelegant. This perception of the cigar has reversed recently, as cigar smoking became newly fashionable in the 1990s. Special cigar clubs and cigar "smoke out" dinners in cities across the United States in the 1990s put forth a revamped image of the cigar as a luxurious vice for men and also women to enjoy. By the mid-1990s, there were an estimated eight million cigar smokers in the United States, and cigar manufacturers were hard pressed to meet booming demand.
Though the finest cigars still come from Cuba, cigars are manufactured all across the globe. As early as 1610, cigar tobocco was grown in Massachusetts, and other early centers of tobacco cultivation were the Philippines, Java, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Russia. American cigar tobacco was mostly exported to the West Indies, rolled there, and then imported as finished cigars, until the beginning of the nineteenth century. A domestic cigar industry developed after 1801, and by 1870 there were cigar factories all across the country. Tampa, Florida, was a center for cigar manufacturing, though Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New York also had hundreds of cigar factories.
Cigars were made by hand until the beginning of the twentieth century. The industry mechanized rapidly between 1910 and 1929. The number of cigar factories in the United States fell dramatically—from almost 23,000 in 1910 to only around 6,000 in 1929—but the mechanized factories produced many more cigars than the old handwork ones. Today, the finest cigars are still made entirely by hand. But the majority are made either entirely or partially by machine.
The principle raw material of the cigar is the leaf of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum).The tobacco plant grows in many climates, but the finest cigar tobacco is grown in Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. A cigar requires three kinds of tobacco leaf as its raw material. Small or broken tobacco leaves are used for the filler. Whole leaves are used for an inside wrapper, called the binder. The binder leaf can be of second quality or imperfect. Its appearance is not important. A large, finely textured leaf of uniform appearance is used for the outside wrapper. Some cigars are made with the leaves all from the same region. Others may be wrapped in a high-quality leaf (from Cuba for example) but filled with poorer quality leaf from another region. Secondary raw materials include a tasteless gum to stick the end of the wrapper together, flavoring agents that are sometimes sprayed on the filler leaves, and paper used for the band placed around each cigar.
Most machine-made cigars use homogenized tobacco leaf (HTL) for the binder, and often for the wrapper as well. HTL is made from tobacco leaf scraps that are pulverized, mixed with vegetable gum, and rolled into sheets. HTL is stronger and more uniform than whole tobacco leaf, and so is more suitable for use in cigar-making machines. When HTL is used for the wrapper, the manufacturer may add flavorings to it.
Cultivation of tobacco
- 1 Tobacco plants are seeded indoors, and transplanted into fields after six to 10 weeks. The plants are carefully pruned so the leaves grow to the necessary size. Plants that produce the outer wrappers of cigars are usually kept covered with cloth to protect them from the sun. The plants take several months to mature in the fields.
- 2 After harvesting, the tobacco leaves must be cured in order to develop their characteristic aroma. The leaves are cured when they have passed from bright green flexible fresh leaves to dried brown or yellowish leaves. Chemically, the naturally occurring chlorophyll in the leaf gradually breaks down and is replaced by carotene. To cure, the harvested plants are strung to narrow strips of wood called laths. The laths are hung from the ceiling of a well-ventilated curing barn. In dry weather, they may cure simply by hanging, a process called air curing. The leaves may also be flue-cured. In this method, the laths are hung in a small barn which is heated from 90-170°F (32.2-77°C). The temperature must be carefully monitored in order to prevent extreme rapid drying. Sawdust or hardwood may also be burned in the curing barn, to aid in drying the leaves and impart an aroma.
3 After the leaves are cured, they are sorted by color and size. Small
or broken leaves are used for the cigar filler, large leaves for the
inner wrapper or binder, and large, fine leaves, usually grown in shade
or under cloth, are set aside for the outer wrapper. The leaves are tied
into bundles called hands of 10 or 15 leaves each. The hands are packed
in boxes or in large casks called hogsheads. The tobacco is kept in the
hogshead for a period of from six months to five years. The leaves
undergo chemical changes during this period referred to as fermentation.
During fermentation, the aroma and taste of the leaf develops. Cigar
tobacco is usually fermented longer than
4 The filler leaves must have their main vein (or stem) removed, or else the cigar will not burn evenly. This can be done by hand or machine. Manually, a worker with a thimble knife fitted to his or her finger clips the vein near the tip and pulls it down. Then the worker stacks the stripped leaves in piles (called books or pads). Mechanically, a worker inserts the tobacco leaves into a machine under a grooved, circular knife. By depressing a foot treadle, the worker causes the knife to lower and cut out the vein. The worker can stop the machine with the foot treadle, and stack the stripped leaves.
The stripped leaves are wrapped in bales and stored for further fermentation. The bales may be shipped at this point, if final production resides elsewhere. Just before the leaves are ready for manufacture into cigars, they are steamed to restore lost humidity, and sorted again.
- 5 Fine cigars are rolled by hand. Cigar rolling is skilled work: it may take a year for a roller to become proficient. The filler must be packed evenly for the cigar to burn smoothly, and the wrapper should be wound in an even spiral around the cigar. Hand cigar makers usually work in small factories. Each worker sits at a small table with a tray of sorted tobacco leaves on it and space to roll out the cigar. First the worker selects from two to six leaves for the filler. These are placed one on top of the other and rolled into a bunch. Then the worker places the bunch on the binder leaf and rolls the binder leaf cylindrically around the filler. The unfinished cigars are placed in an open wooden mold that holds them in shape until they can be wrapped.
6 Wrapping is the most difficult step. The worker takes the partially completed cigar out of the mold and places it on the wrapper leaf. With a special rounded knife called a chaveta, the worker trims off any irregularities from the filler. Then the worker rolls the wrapper leaf around the filler and binder three and a half times, and secures it at the end with a small amount of
Cigars may be made by hand in teams. Some workers may make the bunch and wrap it in the binder, and then the more delicate finishing work of rolling the wrapper is left to more skilled workers.
7 The majority of cigars are made today by machine. A typical cigar machine may require several workers to tend to its different functions. One worker feeds tobacco leaves onto a feed belt between guide bars that are adjusted for the length of cigar desired. The machine bunches the leaves, forming the filler. A second worker places binder leaf (or HTL) onto the binder die. The leaf is held down by suction, and the machine cuts it to the proper size. The filler then drops onto the binder die. The machine rolls the binder around the filler. A third worker places the wrapper leaf (or HTL) on a wrapper die. The partially completed cigar drops onto the wrapper die, and the machine rolls the wrapper around the cigar. A fourth worker inspects the completed cigars and places them in trays.
The finished cigars are passed to an examiner. The examiner inspects the cigars for imperfections and checks them for proper weight, size, shape, and condition of the wrapper. The examiner may correct imperfections by patching wrappers or re-shaping heads.
Finishing and packing
- 8 Cigars that pass inspection are placed on trays and passed to a banding and wrapping machine. A worker places the cigars in a hopper, and the machine places a band around them. The same machine may also wrap the cigars in cellophane. The ringed cigars may be also passed to workers expert in sorting by shade. They sort the finished cigars according to minute variations in wrapper color. Cigars with the same wrapper shade are then boxed together.
Cigars are checked for quality during each step of the manufacturing process. The quality of the tobacco leaves is very important, and leaves are sorted and inspected after curing, after fermentation, and before they are made into cigars. The finished cigars must be checked for consistent diameter, weight, size, draw (how well smoke can be sucked through them), and for any imperfections in the wrapper or in the shape. Cigar factories employ personnel to maintain the manufacturing machinery so that cigar measurements are consistent. In many smaller tobacco factories the final inspections are done by eye. A worker places cigars through a ring to check diameter and measures their length with a ruler. Appearance is critical to the individual cigar, and a box of cigars must also be inspected so that at least the top layer is consistent in color. The quality of the wrapping must be inspected for hand-rolled cigars. The veins of the wrapper should appear in a uniform spiral, and the leaf must be smooth and taut.
Where to Learn More
Sherman, Joel and Nat Sherman. A Passion for Cigars. Andrews and McMeel, 1996.
DeGeorge, Gail, and Ivette Diaz. "I'm Rolling As Fast As I Can." Business Week, September 2, 1996, p. 46.
Flanagan, William G. and Toddi Gutner. "Cigar Power." Forbes, August 1, 1994, pp. 100-101.
Pruzan, Todd. "Stogies for Fogies? Puffing Now Upscale." Advertising Age, August 21, 1995, p. 1, 12.
— Angela Woodward