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Las Vegas Big Smoke

From Seed to Shelf
Michael Marsh
Posted: November 16, 2004
In today's cigar market, many smokers know what they want before setting foot in a tobacco shop. They know the sizes and shapes they like, the brands they tend to enjoy and even what kind of wrappers are most agreeable to their palates. Those in the cigar industry agree that this is because consumers are smoking more and that their palates have become more sophisticated. Basically, aficionados are getting better educated about the cigars they love.

Yet, not everyone realizes how those cigars came to be. The Seed to Shelf seminar at the Las Vegas Big Smoke set out to change this with an informative session led by Cigar Aficionado senior editor David Savona and a panel of experts that included Litto Gomez, owner and manufacturer of La Flor Dominicana; Jose Seijas, general manager and vice president of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd.; and David Kitchens, the manager of the Davidoff of Geneva store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

The seminar began with a presentation on the various aspects of the cigar process. Savona led the audience through a visual trek from the seeds and seedbeds to the farms and fields; from the factories and rolling rooms to the stocked humidors you find in cigar shops around the world.

The labor-intensive process of selecting seeds was discussed in detail by Savona, as was the 60-day period when the seeds become seedlings and are transferred into the fields. "I believe the most important part of making a cigar is when the seed is put into the ground," said Gomez. "This is when quality control starts."

Savona described how tobacco can grow as much as two inches on a hot and humid night, to which Gomez added, "You can hear them grow," and how the removal of the flower at the top of the plant, which contains seeds for future seedlings, shifts the energy from reproduction and focuses it into the leaf.

To explain the next aspects of the process, Savona also used his experiences watching tobacco being harvested in just about every major tobacco-growing region, from Connecticut and Cuba to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The audience was shown the different methods of harvesting, such as priming and stalk-cutting, plus the process of sewing leaves on lathes and hanging them in curing barns, where heat, humidity and constant monitoring turns them from lush green to brown. "You can see them turning colors," Gomez told the crowd. "Green, yellow, red. It's like a tree in autumn."

Litto Gomez
A lesson in botany was next as Savona led the crowd through the scientific aspects of fermentation and a detailed account of how pilons of tobacco are piled in rooms where the heat and pressure on the leaves force a chemical change in the tobacco. It's a long and interesting process, said Gomez, but one that poses some of the most challenges for him. "Leaves behave differently and you have to treat them differently," he said. "Every crop has different challenges and you have to allow the leaves to talk to you to tell you when they are ready."

Gomez added that there is a certain smell and touch to the leaves as they are fermenting and said that he will often roll a leaf around a bunch and smoke it to see how it is progressing. "Our palates are trained to foresee the flavor of the leaves according to how they taste at that moment," he said, adding that the leaves are not nearly ready to be smoked and that it can be very unpleasant to do so.

Once the tobacco has been fermented, Savona continued, it is then placed into bales, which are aged for up to several years. From there they are ready to be rolled into a cigar. A binder leaf is wrapped around leaves of filler, forming the bunch, then it is placed into a mold for shape. At this point, an artisan rolls a wrapper leaf around the cigar, stretches out any wrinkles and adds a cap.

Jose Seijas
For Seijas, who oversees the production of tens of millions of cigars each year, the key to rolling quality cigars is to take four elements -- tobacco, people, methods and controls -- and concentrate them into one common direction. From sorting tobacco, blending it and rolling it, he said, everyone involved must be focused on one goal: to be a better company with the best constructed cigars they can make.

"There has to be lots of communication," Seijas said of the rolling process. "There are lots of details and lots of demands. Quality is the bottom line."

This is easier said than done, but Seijas has mastered it over the last 20 years. Tabacalera de Garcia is one of the largest cigar factories in the world, producing such well-known brands for Altadis U.S.A. that includes Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and H. Upmann. "Every year, we are reinforcing the notion that what we are doing is paying [off]," he said. "But it is a humbling process and it teaches us something new every day."

Once the cigars have been rolled, they are weighed for consistency, then often draw-tested and aged in cedar for what could be a month or years. After this, they are banded, boxed and shipped to the retailer.

David Kitchens
This is where tobacconists like Kitchens come in. According to Kitchens, his job is to "balance the vision of the manufacturer with what the consumer wants." This, too, can be difficult, but it's critical: if a tobacconist cannot sell the product, the manufacturer can't make money. "I need to understand every consumer and interpret their desires," he told the audience. "I also need to know what the manufacturers are doing so I can help them achieve their goals."

For Kitchens, the way to finding this balance is by meeting with the manufacturers, following the trends of the consumers and then trying to bring the two together. One way he does this is by hosting cigar dinners and other promotions in his store that are intended to educate smokers and sate their intellectual curiosities by giving them a closer look at the history of cigars and the manufacturing process. "My role is to satisfy the consumer," he said. "To introduce them to tastes and experiences that will satisfy and expand their horizons.

"I'm not selling a commodity," he added. "I'm selling an experience."

As the seminar wrapped up, a few things became clear to the audience. One, that the cigar experience is more than just the act of smoking, but understanding the process, and two, that although the farmer, the manufacturer and the retailer are three distinct components of the process, they are vital to one another and know that they all must work together to create the final product: quality premium cigars.

Click here to go to the next Saturday seminar, Ask the Experts.

Photos by Camilla Sjodin and Jeff Scheid

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