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Cigarillos: Short and Small

In Europe, the Cigarillo, or Short, Dry-Cured Cigar, Sells. In America, it Has Never Caught On.
Patrick Oster
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 2)

As with any cigar manufacturer, cigarillo makers pay top dollar for "leafmen" to pick out not only the perfect binder or wrapper leaves but also the right plants for filler. Dannemann leafman Thomas Hüffmeyer likes the second and third leaves from the plant bottom for his wrappers, Nobel leafmen lean toward the "sand" or lowest leaf, which they find less oily and most hidden from the sun's harshening rays.

Every firm also has its trade secrets about what maximum temperature is best to reduce nicotine, water, protein and sugar levels during "fermentation" of leaves. And some firms ferment tobacco a second time in Europe, after shipment there by sea.

The cigarillo-manufacturing process has become pretty standard since the '50s. Whether one takes a tour of Henri Winterman's factory in the Dutch town of Eersel, Villiger Cigar's plant in Tiengen, Germany, or Dannemann's Lübeck site, the procedure would seem pretty much the same. Tobacco leaves, having arrived from the warehouse in 33-pound jute bags, are first "thrashed" or mechanically beaten to remove the main stem and as many veins from the leaves as possible to avoid the harsh taste that such impurities can produce. Resulting leaf fragments are blended and then moved by belt to machines with awaiting homogenized binder material precut into the individual shapes needed for different cigarillo models.

On new machines, natural binders are stored in paper-lined rolls mounted on bobbins like outsized spools of thread. Sprayed periodically with a fine water mist, each precut binder is fed at precise intervals to the filler-dispenser opening. There they are mechanically rolled around a measured amount of the blend and sealed with a faint brush stroke of cellulose paste to form the "bunch" or "bundle."

On older machines, binders and wrappers are still cut by hand with stamping tools. But increasingly, pressure to cut costs in the competitive industry has forced companies to use Indonesian or other low-wage Asian labor to provide binders and wrappers on bobbins.

Precut wrappers, also mounted mostly on bobbins, are then mechanically rolled around the "bunch" and sealed in the same fashion as the binders. Then the crude cigarillos are cut to whatever length the model calls for. Some shaping is also performed, such as the squaring of cigarillos that German smokes prefer. In a separate department, packers then supervise the filling of cartons, tins or wood boxes with 10 or 20 cigarillos, the standard issue. All packages get a stiff, protective paper lining. Carton packs are sealed in cellophane.

Even with the precision of machinery and the new emphasis on quality, things don't always go right. After the Italian lunch, Burger made a tour of the packing department of his Lübeck factory. As if unable to help himself, he snatched a random tin of Speciales and snapped it open. He did not like what he saw. The two end cigarillos were slightly longer than the rest of the standard cuts. While some buyers might consider that a volume bonus, it clearly irritated Burger. He reminded onlookers that longer cigars provide a more filtered and hence a smoother taste. A different taste. Handing the opened pack to plant manager Franke, Burger's stern, silent look telegraphed the implicit order: look into it.

Things went no better in the factory's temperature-and-humidity-controlled warehouse, which serves as a giant humidor where finished cigarillos await shipment in airtight containers. The temperature was a perfect 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) and humidity was spot on at 60 percent. But Burger's nose crinkled. "Not a very good smell, is it?" he asked rhetorically. No member of his accompanying staff disagreed. As it turned out, some of the metal storage shelves of the warehouse had been repainted elsewhere a few days before and moved back just a tad too soon, throwing off a faint but noticeable paint smell. Assurances were made by warehouse workers about the protection afforded the cigarillos by their airtight packages. But Burger seemed unnerved nonetheless. "Paint, fish--anything with a penetrating smell--these are all enemies of the cigar," he said.

Cigarillo smokers shouldn't have too many such worries once a pack of cigarillos is in hand. Europeans typically smoke five to 10 cigarillos a day, so a 10-pack or even a 20-pack goes quickly and storage isn't a real concern. For those who buy in quantity or might smoke less, a humidor would do nothing but help preserve cigarillo quality. And for American smokers, used to a "wetter" cigar product (60 percent versus 12-14 percent humidity), a short stay in a humidor might produce a more familiar smoking experience.

That "wetness" difference is not the only one cigarillo makers face in trying to lure more American smokers to their product. More severe legal restrictions on tobacco advertising are one problem. Taste is another. "Many American buyers are sold on Cuban-style products," says Dick Noordzij, marketing director at Henri Winterman's, who notes such products have a stronger taste and higher nicotine content. "We have to get people to change their habits, which is very difficult with cigar smokers. They are very traditional."


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