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From Seed to Shelf

Five years ago, the cigar you're smoking was nothing more than tiny little seeds
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

You're about to put flame to the foot of a handmade cigar, and for the next hour you plan on enjoying its rich, sublime smoke. You know it was carefully made by hand, exclusively from tobacco, but have you any idea how long it took to get to this stage? As you puff, consider the time involved in this $5, $10 or maybe $15 piece of luxury you're enjoying. Because the best handmade cigars take longer to create than fine automobiles, bespoke suits or even the house in which you live. From seed to smoke, the journey takes several years.

Cigar tobacco begins as a seed, a tiny object the size of a candy sprinkle. The seeds are so small that they need to be pelletized, coated with an inert substance such as clay for easier handling. (The coating melts away when watered.) Many tobacco growers get their seeds by selecting their heartiest plants and harvesting the seeds from the flower that grows at the top of the plant.

The seeds' size make them quite easy to smuggle, one reason why Cuban seed has made innumerable trips from the island to such places as Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Some companies, such as A.S.P. Enterprises Inc. in Miami, keep their seed locked in safes and grow sterile plants to ensure that competitors can't steal the product.

The seeds are planted to create seedlings. In about 60 days, a seed will turn into a seedling a few inches tall that's ready to plant. The crudest form of seedling plot is planted directly in the ground. When it's time to move to the field proper, the tiny plant is dug up and then replanted, a traumatic process that results in great mortality of seedlings. Raised beds provide better results, and planting in trays makes it better still, for the root balls slip fairly effortlessly from the trays and are ready to go into the ground.

At that stage, cigar tobacco grows at a furious pace. It takes about two months for a seedling to grow into a mature plant, depending on the type of plant. Once harvested, it spends another 40 to 60 or so days in a curing barn. After that, it's time to ferment, and then to age.

But farmers can't go by a calendar for their harvest. Weather, seed variety and other variables can affect the crop, and harvest times have to be adjusted accordingly.

"When it comes to dates, that is a guide," says Angel Daniel Núñez, executive vice president of manufacturing and tobacco for General Cigar Co. In a normal year, the Connecticut-shade plants he grows to make Macanudo wrappers are harvested after 45 days, but relentless rains in 2003 pushed that to as many as 57 days.

While some fields in the Dominican Republic and in hilly plots of Ecuador are planted by hand, many farms are planted with the use of a tractor dragging a transplanter. On a broadleaf farm in South Glastonbury, Connecticut, Al Gondek and Charlie Lake are using a Holland transplanter to set four-inch-tall seedlings into the ground. "We try to plant as much a day as you can harvest in one day," says Gondek, who gets behind the wheel of the tractor, while Lake sits in one of the metal seats in the transplanter, his back to Gondek's. The tractor begins moving down the field, digging a furrow. A hopper with cylinders spins, and Lake drops a seedling into each one. The little plant slides down the cylinder and is put into the ground by the transplanter, which gives it a healthy dose of water before closing up the earth around its stem. "It'd be kind of heartless if you put that little plant in there with no water," says Lake.

(Despite their tender care of the seedlings, Gondek and Lake would lose the entire crop to a hailstorm less than a month later, an event that typifies the sometimes brutal vicissitudes of the business.)

General Cigar uses an older version of the same machinery to plant its shade and broadleaf fields. The seats—there are five on one model—sit lower to the ground, and instead of a circular machine there are little arms that swing down, grab a plant and put it in the ground. On a recent summer afternoon, five men sat in the seats, one drove the tractor and a quartet with hand spades followed, to tidy up the plants. The earth on this particular farm was rocky, not ideally suited to the machinery.

After being planted, the plants typically are fertilized with a granular fertilizer. Each plant gets a fistful once a week. The fields are hoed by hand, an arduous process in which the fertilizer is mixed with the earth and pulled toward the plant. At about the one-month stage—halfway through the growing process—Connecticut-shade plants are still short, perhaps halfway up a tall man's knee, and it's time to tie them to a support and remove some of the suckers that impede the growth. Workers tie a piece of string to the plant, which they then attach to another string above to help it grow straight. Then they remove, by hand, the lowest group of leaves on the plant, as well as any suckers, the excess vegetation that grows above the tobacco leaves. After the leaves are culled, the field is hoed to push the soil above the nodes created by the removal of the leaves. For every node that is covered with soil, says Núñez, roots will grow, making a stronger plant.

In the second month of life, the plant grows at full speed. Brutal, sultry Connecticut summer nights may be hell on sleepers, but they're heaven to a tobacco farmer. "It can grow two inches in one hot and humid night," says Gondek.

About four months from its start as a tobacco seed, give or take a few weeks depending upon the weather, the tobacco plants are fully grown and the leaves mature. If it's a broadleaf plant, that means it stands waist-high after the long, tall flower has been removed. Cuban seed is about six feet tall. Connecticut shade or Ecuador Connecticut towers over the tallest of NBA centers, standing nine or 10 feet tall.

Then it's time to prime, or to reap. Cuban and Connecticut-seed tobacco plants are harvested in primings, in which a worker removes three leaves at a time from a plant, working from the bottom up. The harvest is spaced out over several days. As tobacco matures from the bottom of the plant upward, it allows the leaves to be picked at the pinnacle of ripening, which optimizes labor usage—if every leaf needed to be picked at the same time, a farmer would need a thousand workers on one day and none the next.

Primed leaves are put onto lathes, or cujes, and hung in the barns. Shade farmers in Connecticut use sewing machines to attach the leaves to the lathes, but in most of the world the leaves are sewn or tied by hand. San Andres Negro and Connecticut broadleaf are stalk-cut. The entire plant is hacked with an axe, allowed to wilt in the sun, then speared on a lathe. Whether it's primed or cut, the tobacco next goes to the same place: a curing barn, where it will spend upwards of a month drying and turn from a verdant green into a rich brown.

Ripe, mature leaves are brought to the cigarmakers.

Cured cigar tobacco looks inviting, but it's hardly ready to smoke. It's full of ammonia and other impurities that would make even the most die-hard smokers woozy in the head if they were to smoke such leaf. To remove the impurities and to develop the hidden richness of the leaf, cigar tobacco needs fermentation.

Fermenting tobacco—or working it, as tobacco men say—takes one part artistry and one part science. Workers take cured tobacco leaves and lay them on a platform, building waist-high piles known as pilons, or bulks, that can contain thousands of leaves. The leaves contain water, and the pressure of the pile—which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds—creates heat, which transforms the properties of the leaf. Walking into a room where fresh tobacco is being fermented is an eye-stinging experience, due to the ammonia coming off the bulks.

Fermentation can be quick or lengthy, depending on the type of leaf being worked. Thin, mild leaves such as Connecticut shade go through the process in a few months. Thick, brutish leaves such as broadleaf require a beating to work into shape. In early 2004, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, president of El Credito Cigars Inc., was refermenting broadleaf tobacco that had been grown in 1999 in anticipation of using it later that year. "It will be five years old when we use it on our cigars," he said.

No tobacco can be fermented continuously for five years, not even broadleaf, but it can be aged for that long, and much longer. Aging, which follows fermentation, occurs with much lower levels of humidity and in smaller packages, minimizing the heat created from the combination of moisture and pressure.

After fermentation (or between rounds), tobacco is packed into bales of cardboard or wood that weigh around 200 pounds apiece. It's fairly dry when put into the bale. "Once tobacco is dry it doesn't ferment anymore," says Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars Inc.

Inside the bale, the tobacco will age, slowly maturing to further round out the flavors that have been mellowed by fermentation. "We have tobacco in our warehouses that is six years old," says Padrón.

Great cigarmakers such as Padrón, Fuente, Altadis, General Cigar, Matasa, Davidoff and others have warehouses stacked full of tobacco bales. The stocks are essential. A Dominican Montecristo is expected to taste the same today as it did one, two and three years ago. Cigarmakers are blenders, much like the makers of nonvintage Champagne, and most cigars are expected to maintain a consistency of flavor.

Because cigar tobacco is an agricultural product, it's subject to the whims of nature. As a result of differing weather conditions, two plants of the same seed type planted on the same spot of land and treated identically might taste noticeably different year to year. More rain might make the tobacco thinner, while more wind might stress the plant and make it stronger. To combat the changes, a cigarmaker needs large stocks of leaf to blend out the differences.

Premium cigars are hand-rolled in factories.

Once the blend has been selected, it takes no time at all to turn it from leaf to cigar. A buncher rolls one leaf of binder (sometimes two with smaller leaves, particularly in Cuba) around a group of filler leaves, then places the bunch in a mold, where it sits for several hours, being turned several times to avoid having a seam along the side. Once it is firm, its shape secure, the bunch is given to a roller. (In some cigar factories, one person does both rolling and bunching.) The roller wraps one wrapper leaf around the cigar, taking perhaps a minute or so to do the work.

A cigar roller can make 500 cigars in a day if allowed to work at his fastest pace, but typically a cigar factory manager will limit his workers to far fewer. One hundred fifty is more typical.

The years have taken the tobacco from seed to finished leaf, ready to be rolled, but there's more to the journey before a cigar becomes a brand. Bigger companies such as Altadis U.S.A. Inc. and General Cigar make dozens of brands, so new creations are a vital part of the business. Often, blends are created by a company's cigar factory managers, then the marketing team figures out a way to sell the best of the bunch.

"Either José [Seijas] in the Dominican Republic or the guys in Honduras have played with different tobaccos that George [Gershel] has, and come up with different blends," says Jim Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Altadis U.S.A. "Then we say, do we do a line extension, or a new brand?"

After rolling, cigars are banded and boxed for store shelves.

Sometimes the process is different and more involved, such as the 2004 launch of Royal Jamaica Gold, a new version of the venerable Royal Jamaica brand, which has been on the market since 1935. Planning for the new line, says Colucci, began in 2000 when Altadis took over distribution of the Lane Ltd. brand, which despite its name hasn't always been made in Jamaica.

"I said Royal Jamaica [Gold] needs to be a brand-new vehicle, because it took two round trips—from Jamaica to the Dominican Republic, back and back—and I said the consumer needs to know it's something new and unique. José was given the job to find a blend. I said, I need a good blend, stronger than medium, beautiful-looking, nice taste—but José, I have to have Jamaican tobacco in the blend.'"

Seijas worked for more than two years, experimenting with various combinations of leaf, always using some of the rare Jamaican tobacco that has been a Royal Jamaica hallmark for nearly 70 years. While he was experimenting, Colucci and his marketing team worked on packaging with Peter Vrijdag of the Netherlands, a talented lithographer known for his detail, if not his speed. One year ago, Colucci called in the ad agency Leibler-Bronfman Lubalin to work on promotions, and the cigar went on sale this summer.

Once the cigar is ready, companies promote it to tobacco retailers, often at the annual Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show. After getting enough orders, the manufacturers begin to ship the cigars. (In the old days, that usually meant literal boat travel, and the cigars aged a bit as they were shipped, but overnight express is far more common today.) Finally, consumers see them on the shelves.

"Quite frankly," says Jon Huber, chief marketing officer of C.A.O. International Inc., "there is a lot more that goes into bringing a line to market than most people would suspect."

So pause for a moment before you turn that cigar to ash. Because from seed to box, it's been on a journey that may have lasted five or more years. Take your time enjoying the smoke.

Photos by Angelo Cavalli and Jon Wyand

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