Candelas, once hugely popular, are latter-day oddities that must fight for respect among their tawny cousins
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It's not an error. The cigar in the photograph is, truly, green. Not green as in young, raw or inexperienced, but green as a dollar bill, a lime or a frog's back. It's a candela.
You may have done a double take reading the reviews in the last issue of this magazine, which included one candela cigar, an Arturo Fuente 8-5-8. And the big surprise is that it scored well -- 87 points.
Green cigars are latter-day oddities, but they once were the preferred smokes of Americans, so popular in the United States that cigars with candela wrappers became known as American Market Selection. (Natural cigars, the ones that make up the vast majority of today's cigar market, were dubbed English Market Selection.) From about 1958 to the early 1970s, Americans smoked billions of cigars, and nearly all of them were as green as your front lawn after a May rain. The popular tint was not a function of the use of underage leaf, however. It resulted from a unique process by which the wrapper tobacco was being cured.
"Everyone out there was selling candelas," says Bob Franzblau, owner of Tampa, Florida, retailer Thompson & Co. Everyone, that is, but Thompson. The company, which made its own cigars at the time, was not a player in the candela business when Franzblau acquired Thompson in 1960. Franzblau had no experience in the cigar industry, but he was wise enough to know the first rule of Business 101: give the customer what he wants. He chucked the old product line and started selling candelas, and turned an unprofitable company into a moneymaker. "Right from day one," he says, "we were in the black."
The Hulk-colored cigars went out of favor in the early 1970s, replaced by cream-colored smokes with Connecticut-shade wrappers, and were all but absent during the cigar renaissance of the 1990s. Candelas just might be the anchovies of the cigar world, loved by a small group but abhorred by the majority -- even if they've never tried one.
Pockets of candela aficionados are out there, most of them smokers of machine-made brands such as Antonio y Cleopatra Grenadiers, Garcia y Vegas and Dutch Masters, which proudly display their bright green wares from beneath cellophane. The candela choices among handmade cigars are rather limited, but several notable additions have surfaced in recent years. Bering has long made several candela sizes, and the same man who makes and owns the brand, Nestor Plasencia, grows its green wrappers. There's also the Fuente, as well as a few Macanudos. (Natural-wrapped Macs are called Cafés; candelas are called Jades.)
At least some cigarmakers see promise in the wrapper. Two years ago, La Gloria Cubana's Ernesto Perez-Carrillo began making candela versions of his three best-selling La Gloria sizes -- the Wavell, Churchill and Corona Gorda -- for Thompson. This summer, U.S. Cigar Sales Inc. created a candela version of its Don Tomás brand, which it now sells across the United States.
In a cigar market driven by smokers' desire to try something different, firing up something as retro as a candela is appealing to a very small but growing number of cigar consumers.
In a September poll on www.cigaraficionado.com, nearly half (45.5 percent) of smokers said they had smoked a candela cigar. Some offered their thoughts using screen aliases. Their opinions were mixed.
"I love 'em," wrote Bloofington, one of 36.8 percent of respondents who reported enjoying the experience. "Had a candela for the first time just the other day," wrote Humordor. "This is a surprisingly good smoke. Going to an event at the tobacco store tonight and I'll probably pick up a few more." BigTom47 wrote: "I have found that they are a very nice golf cigar. Since they are milder than most of the cigars I smoke, I can still putt with the cigar in my mouth."
Other smokers were less taken with candelas. "They are a little too sweet for my tastes," wrote Coriolanus, who fell into the 34.5 percent of those voters who didn't really care for the smokes. "I can't get used to its look," wrote RebelJohn. "The aroma reminded me of leaves burning. I have one left and it looks very odd in the 'dor, surrounded by normal smokes. I'm waiting for the right person (enemy) to give it to." And M. Goldhill wrote: "I finally had one of mine last night. BAD IDEA! It tasted like someone rolled up the grass after cutting it and made it into a cigar! YUK! That was my first and last."
It takes more work but much less time to keep cigar leaf green, rather than turning it brown. Normally, cigar tobacco is picked, hung in barns and allowed to cure, slowly, over a period of one month to 45 days. Sometimes, weather conditions dictate that farmers light charcoal fires or use propane burners to heat the barn and remove excess humidity, which can rot the leaves. Farmhands tweak the fires and open and close vents, and the tobacco slowly loses its green color and turns brown, drying in the process. The end result is a fairly supple, darkened leaf that's ready for fermenting. The barns should never be hotter than about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make candela, the barn has to be properly prepped. The walls of the wooden barn are wallpapered with cardboard or paper to seal the cracks. The barn is loaded with freshly harvested tobacco, and the vents at the bottom of the barn are opened, encouraging air to flow out of the roof vent (known as a doghouse), which is always open. The propane heaters or charcoal fires are lit, and the heat slowly rises, taking the moisture out of the leaves. "The objective is to get air flowing through the tobacco, up and out of the doghouse," says Gustavo Cura, the operations administrator for Oliva Tobacco Co. in Tampa, which grows candela in Ecuador and Honduras. "The heat has to start slowly."
Within two hours, the heat will be at about 90 degrees, and by hour No. 3, it will rise to 100. "Always gradually increasing the heat," says Cura. After 40 to 48 hours, the tobacco has wilted. Then, it's time to unleash hell.
The leaf is dry at this point, save for the stem, which is a stubborn beast. The stem takes much more coercing to dry out than the rest of the plant. The farmers shut the bottom vents in the barn and crank the heat to 165 -- Cura remembers losing control a few times and watching the temperature rage to 175 -- to blast the remaining moisture from the stem. This final step lasts for about one day, and bakes the tobacco as dry as a potato chip.
"It's hot as blazes in there," says Cura. "It's like being in Arizona."
Reach up and touch the leaves in a normal tobacco barn and they feel like gummy, cool handkerchiefs. Do that in a candela barn (assuming you don't drop from the Death Valley conditions) and you'll be greeted with two eyefuls of shredded tobacco.
After 60 to 72 hours total in the barn, the chlorophyll has been locked in the leaf and the tobacco is done heating, but needs to be rehumidified so it can be safely removed from the barn.
Workers open the barn's vent doors and windows (unless it's windy), allowing the nighttime dew to make the crispy leaves moist again; if the climate is too dry, they bring in a steamer. Then, the leaves are taken down, sorted and graded, and put into boxes, ready for storage or for rolling. The fire curing eliminates the need for fermentation and aging, cutting months and even years off the typical process.
Quirks exist. Sunlight will make the leaf lighter; heat will darken the color. Candela wrapper can't be stored in normal tobacco warehouses; instead it's kept refrigerated. Water can stain it, so a roller has to know what he's doing in order to make a candela cigar by hand.
Because it's the process that makes candela, rather than the seed or country of origin, candela wrappers are grown in a host of countries. "You want tobacco that's been either shade-grown, or grown [in a place like] Ecuador, where there's no sunlight," says Perez-Carrillo.
Candela is, or has been, grown in Connecticut, Cuba, Ecuador, Florida, and Nicaragua, and for more than two decades it was the only type of wrapper tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic. Not all the leaves of a plant make good candela. "The tobacco up top of the candela turns a dark, dark green in the curing, and it's not what they're looking for," says John Oliva Sr., who runs Oliva Tobacco. "John Deere green, that's what they call it, as opposed to a 7-Up bottle green. You only have three colors in candela: yellowish green, a dark green and a green green."
Like many firsts, the creation of candela seems to have been an accident. Farmers in the Partido region of Cuba, where the process originated in the 1940s, sometimes used heat in their barns to combat excess humidity. If the temperature rose too high, the tobacco from the lowest positions on the plants turned green in the heat, says Frank Llaneza of Villazon & Co. People enjoyed the look and the flavor.
Stanford Newman wrote in his book Cigar Family that only 5 percent of Cuba's wrappers turned green under normal curing conditions. While extremely well received, candela cigars were rare. Cuban farmers later perfected a way of turning an entire barn's worth of wrapper green, and by 1958 candelas were the hot cigars in America.
Farmers love candela because it goes from seed to cash at a blistering pace. Unfortunately, that love has not been shared by consumers for decades -- even by most of the people in the cigar business.
Perez-Carrillo's experience with his first candela was much like most people's initial flirtation with a bottle of cheap Tequila. "I was about 18, and at that time I was playing drums and I had a Mustang," he says. "I got into my Mustang and lit a candela panetela."
He had more than a half-hour drive to a gig, and he figured he would do a little research on the way, finding out why people so enjoyed the green cigars his father made. He kept the windows up. "I really wanted to get the aroma of the tobacco," he says. He smoked the cigar all the way to the show, and he began playing onstage. He made it almost an hour.
Then he got sick.
Perez-Carrillo still smokes more than his share of cigars, but the few green La Glorias he makes are not frequent fliers in his cigar case. "It's not a regular smoke of mine," he says with a chuckle.
Photo by Bill Milne