Ever wonder what's underneath a cigar? Ever ponder why your cigar burns so evenly (or unevenly) or why it tastes the way it does? Like complex machines and organic systems, a cigar is made up of many parts, and each needs to be properly calibrated for optimal functionality.
On Saturday morning, a panel of three cigar industry veterans taught anatomy and physiology class—anatomy of a cigar, that is. The three guest cigar professors were Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EPC Cigar Co., and Nestor Andrés Plasencia of Plasencia Tobacco and Plasencia 1865. The panel was hosted by Cigar Aficionado executive editor David Savona, and by 10:15 am, class was in session.
Lesson No. 1: Basic Parts—Binder, Filler Wrapper
It's simple, but complex. And the panel addressed a very common question that doesn't necessarily have consensus throughout cigar academia: How much influence does the wrapper have on a cigar?
"The whole character comes from the wrapper," asserted Perez-Carrillo. "But the wrapper and binder are very important because if they don't work together, they'll fight rather than cooperate. I say, it accounts for 60 percent of the taste."
Gomez wasn't as numerically committal, but more or less agreed.
"I don't know about the exact number, but the wrapper is the most important component because of how it looks, how it feels and the fact that it's touching your lips. All these aspects affect the flavor."
Gomez was referring to the surface anatomy of the cigar, but quickly segued to its internal tobaccos.
"A dark, high-priming wrapper on a mild binder and filler is going to play a big role in the flavor."
Plasencia concurred. "Different positions on the plant will result in wrapper leaves that account for different percentages of taste. Ligeros and visos [which are generally more full bodied due to their high position on the tobacco plant] will have far more influence than a seco. It's trial and error."
Trial and error is, of course, part of every scientific method, though blending tobacco can be as much art as it is science.
"Wrapper is grown differently than filler," continued Plasencia, one of the largest growers of tobacco in Honduras and Nicaragua. "We grow wrapper under cheesecloth to filter the sun. It results in thinner veins. It's an amazing, delicate process." Plasencia said wrapper tobacco was handled "like a baby."
By comparison, filler tobacco needs to have strength and body, so those leaves are grown under the sun and require less supervision.
"So the wrapper is handled like a baby and the filler like a teenager," offered Savona.
For the most part, binder leaves and wrapper leaves are structurally the same. The one difference is the appearance.
"The wrapper has to be perfect," Gomez said. "It cannot have any flaws if it's going to be put on a premium cigar. The binder is the same exact leaf, but isn't perfect in appearance."
Perez-Carrillo takes a different approach, and prefers to take his binders from tobacco plants intended for filler. So, rather than using an aesthetically imperfect wrapper leaf for binder, he uses a high-quality filler leaf for more body.
Lesson No. 2: Fermentation is Key
Though perhaps genetically perfect on the cellular level, tobacco specimens must be treated properly through slow fermentation where temperature is closely monitored. Large piles of moist tobacco create heat during the fermentation process. This type of fermentation does not produce alcohol, but rather is a microbial fermentation process whereby undesirable traits such as bitterness are dissipated through heat and pressure, in favor of the tobacco's more sweet and floral qualities. In less technical terms, this is what makes the tobacco taste good.
"You need to take time to ferment the tobacco," insisted Plasencia. "We're not just a cigar factory. We're there to create enjoyment."
Lesson No. 3: Shape Matters
"The shape of a cigar can change the whole experience," offered Gomez, who is known in the industry for his unique, chisel-shaped cigars. "The roller has to arrange the fillers in a certain way in order for the cigar to perform. The rate of combustion depends on how the bunch is arranged. And different shapes require different arrangements."
Lesson No. 4: Veins and Stems
The vascular system within the plant is responsible for delivering nutrients to the cells of the leaf. While they may not be pretty to look at, the veins can be full of flavor. The stems, too. A dried stem or two within the filler is no cause for alarm.
"Veins and stems are necessary," said Perez-Carrillo. "Once you remove the vein, the tobacco will not ferment as fast. It's a natural part of the plant. There is no perfect cigar."
Gomez agreed: "If the vein does not affect the draw, then don't be scared. Veins bring a lot of flavor."
Lesson No. 5: A Cigar is a System
"Each tobacco by itself can offer a lot," Plasencia said. "But when you put it all together, it's like putting instruments together for a symphony."
And with the conclusion of the not-so-academic dissertation, the panel of cigar anatomists walked off the stage to applause from the smoke-filled lecture hall. Now that the audience had a better understanding of how a cigar works, they were ready to apply their knowledge to the next seminar: A Cigar Lover's Guide to Cuba.