Cigarillos: Short and Small

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

The meal is over. The plates that once held veal marsala and other Italian delights have been cleared, and small cups of dark, froth-topped espresso are being wheeled to the table. The perfect time for a cigar, decides Max Burger. But with a busy afternoon ahead of him back at his factory in Lübeck, Germany, Burger realizes there's no time for something of Churchillian proportions.

No problem. From inside his dark-blue suit jacket, he pulls out a small, elegant white box of cigarillos, a seven-minute cigar for those who don't have the leisurely hour that a full-sized smoke demands.

Scenes of on-the-go people lighting up one of these thin, three-inch cigars are common in Europe, where a famous Davidoff advertisement made them fashionable 20 years ago. Burger's cigarillo is a Dannemann Smoker's Club, a favorite in Germany. But in a noisy boite in Copenhagen, the choice of a similarly time-pressed smoker might have been a Nobel Petit, reputedly the oldest cigarillo brand, about to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. In Amsterdam, a Dutchman in an outdoor café might have lit up one of Henri Winterman's Café Crème, a duty-free star and the world's best-selling cigarillo.

From top-of-the-line Davidoffs to more mundane offerings, harried Europeans have no shortage of choice when it comes to cigarillos, which they smoke by the billions each year. But American cigar smokers, who favor stronger, full-sized cigars, such as illegal Havanas or even Cuban-seed cigars made in the Dominican Republic, don't often think of the same nifty solution when a brief cigar window of opportunity opens. Burger hopes to change that, though.

He's a cigar fanatic, happy when others share his fervor. But his motives in trying to persuade U.S. cigar smokers to think small are mostly mercantile. He and his brother Christian own the Dannemann brand and that of several other cigarillo mainstays through their Swiss holding company, Burger Söhne AG Burg. As you may have noticed in recent months, Burger and like-minded firms have launched marketing campaigns in U.S. tobacco shops and publications such as Cigar Aficionado in attempts to make cigarillos more of a factor in the American market.

If you are a stickler about smoking only hand-rolled cigars, be warned that cigarillos may be a stretch for you. They are machine-made. This is not to say they spew off the assembly line at 8,000 a minute the way cigarettes do. But even at their more stately pace of about 500 a minute for those made with homogenized wrappers or between 15 to 30 a minute for 100 percent tobacco cigarillos, their manufactured nature may set off alarm bells among purists. Resist the urge to tune out their rather interesting story right here, though. Cigarillos are worth a try--especially at the price.

Even those with homogenized binders (75 percent tobacco/25 percent cellulose), such as Dannemann's Speciale (Brazilian wrapper), provide a surprisingly smooth, flavorful smoke. "The homogenized binder also produces a more uniform burn," notes Burger, a fourth-generation cigar maker whose sales pitch is as fervent as his love of cigars.

"Homogenized" wrappers also mean a lower price. Formed into tapelike rolls, this mostly tobacco material facilitates that snappier 500-per-minute rate that can't be managed with individually cut natural binders. Suggested retail for such cigarillos is typically half what it is for the 100 percent tobacco variety.

What precisely is a cigarillo, then? When cigarillos began as an almost exclusively handmade European product some 100 years ago, laws in key markets such as Germany required that any cigar product labeled "cigarillo" be three grams or less in weight--about one-tenth of an ounce. Those laws were repealed in the 1950s about the time the industry became mechanized. And today only company marketing determines what makes the grade as a cigarillo. No wonder then that there's debate about how many "cigarillos" actually are sold each year, though there's no doubt the number is in the billions and rising.

Some firms choose not to call a cigarillo that at all--except for accounting purposes. Some prefer "small cigar," "mini cigarillo," or in Spanish-speaking countries, purito. Nonetheless, a three-to-four-gram weight is informally standard as is a length of seven-to-10 centimeters (three to four inches), a diameter of five to eight millimeters (two-tenths to three-tenths of an inch) and a slight taper at one end.

Nobel cigars, famous for their turn-of-the-century-style turquoise cigarillo package, set the early quality standard for the product. As a result, smokers came to expect the best cigarillos be packed in similar hard-edged carton boxes, wrapped in cellophane. But Dannemann, SEITA (the former French monopoly) and other manufacturers, eschewing total me-tooism, offer some of their leading brands in steel "tins," which they tout as better protection against crushing. The Dutch firm AGIO goes yet another way, offering its top-of-the-line small cigars, Balmorals, in cedar boxes, promising an enhanced cigar aroma because of the impact of the fragrance of such wood on tobacco.

For its first 50 years or so, the cigarillo did not exactly set the cigar world on fire. Hand-rolling, required by law in Europe until the 1950s in some countries, limited production levels and company sizes. Sales efforts were focused on national markets, a reflection of the localized nature of smokers' tastes in Europe. Exports were a minor interest and did not become financially interesting until the advent of mass production in the 1950s. Thereafter, unit production soared, mostly in Europe, where most companies sell 90 percent of their cigarillos. Key export markets for this European invention are Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. Despite the size of the huge U.S. market, though, sales have been unspectacular, typically constituting only 1 percent of global totals for most firms.

Sales spiked nicely for a while. But then two very different forces slowed momentum. In the 1960s and 1970s, cash-rich cigarette companies, even more mechanized than cigarillo firms, poured millions into aggressive ad campaigns to attract new smokers. Low-profit, lower-volume cigar firms, which typically make both full-sized cigars and cigarillos, didn't have the cash to match them and saw new-customer numbers shrink as a result. And in the 1980s, the public's growing health concerns about any kind of smoking hit critical mass. That reduced the global smokers' pie, over which cigarette and cigar manufacturers had been fighting.

Once proud cigar companies began hemorrhaging red ink. Some went bankrupt. Others were bought out the way Burger's company acquired the venerable Dutch firm, Ritmeester Cigars, in 1988. "There used to be 300 cigar factories in Germany in 1950," says Friedhelm Franke, managing director of Dannemann's Lübeck factory. "Now there are about 10."

In fact, just a handful of companies besides Dannemann--all European--dominated the cigarillo market, including the Netherlands' EBAS International (Lapaz Mini Wilde, Wilde Havana), France's SEITA (Fleur de Savane, Havanitos), Winterman's (Café Crème, Café Crème Mild) and Nobel Cigars (Nobel Petit, Christian of Denmark). Even prestigious Davidoff International finds it financially smarter to farm out manufacture of its famous "mini cigarillos" to Nobel.

It has not been a totally downhill affair for cigarillo makers. In fact, recent history is rather bright. Their clientele, 99 percent male and mostly more than 40 years of age, is increasingly composed of bankers, lawyers, executives and others with above-average incomes. And while cigar smokers have been declining worldwide, cigarillo sales have been on the rise as much as 10 percent in key markets.

Likewise, despite the slippage of manufacturing quality at some firms during the turmoil of the restructuring 1980s, cigarillo executives, having gotten an angry message from veteran customers, instituted groundbreaking quality-control reform programs at the beginning of the 1990s and are now enjoying their fruits. "Smokers have a taste in their heads," explains Burger of the urgency to be more professional in manufacturing. "If we don't match that taste, our customers are going to be disappointed and go elsewhere," adds Erik Pedersen, vice president of Denmark's Nobel cigars. "If you smoke every day, you become very sensitive to taste differences."

At Dannemann, which claims to be the cigarillo volume leader, quality begins before the tobacco plant is even planted. Primary growing areas for its filler, binders and wrappers are Brazil and Indonesia, as they are for many cigarillo makers. In both sites, the quality process starts with a rigorous choice of tobacco seed from plants that reflect the company's particular needs for flexibility, aroma, taste and other key factors. Farmers, once the pawns of middlemen, are dealt with directly under the new program. They are advised on what fertilizer to use (to avoid the harsh taste that too much phosphate or chlorine can produce), how to cut ripe plants (whole plant versus leaf at a time) and how to air cure the resulting harvest. The right quality of plant produces a good price, so cooperation has become enthusiastic, a far cry from the old take-it-or-leave-it bargaining process.

Characteristics of soil and weather, of course, are beyond quality-control management. But even here, cigarillo makers compete to lock up that perfect microclimate for tobacco, the same way enophiles pay top dollar for vineyards in Bordeaux or Napa Valley. For the dark-brown, mild wrappers it uses for its Smoker's Club or Speciale (Brazil) models, Dannemann prefers tobacco grown in the light-colored sandy soil of the humid, high-altitude Mata Fina district of Brazil's Bahia state. Sumatra's tobacco plants are coveted by Nobel for its stronger, tan ("cream") wrappers that characterize its Petits.

All cigarillo firms buy tobacco from around the world to create that secret filler blend that they hope will be judged better than all others. Dominican or Colombian, Cameroon or Turkish, German or Connecticut--there's seemingly a cigarillo blend for any taste.

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."

With that taste preference confronting them, Europe's cigarillo makers may have an even harder time selling their newest product, the "light" cigarillo. Burger's brother Christian has his hopes, though. "Americans seem to want 'lighter' everything these days--colas, foods, cigarettes," he says. The small, thin design of cigarillos may also appeal to young-minded Americans, notes Noordzij.

Light or otherwise any cigarillos, which, like cigars are not meant to be inhaled, may also prove appealing to health-conscious cigarette smokers looking for an alternative, as they have in Europe. "People want to smoke less--but better quality," says Pedersen, whose firm's parent company, Skandinavik Tobakskompagni A/S, makes Europe's popular Prince cigarettes.

Cigarillo firms are also hoping their more discreet-looking product will appeal to American smokers who have experienced complaints in social settings about lighting up a large cigar or who have been irritated by bans on cigar smoking when cigarette smoking is allowed. "I've smoked them on airplanes in Europe without any fuss," Pedersen says. "I haven't tried it in the States, but it might work."

Patrick Oster is a journalist who lives in Brussels.