Cigar Aficionado

Welcome to the Machine

I’m in Tampa, Florida, which once was the heart of American cigar production. In the 1950s, some 500 million cigars a year were made here. Things are a bit different now. When Havatampa Inc. closed its doors in July, it left only one cigar company making cigars in any volume in the Tampa area: J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

I visited J.C. Newman yesterday, dropping in on Eric and Bobby Newman, who run the company. Most of their business involves premium, handmade cigars: J.C. Newman owns the Diamond Crown, Cuesta-Rey and El Baton brands, among others, and is the sales partner of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., selling the cigars the company rolls. But on the second floor of its historic Ybor City building are several decades-old cigar making machines.

From left to right, Armando Garcia and Eric Newman.

I seldom smoke machine-made cigars. Most are made like cigarettes, with homogenized tobacco leaf as a wrapper. Nothing wrong with that if that’s your thing, but to me it doesn’t taste like a cigar. The cigars made by the Newmans have real tobacco leaf wrappers, a homogenized tobacco leaf binder and the chopped filler tobacco on the inside is leftover from Fuente’s handmade cigar production.

I stepped up to a gigantic, green metal machine, which seemed like a relic from the Industrial Age. A woman sat at the front, stretching out wrapper leaf over an aluminum plate with air holes. When she moved her hand, a die cut out the proper shape, then moved it to the rolling area. Every 20 seconds or so the floor shook as the hopper vibrated and chopped tobacco leaf into a scale, which was then dumped into the proper place to go into the homogenized binder. A little while later, a cigar was dropped into a tray by a mechanical arm.

There’s a certain majesty to the ancient machines, which need quite a bit of TLC from the workers to operate. Armando Garcia, who says he’s 84 (he looks about 20 years younger to me), keeps the old things working, and makes his own parts to help them along. Without him, the machines would be in serious trouble. Eric handed me one of the smokes, called a No. 99 Factory Throwout. I lit it up, and while it would never stand up to a handmade cigar, it was far from bad.

Machine-made cigars account for less than 20 percent of J.C. Newman’s business, but it’s an important part of the company’s 120-year history. And while they’re not the same as handmade cigars, there’s still a certain romance to how they’re made.